Islamophobia definition menaces free speech

Free speech is under threat over Islamaphobia

Protect Muslim people, not religious ideas


By Peter Tatchell

London, UK – 26 March 2019
The Times:

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has produced a well-intended but worrisome definition of Islamophobia. It states: ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’ There are two big problems with this definition.

First, while Islamophobia can be an expression of racism, it is not in itself racist because neither Islam nor Muslims are a race. Islam is an idea and Muslims include people from many races.

Second, this definition has implications for free speech. Islam is an idea and like all ideas it should be open to scrutiny and criticism. Yet very often all critiques of Islam are denounced as an attack on Muslim people.

This is unfair. In a free society, it is perfectly valid to criticise the idea of Islam. What is not acceptable is to be prejudiced against Muslim people and to consequently victimise them. Discrimination against ideas are reasonable, but not discrimination against people.

I try to avoid the term Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim hatred is a much better term, since it focuses on prejudice against Muslim people and their life chances.

I speak as someone who has defended the rights of Muslim people for decades but who also defends freedom of expression.

From personal experience, I know how the smear of Islamophobia is used to silence debate and critics. In 1994, I protested against the Islamist extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It had endorsed the killing of LGBT people, women who have sex outside of marriage and Muslims who turn away from their faith. I was denounced as Islamophobic. But I was merely confronting the hateful ideology of theocratic Islamism, not Muslim people, the vast majority of whom do not subscribe to such murderous injunctions.

My protest in 1994 could fall within the sweeping definition of Islamophobia proposed by the APPG, since it talks about ‘Muslimness’. This is a vague, nebulous term that can cover anything that anyone perceives to be Islamic or Muslim. With this definition in mind, Hizb members could say that I am Islamophobic because death for LGBTs, adulterers and apostates is a part of the Islamic tradition – and therefore part of ‘Muslimness’.

The APPG definition could be used by Islamists to condemn and refute legitimate criticisms of their extremism. They could use it to argue that any critique of Islam is illegitimate and out of bounds.

No-one in our society should be discriminated against because of who they are. Yet, the term Islamophobia downgrades protecting Muslim people and mistakenly puts the focus on protecting ideas. This has to be challenged.

But so far there has been no critique of the APPG’s definition by Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Mayors of London and Manchester. We are, it seems, drifting towards a de facto threat to free speech and liberal values.