Ed Husain

The Tories are right to reject the flawed definition of ‘Islamophobia’

The Tories are right to reject the flawed definition of 'Islamophobia'
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As a Muslim, I find the term ‘Islamophobia’ an etymological fallacy. Islam, by the definition of its founder the Prophet Mohammed and its greatest philosophers (al-Farabi, Ibn Tufayl, Averroes), is considered to be a ‘natural way’. 

Humans cannot have a phobia against nature. It is the height of moral insanity for an intelligent Muslim to place the word ‘Islam’ and the word ‘phobia’ together in a single phrase. The term ‘Islamophobia’ was lifted from discrimination against homosexuals: homophobia. The parallels do not stand up to serious scrutiny between Islam as an idea, a faith, a civilisation, a motivator for behaviour and homosexuality as a private practice of consenting adults that had led to punishment and killings.

How can a society that celebrates Mo Farah, elevates the hijab-donning Nadia Hussain as Her Majesty’s baker by popular consent, and vociferously support Mo Salah as our great football player be credibly anti-Muslim or ‘Islamophobic’? 

We are exaggerating and conflating the notion of ‘Islamophobia’ with socio-political factors of collectivism, victimhood culture and identity politics in a world in which attitudes are increasingly dominated by the sewage pipes of social media. 

The idea of ‘Islamophobia’ is an oxymoron, but innocent Muslims feeling under attack is a reality in Britain. Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) received 608 reports of anti-Muslim crime in the first half of 2018, 45.4 per cent of which was deemed ‘abusive behaviour’: spitting, ripping women’s hijabs, destruction of Muslim property and mosques, and arson. In 2017, 70 per cent of anti-Muslim crimes reported to Tell MAMA were committed in public and elicited a police response.

There is clearly a problem of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain, but how can the shutdown of open societies and freedom of debate through the political correct byword ‘Islamophobia’ address these violent attacks? Individuals in this great country are already protected from being treated less than favourably on the basis of their religion under the 2010 Equality Act. The 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred act makes it a criminal offence to incite hatred against someone one the basis of their religion but crucially states, in Part 3A, clause 29J, that the Act does not prohibit ‘discussion, criticism, or expressions of antipathy’ towards particular religions or their adherents. 

What has changed since 2006? Why do some members of parliament feel the need to implement the idea of this new ‘phobia’ in a way that will empower the ideological bullies of Islamism, and limit our rights to discussion and criticism, the hallmarks of a liberal society?

Sensitivity to Islam is driven by fear of terrorism. 

The following factors must be borne in mind when seriously investigating ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain.

Cause and Effect

The generations of Muslims who arrived in Britain in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s after the British Nationality Act of 1948 (which opened the country to immigration from the Commonwealth nations) did not complain about ‘Islamophobia’. Then, as now, Britain’s great people were not inherently bigoted towards others. We forget that this country had just fought on the Continent in defence of a free and liberal world with 2.5 million Muslims who travelled to Europe to fight for Britain. 

If the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ was non-existent for most of the latter half of the twentieth century, why is there now a phobia of open expression in Britain?

The Salman Rushdie affair in 1988 unleashed a challenge to this established order of free enquiry, free thought and open society in which all ideas are open to scrutiny. 

The data suggests that we have forgotten cause and effect: it was the rise of Islamist extremism and its violent cousin, jihadi terrorism, that unleashed a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. In the United States after 9/11, ordinary Muslims were treated as suspects, many of whom were detained or investigated. 

Preacher Franklin Graham’s definition of Islam as a ‘religion of war’ sunk deep into the nation’s consciousness. In the UK in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, hate crimes against British Muslims in the following weeks rose by 573 per cent in comparison to the previous year. Similar trends followed the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 (373 per cent higher than the previous year) and Charlie Hebdo (275 per cent). 

A Pew Research Poll in 2016 found that 28 per cent of Britons were unfavourable towards Muslims. ComRes, in the same year, reported that 31 per cent perceived Islam as a violent religion and 43 per cent thought it was a negative force in UK society. These perceptions are direct results of the dominant narrative of Islamist jihadism sensationalised by the media and touted by members of the far right.

We must go after the cause – the dominant narrative of Islamism and jihadism – rather than intimidating ordinary Muslims, often themselves victims of such fundamentalist bullying. By shouting ‘Islamophobia’ in the face of those who call for reform, we end the debate on how we can stop religious causes for such violence. 

