There is a worrying rise in Britain and much of the rest of the world in several forms of racism, with Anti-Semitism and Anti-Muslim prejudice, sometimes referred to as Islamophobia, as the two which seem to show the most marked rise in Britain at the moment.
No organisation can afford to be complacent about either and that includes the political parties.
I believe the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of Anti-Semitism is very helpful in dealing with prejudice against Jews, which is why I proposed successfully that Cumbria County Council should adopt it.
I welcome the fact that the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has been working on a working definition of Islamophobia with a similar objective. We do need such a definition.
The APPG has published a report titled Islamophobia Defined: the inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia. It contained the following definition:
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
In order to tackle anti-Muslim hatred, the APPG urged the “Government, statutory agencies, civil society organisations and principally, British Muslim communities” to adopt this “working definition of Islamophobia”, which emerged from its inquiry.
Certainly this moves us forward: as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said:
“Any hatred directed against British Muslims and others because of their faith or heritage is completely unacceptable."
A report published by Policy Exchange and written by Sir John Jenkins KCMG LVO, with a foreword by the former head of the Equalities commission Trevor Phillips OBE, responded as follows:
"It should be beyond question that anti-Muslim hatred must be tackled with the same determination as any other form of prejudice, bigotry or racism in Britain. The question that matters, however, is whether this initiative will help or hinder that broader effort."
There are a number of organisations and individuals who do indeed think that this definition in its present form is helpful and should be adopted, who include the Labour party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the mayor of London and all five major political parties in Scotland among their number.
However, there are quite a range of other voices including some fairly significant ones who are concerned that, in the words of a letter supported by the National Secular Society among others, the working definition in its present form is not "fit for purpose."
That letter was also signed by a diverse range of 44 campaigners, academics, writers and other public figures. They included representatives of the think tank Civitas, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, the Network of Sikh Organisations and Christian Concern, as well as Professor Richard Dawkins, Pragna Patel, Maajid Nawaz and Peter Tatchell.
Trevor Phillips, in the foreword to Sir John Jenkin' report mentioned about, expressed the concern that instead of protecting Muslims, defining Islamophobia as the APPG does "will actually make life harder for them."
Jenkins himself suggests that
"There is no doubt that the MPs involved had – and have – the best of intentions. Anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry is a problem that needs to be addressed both politically, societally and individually. But the proposed definition of Islamophobia is not only inadequate but divisive and potentially damaging to social cohesion."
There are also serious concerns expressed by senior police officers about the workability of this definition as it currently stands. Neil Basu, head of UK counter-terrorism policing, said the definition would allow suspects to challenge legitimate investigations on the grounds they were Islamophobic.
Basu said the wording was “simply too broad to be effective”.
He said: “It risks creating confusion, representing what some might see as legitimate criticism of the tenets of Islam – a religion – as a racist hate crime, which cannot be right for a liberal democracy in which free speech is also a core value."
“Free speech cannot be an absolute right or freedom to harm, but as it stands this definition risks shutting down debate about any interpretation of the tenets of Islam which are at odds with our laws and customs, which in turn would place our police officers and members of the judicial system in an untenable position.
“Despite the fact it would be non-legally binding, it would potentially allow those investigated by police and the security services for promoting extremism, hate and terrorism to legally challenge any investigation and potentially undermine many elements of counter terrorism powers and policies on the basis that they are ‘Islamophobic’. That cannot be allowed to happen.”
Similar concerns were expressed by the Chairman of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC),. Martin Hewitt, who said
“We are concerned that the definition is too broad as currently drafted, could cause confusion for officers enforcing it, and could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states.
“There is also a risk it could also undermine counter-terrorism powers, which seek to tackle extremism or prevent terrorism.”
I do not think any responsible government could ignore expressions of concerns like that from senior police officers without further consideration of how the working definition can be improved and made more specific to address these concerns.
Let me stress that there IS a need for a working definition which will catch the incitement of hatred against muslim human beings without allowing the people who are inciting such hatred to claim that they are only criticising a religion. The challenge is to get to a careful definition which hatches those who incite hatred against people without catching legitimate disagreements with Islam, the religion.
It is obvious, by the way, to anyone who has actually read the output of the APPG and not just a few newspaper headlines, that the APPG themselves are well aware of this problem, and have tried to address it. The problem is that a lot of people are not convinced that their proposed definition, in its present form, achieves that objective.
Going forward I would like to see the government talking to the APPG. the muslim communities - because it is critical that the experiences of the muslim communities must inform the process of defining the problem of prejudice against them - to the police and other stakeholder to try to improve the definition and get it to the point where there is a broad enough consensus that it can be used