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Is it time to legally define Islamophobia?

The dog whistles - and fog horns - about Muslims in Britain will only get louder as the general election approaches. The murkiness of what does and doesn't amount to Islamophobia is not helping.

March 02 2024, 11.46am

Given its preoccupation with extremism, our government's hesitance to call out Islamophobia rankles even more than usual. Last week, Tory MP Lee Anderson said mayor of London Sadiq Khan was being controlled by Islamists. It took days to have Anderson's whip removed, and even then, his colleagues took pains to not call out the comments for Islamophobia. Rishi Sunak acknowledged the comments were ‘wrong’ but did not explicitly rule it Islamophobia. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden also doubled down on the take, with transport secretary Mark Harper also refusing to call it out when grilled on Radio 4 and LBC. Sadiq Khan has since directly questioned the prime minister about why he hasn’t called out anti-Muslim prejudice. Making matters worse, Conservative MP Paul Scully said on a BBC interview on Tuesday that London’s Tower Hamlets and Birmingham (areas with high Muslim populations) have become ‘no-go zones’ as people ostensibly feel ‘uncomfortable’ going there. Though he has since said he regrets the words, Scully has also refused to acknowledge the Islamophobia in Anderson’s speech and in his own.  

Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has  so far been the most prominent among the few exceptions to this rule, saying the ‘toxic’ Tories have an Islamophobia problem and called Scully’s comments ‘nonsense’. Baroness Warsi questioned why Sunak had struggled to label anti-Muslim prejudice where it occurred. After all, former home secretary Suella Braverman has recently written an article in the Telegraph saying Britain was run by Islamists, extremists and antisemites. Braverman has not been suspended for her comments; nor has former Prime minister Liz Truss had her whip removed for appearing alongside Steven Bannon, former chief strategist for Donald Trump and former executive of far-right website Breitbart. Truss remained silent when Bannon referred to Tommy Robinson, an anti-Islam campaigner, as a ‘hero’.

Our conversation on Islamophobia doesn't seem to be helped by the fact there is no legal definition of it. Despite first making a pledge to officially define it in 2017, MPs have not agreed on a definition, even though the Members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims, Muslim Council of Britain and race think-tanks such as Runnymede Trust have provided one. As Baroness Warsi puts it – ‘if you can’t call Islamophobia Islamophobia, then how are we going to fix it?”. And how are we going to do that if we don’t understand what it is? The lack of understanding can sometimes be almost comical. On Tuesday, while discussing the prime minister’s refusal to call out Islamophobia, journalist Kay Burley somehow tried to argue that having Sunak as the leader of the country negates anti-Muslim hate. She said: ‘Isn't Rishi Sunak living proof that the party does not have a problem with Islamophobia?’ Sunak is a practicing Hindu.

This muddle on Islamophobia has very real, devastating and debilitating consequences for British Muslims. As someone who has been personally victimised by Bannon’s Breitbart - receiving death threats as a result being mentioned there - I am enraged that a leading MP like  Truss can fraternise with such figures with impunity. Under this climate, Muslims have had to retreat from public view for fear of being ostracised and attacked. Their fears are realised when you consider that Islamophobic hate crimes have skyrocketed; the Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU), which helps victims bring cases to the police, said they had recorded a 365% increase in cases meanwhile The Tell Mama charity recorded  2,010 Islamophobic incidents in the UK since 7 October. Other incidents send shockwaves even if in dispute; in early February two hijab wearing women in London were run over by a car which suddenly accelerated toward them. Police assure the public this was an accident ; the victims insist on calling it a hate crime.  

"No go areas" - for whom?

Comments such as Scully’s about no-go zones are especially insidious considering that parts of the UK already feel inaccessible for Muslims, especially for visibly Muslim women. For Nadeine Asbali, 29, mother, teacher and author of Veiled Threat: On being visibly Muslim in Britain, this is especially true. "I find his comments ironic," she tells me. "Any Muslim woman will tell you we avoid walking past a pub at night or standing too close to the edge of the tube platform because we are hyper-aware of the fact that we are the main victims of islamophobic abuse. to paint areas populated by Muslims as “no go” just exposes Muslims are seen as inherently threatening and un-British. What’s more, areas tend to become 'Muslim' because we find safety in community when Britain as a whole so often rejects or maligns us."

