Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about the controversy over the Government’s rejection of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) definition of “Islamophobia”.
We were against the idea of having a specific definition of “Islamophobia”. Racism against Muslims exists. It is pervasive and needs to be resolutely challenged. “Islamophobia” conflates legitimate criticism of religion, which groups like Southall Black Sisters have always engaged, with racism towards people of a particular minority. The use of the term “Islamophobia” makes it very easy to label criticism of religion as “Islamophobic”.
It is a linguistic minefield. There is no satisfactory interpretation of what “Islamophobia” means. Even the Runnymede Trust, which put the term forward in 1997, accepted its own definition as problematic.
Why not speak instead of anti-Muslim racism? Anti-Muslim racism is like any other form of racism — the vilification, the attacks.
Can’t it be said that it is a merit of the definition that it says explicitly that criticism of Islam is not necessarily Islamophobic?
I don’t accept that. This defining of Islamophobia creates a norm within society which makes it hard to speak out. We’ve seen it many times. Why call it Islamophobia? Why not just talk of anti-Muslim racism?
Isn’t it too late? We wouldn’t have chosen the term Islamophobia, but it’s current now whether we like it or not.
Just because something has existed, doesn’t mean that it should continue. The language has long existed to challenge racism. In the 1970s we were able to come together on a platform of anti-racism.
The term “Islamophobia” is mostly not used against the racists. It is used against people from within or around the Muslim religion who are dissident or more secular.
Its use is also creating the space for other religions to find similar terms of their own. Some Hindu fundamentalists are now pushing the term “Hinduphobia”.
Why “phobia”? Racism, such as the far right’s agitation against immigrants, is not based on irrational fears. It is calculating.
Groups who challenge conservatism and religious fundamentalism are often accused of “Islamophobia”. That creates an environment for harassment and even death threats, as we saw with Salman Rushdie. In 2016, Asad Shah was killed in Glasgow because he came from the Ahmadi sect and was not considered Muslim.
In much of our work, whether about gender segregation in schools or about Sharia tribunals, we’ve constantly been accused of being “Islamophobic”. This language prevents solidarity being formed between different groups which experience racism.
Groups which challenge religious conservatism are also often simply called “racist”: for example, the SWP calls the Council of Ex-Muslims “racist”. So not having the term “Islamophobia” doesn’t fix the problem.
I don’t see what the term “Islamophobia” adds. On the contrary, it serves only to create groups which can claim a privileged sense of victimhood, a situation of each group vying to be the ultimate victim.
“Antisemitism” exists as a term distinct from racism: in fact both the term, and the reality described, are older than racism (in the form of Christian antisemitism, for example). Some of us would say that today, too, there are forms of antisemitism which are not racist, and in any case antisemitism operates in different ways from regular racism. Why not a specific term for “Islamophobia”?
I don’t see that racism against Muslims acts in any different way from other racism. Using the classification “anti-Muslim racism” creates a broader platform which enables people to come together. While recognising that racism can take different specific forms, that allows for solidarity, because groups are not competing with each other to claim the greatest victimhood.
There are issues about the words chosen for the definition, as well. They are: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” If it is a type of racism, then it can’t add anything to say that it is “rooted in racism”. The words accept that we’re talking about a subtype of racism, but where racism is surely about prejudice towards or ill-treatment of people, the words say that this is about disapproving attitudes to behaviour.
Yes, the wording conflates racist views against people with criticism of anything they believe or do. Who decides what is “Muslimness”? Some people perceive Southall Black Sisters’ criticism of gender segregation in schools as an attack on “perceived Muslimness”.
What do you think will happen now that the Government has rejected the APPG wording?
I don’t know, but the voices demanding to have “Islamophobia” accepted as a term are rising.
We’ve seen what’s happening around schools in Birmingham.