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Islamophobic newspaper front pages

The definition of Islamophobia put forward last year by Westminster’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has been criticised by police chiefs, who claim that it could impede their Islamophobic counter-terrorism policies. It has been rejected by the Tory party and the British Government. With credentials like that it might be thought that the work of the APPG deserves vigorous support. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.

The definition is supported by the Muslim Council of Britain, a wide range of other Muslim organisations, the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru. But organisations signing up to the definition need to be very clear and explicit about exactly what they are supporting. The problem lies in an apparent attempt by the APPG – or at least by  a tendency within it – to use the definition of Islamophobia as a Trojan horse to promote the controversial IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism, which equates criticism of Israel with anti-semitism.

The APPG’s Co-Chair, Wes Streeting, recently put himself in the front line of the Labour Party’s wrangle over the anti-semitism by signing a statement calling on Jeremy Corbyn to re-impose the recently lifted suspension of left-winger Chris Williamson. Williamson had been suspended for saying that the party had done more than any to stand up to racism and had “backed off too much” in the face of allegations of anti-semitism.

The APPG on British Muslims was set up in July 2017 to build on the work of the earlier APPG on Islamophobia.  The new definition is set out in the APPG’s 72-page report “Islamophobia defined”, published by the APPG on British Muslims in November 2018 It says:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

The intended field of operations for the definition isn’t made quite clear in the report. Chair Anna Soubry and co-chair Wes Streeting say in their Foreword:

“We hope our working definition will be adopted by Government, statutory agencies, civil society organisations and principally, British Muslim communities who have been central to this enterprise and whose valuable contributions have significantly shaped our thinking on this subject.”

The definition is described repeatedly as a “working definition.” No explanation of that phrase is offered, but it might perhaps be understood as something that has less precision than would be needed to define a criminal offence.  Anas Sarwar is said in the report to have expressed support for a “legally binding” definition. The APPG took evidence from the Law Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service and the report includes some discussion of ways that the concept of Islamophobia might be applied in criminal law, but stops short of offering specific recommendations. It notes:

“As we heard from Professor Salman Sayyid, the purpose of a definition is not just to inform the application of the criminal code, it is also required in order to bring about a transformation in social etiquette.”

Wide agreement

The APPG definition of Islamophobia is a good one as long as it is understood as a component of policy rather than of criminal law. It captures the key point that Islamophobia is a highly racialised phenomenon. In doing so it follows the work of many academics, and perhaps especially of Professor Salman Sayyid. The recommendations that Scotland Against Criminalising Communities made to the Scottish Government in October 2017 (the SACC briefing can be downloaded here – pdf) took a similar approach, saying:

“The Scottish Government should work towards developing and adopting a concise, easily understood  working  definition  of  Islamophobia  that  incorporates  an  understanding  of Islamophobia as a form of racism.”

The November 2017 report by the Runnymede Trust – the organisation that 10 years earlier had popularised the term Islamophobia – made the same point. It offered a short definition – “Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism” – and a longer definition:

“Islamophobia is any distinction, exclusion, or restriction towards, or preference against, Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

The Muslim Council of Britain, in its August 2018 submission to the APPG, set out as one of its key principles: “Islamophobia is a form or racism”.

There is very wide agreement – though not quite unanimity (for example, Southall Black Sisters told the APPG: “We are not convinced that the concept of Islamophobia would add anything of value to the struggle against racism”) – around the APPG approach to defining Islamophobia. There is arguably room for discussion about the precise text but it captures the phenomenon well enough to do the job most immediately needed of it. That job is to allow government to set out policies to tackle the various problems created by Islamophobia – for example, bullying of Muslim children at school or discrimination at work – while providing some clarity about terminology. Official shyness about the word “Islamophobia” and about the ideas that it represents is acting as a brake on effective policy-making.

So what’s the problem?

Part of the problem is that, besides some excellent background and analysis explaining the APPG’s choice of definition, the report discusses ways that the definition might be applied, including some rather speculative indications of how it might be applied in criminal law. This includes suggestions that anti-Islamophobia legislation could borrow concepts around intentionality from anti-terrorism laws.

