On Sunday, Policy Exchange held three events at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester – one on the Irish backstop with Arlene Foster, Leader of the DUP; one with Michael Gove talking to Iain Martin on how to deliver Brexit; and one on the subject of Islamophobia. There were some fascinating moments throughout the afternoon. But the most memorable speech of the day was at the session on Islamophobia – an event which is now being horribly misrepresented on Twitter, including by the NUS president, Zamzam Ibrahim, who claims that it denied 'the existence of anti-Muslim bigotry'. She could not be more wrong.
The event was chaired by Trevor Phillips, Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and featured on the panel: Peter Tatchell, the LGBT rights campaigner, Dr Qanta Ahmed, a British-American doctor and anti-extremism campaigner, and Nusrat Ghani, the Tory MP and Transport minister. The audience was a mixture of Tory party members, journalists and other conference attendees – Muslims and non-Muslims.
The memorable speech was by Qanta Ahmed, who had travelled from the United States for her debut appearance at conference, and explained the problems with the term Islamophobia. A practising Muslim, she argued that the charge of Islamophobia was too often used by Islamists to silence their critics and shut down debate, as it has been since at least the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. She made a crucial distinction between it and 'anti-Muslim xenophobia', a real problem – and one that can be lethal, as the terrible attacks in Christchurch showed. She concluded:
'I want everyone to leave this room with an understanding that the word Islamophobia is a conflation of diabolical, absolutely intolerable anti-Muslim xenophobia, which every liberal democracy condemns and already criminalises with its hate crimes. A conflation of that with Islamism, which eschews any legal or intellectual scrutiny. Now, if we cannot scrutinise Islam or Islamism, we cannot defend not only a Christian woman in Pakistan, but heterodox Muslims like us. We're not nonconforming. We believe in our faith. But we have a version of Islam that may not be acceptable to the mainstream industrialisation of Islamism.'
Dr Ahmed issued an important warning, implicitly directed at the Conservative Party and the Government: 'If you fail to define Islamophobia accurately,' she said, 'and if you fail to separate it from anti-Muslim xenophobia, you will fall prey to the rulebook, the playbook, of the Islamists and you will have given over the command of the language for these critical debates to the Islamists – and I advise you not to do that.'
Like Qanta Ahmed, the Tory MP Nusrat Ghani, a fellow Muslim, acknowledged the reality of anti-Muslim hatred but warned that extremists had their own agenda. As she put it:
'I hope that today when we have this discussion, we can focus on the two things that are absolutely important. One is focusing on the victims of anti-Muslim hate or abuse, and the second is ensuring that we continue to have the freedom of speech to criticise Islam, as you would criticise any religion and also criticise extremists within Islam because if they had their way I wouldn't be here sitting at the top table speaking to you.'
She later added: 'I’m afraid it provides me with a huge amount of anxiety that the way I would like to challenge Islam and extremists may be denied to me.'
For his part, Peter Tatchell denounced anti-Muslim hatred while also questioning the validity of the term Islamophobia and the way it is used:
'What is not acceptable, I concur with previous speakers, what is not acceptable is to be prejudiced against Muslim people and to consequently victimise them. Discrimination against ideas is perfectly reasonable in a free society, but not discrimination against people. I myself don't like the term Islamophobia. I think anti-Muslim hatred is much better because it focuses on prejudice against Muslim people. It focuses on the prejudice against those people that undermines their wellbeing and their life chances.'
It is clear from all this, I hope, that no one on the panel 'denied the existence of anti-Muslim bigotry' but that there is a legitimate concern that the charge of Islamophobia can be used to silence debate and shut down any criticism of those who have an Islamist agenda. Those, including in the Tory party, who doubt that this silencing of debate goes on and is a problem should reflect on the reaction to this event.
Will Heaven is Director of Policy at Policy Exchange