Mohammed Amin: It is time to abandon the word “Islamophobia”

It is damaged beyond repair by poor definitions, confusion and misuse. The term harms Muslims.

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Modern usage of “Islamophobia” comes from the 1997 report by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia: Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.

I wrote in 2012 that the report was seriously flawed, because it conflates attitudes towards Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. Re-reading the report while composing this article I noted that it does not contain a short, quotable definition of “Islamophobia”; perhaps one of the many disadvantages of committee authorship.

Subsequently, there have been attempts to steer the word Islamophobia away from its somewhat nebulous Runnymede 2017 definition, and instead to use it as a shorthand for reprehensible behaviours such as:

  • anti-Muslim hatred,
  • anti-Muslim bigotry,
  • anti-Muslim prejudice,
  • anti-Muslim discrimination.

However, when people seek to use “Islamophobia” as a shorthand for the above behaviours, others respond by asserting their freedom to have negative views of Islam, and profess a legitimate fear of Islam, thereby harking back to the original meaning of “Islamophobia” as understood by the Runnymede 2017 report.

Subsequent attempts to rescue the word “Islamophobia” with a new definition

Given the widespread criticism of the 1997 Runnymede definition, there have been several attempts to rescue “Islamophobia” with a revised definition.

Some of the definitions are too long to reproduce here. I recommend instead glancing at the full reports linked above. These attempts to rescue the word are doomed to fail for two reasons.

1. A definition cannot be enforced by the Government

In France, the Académie Française guards the French language. It fights a noble, but largely unsuccessful, campaign to defend the French language from incursions by foreign words.

English is quite different. There is no overarching authority. Words in English mean whatever the generality of English users decide that they mean.

The Government can legislate definitions for statutory purposes. As a tax adviser, I spent years advising clients about the definition of “loan relationship” for tax purposes, originally contained in the Finance Act 1996. However, such statutory definitions apply only for the purposes specified. That Act could not, and did not seek to, alter the meaning of the words “loan relationship” as used by citizens in their daily lives. (I have yet to meet a citizen who uses the words “loan relationship” for any purpose other than taxation.)

Accordingly, the Government could, if so minded, legislate a definition of “Islamophobia” for use by the criminal justice system. The definition would need to be tightly drawn so that it could be unambiguously applied by the courts. I suspect the Government regards that task as superfluous. We already have laws covering:

  • racially motivated hate crime,
  • religiously motivated hate crime,
  • incitement to racial hatred,
  • incitement to religious hatred,
  • discrimination because of a person’s race,
  • discrimination because of a person’s religion or belief.

Each of the above is defined in law without any need for a statutory definition of the word “Islamophobia.” Accordingly, I fail to see how creating a statutory definition would help the legal system.

In theory, the existence of a definition for statutory purposes might change the way that the word “Islamophobia” is understood by the man in the street. However, as most people have little interaction with statute law, I am dubious.

2. The pitch has been irretrievably queered

For 20 years, proponents of the word “Islamophobia” attempted to defend the Runnymede 1997 definition.

Trying to use “Islamophobia” as a synonym for the anti-Muslim bad behaviours enumerated above, while also adhering to the Runnymede 1997 definition, ran into a brick wall of opposition. Namely the Runnymede 1997 definition is about much more than those anti-Muslim bad behaviours. It is about an attitude towards Islam.

The Runnymede 1997 definition was appalling and has led to “Islamophobia” becoming a “crock of a word”, as Douglas Murray described it in the Jewish Chronicle in 2013.

Subsequent attempts to repair the 1997 damage with reports such as Runnymede 2017 have suffered from two flaws:

  1. Unwillingness to explicitly abandon the Runnymede 1997 definition.
  2. Use of the word “racism”, a word which means something entirely different to sociology academics and to the man in the street. The man in the street knows that Muslims are not a race, so how can you be racist against Muslims?

It is time to abandon the word “Islamophobia” because using it harms Muslims.

It diverts attention from serious anti-Muslim bad behaviours, as enumerated above, and instead draws people into a wholly unproductive debate about the meaning of the word “Islamophobia.” Every minute spent in such a debate is a minute when we are not talking about anti-Muslim hatred.

If people desperately want a single word to be a strict Muslim analogue to antisemitism, then a new word must be invented. It needs to be a new word, to escape the baggage which the proponents of the word “Islamophobia” have allowed to build up around it.

I have elsewhere proposed the word “antimuslimism” and offered a definition modelled very closely on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Hath not a Muslim eyes?

The Government should adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. But it must be based on objective criteria, overseen by people we elect.

