By Miqdaad Versi
15 May 2018
“Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down
debate,” railed Melanie Phillips in The Times. Phillips’ lament was a doubling
down of her appearance on BBC Sunday Politics earlier in the week where she
dismissed Islamophobia by complaining that “any criticism of the Muslim
community is considered Islamophobic”.
Others have also challenged the use of the
term. Defending his bigotry, the far-right activist Tommy Robinson declared:
“I’m not talking about Muslims, I’m talking about Islam.” Once again, we see
Islamophobia being dismissed by deploying “straw man” arguments that refer to a
shutting down of debate.
It is quite astonishing to see this
deliberate contortion of Islamophobia to undermine real concerns about bigotry
through these semantic games. While writers such as Rod Liddle and Brendan
O’Neil are natural bedfellows to Phillips, the unfortunate reality is that even
the licence-payer-funded BBC has provided a platform to “debate” the very
existence of Islamophobia many times.
Thank you @DawnHFoster for standing up to Melanie Phillips'
disgusting semantic excuses for #Islamophobia on @daily_politics. People use the same excuse for
anti-semitism and it is appalling in both cases.
5:28 PM - May 6,
Yet while Phillips was rightly criticised
for her bigotry by Jewish and Muslim groups, well-meaning liberals have been
asking about the specific scope of Islamophobia.
Such terms rarely are perfect, nor do they
necessarily need to be – different wording makes little impact on the average
But let us consider the term
“anti-Semitism”, for example. Literally, it would refer to bigotry against
Semites (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as the Arabs and Jews of the
Middle East). However, its meaning is defined and well understood to be bigotry
against Jews in particular. Furthermore, the definition goes beyond simple hate
and includes anti-Semitic tropes still commonplace in many sections of our
society. If someone were to try to claim that an Arab could not be anti-Semitic
because an Arab is a Semite, they would roundly and rightly be condemned as
playing semantic games.
Similarly, most people of good faith
understand that Islamophobia as a concept or social phenomenon also goes beyond
a literalist dictionary definition.
The term was first popularised by the
Runnymede Trust in a report published in 1997. The term had emerged following
the need for a specific word to focus minds and lead to substantive action
against growing anti-Muslim prejudice. It was initially defined as “unfounded
hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most
Muslims” with the “phobia” element based on the common “xenophobia” framework
in a similar way to homophobia.
From the outset and in that Runnymede
report, it has always been made clear that Islamophobia does not encompass
disagreement, criticism or even condemnation of Islam. It is complete hogwash
to pretend otherwise.
Yet, in order to cast doubt on the premise
of the term, detractors consistently try to conflate critique of the faith with
the broader hostility towards the people of that faith.
It must be noted, however, that there are
some who hide behind “criticism of Islam” as they attempt to legitimise their
bigotry, such as author Douglas Murray’s theory that less Islam is a solution
to terrorism. While using the term “Islam”, what that implies is that we need
fewer Muslims to keep British shores safe. It is difficult to understand how
such a goal could be achieved other than through some form of ethnic cleansing
or mass deportation. This is not “criticism of Islam” and falls well within the
scope of Islamophobia.
In order to placate those bullies wishing
to delegitimise claims of Islamophobia, there are some who are now naively
providing cover for this type of bigotry by calling for the use of the term
“anti-Muslim hatred” instead, seemingly to ensure action against Islamophobia
is not derailed by a discussion on definition.
However, Islamophobia goes far beyond mere
hatred. As the latest Runnymede report states: “Referring only to ‘anti-Muslim
hate’ (or even ‘anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination’) doesn’t fully
capture the widespread (or structural) ways racial inequalities persist. It may
also get things back to front: prejudicial attitudes about a group develop to
justify the economic or political disadvantages experienced by that group.”
The fact that 31% of young children think
Muslims are taking over England; the fact that 37% of Brits would support a
political party that would reduce the number of Muslims in the UK; the fact
that Muslim men are 76% less likely to be employed than their white Christian
counterparts; and the fact that half the British Muslim population live in the
10% most deprived areas in the UK. None of these can be constrained to hatred
alone – but the contributing factors all fit under this broader umbrella of
Furthermore, Islamophobia as a term has
become well established with this broader meaning of anti-Muslim racism. Its
usage spans across the globe beyond academics and researchers, to mainstream
communities, police and media, including our own prime minister, all of whom
understand what the term means.
Islamophobia is real, normalised in many
sections of our society and appears to be on the rise in all its forms. Rather
than delegitimising the term, we should call out if it is misused and more
importantly, push our government to do something about it.
In the end, the idea that those who engage
in Islamophobia or deny its existence should be driving our word choice is
ludicrous, and changing the term will not stop their bigotry.
For those obsessed with the word, it
appears they care far more about semantics than real-world hatred, violence and
racism. They seem to think words can hide their own blatant bigotry. They
can’t. We see you.
• Miqdaad Versi is assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of
Britain. He is writing in a personal capacity