I do not think I am alone in having real difficulty with the word Islamophobia and attempts to define it as “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. Racism of any sort is unacceptable and catered for in the existing law, but this definition is impossibly vague. The reality is that it will preclude any criticism of “Muslimness” which, however well balanced and evidenced, will automatically be regarded as racist.
Let me give you an example. When I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we examined legislation to ensure that it did not involve any violations of human rights. For the same reason, we conducted thematic enquiries. I suggested the position of Muslim women in the UK might merit an enquiry. A preliminary examination of the evidence suggested that an enquiry might be worthwhile. But the majority of the Committee decided against it on the basis that it might be regarded as anti-Muslim even to have an enquiry, unless all women were included. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the parliamentarians were simply too frightened of the consequences for their reputation of even embarking on the exercise.
Right now, it's the Conservative Party that has come under criticism for not adopting this definition of 'Islamophobia’ put forward by the APPG on British Muslims. Yet the definition, rather than focusing on protecting Muslims, conflates criticism of beliefs and practices with racism, treating Islam as a race and privileging “expressions of Muslimness” over guarding the rights of individuals who happen to be Muslims. It has little to do with the real meaning of 'phobia' which, from the Greek, means a fear of something, often an irrational one.
That definition has been adopted by Labour, the Lib Dems and Sadiq Khan’s City Hall. However, it is a definition that Corbyn’s Labour and Khan’s City Hall have a partisan interest in supporting. The opposite is the case for the Conservative Government and Party. If the APPG definition were officially adopted, it would detoxify the Labour leadership’s associations with Islamist extremists and render all scrutiny of them open to being branded ‘Islamophobic’. The definition would be used opportunistically by Labour to castigate the Conservatives as institutionally Islamophobic and racist.
Accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ would then routinely be levelled at key planks of Conservative government policy. Vital counter terrorism and counter extremism efforts would be attacked and challenged under the terms of this definition. The national counter-radicalisation scheme would be at the top of the list here, and it is no coincidence that the same voices who are now promoting this definition have been among the loudest opponents of Prevent. Similarly, Ofsted’s work on upholding British values in schools, or the government’s Integration Strategy, could all be overturned, with the public blaming the Conservative government as a result. Even areas of foreign policy would be impacted by the definition, with many Middle Eastern states already deeply concerned by the influence of Islamist groups in shaping opinion in the UK.
The strain caused to relations with vital strategic and trading partners such as India could become unavoidable, with Indian supporters of the Conservative party soon alienated. Indeed, there should be no illusion that adopting this definition is the party’s pathway to winning more ethnic minority votes. In fact, embracing it would be likely to alienate many BAME voters, while attracting few others.
As Lord Singh of Wimbledon warned during a Lords debate on Islamophobia in December, other minority groups look at the long running focus on Islamophobia and feel as if they are falling off of the government’s radar on account of lacking “a culture of complaint”. Lord Singh simply appealed for even-handedness here. In the same debate, Baroness Falkner drew attention to mistreatment that Muslim minorities, or those deemed “insufficiently Muslim” or of the wrong sect, can experience at the hands of their coreligionists. Yet these people are ignored by the APPG’s definition.
At a time when the Conservatives need to be reaching out to everyone in this country, the party can ill afford to leave behind the people Lord Singh and Baroness Falkner have spoken up for. Nor is there any point in competing with Labour in playing games of identity politics. Whether the government caves in to pressure to agree a definition of Islamophobia or not, those voters who align with Islamist campaigners will belong to Labour in the age of Jeremy Corbyn. By contrast, those minorities most likely to support the Conservative party would be alienated by seeing the Tories adopt such a divisive definition.
There is another no less serious dimension here; free speech and our free press. Adopting this definition with full legal effect could leave our media muzzled. Think of the crucial investigative journalism that might not have been possible under this Islamophobia definition; corruption in Tower Hamlets, the 2014 Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, and exposure of grooming gangs in places like Rotherham.
Acceptance of the definition would pit Conservatives against their supporters in the mainstream media. How is that in the party’s interest? Rightly, the press would not soon forgive the government responsible, nor those senior ministers involved. Intimidated by the use activists would inevitably make of such a loose and expansive definition, reporters would soon shy away from certain subjects. Stories about Jeremy Corbyn’s friends in Hamas and Hezbollah would be off limits from now on.
Little wonder then that Labour was so quick to embrace this definition of Islamophobia. In seeking to define anti-Muslim hatred in this way, Labour has again appealed to the strain of divisive identity politics that is fast becoming a hallmark of the party under Corbyn. By contrast, a modern Conservative government should be seeking to reach out to aspirational people of all faiths and none.
It is telling that so far much criticism of the Conservative position has come from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). It has been longstanding policy of successive Labour, coalition and Conservative governments since 2009 not to engage with the MCB on account of that group’s alleged links to extremism. The MCB is well aware that this definition is a means by which it could ultimately force the government to back down and accept it as the gatekeeper to the Muslim community — allowing the MCB and other groups to set the terms of discussion on all Islamic issues.
Some of these campaign groups—a number of which have allied themselves with Corbyn—would inevitably claim the right to decide who is and who isn’t an Islamophobe. The other custodians of the APPG definition would of course be the officers of the APPG itself: Sayeeda Warsi, Anna Soubry, Wes Streeting, Naz Shah. These would be the people now sitting in judgement of the Government and Conservative Party more broadly.
Contrast that with the diverse range of voices that have spoken out against the definition. Most notably, Trevor Phillips — who chaired the Runnymede Trust at the time of its 1997 report on Islamophobia — has warned against treating Muslims as a racial group, as this definition seeks to do. Peter Tatchell has warned about the dangers the definition poses to freedom of expression. Dr Qanta Ahmed in last week’s Spectator went as far as describing Sadiq Khan’s espousal of the definition as “dangerously, terrifyingly wrong”. She wrote that Islamists deploy the definition “as a political and judicial shield to protect them and defame their critics.”
At a time when attention is consumed by Brexit, and the appalling recent events in Christchurch, it would be all too easy for the Conservative Party to adopt this definition in the hope it would make Islamophobia allegations go away. In reality it would only exacerbate them, providing Baroness Warsi and her fellow accusers with a new benchmark against which to hold the Party wanting – only one so vague and expansive that it could never acquit itself from blame – except with Baroness Warsi’s blessing. Conservatives would be mired in never-ending rounds of daily trench warfare over whether this or that act should be condemned as Islamophobic – a war of attrition that they could never win.
Regrettably, this definition does little to serve the interests of most British Muslims, but much to serve the interests of Jeremy Corbyn. And for that reason and many more, the Conservatives must steer well clear.
Lord Faulks of Donnington QC was Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice and served as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights