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The word Islamophobia should be abandoned

All published definitions have serious flaws and are unhelpful in political debate. Trying to salvage the word is a waste of energy.

Summary

Posted 12 March 2019. Updated 26 May 2019.

Many people, especially Muslims, want a single word that covers a range of bad behaviours ranging from anti-Muslim violence to anti-Muslim prejudice. The word "Islamophobia" is often used.

Unfortunately a series of flawed definitions mean that using the word is a mistake. It leads to attention being diverted from clearly reprehensible behaviours and into arguments about the meaning of the word "Islamophobia."

I first explained this in 2012 in my piece "Islamophobia – a trap for unwary Muslims" and again in my 2018 piece "Why I avoid using the word Islamophobia."

I returned to the subject in a recent article on the Conservative Home website because people associated with the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims are continuing to promote their new definition of Islamophobia.

As there is so much desire for a single word to cover anti-Muslim bad behaviours, I have proposed the word antimuslimism and offered a definition.

On this page are:

The text of my Conservative Home article below.

Further discussion of the Runnymede 1997 definition

The Runnymede 2017 definition

The MEND 2018 definition

All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims 2018 definition

Mohammed Amin: It is time to abandon the word “Islamophobia”

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Modern usage of “Islamophobia” comes from the 1997 report by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia: Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.

I wrote in 2012 that the report was seriously flawed, because it conflates attitudes towards Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. Re-reading the report while composing this article I noted that it does not contain a short, quotable definition of “Islamophobia”; perhaps one of the many disadvantages of committee authorship.

Subsequently, there have been attempts to steer the word Islamophobia away from its somewhat nebulous Runnymede 2017 definition, and instead to use it as a shorthand for reprehensible behaviours such as:

However, when people seek to use “Islamophobia” as a shorthand for the above behaviours, others respond by asserting their freedom to have negative views of Islam, and profess a legitimate fear of Islam, thereby harking back to the original meaning of “Islamophobia” as understood by the Runnymede 2017 report.

Subsequent attempts to rescue the word “Islamophobia” with a new definition

Given the widespread criticism of the 1997 Runnymede definition, there have been several attempts to rescue “Islamophobia” with a revised definition.

Some of the definitions are too long to reproduce here. I recommend instead glancing at the full reports linked above. These attempts to rescue the word are doomed to fail for two reasons.

1. A definition cannot be enforced by the Government

In France, the Académie Française guards the French language. It fights a noble, but largely unsuccessful, campaign to defend the French language from incursions by foreign words.

English is quite different. There is no overarching authority. Words in English mean whatever the generality of English users decide that they mean.

The Government can legislate definitions for statutory purposes. As a tax adviser, I spent years advising clients about the definition of “loan relationship” for tax purposes, originally contained in the Finance Act 1996. However, such statutory definitions apply only for the purposes specified. That Act could not, and did not seek to, alter the meaning of the words “loan relationship” as used by citizens in their daily lives. (I have yet to meet a citizen who uses the words “loan relationship” for any purpose other than taxation.)

Accordingly, the Government could, if so minded, legislate a definition of “Islamophobia” for use by the criminal justice system. The definition would need to be tightly drawn so that it could be unambiguously applied by the courts. I suspect the Government regards that task as superfluous. We already have laws covering:

Each of the above is defined in law without any need for a statutory definition of the word “Islamophobia.” Accordingly, I fail to see how creating a statutory definition would help the legal system.

In theory, the existence of a definition for statutory purposes might change the way that the word “Islamophobia” is understood by the man in the street. However, as most people have little interaction with statute law, I am dubious.

2. The pitch has been irretrievably queered (to use cricketing parlance)

For 20 years, proponents of the word “Islamophobia” attempted to defend the Runnymede 1997 definition.

Trying to use “Islamophobia” as a synonym for the anti-Muslim bad behaviours enumerated above, while also adhering to the Runnymede 1997 definition, ran into a brick wall of opposition. Namely the Runnymede 1997 definition is about much more than those anti-Muslim bad behaviours. It is about an attitude towards Islam.

The Runnymede 1997 definition was appalling and has led to “Islamophobia” becoming a “crock of a word”, as Douglas Murray described it in the Jewish Chronicle in 2013.

Subsequent attempts to repair the 1997 damage with reports such as Runnymede 2017 have suffered from two flaws:

  1. Unwillingness to explicitly abandon the Runnymede 1997 definition.
  2. Use of the word “racism”, a word which means something entirely different to sociology academics and to the man in the street. The man in the street knows that Muslims are not a race, so how can you be racist against Muslims?