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”  This is a proposed definition urged on the Government by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims.  Let’s ponder it for a few moments.

Some people who hate Islam or Muslims or both are undoubtedly racists.  But are all of them?  We don’t believe so, for two main reasons.  First, some are members of the same race – if that is quite the right term here – as very many Muslims themselves.  It would not be easy to postulate a racial difference between, say, a Hindu and a Muslim originating from the Punjab.  Second, others clearly detest Islam or Muslims for religious reasons, not racial ones.

We believe that hating Muslims is always wrong and hating Islam completely unreasonable.  Then again, much hangs what one means by Islam.  Like Judaism and Christianity, its fellow Abrahamic religions, Islam is a vast, multi-faceted, complex faith.  This site has always maintained that a distinction can and should be drawn between Islam and Islamism.  The first is a great religion, the majority manifestation of which, throughout its history, has been the traditional, classical variety.  The second is a politicised variant – a kind of bastard child of Salafist practice and western technology.  ISIS are at one of its scale and the Muslim Brotherhood at another.  On our view, one should be phobic about it.

It is to the credit of the all-party group that it in no way seeks to silence opinions of this kind. “Criticism of religion is a fundamental right in an open society and is enshrined in our commitment to freedom of speech,” it says in its report, Islamophobia Defined, which proposes the definition.  But if people are to be free to be phobic about Islam – or Judaism, or Christianity, or atheism, or any other form of belief – would it really make sense for public policy to target something called Islamophobia, any more than it might target, say, Judaeophobia, Christianopobia or Atheismopobia?  Wouldn’t government do better to take aim at anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice?

Our sense is that the report recognises the problem.  “Rooted in” appears to betray a certain nervousness about the claim of racism, almost as though the report’s authors had thought through the weaknesses in it that we outline above.  The end of its proposed definition is much nearer the mark than the beginning.  It is incontestible that Muslims are sometimes singled out for violence and hatred because of expressions of their religion: wearing a headscarf, say, or attending a mosque.  “Muslimness” may be a jargony word, but it describes a real thing.  Indeed, the report itself is the result of “an inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred”, as it confirms.  The yoked mention of the second may reveal a residual nervousness about whether the first is of any real use.

We apologise if our analysis of this definition seems a bit abstracted – offered as though the terms concerned were debating points for an evening at the Oxford Union, rather than having implications for people and their lives.  Which they do.  After all, words have consequences, and the Group wants the Government to adopt, promote and further its own definition of Islamophobia, in much the same way that successive governments have long taken up the Working Definition of Antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  (Yes, that’s the one to which Jeremy Corbyn and his claque have been so resistant, with consequences to the Labour Party’s name and electoral performance.)

The Government presently uses no definition at all.  We suspect that the driving reason is that it recognises the deep problems that the term “Islamophobia” presents for public policy.  It wouldn’t do for Ministers to seem to be giving Islam special protection from criticism.  But we believe that it would be right for them to work towards a working definition of anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice that government would adopt in much the same way that it does the working definition of antisemitism.  One does not have to agree with the report’s claim that Islamophobia is “Britain’s bigotry blind spot” to believe that anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred is an evil – and a problem.  Criticising religious beliefs is one thing (though we prefer it to be done with temperance).  Abusing its practioners, even when the bar is set below the level at which the law bites, is another.  The report has plenty of examples of the last to offer.

It is worth adding that for government to adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice, to sit alongside the anti-semitism one, would reopen a question whose implications for the way we live stretch wider than both.

It is, in a nutshell: who decides?  A racist or religious hate incident is defined as being so “if the victim or anyone else thinks it was carried out because of hostility or prejudice based on race or religion”.  In one way, this makes sense.  A Jew or a Muslim is likely to be more alert to prejudice aimed at either than a third party will be.  In another, and we believe more profoundly, it doesn’t.  There must surely be some objective basis to determining a claim, let alone a crime.  Feeling should walk in step with fact.  On its own, it isn’t enough, or shouldn’t be.

This line of thought can be applied to the five tests which the report sets out “to determine whether what we are dealing with is reasonable criticism of Islam or Muslims or Islamophobia”.  The fifth is “insincere criticism for ulterior motives”.  The last is everywhere and so is the first.  But who is to decide who else has a motive that may be malign, or whose criticism is insincere?  The question can’t be ducked if any new definition is to have real teeth.  And there would be no point in having a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred without them, even if it aims to work without further use of the law and the courts.

