31 October 2022

Why Michael Gove is right when it comes to defining ‘Islamophobia’


Michael Gove doesn’t tend to shy away from making big decisions – and he has already made a very significant judgement call just days into the Sunak government. 

The newly re-appointed Communities Secretary has decided to end the Government’s work on establishing a formal definition of ‘Islamophobia’ – a problematic term that tends to conflate genuine  anti-Muslim discrimination with perfectly legitimate criticisms of religious ideology. Indeed, this was the principal issue with the Islamophobia definition formulated by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on British Muslims – one that was riddled with problems and inconsistencies. 

The APPG’s attempt was not just flawed, but represented a fundamental attack on free speech and robust intellectual inquiry. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the involvement of the various identitarian activists in its formulation.

So what is the issue with the way the APPG defines ‘Islamophobia’?

Well, according to the working definition, which has been adopted by other political parties, examples of ‘Islamophobia’ include: ‘Accusing Muslim citizens of being more loyal to the “Ummah” (transnational Muslim community) or to their countries of origin, or to the alleged priorities of Muslims worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations’. This section of the working definition strikes me as deeply authoritarian from an academic perspective. British-based researchers ought to be free to conduct research into British Muslim identities and sense of belonging without facing the prospect of being accused of being ‘Islamophobic’.

This is vitally important work from a national cohesion point of view. But the APPG’s definition risks making it very difficult. It is worth noting that in a ComRes survey in the build-up the 2019 general election, over four in ten British Muslim respondents believed co-religionists living in their country tended to be more loyal to Saudi Arabia (home to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina) than to the UK. The ‘Islamophobia’ working definition emboldens those who are all too keen to use the term to discredit research that offends their identitarian sensibilities.

Dangerously, the definition conflates genuine anti-Muslim prejudice with perfectly reasonable criticism of orthodox religious doctrines and their social implications. As well as undermining academic freedom, it would harm the cause of minorities who are internally victimised by more orthodox elements within the British Muslim population. Leading anti-FGM and women’s rights campaigner Nimco Ali has previously argued that the working definition would leave secular and feminist Muslim women vulnerable to being slandered as ‘Islamophobic’, as they seek to uphold the basic human rights and freedoms of women and question male-led, strict interpretations of holy text.

While it is understandable that some will be disappointed with the Government’s decision, Gove knows better than most that this endeavour runs the risk of opening multiple cans of worms – potentially doing more harm than good.

After all, how is the British state expected to balance the interests of the Muslim Council of Britain and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK on matters of intra-religious sectarianism? An orthodox Sunni may believe that Ahmadiyyas are not true Muslims on theological grounds and that he/she should be free to express this view; in turn, a member of the Ahmadiyya religious movement may consider this to be a form of religiously-motivated hatred that could incite forms of violence (such as the sectarian murder of Asad Shah in March 2016). A glaring omission from both the working definition and subsequent critiques is how to manage and regulate slurs which can be directed between British Muslims such as ‘kufr’ (infidel) and ‘munafiq’ (false Muslim), which are used to question other people’s ‘religious authenticity’.

While some have engaged with the issue of developing a formal definition of Islamophobia in good faith, I suspect that they are not truly aware of the scale of sectarianism and discrimination within British Muslim communities. Ignorance of this form can be forgiven. But the formulation of existing definitions have involved bad faith actors who are intent on suppressing much needed discussions on multiculturalism, integration and identity. Their core interest is exclusively focusing on anti-Muslim prejudice in the non-Muslim mainstream, whilst concealing very real forms of ideological oppression and sectarian discrimination within British Muslim communities. 

There is certainly more work to be done on challenging persistent forms of anti-Muslim prejudice in our politics, employment and the private rented housing sector. This should be at the heart debates on social integration and civic inclusion.  But if we are to ever proceed with establishing a formal definition of anti-Muslim prejudice, we must first be honest about the deep complexities involved and ensure that anti-discrimination efforts do not fall victim to identitarian capture. 

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert on social integration.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.