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Why we should question the charge of “Islamophobia”

Valid criticism of beliefs and behaviour should not be equated with hateful bigotry

“Islamophobia” is the word of the week, even if no one seems entirely sure of what it means. Much of the commentary has focused on conservative Lee Anderson and his inflammatory assertion that Islamists are in control of London mayor Sadiq Khan. Predictably, the national debate has fractured down familiar culture war lines.

In all the performative huffing and puffing about Anderson’s claims a much more important point has been overlooked. Last week the speaker admitted that fear of reprisals from enraged pro-Palestine constituents had influenced the business of Parliament. This is a far more troubling indication of how bigotry impacts upon politics than the words of one MP.

But no-one can blame the Labour Party for wrestling the debate around to hit the Tories in one of their most tender spots; it’s what any functioning opposition would do. And so, while the Guardian has run countless articles on the man dubbed “30p Lee”, Labour politicians have also swooped in to pick over the wreckage.

On X, Shadow Equalities Minister Anneliese Dodds blasted the Conservatives for declining to “adopt the definition used by every other major political party in Britain.” She added “To tackle the scourge of Islamophobia, we must name it.”

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have nodded along with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) definition of Islamophobia as “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

In response, Kemi Badenoch, Dodds’ opposite number, hit back: “We use the term ‘Anti-Muslim hatred’. It makes clear the law protects Muslims. In this country, we have a proud tradition of religious freedom AND the freedom to criticise religion.” She added: “The definition of ‘Islamophobia’ she uses creates a blasphemy law via the back door if adopted.”

Badenoch is correct. Islam is not a race, but a faith. It is fair to say that the garments worn by religious people can mark them out. And predictably, it’s generally women who bear the brunt of this; too often shamed for not covering-up from within faith communities and targeted by bullies in wider community. But such prejudice will not be lessened by pretending that religion is an intrinsic, immutable characteristic. Indeed, part of what makes us human is that we can choose to believe.

Islamophobia is an insidious word, and it is often used dishonestly. As with its cousins “transphobia” and “whorephobia”, “Islamophobia” is wielded by ideologues hoping to slyly elide criticism of an ideology with irrational hatred of individuals. 

In a functioning, healthy democracy it is not just acceptable to critique religious doctrines, it should be encouraged. As the think tank Civitas observed in an open letter from 2019, the accusation of Islamophobia “has already been used against those opposing religious and gender segregation in education, the hijab, halal slaughter on the grounds of animal welfare, LGBT rights campaigners opposing Muslim views on homosexuality, ex-Muslims and feminists opposing Islamic views and practices relating to women, as well as those concerned about the issue of grooming gangs.” 

This point has been echoed by the group Don’t Divide Us (DDU) an organisation concerned about the rise of critical race theory. Khadija Khan, journalist and DDU Advisory Council member points out that the definition agreed by the APPG “has established a narrative that conflates criticism of any shade of Islam with bigotry against Muslims, which is highly misleading.” Khan goes on:

The way the debate around the term Islamophobia has been weaponised, and as a result, the attention from tackling the growing menace of Islamism on the streets of London has been deflected, adequately explains the motives behind the term Islamophobia, which is certainly not about protecting people. 

The APPG definition of Islamophobia that Dodds references contains many dubious assertions. It is, it claims, “Islamophobic” to

[Accuse] Muslims as a group, or Muslim majority states, of inventing or exaggerating Islamophobia, ethnic cleansing or genocide perpetrated against Muslims.

One might agree or disagree with the claim that Israel is conducting genocide in Gaza, but is it “Islamophobic” to take the latter stance? This is nonsense. The APPG also claims it is “Islamophobic” to:

[Accuse] Muslim citizens of being more loyal to the “Ummah” (transnational Muslim community) or to their countries of origin, or to their alleged priorities of Muslims worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

As a group? That would be bigoted. But in the case of specific individuals? Hundreds of British Muslims went to join ISIS. Would it be “Islamophobic” to suggest that these particular men and women did not value the interests of their own nations?

There is a lazy assumption on much of the left that “minorities” must be protected from the vicissitudes of life that the majority endure. That by dint of religion or race certain groups are particularly vulnerable. Such patronising exceptionalism is itself a form of bigotry.

While many British Muslims are appalled by the behaviour and beliefs of Islamists, we can no longer pretend that there isn’t a threat from political Islam — an inhumane ideology, with violent implications in its most militant forms. This international scourge is a problem for every British citizen, regardless of their faith. And to tackle Islamism it is necessary, to borrow the words of Anneliese Dodds, to name it. Any definition of anti-Muslim hate that includes a prohibition on expressing distaste for aspects of the Islamic faith is a gag. Islamists are democracyphobes, humanrightsphobes and libertyphobes. Given this, anyone with a conscience or a brain free from the rot of hateful ideologies ought to be proud to call themselves Islamistophobe, if not an Islamophobe.

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