It is activist Muslim organisations, influenced by the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-e-Islami (a Marxist form of confrontational Islam known as Islamism) that are driving this narrative of victimhood. They deny the existence of such violent fundamentalism and wish to cast ordinary Muslims in this country as a collective bloc of victims who must rise up against non-Muslim, capitalist oppression. By speaking for the nearly three million UK citizens who are Muslim in such a manner, ordinary Muslims’ rights to expression are smothered and ignored. These same Muslim activists conveniently forget that the Prophet Mohamed was a capitalist, a Meccan trader.  

Moreover, by officially adopting the offence of ‘Islamophobia’, we open the door to the worst consequences. The German judge who refused to grant a Muslim woman a divorce from her abusive husband in 2007 did so on the grounds that it was culturally acceptable and sanctioned by the Quran. Many more such incidents will become ‘normal’ for fear of accusations of racism and ‘Islamophobia’. 

We cannot tolerate the Islamist intolerance of women, gay people, apostates, and reformist Muslims by shutting down all debate and restricting the possibility of criticism and thus the possibility of reform. 

We need to target the cause of this problem, not the consequences.

Consequences on Western Civilisation

One impact of adopting any definition of ‘Islamophobia’ is that we encourage victimhood rather than responsibility. We burn the bridges of liberty and freedom of expression on which millions of Muslims travelled to the West. 

In the middle ages and early modern period, Muslims were viewed by Christians as blasphemers and were barred from settling in this country in significant numbers. Bringing in a new blasphemy law by default will slowly corrode the freedoms on which western society is founded. 

To apostatise and proselytise, to offend and embrace, to accept and reject: these are the dualities that uphold the essence of liberty.

The necessity of personal liberty is at the core of modern western civilisation and was made possible only through a long historical process of sacrifice and suffering.

Blasphemers were not burnt at the stake, innocent lives were not cut short by the guillotine, nor were tens of millions of lives lost in the two world wars for us to abandon our hard-won liberty at the first cry of discomfort.

Where would we be today if we had censored David Hume’s criticisms of Christianity in the eighteenth century, or banned Gibbon’s volumes on the history of Rome in which he condemned the institutionalisation of religion? 

Britain’s legacy of liberty stretches back nearly a millennium, from the Magna Carta to the early pioneers of religious freedoms during the Reformation, to the adoption of the Human Rights Act in 1998. The great thinkers of the English Reformation and Enlightenment suffered to give rise to the concept of individual freedoms and choice of religion in a time of rigid blasphemy laws. Thomas More petitioned Henry VIII in 1523 for the right of free speech, John Knox led the Scottish Reformation against the staunchly Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and Locke promoted the rights of individuals to act as they saw fit. These and many others suffered to give rise to a free Protestant nation and prevent laws against thought crimes.

If history has taught us one thing, it is that Inquisitions begin with censoring and formal definitions of political-religious orthodoxy. We, as a society, are the inheritors of the sacrifices of the humanist philosophers. Galileo was imprisoned for his scientific belief. In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome for denying tenets of Catholic faith and believing in the possibility of life on other planets. The Dutch Jew Baruch Spinoza was shut out of his community and his books placed on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books for questioning the nature of the Divine. We are the inheritors of these sacrifices and must not squander them through regression by the shutting of open debate.

Mocking the sacred, however distasteful and disturbing to believers of a particular faith or specific tradition, is often the hallmark of innovation and progress. Islam was born because the Prophet Mohammad mocked the religion of the Meccans. Judaism thrived because Abraham and later Moses opposed the pagan Egyptians in their persecution of the Jewish people. Christianity emerged as Paul and the early disciples attacked the values of Rome and the laws of Judea. Jesus himself directly insulted the wickedness, hypocrisy, and ungodliness of the Pharisees in the New Testament. 

Offence is a requisite for freedom and citizens of open societies must learn to become resilient. Criticism and open discussion are the harbingers of progress.

By stopping critiques of Islam in the name of the new orthodoxy of ‘Islamophobia’ we will be harming the foetus of modern, liberal Islam. At a time when Islam is suffering from poor health, this curtailment of open discussion and criticism will result in the birth of a stillborn baby with all the defects of religious literalism, hatred, anger, and violence that is espoused by fundamentalists who play on the narrative of victimisation. With 30 million Muslims in the West, a historically unprecedented demographic change, our enlightened age demands that we help Muslims through integration, not isolation. 