Liam Byrne MP, in a submission to the APPG, described the concepts of glorification, recklessness and incitement contained in the Terrorism Act 2006 as “well-established precedents”. These concepts were the subject of a lengthy parliamentary battle before they became law, and they remain controversial today. They are a step towards the creation of thought crime. Leakage of repressive legal concepts from Britain’s suite of Islamophobic anti-terrorism laws into other areas of law would be bad news for civil liberties. It is certainly no way to build an anti-racist society.

Another problem is that the report draws parallels between the APPG’s approach to defining Islamophobia and the IHRA’s definition of anti-semitism and affirms these parallels in its conclusion. The effect of the IHRA definition is to facilitate allegations of racism against anyone who draws attention to the structurally racist nature of the Israeli state. This is not a sensible model to follow.

Presented to the Scottish Parliament’s CPG on Tackling Islamophobia

The APPG’s “Islamophobia Defined” was presented at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group (CPG) on Tackling Islamophobia on 25 April. The APPG was represented at the meeting by Wes Streeting MP (Labour, Co-Chair of the APPG) and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (Conservative, Treasurer of the APPG). I attended the meeting on behalf of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC), a member organisation of the CPG.

At the meeting John Finnie MSP – a Vice-Convenor of the CPG – noted the difficulties that have developed around the IHRA definition of anti-semitism.

I said that in a report as long as “Islamophobia Defined” there would inevitably be points that some people would disagree with, and that, for me, the references to the IHRA definition were a particular problem. I suggested that it would be wise to seek support for the actual text of the definition proposed in the APPG report, rather than for the report as a whole. I did not expect this to be a controversial suggestion. It’s very difficult to see how any organisation could adopt the report as a whole, or what it would mean were it to do so. The earlier statement by the Muslim Council of Britain welcoming the APPG definition had sensibly confined itself to the text of the definition.

Streeting’s  response was: “That’s the way reports get left on the shelf.”

He said that unless you’re tackling all aspects of Islamophobia, you’re not tackling it at all.

But we hadn’t been talking about acquiescence in some aspects of Islamophobia. We had been talking about the general problems created by adding too much guidance to a definition, as the IHRA definition does, and, besides that, the particular problems created by name-checking the IHRA’s unquestionably controversial definition of anti-semitism. Streeting was clearly rooting for a response to the APPG report that would amount to at least tacit endorsement of its use of the IHRA template.

Streeting may simply have been reflecting the collective view of the APPG. But it is now clear that he has a horse of his own in the race. He was one of 90 MPs  who signed a statement released on 27 June that called on Jeremy Corbyn to overturn the decision of by a panel of the party’s NEC (National Executive Committee) to lift the suspension of Chris Williamson from the party. Williamson had been suspended in February after being accused of anti-semitism for saying, quite rightly:

“The party that’s done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party. I’ve got to say I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that because in my opinion… we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic.”

Statement on Chris Williamson by Tom Watson and others, 27 June 2019

The letter that Wes Streeting signed was coordinated by Tom Watson. It’s the opening salvo in the latest battle to oust Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and institutionalise support for Israel in the party. The IHRA’s explanatory notes and examples are crucial for the second of these goals and have been co-opted by Labour’s right-wing to serve the first goal too.

The idea that a working definition of Islamophobia could be modelled on the IHRA definition of anti-semitism was floated in the course of the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life launched in 2015 by Citizens UK, which describes itself as the “home of community organising in the UK”. The Commission’s report, The Missing Muslims (available here– pdf), published in 2017 says the definition of Islamophobia “could be informed by the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the Government in 2016.”

The idea was developed a little further in a paper published by Dr Chris Allen in June 2017 (Towards a Working Definition Of Islamophobia: A Briefing paper, available as a pdf via Chris Allen’s website). Chris Allen is an Associate Professor in Hate Studies at the University of Leicester and was involved in the APPG on Islamophobia, the predecessor to the current APPG on British Muslims1.

