‘The next government must do more to define and tackle anti-Muslim prejudice’

Sunder Katwala
Juan Manuel Aparicio Diez/ Shutterstock

Government ministers were reluctant to spell out why it was “wrong” for Lee Anderson MP to say that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is “controlled by Islamists”. Two-thirds of Conservative party members disagree with the suspension, while YouGov found the general public were twice as likely to agree with the suspension as to oppose it. That contrast between party and public may both embolden an unapologetic Lee Anderson – and reinforce the perception that the Conservatives have a problem of party culture in understanding what anti-Muslim prejudice is.

Government policy is ambivalent about anti-Muslim prejudice too. In principle, the government expresses ‘zero tolerance’ towards every form of prejudice. In practice, there are stark asymmetries in how proactively it tackles different hatreds.

When it comes to anti-Muslim prejudice, there’s a policy vacuum

At a time of rising antisemitism, Rishi Sunak’s laudable pledge last week of sustained resources for Jewish community safety is of vital importance – and it is right that Labour immediately guaranteed to match those commitments. But with anti-Muslim prejudice increasing too, there is largely a vacuum where government policy should be, beyond encouraging hate crime reporting. The government has no working definition of either anti-Muslim hatred or Islamophobia, nor any independent adviser to lead that work. It has a policy of non-engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain, but no sustained forum to engage with other civic or faith voices. Michael Gove’s recent decision to defund the Inter-Faith Network, over its MCB links, means the UK’s most prominent national interfaith charity will now close down.

There are only half a dozen Conservative Muslim parliamentarians, who have fought a dogged, often lonely battle to get some foundations in place. With a general election looming, it may be the next government that needs to act. So how could Labour seek to move from a critique of what is missing to filling those gaps effectively in government?

Islamophobia: what’s in a word?

The Runnymede Trust coined the phrase “Islamophobia” in 1997 to describe both hostility to Islam and prejudice against Muslims. Few words in British political discourse have been more contested since.

The golden rule for policing boundaries on prejudice is always to be clear about what must be permitted as legitimate speech before setting out where the line needs to be drawn. The term ‘Islamophobia’ can seem to blur the crucial boundary between accepting the free critique of ideas but challenging discrimination against those who follow a faith – because it puts the name of the faith (Islam) on the tin rather than that of the followers (Muslims). Runnymede’s 2017 review offered a new definition – Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism – to recognise that. A 2018 definition from the APPG on Islamophobia, co-chaired by Wes Streeting and Anna Soubry, has been adopted by institutions, including the Labour Party.

“A type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”

In 2019 the Conservative government, sceptical about the APPG definition, announced a government process to define Islamophobia – but nothing more happened and Rishi Sunak eventually abandoned the commitment with no outcome. The APPG definition that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” has supporters and critics. “Muslimness” and “perceived Muslimness” sound vague. As someone with an Asian name I get some anti-Muslim prejudice myself, despite being a lapsed Catholic agnostic. But is that kind of misdirected bigotry a central issue, or more of a footnote?

The APPG report pre-emptively rebuts the charge that it could inadvertently create some kind of blasphemy law, endorsing Anas Sarwar’s insistence that “it must solely be focused on prejudice and bias focused towards Muslims – the followers of Islam – or those that are misrecognised as Muslims, rather than Islam itself”. Yet the APPG report is largely silent on how to differentiate challenges to Islamist extremism, or legitimate public debates about integration, from prejudice. Its list of examples of Islamophobia is flawed. As it comes under more intense scrutiny in the partisan battles of an election year, Labour has a responsibility to ensure this does not derail the need for an effective definition and strategy.

A working definition must be understandable and have legitimacy

To be a foundation and tool for effective change, a working definition must meet three tests at the same time. It must have broad legitimacy with Britain’s Muslims – which is best achieved through engagement at scale, ensuring a balanced share of voice by geography, gender and generation. It must also be understood as fair by their fellow citizens; and be useful to those seeking to educate about the proper boundaries, from classrooms and university campuses to workplaces and local party meetings.

So Labour should take the significant work done to date by the APPG, Runnymede Trust, Tell Mama and others as a foundation for large-scale public engagement with British Muslims, and their fellow citizens, to secure the strongest possible consensus, across social groups, on how to proceed. Most people probably could agree that it is not Islamophobic to critique ideas or to engage in robust political or theological debates involving Islam or any other faith. They would also likely agree that this does cross over into prejudice if it criticises Muslims for being Muslim, stereotypes all Muslims as a monolithic group or holds them responsible for extreme actions.

A national strategy could be a way to reduce discrimination

A Labour government will inherit an assymetric approach to tackling prejudice, yet could use that to speed up progress. John Mann, independent adviser on antisemitism, offered many ideas at the Jewish Labour Movement conference for how government could both deepen work on antisemitism and extend those lessons across other forms of hatred. A sustained forum to share experiences across different groups would have practical value – and strengthen the alliances needed to effectively root out prejudices within minority communities too.

The purpose of a national strategy should not simply be to define, measure and record anti-Muslim bigotry when it happens, but to reduce it significantly. There has been strong progress against prejudice, especially across generations – but meaningful contact across groups, and the confidence that can comes from it, remains too unevenly spread across our society. Changing that cannot be the work of government alone. But the next government can put the missing foundations for a national strategy in place. That could help unlock the societal response we need, to go beyond calling out those who cross the line to a sustained effort to addressing the causes of anti-Muslim prejudice too.

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