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.
As the word antimuslimism has not received widespread acceptance, I have used my work on the word to publish my definition of Islamophobia lower down on this page.
In the public debate, I also see unrealistic expectations from many Muslims about what having a widely accepted definition will achieve. Accordingly, I have written a separate page "What do we do with a definition of Islamophobia?"
On this page are:
My Conservative Home article "It is time to abandon the word 'Islamophobia'"
Further discussion of the Runnymede 1997 definition
The Runnymede 2017 definition
The MEND 2018 definition
All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims 2018 definition
My definition of 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 original somewhat nebulous Runnymede 1997 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 1997 report.
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.
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.
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:
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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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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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.
“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.
To illustrate how sociologists understand racism, consider chess players, namely the group of people who play chess. That group is quite well defined.
There are many reasons why some people might want to discriminate against chess players, quite possibly to hate them, treating them as an "out-group." After chessplayers can be quite obnoxious!
A sociologist would describe this as racism against chess players. Non-sociologists would still respond "Chessplayers are not a race."
The Wikipedia article "Race (human categorization)" makes this clear. The key sentence is in the first paragraph: "Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society."
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.
“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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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.
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.
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):
- Causing, calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim due to their religious identity.
- Causing, calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of individuals due to their perceived or actual connection to or support of Muslims.
- Charging Muslims with conspiring to harm humanity and/or the Western way of life or blaming Muslims for the economic and social ills of society.
- Making mendacious, dehumanising, vilifying, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Muslims.
- Objectifying and generalising Muslims as different, exotic or underdeveloped, or implying that they are outside of, distinct from, or incompatible with British society and identity.
- Espousing the belief that Muslims are inferior to other social or religious groups.
- Accusing Muslims as a collective of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Muslim person, group or nation, or even for acts committed by non-Muslims.
- Applying double standards by requiring of Muslims a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other social, religious or ethnic group.
- Applying ethnocentric approaches to the treatment of Muslims (judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one's own culture). For example, evaluating Muslim women’s choice of dress exclusively through the speaker’s expectations and without reference to the personal cultural norms and values of the women in question.
- Acts of aggression within which the targets, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Muslim(s) or linked to Muslims. While criticism of Islam within legitimate realms of debate and free speech is not in itself Islamophobic, it may become Islamophobic if the arguments presented are used to justify or encourage vilification, stereotyping, dehumanisation, demonisation or exclusion of Muslims. For example, by using criticism of religion to argue that Muslims are collectively evil or violent.
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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In November 2018, the APPG issued its report “Islamophobia Defined: The inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia.”
It puts forward the following definition on page 56 of its report:
"ISLAMOPHOBIA IS ROOTED IN RACISM AND IS A TYPE OF RACISM THAT TARGETS EXPRESSIONS OF MUSLIMNESS OR PERCEIVED MUSLIMNESS.
The proposed definition of Islamophobia can be illustrated by a range of guidelines and examples rather than a list of essential features, which we feel would confine a prescriptiveness to its understanding to the detriment of contextual and fluid factors which continue to inform and shape manifestations of Islamophobia.
We found the IHRA explanatory notes and examples both helpful and informative and it inspired much of the thinking of Parliamentarians engaged in this process of proposing a working definition of Islamophobia. The explanatory notes provided under the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism could, in all fairness, be adopted in their entirety to Islamophobia.
Contemporary examples of Islamophobia in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in encounters between religions and non-religions in the public sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
- Calling for, aiding, instigating or justifying the killing or harming of Muslims in the name of a racist/ fascist ideology, or an extremist view of religion.
- Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Muslims as such, or of Muslims as a collective group, such as, especially but not exclusively, conspiracies about Muslim entryism in politics, government or other societal institutions; the myth of Muslim identity having a unique propensity for terrorism, and claims of a demographic ‘threat’ posed by Muslims or of a ‘Muslim takeover’.
- Accusing Muslims as a group of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Muslim person or group of Muslim individuals, or even for acts committed by non-Muslims.
- Accusing Muslims as a group, or Muslim majority states, of inventing or exaggerating Islamophobia, ethnic cleansing or genocide perpetrated against Muslims.
- 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.
- Denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour.