Nadiene's anxiety in public spaces has only grown in recent months, she adds. "I’ve felt less safe in white spaces than ever before, especially when wearing a keffiyeh or Palestine badge. When MPs refuse to even acknowledge that Islamophobia exists and then peddle it themselves, this sends the message that our experiences and indeed our lives don’t matter. This hostile environment to Islamophobia means I feel less welcome here than ever."

The government’s dawdling on defining Islamophobia seems to hint to Muslims where their place is in British society – not especially high and always liable to demotion, says Dr Khadijah Elshayyal, a researcher of digital Muslim spaces at The University of Edinburgh and author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, Activism & Equality in Britain.

"It appears to be Conservative party policy to undermine the notion that Muslims are facing specific prejudice and discrimination in society. They have obfuscated efforts to formalise recognition of this prejudice by raising semantic qualms, stalling conversations and processes." It also appears to be no one's job in particular: Imam Qari Asim, appointed independent Islamophobia adviser to the government by Theresa May, was let go in 2020 and the role remains vacant four years later. 

While defining Islamophobia might be a start, it’s no silver bullet, says Dr Elshayyal: ‘I don’t believe a specific law will be a panacea to the prejudice and discrimination that Muslims face. Partly because legislating against racism isn’t the most effective way to change attitudes and behaviours, but also because the problem of islamophobia is institutional, it is embedded in our structures, and the Conservative Party is a case in point.’ 

Not holding breath for the General Election 

Others see the government’s lax attitude to Islamophobia is an electoral tactic. Hamza is a Muslim man who has been involved in politics and policy and seen the level of prejudice inside government. (He asked for his real name to be withheld.) He says it’s a way for politicians to pander to the common denominator of racists and bigoted people who have fears about Muslims taking over the country. 

"These actions have consequences," Hamza says. "Muslim women fear their hijabs getting ripped off, Muslims being attacked in public, mosques being extra vigilant for fear of being targets." Having grown up in Whitechapel, East London, near Altab Ali Park, which commemorates the death of 25-year-old Ali who died at the hands of racists, he feels he was somewhat insulated from anti-Muslim sentiment. "Our parents' generation had to deal with overt racists like the National Front and those who murdered Altab Ali, but I don’t think Islamophobia has necessarily decreased since then. It might just look different now.’ 

Hamza has recently moved to the Netherlands, which, like other parts of Europe, is seeing a surge of far-right populism.  "My wife and her friends were surprised by the appointment of someone as divisive as Wilders in government, but having worked in British politics, it felt like another day in the office for me," he says. 

Another stumbling block have been attempts to bring Islamophobia under the same umbrella as racism - which were met with protests that "Islam is not a race" from Islamophobic apologists and unease from some Muslims who feel 'Muslim' has become synonymous with "Arab and brown", erasing many other identities - Black Muslim, in the case of medical student Ayo Olatunji, 25. "Saying Islamophobia is a type of racism actually homogenises the Muslim community as if we are some kind of racial group," he explains. "But we have Black Muslims, East Asians, Arabs, South Asians, all these ethnicities and racial groups which come under the banner of Muslim. There's so many different complexities and intricacies within those cultures that just get swept aside if we’re treated as a monolith."

Ayo also recognises that definitions, particularly set by the APPG, can be problematic as they are set by party members involved in ‘purveying Islamophobia’. This has felt especially pertinent when it has come to voting for a ceasefire in Palestine, which Muslims in the UK are overwhelmingly in support of. "Tory and Labour MPs, some of whom sit on the APPG - such as vice-chair Wes Streeting, voted against a ceasefire; Tory and Labour MPs don’t really understand institutional Islamophobia. They've been some of the biggest purveyors of Islamophobia, they didn’t do much over the Forde report which said they don’t take Islamophobia and anti-black racism as seriously. So why are we looking to them to validate our definition of Islamophobia?’ asks Ayo. Instead, Ayo thinks there should be intercommunity discussions and research conducted in this area to settle on a definition that works for and caters to British Muslims. 

The Tories might be on their way out but they’ve made a huge mess of handling Islamophobia over their 14-year reign. Eyes will be on Keir Starmer and his government-in-waiting. Starmer, at least, did condemn both Lee Anderson and Liz Truss. But given the party’s tortuous inaction on Gaza, plus its inaction over the Forde report, failure to advocate for better understanding of Islamophobia, many Muslims aren’t holding their breath.