Today it is ‘Islamophobia’; tomorrow will it be that we cannot question the gender inequality of literalist Islam, wife beating, unfairness of divorce laws, inheritance disparity, or reactions to apostasy?

After criminalising ‘Islamophobia’, will we then stop free Muslim women from questioning those who wear the hijab or niqab? Will we ban books by Voltaire or Kipling or Richard Dawkins for their anti-Islam content?

I am a Muslim and I am confident that by drawing on the inherent Islamic intellectual arguments for pluralism and rationalism, we can openly discuss and debate with Dawkins, Rushdie, and other critics of my religion. They are saying nothing new – the Prophet Mohammed encountered much worse abuse in his time.

Lawmakers: Rules from Exceptions

On the role of politics, our lawmakers must not draw rules from the exceptions.

‘Islamophobia’ was designed to mirror the idea of homophobia and drew parallels with anti-Semitism. This argument is inherently flawed as both homophobia and anti-Semitism are based on untruths and are directed against specific peoples. ‘Islamophobia’ is about ideas, beliefs and attitudes.

There are those who point to anti-Semitism and argue that as our laws protect Jews, so Muslims must have official protection. Aside from the infantile nature of that thought, we must bear in mind the following:

  1. The Jewish population in Britain is around 280,000, while the Muslim population is around 3 million. Jews are not an evangelical or proselytising community, while an increasingly visible number of Muslim activists in Britain are hell bent on mass conversions to their brand of hard-line Islam. To block this phenomenon from scrutiny for fear of insult or consequence is to lose the battle of ideas before we even begin. 
  2. Anti-Semitism is based on outright fabrications that have haunted Europe for centuries: the historical spectre of blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the lie of Jewish conspiracies. However, a phobia of Islam is based on real acts of violence that have been committed and justified in the name of the religion in opposition to the moderate Islam practiced by hundreds of millions around the globe. In 2015, nearly three quarters of terrorist attacks were perpetrated by the global Islamist movements Isis, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban. 7/7, Charlie Hebdo, the Manchester Arena bombing, and the Westminster Bridge incident have brought these acts directly into British society, leading to an increased fear of the religion that is used to justify such violence.
  3. The Jewish people are the last surviving civilisation from antiquity. All other Biblical communities – such as the Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians – are no more. Throughout history, this exceptional people has suffered violence and attempts at annihilation at the hands of the Egyptian pharaohs, Persians, Romans, fourteenth-century Iberian princes, the Russian tsars, and more recently by Hitler and Stalin. How can Muslims, a proud and over two-billion-strong global community, with a long history of empire and conquest, seek the same protections as a tiny group of long-suffering people who are still reeling from the loss of millions of their people across Europe?
  4. Conclusion: Politicians and Civil Society

    Politics and politicians provide the tone, tenor, and tenets of modern civil society. The ancients used to say, ‘the fish rots from the head down’. However flawed, in a democracy, leadership comes from Parliament. To surrender to the grievances and victimhood collectivism of Muslim activists is to do a disservice to Britain, liberty, and ordinary Muslims. As a Muslim, I would be branded an ‘Islamophobe’ and prosecuted, possibly jailed, for questioning interpretations of the Quran that continue to discriminate against women in regard to violence, divorce, custody or inheritance. 

    If we in mainstream western society, in the press, in universities, cannot criticise the interpretations of Islam that lead to intolerance, sexism, racism, and violence, then we will empower large sections of the far right. This is already underway with the growth of the AfD in Germany, the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in Holland, Fidesz in Hungary, and the prominence of figures like Tommy Robinson here in the UK. 

    The criminalisation of open discussion will undo the freedoms on which we all thrive. 

    British democracy must not succumb to the identity politics of contemporary hard-line Islamists who seek to subvert the West. We cannot rest on our laurels; we must be ever alert to threats to our hard-won liberties. Athenian democracy, subverted by an organised mob, sentenced Socrates to death in 399 BC because he questioned and mocked the gods of ancient Greece. In the spirit of Socrates, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed we must continue to question all that is sacred and let our God-given ‘natural light of reason’ guide us to a world of human dignity despite our differences. As Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784, ‘For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all – freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.’

    This piece is an edited version of a submission to the House of Commons' Home Affairs Committee on the proposed definition of Islamophobia