- Applying double standards by requiring of Muslims behaviours that are not expected or demanded of any other groups in society, eg loyalty tests.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic Islamophobia (e.g. Muhammed being a paedophile, claims of Muslims spreading Islam by the sword or subjugating minority groups under their rule) to characterize Muslims as being ‘sex groomers’, inherently violent or incapable of living harmoniously in plural societies.
- Holding Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of any Muslim majority state, whether secular or constitutionally Islamic.
The 72-page report covers 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.
In August 2019 Civitas published "Islamophobia: An Anthology of Concerns" edited by Emma Webb. It contains a chapter written by me based on the above Conservative Home article.
It also contains a chapter by David Toube, Director of Policy at Quilliam. David criticises the use of the structure of the IHRA antisemitism definition in creating the APPG's Islamophobia definition, and points out that many of the examples included in the APPG definition just don't work properly in the Muslim context.
I agree with the details of his criticism of the APPG definition examples. However I have no problem with the use of the IHRA structure, namely:
DEFINITION + CONNECTING LANGUAGE + ILLUSTRATIVE EXAMPLES OF POSSIBLE INFRINGEMENTS
Indeed, I have used precisely that structure in the definition of Islamophobia that I created on the page "My definition of Islamophobia."
The problem is that the APPG in my opinion did a poor quality job on the IHRA antisemitism examples when trying to create Islamophobia examples. In essence, they appear to have copied and pasted the IHRA antisemitism examples, and then changed the word "Jewish" to "Muslim."
Conversely, in my own definitions, I tried hard to come up with examples that made sense in the Muslim context, and sought to identify those issues concerning Muslims that create difficult boundary questions which a good quality definition should help the user to resolve.
I have signed two open letters to the Government advising against adopting the APPG's definition
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
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
FOSIS published "FOSIS’ Position on the APPG definition of Islamophobia" on its website on 17 November 2020.
Like many, including me, it finds the use of the term "racism" in the context of Muslims problematical. I have included two short quotes below.
We acknowledge that racism plays a part within the oppression that Muslim students encounter, however, describing our oppression as being primarily rooted in racism or being a type of racism is damaging as it takes away from the fact that:
- It is our religion through which we first and foremost identify as a community
- We are primarily targeted because of our religion
A common theme in the discrimination that Muslim students face on campuses is that it specifically targets their religious beliefs and practices.
However, we strongly encourage Islamic Societies, universities and FE institutions to not adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia. We believe the countering of Islamophobia through anti-racism is a process of secularisation and in our endeavour to eradicate Islamophobia, we should not seek to define or explain it completely through the lens of other forms of oppression such as racism. While it takes great courage to define our experience in our own words, for example, by using faith-infused language, it is an effort that is worthwhile in the longer term and in the shorter too.
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My website article "My definition of Islamophobia" explains why I published this definition on the Conservative Home website in July 2019.
Below I have reproduced just my proposed definition.
The definition below is intended as a complete, self-contained, replacement for all previous definitions. Accordingly, any commentaries on those earlier definitions should be ignored when construing this definition.
“Islamophobia is a negative perception of Muslims, which may in extreme cases be expressed as violence toward Muslims, and in less extreme cases as hatred of Muslims, discrimination against Muslims, and abusive language against Muslims.
Rhetorical and physical manifestations of Islamophobia may be directed toward Muslim individuals.
They may also be directed against non-Muslim individuals either because they are wrongly believed to be Muslims or because they are considered sympathetic to Muslims.
They may also be directed towards the property of such Muslim or non-Muslim individuals, or towards Muslim community institutions and religious facilities.”
The following examples may serve as illustrations.
Manifestations of Islamophobia might include extreme, and repetitive attacks upon the religion of Islam, asserting that it is a uniquely violent religion, or that Muslims have historically sought to exterminate all non-Muslims or sought to compel all non-Muslims to convert to Islam.
However, criticism of Islam similar to that levelled against any other religion, including asserting that Muhammad created the Quran from available extant sources, or other academically argued challenges to the history or theology of Islam, cannot be regarded as Islamophobic. Nor is it Islamophobic to point out that at specific times in specific places some Muslim rulers have practiced forced conversion.
Islamophobia frequently charges the generality of Muslims today with seeking to harm humanity, or with seeking to impose Islam on others. It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
Contemporary examples of Islamophobia in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
Islamophobic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law.
Criminal acts are Islamophobic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or linked to Muslims.
Islamophobic discrimination is the denial to Muslims of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.
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