It is time to abandon the word “Islamophobia” because using it harms Muslims.

It diverts attention from serious anti-Muslim bad behaviours, as enumerated above, and instead draws people into a wholly unproductive debate about the meaning of the word “Islamophobia.” Every minute spent in such a debate is a minute when we are not talking about anti-Muslim hatred.

If people desperately want a single word to be a strict Muslim analogue to antisemitism, then a new word must be invented. It needs to be a new word, to escape the baggage which the proponents of the word “Islamophobia” have allowed to build up around it.

I have elsewhere proposed the word “antimuslimism” [in my article 'Defining and promoting the word "antimuslimism"'] and offered a definition modelled very closely on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

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Further discussion of the Runnymede 1997 definition

The Runnymede 1997 report was from The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia report "Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All." The Commission had been set up by the Runnymede Trust and comprised 18 Muslim and non-Muslim academics, religious practitioners, journalists and civil society activists.

The report does not contain a short quotable definition of “Islamophobia.”

The report conflates attitudes towards Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. That led to widespread criticism of the term “Islamophobia.

The criticism was further justified because the report explicitly foregrounds the “phobia” aspect by comparing “Islamophobia” with "xenophobia" and "europhobia." This served to encourage people to commit the etymological fallacy with subsequent critics arguing about whether a fear of Islam was or was not justified.

The flaws in the 1997 definition leads to the nonsensical situation where a liberal minded writer like Polly Toynbee could write in a 1997 independent Article "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it." That article is not available online. However see her 2004 article "We must be free to criticise without being called racist."

The journalist Rod Liddle who often uses trenchant language wrote a Spectator article in 2018 calling for more Islamophobia. See the short extract below:

"My own view is that there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party. Having one or two misgivings about this arrogant, oppressive ideology is not racism, but an antipathy based upon our respect for secular democracy and equal rights, allied to our Judeo-Christian history. Phobia implies these misgivings are irrational, when they are anything but."

It is easy, but incorrect, for Muslims to assume that Mr Liddle is attacking Muslims. He is attacking what he understands to be their religious beliefs. He is free to do so, and I defend that freedom. That is why I have always been very critical of the Runnymede 1997 definition.

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The Runnymede 2017 definition

In 2017, to mark the 20’th anniversary of the 1997 report, Runnymede published “Islamophobia: Still a challenge for us all.” I attended the launch event.

For perhaps understandable reasons, Runnymede could not bring themselves to say that the 1997 definition had failed, and this 2017 definition was a replacement. Instead it was put forward as a refinement.

The 2017 definition had a short form and a long form.

Short form

“Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism.”

I consider the short form 2017 definition problematical due to the word “racism.” The word is used regularly by sociologists to describe a form of behaviour against a group where the group is defined as an out-group and then treated negatively. The vital point non-sociologists often fail to realise is that sociologists do not accept the existence of biologically defined races.

Accordingly, a sociologist can look at the way Muslims are treated say in Britain, regardless of whether they are of Pakistani, Arab, or white British ethnicity, regard them as a group, say they are discriminated against, and call that racism. That is a perfectly valid use of the word racism, as a sociologist understands the term.

Unfortunately, non-sociologists do not use the term racism that way. To a non-sociologist, a race is an ethnic group, however defined at a granular level. (For example, I regard my ethnic group as being Punjabi, whereas most white Britons would probably regard my ethnic group as Pakistani.)

Accordingly, to ordinary people (everyone except sociologists and other academics who have absorbed sociological language) Muslims are not a race. That is also my view. As Muslims are not a race, using the word racism to describe anti-Muslim hatred becomes simply a misuse of the language.

Accordingly any attempt to use the short form definition inevitably leads to an argument about whether Muslims are a race.

Long form

“Islamophobia is any distinction, exclusion, or restriction towards, or preference against, Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

I regard the long form 2017 definition as fine of itself. Indeed, at the launch of the 2017 report I stated that I would adopt the definition. However I have not done so.

If before using the word "Islamophobia" you need to specify whether you are using the Runnymede 1997 definition or the Runnymede 2017 definition, you are already at risk of losing the argument. Instead I use terms such as anti-Muslim hatred.

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The MEND 2018 definition

In June 2018, the organisation Muslim Engagement & Development (MEND) published their report “More than words: Approaching a definition of Islamophobia”. Again it is a committee effort, with 28 contributors cited.

The MEND 2018 report also has a short definition and a long definition.