Replacing the words “anti-semitism”  and “Jews” in the core text of the IHRA definition with the words “Islamophobia” and “Muslim” results in the definition put foward by Chris Allen:

“Islamophobia is a certain perception of Muslims, which may be expressed as hatred toward Muslims. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of Islamophobia are directed toward Muslim or non-Muslim individuals and/or their property, toward Muslim community institutions and religious facilities.”

The core element of the IHRA definition that Allen has borrowed is not particularly problematic, though it is not particularly good either – “rhetorical and physical manifestations” does not cover discrimination, for instance. But the real problem with the IHRA definition of anti-semitism2 lies in the examples provided by the IHRA for guidance, along with the definition. The examples link criticism of Israel to anti-semitism. They are presented by the IHRA as if they are integral to the definition and are widely treated that way. Allen’s briefing paper makes no mention at all of the examples.

Evidence taken by the APPG on British Muslims moved it away from Allen’s proposed text and, crucially, towards recognition of the relationship between Islamophobia and racism. The outcome was the definition quoted earlier in this article – a much better definition.

But APPG report’s conclusion includes the paragraph:

“We found the IHRA explanatory notes and examples both helpful and informative and it inspired much of the thinking of Parliamentarians engaged in this process of proposing a working definition of Islamophobia. The explanatory notes provided under the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism could, in all fairness, be adopted in their entirety to Islamophobia.”

The explanatory notes and examples are precisely the source of the controversies surrounding the IHRA definition. They are not mentioned in either the Citizens UK’s Missing Muslims or in Chris Allen’s Towards a Working Definition Of Islamophobia, the two apparent sources for the idea that the IHRA definition should be taken as a template. It is very hard to avoid the impression that the APPG was committed from the outset to shaping its definition around the IHRA template and that it saw the controversial examples, rather than the un-controversial core text, as the crucial element.

Endorsing the APPG’s one-sentence definition of Islamophobia without endorsing the whole 72-page APPG paper is troublesome for advocates of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism because it might tend to support suggestions that organisations supporting the IHRA definition should similarly adopt its core text, omitting the examples.

In July 2018 the Labour Party’s NEC attempted something along those lines by adopting the IHRA’s core definition of anti-semitism while providing guidance of its own that incorporated some, but not all of the IHRA’s examples. This position was reversed in September when the NEC adopted the IHRA definition and guidance in full.

The July guidelines omitted arguably the most problematic of the IHRA’s eleven examples of anti-semitism:

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

This is one of the nine IHRA examples that the APPG maps onto Islamophobia and includes in the conclusion of Islamophobia Defined. In this case the result is the following supposed example of Islamophobia :

“Denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour.”

But this statement is fatally flawed. It involves the assertion of a right to self-determination of “Muslim populations” that has no basis in international law. The right of self-determination belongs to whole peoples, broadly construed, not to religiously defined populations. For example, the Palestinian right to self-determination belongs collectively to all the Palestinian people, including the Christian minority (perhaps 6-7% of the global Palestinian population).

The APPG is taking the mickey

The statement appears to offer robust support to Kashmiri separatists and Palestinians but in fact offers no support at all, because it cannot be taken seriously by anyone serious. It’s hard to attribute this extraordinary wording to poor drafting. The report is the work of a parliamentary group drawing on some of the most haggled-over text in contemporary British political life.  This part of the report is aimed squarely at the grassroots Muslim community, not at international jurists. The APPG is taking the mickey.

European and American support for Israel is driven by the geo-political strategies of their ruling classes and legitimised by the thankfully diminishing tendency of white Europeans and Americans to identify with Israelis as “us” and see Palestinians as “them” – in other words, by racism. Europeans and Americans who still support Israel largely do so because of its settler-colonialist character, not in spite of it. The IHRA definition of anti-semitism is being used to obfuscate this situation by smearing those who draw attention to it as racists. It promotes the defence of Israel from criticism in place of the increasingly urgent task of fighting the anti-Jewish racism being spread by Europe’s far-right parties.

