Prejudice against Muslims is based on fundamental misunderstandings
In November 2018, a British parliamentary cross-party group published a report that defined Islamophobia as “rooted in racism” and “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
This week, this definition became the center of a political battle — first via a letter from the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, leaked to The Times, claiming that the definition would harm counter-extremism efforts; then by the official decision of Britain’s governing Conservative Party not to endorse the definition (the opposition Labour Party has).
Both events created a storm, for different reasons. In the eye of the storm are politicians, mostly innocently trying to do the right thing, being used as unwitting pawns by Islamist efforts to seize the public voice of Britain’s Muslims. There is a simple reason why this has become possible.
In the US and the UK, left-wing politics has become dominated by identity: The idea that non-dominant groups are oppressed through micro-aggressions and unspoken prejudices that hold them back as a group. The appropriate response, according to this view, is to embrace that oppressed group’s identity, and assert its unique place in public life.
There is no doubt that there remains severe racism and prejudice both in the US and the UK. But the historic response has been that such racism is combatted by integration, not reinforcing exclusive identities.
There are further problems with this form of politics. First, the reinforcement of group identities gives power to whoever can most successfully claim to represent the group. In the case of British Muslims, the most vocal community “representatives” have often espoused Islamist ideas.
Second, the establishment of a group identity to fall back on in opposition to other identities often creates new membership requirements. Just look at the foul accusation hurled at British Home Secretary Sajid Javid on social media that he is a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside). He, and other prominent British Muslims who do not follow the norm required by the supposed community leaders, are regarded as not Muslim enough.
Politicians should make sure they have sufficient religious literacy to ensure they are solving problems, not creating new ones.
Third, groups can only have grievances against other groups. This form of identity politics perpetuates division and prejudice, rather than defeating them. Yet the language that has characterized this form of identity politics suffuses the language that has been used by those supporting the new definition of Islamophobia.
On Wednesday, one of the leading promoters of the new definition, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, was asked by the BBC why we need a definition of Islamophobia rather than describe it as “anti-Muslim hatred” (which focuses on acts against the individual rather than the religion). She replied that “anti-Muslim hatred” does not encompass the micro-aggressions that Muslims experience on a daily basis.
Perhaps the strongest opposition to this new definition comes from those who take issue with the racialization of being Muslim. Their argument is that Islam is a multiracial religion, with its members coming from almost every possible ethnic community.
It is important that we do not fight a strawman. Crimes of an anti-Muslim nature often have a racial dimension. Individuals form an idea of what a Muslim looks like — ideas that may encompass non-Muslims too. But current definitions and laws provide for this. An attack on a Sikh home because it was thought to be a Muslim home would already be treated as a hate crime.
The fear of many in national security is that the laxity of the proposed Islamophobia definition would encompass certain areas of policing or counter-extremism strategy. Prevent, a UK counter-radicalization program, relies on referrals of those thought to be moving in extremist directions. Might this new definition mean that such a referral would be regarded as Islamophobic?
Others from groups opposing Islamism are concerned, and Muslims who oppose Islamism are frequently accused of Islamophobia themselves, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who was nominated for the Islamophobe of the Year awards by the Islamic Human Rights Commission.
Meanwhile, Sara Khan, the UK’s counter-extremism commissioner and herself a Muslim, has been repeatedly criticized by the controversial group MEND, whose former policy analyst helped write the report on defining Islamophobia.
Anti-Muslim hatred is a big problem. There are elements of British society, including some in the Conservative Party, that are concerned that Islam itself is an ideology hostile to Western society, and that Muslims therefore represent a potential fifth column.
This hatred can be tackled using existing laws and policies. It does not need a nebulous new definition, especially one grounded in a form of politics that creates the conditions for further tensions rather than resolving them. Already, far-right groups are seizing on identity politics to claim their own special white identity that should be protected.
Much of the prejudice against Muslims, and much that drives the belief that Islam is a violent religion, is based on fundamental misunderstandings. Grievance politics does not lend itself to correcting such misunderstandings. Shouting “racist” at someone who believes they are opposing a religious ideology rather than a race does not encourage engagement.
With ever-increasing political division challenging the very fabric of the UK’s multi-ethnic society, words and labels matter. Well-meaning politicians should make sure they have sufficient religious literacy to ensure they are solving problems, not creating new ones.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.Twitter: @pdcwelby