Short form

Islamophobia is a prejudice, aversion, hostility, or hatred towards Muslims and encompasses any distinction, exclusion, restriction, discrimination, or preference against Muslims that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Long form

Islamophobia (in line with anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of hatred and discrimination) is a tool used to gain and maintain power. It is inextricably linked with socio-economic factors, and frequently reflects the underlying inequalities within society.

Islamophobia is a prejudice, aversion, hostility, or hatred towards Muslims and encompasses any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference against Muslims that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

As such, Islamophobia is demonstrated in, and articulated through, speech, writing, behaviours, structures, policies, legislation or activities that work to control, regulate or exclude Muslim participation within social, civic, economic and political life, or which embody hatred, vilification, stereotyping, abuse or violence directed at Muslims.

Taking into account the overall context, examples of Islamophobia in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere may include (but are in no way limited to):

Apart from some of the left-wing language which reveals the political views of some (perhaps most) of the contributors, e.g. “is a tool used to gain and maintain power. It is inextricably linked with socio-economic factors, and frequently reflects the underlying inequalities within society” the definition is not bad.

It is clearly modelled on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

One important flaw is that, unlike the IHRA definition, MEND fail to clearly distinguish the definition from explanatory guidance about applying the definition. In the above long form definition, everything following the text “Taking into account the overall context, examples of Islamophobia in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere may include” is guidance, not definition.

The MEND definition has however not caught on.

I suspect that is largely due to the very poor reputation that MEND has with the Government and with large segments of the media, arising from the problematical statements made in the past by some of the people associated with MEND.

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All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims 2018 definition

In November 2018, the APPG issued its report “Islamophobia Defined: The inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia.”

It puts forward the following definition:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

The 72-page report goes on to cover the history of previous definitions of Islamophobia and many other related topics. Before issuing its report, the APPG received a great deal of evidence from academics and representatives of civil society organisations.

As with Runnymede 2017, the above definition uses the word “racism” the way that sociologists do. Accordingly, it inevitably leads to the same arguments in response, namely that “Muslims are not a race, so how can you be racist against them?

Accordingly, I consider that the APPG's definition is simply not useful to Muslims or to anyone else.

Open letters against adoption of the APPG's definition

I have signed two open letters to the Government advising against adopting the APPG's definition

Letter organised by National Secular Society (NSS)and published on 9 December 2018

The three key paragraphs reproduced below explain why the NSS was concerned.

The report's core point is that the Government should make it policy to define Islamophobia as "a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness". However, "expressions of Muslimness" can effectively be translated to mean Islamic practices. In a society which is free and open, such practices must remain open to scrutiny and debate.

Further, the report's backers are keen to stress the need to avoid shutting down criticism of religion. However, advancing the report's ill-defined concept of 'Islamophobia' and aligning it with the five 'tests' it recommends to determine whether speech is 'Islamophobic', will clearly render legitimate commentary and debate about Islam beyond the bounds of reasonable public debate.

Far from combatting prejudice and bigotry, erroneous claims of 'Islamophobia' have become a cover for it. LGBT rights campaigners have been called 'Islamophobes' for criticising the views of Muslim clerics on homosexuality. Meanwhile, ex-Muslims and feminist activists have been called 'Islamophobes' for criticising certain Islamic views and practices relating to women. Even liberal and secular Muslims have been branded 'Islamophobes'.

Full text of letter and list of signatories

Letter organised by Civitas and published on 15 May 2019

The letter explains in two A4 pages what is wrong with the APPG's defintion. Three key paragraphs are reproduced below:

We are concerned that the definition will be used to shut down legitimate criticism and investigation. While the APPG authors have assured that it does not wish to infringe free speech, the entire content of the report, the definition itself, and early signs of how it would be used, suggest that it certainly would. Civil liberties should not be treated as an afterthought in the effort to tackle antiMuslim prejudice.

The conflation of race and religion employed under the confused concept of ‘cultural racism’ expands the definition beyond anti-Muslim hatred to include ‘illegitimate’ criticism of the Islamic religion. The concept of Muslimness can effectively be transferred to Muslim practices and beliefs, allowing the report to claim that criticism of Islam is instrumentalised to hurt Muslims.

No religion should be given special protection against criticism. Like anti-Sikh, anti-Christian, or antiHindu hatred, we believe the term anti-Muslim hatred is more appropriate and less likely to infringe on free speech. A proliferation of ‘phobias’ is not desirable, as already stated by Sikh and Christian organisations who recognise the importance of free discussion about their beliefs.

Full text of letter and list of signatories

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