By Sara Khan
Last week a group of MPs proposed a definition of Islamophobia. The reaction has been mixed, contested and widely debated.
They’ve described it as “rooted in racism and a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.
Understanding what is and what isn’t Islamophobia – or anti-Muslim prejudice as some prefer to call it – is crucial in helping to counter religious-based hatred.
In this spirit, I welcome the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ attempts to provide much-needed clarity on anti-Muslim prejudice. However, I do not believe they have recognised all victims of anti-Muslim hatred or provided guidance on some of the most crucial issues.
I want an inclusive definition fit for a country that values diversity and freedom of expression and that understands that anti-Muslim hatred can also be experienced by Muslims at the hands of other Muslims.
We must always begin with the victims, irrespective of who the perpetrator is.
The APPG are right that victims are targeted because of their “Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.
But a narrow understanding of “Muslimness” leaves behind those Muslims who, because of how they choose to live their lives or practise their religion, don’t have a “Muslimness” that other Muslims find acceptable.
We all understand the anti-Muslim hatred that is perpetuated by those on the political right and the Far Right. As a Muslim woman, I’ve had my fair share of threats and abuse from those quarters. But I, and many others, have also experienced increasing anti-Muslim hatred from the Left and from fellow Muslims.
It is contradictory and unjust to recognise non-Muslim perpetrators yet ignore Muslims who engage in active hostility, abuse, hatred and discrimination against other Muslims.
The murder of 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham in 2013 was an anti-Muslim attack carried out by Far Right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn.
Yet the murder of 71-year-old Jalal Uddin in Rochdale in 2016 was also an anti-Muslim attack. He was murdered by fellow Muslims Mohammed Syeedy and Mohammed Abdul Kadir, who were Islamist extremists and ISIS supporters.
Both men were killed because of their “Muslimness”.
Saleem was murdered simply for being a Muslim. But Uddin was killed because he wasn’t considered to be the right kind of Muslim.
This practice of ex-communication, or Takfir as it is known in Arabic, and wider sectarianism within Muslim communities is anti-Muslim hatred pure and simple. It creates a climate of fear, threats and abuse. It is a tactic used by Islamist extremists not only in our country but across the world. An inclusive attempt to define Islamophobia must address this.
In our own country, the abuse, vilification and hostility towards Ahmadiyyah Muslims by other Muslims is a case in point. Other Muslims boycott Ahmadiyyah businesses and restaurants, bully Ahmadiyyah children at school, and distribute leaflets calling for their death. If this abuse was experienced by Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims, it would be perceived as anti-Muslim hatred; why should it be any different just because the perpetrators are Muslims themselves?
Muslim women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of anti-Muslim attacks, but too often, they are also the target of hatred from other Muslims, especially men, for not behaving, dressing or holding opinions deemed to fit in with what the perpetrator defines as “Muslimness.”
This failure to recognise that Muslims can be abused, attacked, even killed, by other Muslims because of their ‘Muslimness’ is a blind spot in our public debate and detrimental to the well-being of British Muslims and those of Muslim heritage.
Finally, this definition worries me as Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism because it is alarmingly ambiguous when it comes to those who are brave enough to speak out about Islamist extremists and Muslim hate groups.
I’ve seen how some Muslim hate groups promote gender-based violence, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Islamist extremism – just like all forms of extremism – has a damaging impact on Muslims and everyone else in our country.
But too often when Muslim and non-Muslim civil society groups who are motivated by a passion for equality, community cohesion, social justice and human rights push back against hatred, they are subjected to abuse and written off as ‘Islamophobic’. We have seen the distressing consequences, in some Muslim countries, against those who are accused of “insulting Islam”. This has left many feeling deeply fearful. We cannot allow a definition of Islamophobia to have a chilling effect on this vital work.
We all want to live in a society free from hate, discrimination and violence and for people to be able to live their lives freely without fear.
It is high time that national and local anti-hate policy recognised all victims of anti-Muslim prejudice, provided support to them and challenged all perpetrators, regardless of their background.