The Government should be very wary of tests that are essentially subjective, or giving anyone special status to judge motives and sincerity.  This is part of the reason that this site is reflexively hostile to seeking to define extremism in law.  So: let government adopt a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred.  That’s the central, correct thrust of the all-party group’s report.  But it must be based on objective criteria, overseen by people we elect, and who can therefore be held accountable.  Meanwhile, “Islamophobia” should be dropped altogether.  The report reads to us as though its authors know that the word, first popularised by the Runnymede Trust over 20 years ago, has outlived its time and is lingering on life support.  But they cannot quite bring themselves to turn off the machine.

William Shawcross: May and Brokenshire must not let Scruton be hounded from his post

His long career evinces both a real understanding of issues such as antisemitism and a philospher’s willingness to change his mind.

William Shawcross is a former head of the Charity Commission and and official biographer of the Queen MOther.

When Sir Roger Scruton was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2016, the official announcement said he was “often described as Britain’s foremost philosopher”. He is that and much more.

His knighthood was for “services to philosophy, teaching and public education”. It could just as well have been for his courageous work during the 1980s, when he travelled repeatedly – and at considerable risk – to communist Central Europe, forging links with dissident academics and students in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.

For those activities, he was in June 1985 detained, expelled from Czechoslovakia, and placed on the communist government’s “Index of Undesirable Persons” – a badge of honour that saw him feted by Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic after the fall of Communism.

Yesterday a little-known blog and a few tweeters – including, alas, a couple of Labour MPs who should have known better – tried to place him on their own “index of undesirable persons”. Their reasons for doing so were feeble and their evidence scant. But it seems to be mainly because of a speech that he gave in Hungary in 2016, the same year as his knighthood.

The key passage – which is being selectively quoted – is as follows:

“Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire. People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th Century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.”

For this, he is accused of being someone who “peddles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories”. His accusers demand that the Prime Minister and James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government who on Saturday appointed him to lead the new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, drop him. That would be grossly wrong.

The hunt is now on, it seems, to find incriminating remarks in his life’s work. He is the author of more than 50 books on philosophy, politics, the arts and more. He has written thousands of essays and articles and given countless interviews (including those in which he has recanted previously asserted beliefs). For example, one article published yesterday afternoon accused him of “controversial comments” about Islamophobia and homosexuality. These former comments are worth quoting:

“Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse, and assault, and this is a distressing situation that the law strives to remedy. But when people invent a phobia to explain all criticism of Islam, it is not that kind of abuse that they have in mind. They wish to hide the truth, to shout ‘lies!’ in the face of criticism, and to silence any attempt at discussion. In my view, however, it is time to bring the truth into the open.”

Some may disagree with these views, but must Sir Roger be silenced for holding them? He seems to be alert to the problem of anti-Muslim hatred, but sceptical about the definition of Islamophobia. That may irritate some, but if philosophers cannot think, write and speak freely, what is the point of them?

Similarly, on homophobia, it is clear that he has revised his views. As he told The Guardian in 2010, referring to an earlier essay about homophobia, “I wouldn’t stand by what I said then.” People’s views – especially if they are philosophers, one hopes – change over time and this is perfectly normal. It is also worth noting that his appointment by the Government relates to the design and style of buildings, a fact which risks getting lost in a blizzard of confected outrage.

Three things are worth adding on the subject of antisemitism – and quickly, because as the saying goes, “falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it”.

First, I have known Sir Roger for many years and do not believe for a moment that he has an antisemitic bone in his body. Indeed, as the final sentence of the above quotation demonstrates, he is acutely aware of the problem of antisemitism in Hungary. Moreover, as his autobiography movingly explains, he is of German-Jewish ancestry himself.

Secondly, Sir Roger is not guilty by association simply for having travelled to Hungary and for knowing Viktor Orban. The facts are that he helped Orban and others set up an independent law school, the Jogusz-Szakkollegium, in the days of communism. He lectured in the school, as part of his mission to encourage young people to work for the liberation of their countries. The school played a significant role in the collapse of the regime.

Another overlooked fact: Sir Roger also personally lobbied Orban’s government not to close down the Central European University in Budapest, founded by Soros. He is not uncritical of Orban and, like many people in the UK, approves of some his policies and disapproves of others.

The third and final point. Antisemitism is a serious problem in countries like Hungary – but also in supposedly more enlightened places like our own, particularly these days on the left of politics. It is a virus that mutates from generation to generation, and must be dealt with vigorously wherever it emerges. No one should accuse anyone else of antisemitism frivolously or for mere political gain. It is a very serious charge and in this case it is entirely without merit.