Why the APPG’s Definition of Islamophobia is not up to scratch

30th November 2018

The APPG on British Muslims has produced its report, Islamophobia Defined. It is not, in essence, an Islamist definition. Although it was compiled with the support of an academic, Dr Antonio Perra, formerly of MEND, who has accused Quilliam of having borrowed “elements of both Far-Right and Liberal Islamophobia”, there is little of that sort of rhetoric in the report itself. Neither is it a full frontal attack on freedom of expression: although I note the concerns of the National Secular Society in their response to the report.

The main problem with the proposed definition of Islamophobia Defined is that is just isn’t fit for purpose.

The ancient Greeks told the story of Procrustes, son of the god Poseidon, who used to invite strangers to spend a night as his guest. When they accepted, Procrustes set about forcing his lodgers into a rigid iron bed. If they were too short, they would be stretched. If they were too tall, Procrustes would chop off their legs.

There is a basic flaw which runs through the APPG’s Procrustean definition of Islamophobia. That error has resulted in the loss of an important opportunity to create a practical, working definition of anti-Muslim bigotry, hatred and conspiracism. This is how they went wrong.

The starting point of the proposed definition, both in terms of form and content, is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of Antisemitism. However, not all species of bigotry are identical. Homophobia is not the same as anti-black racism. Misogyny is not the same as transphobia. And antisemitism does not work in a manner that is identical to anti-Muslim bigotry.

Like Procrustes, the author of the APPG has forced the important definition of hatemongering against Muslims into a bed which is the wrong shape for the issue. In doing so, they have identified species of anti-Muslim hatred which are common in relation to Jews, but rare when it comes to prejudice against Muslims. Worse: they have missed entire categories of anti-Muslim hatred.

The first problem is this. The core definition reads:

ISLAMOPHOBIA IS ROOTED IN RACISM AND IS A TYPE OF RACISM THAT TARGETS EXPRESSIONS OF MUSLIMNESS OR PERCEIVED MUSLIMNESS.

A subsequent example expands upon the definition, noting that it includes:

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.

Islamophobia certainly has elements of racism. Fascists may hate Muslims. However, it is not true that Islamophobia is always rooted in racism. It may be rooted in another, non-racist ideology: for example, a debased version of the Marxist concept of anti-imperialism. You need only look at the sort of vile anti-Muslim rhetoric that is now common on Left-wing, pro-Putin and pro-Assad forums to see examples of the broad-brush tarring of Sunni opposition to Assad – in particular, the White Helmets – with the allegation that they are theocratic jihadists.

Hatred may alternatively be based in wild conspiracism about what Muslims are believed to be doing. A number of examples in the text involve people who are targeted for hatred because they are Muslim converts. That is not because people believe that they have changed their race: but because they hated for being part of a supposed Muslim conspiracy.

Why have the authors so limited the definition of Islamophobia? I’m afraid that it is because they’ve performed a lazy search-and-replace edit of the IHRA Working Definition. Even that task has been carried out badly. For example, the first example mirrors the IHRA example:

Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.

Why they have changed ‘radical ideology’ – which would have included Left-wing anti-Muslim conspiracism – to ‘racist/fascist’? I can only imagine that this was done in order to exculpate Marxist “anti-imperialists” who slur Sunni Muslims.

The problem continues in the other examples. Compare these two, parallel, definitions from the IHRA and APPG text:

IHRA – Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

APPG – Accusing Muslims as a group, or Muslim majority states, of inventing or exaggerating Islamophobia, ethnic cleansing or genocide perpetrated against Muslims.

Holocaust denial and ‘revisionism’ is a well-established method of baiting Jews, and is practiced by neo Nazi organisations. It is deployed both against Jews collectively, and the State of Israel.

There isn’t really a close parallel in relation to Islamophobia. Serbian crimes against Bosnian Muslims don’t have the emblematic status of Holocaust denial. Although it isn’t unheard of, anti Muslim agitators do not generally express their hatred of Muslims by playing down those massacres.

Let’s take another example:

IHRA – Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

APPG – 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.

There is a difference between saying that Jews should never be able to self-determine, and opposing self-determination by particular populations. There are non-racist reasons for opposing self-determination by any group of people – the Scots or the Catalans – in any place. Indeed, most examples of Muslim populations being denied self-determination arise within the context of Muslim majority states: for example, during the creation of Bangladesh, or the Ahwazi independence movement in Iran.

Furthermore, it is common to hear antisemites say that Israel should be destroyed, and that it is a racist state. It is comparatively rare to hear people who hate Muslims – in the West, at least – say that parts of Kashmir that are in India should not seek to join Pakistan. Few Muslim haters know or care about that conflict.

I could continue with further examples, but I appreciate that your attention span is limited. Have a look at the two definitions side by side yourself, and consider what has been inappropriately included and improperly omitted. You will see that the basic problem is that antisemitism and Islamophobia are not identical phenomena, and that the shortcomings largely flow from the poor choice of model for the APPG’s definition.

Consider also whether the report should have included sectarian forms of anti-Muslim hatred, includingincluding  against Shia Muslims or the Ahmadi – which often repeat common anti-Muslim tropes – should have been included within the definition. Given that they have proven fatal, I think they should have been.

As a footnote, although it is a relatively small point, the term “Muslimness” – on which the definition hangs – is both clumsy and imprecise. The use of that term is emblematic of the lack of care and thought that has gone into this report.

This is not to say that there is nothing good in the APPG’s report. There are some parts of the APPG’s definition which are of universal application to all kinds of racism and indeed bigotry. For example:

Applying double standards by requiring of Muslims behaviours that are not expected or demanded of any other groups in society, eg loyalty tests

But, as a whole, this report is a Curate’s Egg.

It must be apparent to those who are concerned about Islamophobia and anti-Muslim incitement that this definition isn’t fit for purpose. Notwithstanding, sixty academics – some of whom must have a decent understanding of the nature of the hatred which Muslims can encounter – have endorsed the report. Notably, they include Professor David Miller, who moonlights in a pro-Assad think tank, and who believes that claims of Russian involvement in the poisoning of Skripal and concerns about antisemitism are mere “propaganda. But other academics really should have offered critical assistance rather than unconditional endorsement.

The APPG should have done a much better job. They received evidence which would have assisted them in doing so from many consultees. But they have laboured to produce a mouse.

It is a missed opportunity.