A definition that lends itself so well to efforts to mis-state and distort the way that racism works cannot be a good starting point for defining any form of racism. The APPG could not help but drive itself into some untenable positions once it committed to building on the IHRA template.

Much of the material in the APPG report is valuable, in spite of this. Its adoption of the word Islamophobia – a word used widely by Muslims and hated by Islamophobes – is helpful. The recognition that Islamophobia is rooted in racism is also helpful. If there is anywhere that a partly-helpful but deeply flawed policy on Islamophobia might represent relative progress, it is in the Tory party and the Tory government. Both have rejected it.

The report would also result in relative progress if it curbed Islamophobic policing policies, as police chiefs claim. But the claim should not be taken too seriously. The police do not seem to have been much inconvenienced by the Macpherson report’s discussion of institutional racism in 1999 or by the Equalities Act. It’s not likely that they would find an officially endorsed definition of Islamophobia any harder to ignore.

The government does not want to appear to be tackling Islamophobia because it wants to retain the support of racists. Elements within the National Police Chiefs Council helped the government out by giving it a less disreputable pretext for rejecting the APPG report. That’s all.

Scorned by Downing Street, the police and the Tories, the report will make itself felt elsewhere – in the Labour Party and Scotland, for instance. But the places that it can reach are places that could do a great deal better. The APPG report has absorbed a lot of effort by committed anti-racists. But it has been decisively shaped from beginning to end by political in-fighting in the Westminster bear-pit. There is no good reason for campaigning organisations – or Scotland – to start from there.

The APPG report has already been used to leverage support for the Scottish Government’s 2017 decision to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. Within an hour or so of the the report being presented to the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group, Nicola Sturgeon, responding to a question from CPG Chair Anas Sarwar, told the Parliament:

“All organisations should sign up to the accepted definition of Islamophobia, as they should sign up to the accepted definition of antisemitism.”

Sayeeda Warsi is understandably indignant at her own party’s refusal to tackle Islamophobia. She told the Scottish Parliament’s CPG  that Islamophobia Defined needs to become a campaign. If it does, the campaign will need the support of Muslim communities to take it forward. The communities’ role was highlighted by Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting in their foreword to the report. The Definition of Islamophobia website, set up to support the APPG definition,  provides excellent material for that kind of campaign. But some grassroots activists will turn to the report itself for their talking points. They will absorb and promote the pernicious idea that the IHRA definition of anti-semitism is a comrade-in-arms of the definition of Islamophobia. There is every chance that this will turn out to be the most powerful and lasting effect of the APPG’s work.

To prevent that happening, political parties and community organisations minded to support the APPG definition need to make it clear that they do not endorse the whole of the APPG report and, in particular, that they do not support its use of the IHRA framework. Tactful silence is nowhere near good enough. The IHRA definition is helpful to neither the fight against anti-semitism nor the fight against Islamophobia.

  1. The APPG on Islamophobia was set up in November 2010 and ran until the middle of 2017. In its first months it came under fire, particularly via the Jewish Chronicle and the Daily Telegraph, for appointing the NGO ENGAGE (predecessor of MEND and sometimes referred to as iENGAGE, not to be confused with the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project) as its secretariat. ENGAGE had advocated for the creation of the APPG. It was explicitly opposed to Zionism and its website reported regularly on the situation in Palestine. Critics described ENGAGE as sympathetic to Islamists. The controversy resulted in resignations from the APPG and a report on the affair was commissioned from Chris Allen (A Momentous Occasion: A report on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia and its Secretariat).  The APPG was re-launched in November 2011 with a new secretariat. One of the three co-chairs of the group was Jack Straw. His 2006 comment that he felt uneasy talking to a Muslim woman in a “veil” does not seem to have been considered an obstacle to his involvement.  

  2. Also see the resolution agreed at the annual conference of Labour Against the Witchhunt in February 2019, and the briefing document published by Jewish Voice for Labour 

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