21 May 2019

How to find common ground on dealing with anti-Muslim prejudice


Few words have created more heated civic and political debate than “Islamophobia” over the last two decades. There is strong evidence that anti-Muslim prejudice is more widespread than prejudice against most other minority groups in Britain today – and it is impossible to have effective national or local action without any definition to work with.

So it is important that the government has committed to adopting an official definition of Islamophobia for the first time – but has come under fire from contrasting perspectives, from groups who worry that getting the definition wrong could curb and curtail speech, and from civic society groups disappointed that the government has not endorsed a definition produced by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims last year.

The APPG offered the definition that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. This has won significant support, from several political parties and civic groups – but has also been criticised, either over concerns about its potential implications for free speech, or from a presentational perspective, by those who find the definition too abstract and difficult to communicate to those who would need to understand and use it.

For two decades, there has been a heated and polarised media and public debate about this issue. There are plenty of familiar ruts in which this debate may get stuck again, should the debate turn into a political football, where the participants in this debate often talk past each other, rather than seeking to establish the consensus that we need.

How could we do that?

1. Controversy is a reason to have a definition – not a reason to avoid one.

The case for a clear, effective and workable definition of anti-Muslim prejudice is compelling. There is also broad public agreement that anti-Muslim prejudice is important. In ICM polling for British Future, 57% of people say there is “a lot” of prejudice against Muslims in Britain today, while three-quarters of people agree that Muslims face prejudice.

There have undoubtedly been examples of charges of Islamophobia being used loosely and indiscriminately. This happens with “racism” and with anti-Semitism too – and does corrode anti-prejudice norms. But that is a reason to get a working definition right, not to avoid one.

2. How to get the boundaries on free speech right.

Most supporters of a definition of Islamophobia are clear that they want to protect free speech, while challenging prejudice. Most free speech advocates, concerned about some proposed definitions, say that they do want to tackle prejudice. This offers a clear opportunity for dialogue, among those making these points in good faith, so that “free speech advocates” to not just critique existing proposals, but to articulate a definition that would protect their concerns while challenging prejudice, and for anti-racism groups to articulate how to protect the free speech boundary too.

Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust makes the point well, in arguing that: “criticism is the hallmark of a free society, but discriminating against people on the basis of background – for example, because they are Muslims – is the marker of an unjust one.” It is a valuable contribution. It shows that the “anti-prejudice” and “free speech” camps should not be competing silos – and that an important way to communicate the boundaries of an anti-prejudice norm is to be clear about what is permitted as well as what is not.

The APPG attempts to reassure on this point. Its answer to the question “Does being critical of Islam make me an Islamophobe?” is “Being critical of Islam or any religion does not automatically make you an Islamophobe. You are only an Islamophobe if you use the language of racism targeting expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. It is a sincere, but not entirely successful effort. Both the use of “automatically” and the vagueness of what is meant by “Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” may mean that this leaves the question open, whether debating the boundary in public, or trying to apply it in a practical case.

Professor Tariq Modood has set out a very helpful series of tests to how to judge this boundary. Key questions include “Does it stereotype all Muslims” and, crucially, “is it about Muslims, or a dialogue which Muslims could join?”. They offer a good guide as to how a definition could build consensus.

Could we agree, for example, that ‘it is not Islamophobic to critique ideas, or to engage in robust political or theological debates, involving Islam or any other faith. But that does cross over into prejudice if it criticises Muslims for being Muslim, stereotypes all Muslims, or is a debate about Muslims that Muslims themselves aren’t expected to be part of”.

3. Give the public a clear voice – so that the definition passes the school-gate test

The government certainly lacks the trust and standing to come up with its own definition. It is rightly criticised for being too narrow in its engagement with Muslim communities, refusing even to engage with several mainstream voices it disagrees with, including the Muslim Council of Britain among others. So a better approach would be for the government to resource a significant amount of direct public engagement with Muslim citizens alongside – an expanded version of the approach which the ONS takes in consulting different minority groups about census categories is one useful model.

The government did undertake significant public engagement in making its race disparity audit accessible and comprehensible: strikingly, only one participant out of hundreds recognised the acronym BAME, which led to language which was recognised by the public, such as “ethnic minorities” being used. The National Conversation on Immigration often had similar experiences of the gap between policy stakeholder discourse, and how the public themselves talk about similar issues. It will add to the effectiveness of a definition to challenge prejudice if most people understand the definition being used.

The APPG process involved a significant amount of civic society and expert engagement, but did not have the resources to conduct direct public engagement at a significant scale, though some public meetings were held with participants recruited through civic society networks. The definition seeks to capture nuances – including that anti-Muslim prejudice may be targeted at non-Muslims.

It is less clear that it passes the school-gate test. A clearer and stronger version of what it is trying to achieve could be of more use to both professionals who would operate the definition, and the public who need to understand it.

There is not any robust evidence as to whether British Muslims generally have any strong preference between the terms “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim prejudice”, in either direction, or tend to think of them as essentially synonymous. Nor is it known how far these are perceived to have different meanings by broader publics.

If the APPG’s intuition of a strong preference among Muslims for the use of “Islamophobia” over “anti-Muslim prejudice” is accurate, that should carry weight, but would then require a stronger effort to communicate that the definition itself was targeting prejudice against Muslims, rather than the critique of ideas.

Everybody involved in this debate should share an interest in finding and promoting the definition that is both legitimate and broadly understood. Then we can move on from the question of how to define prejudice, and get on with working to tackle it.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future