By Nikita Malik
May 20, 2019
In November last year, the APPG on British Muslims in the United Kingdom proposed adopting a new definition of the term ‘Islamophobia’. A definition is certainly needed to address the concerning trend of hatred and violence against Muslims in British society – an issue that groups indicate has worsened, particularly following Islamist terrorist attacks. While the intention to protect Muslims against hate crimes is an important and necessary one, the definition has been rejected based on fears that it is too broad. In particular, a definition that focuses on hostility to Islam (by credence of the description ‘Islamophobia’) as opposed to hostility against people incorporates a concern that those who criticize aspects of Islam may be prosecuted or silenced.
This is an important concern that deserves attention. The Islamophobia definition seeks to address targeting expressions of Muslimness or ‘perceived Muslimness’, rather than bigotry against Muslim individuals themselves. The priority, surely, must be to tackle hatred directed against Muslims, not to prevent criticism of, or opposition to, any religion or belief system. Such criticism is necessary in any liberal society, and we have already seen it being regulated with recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that criticizing the Prophet Mohammed is ‘beyond the permissible limits of objective debate’.
The individuals most at risk of potential policing of ‘Muslimness’, criticisms of Islam, or countering Islamism are Muslims themselves. These include Muslims who are labelled not devoutly Muslim enough, Muslims who belong to minority Islamic groups, Muslims who openly criticize aspects of the Islamic practice or work on countering Islamism, and ex-Muslims who have publicly chosen to leave the Islamic faith. There are plenty of examples of these cases, and a 2008 report by Douglas Murray profiled the death threats and intimidation that Muslim politicians, journalists, activists, writers, and artists within European communities faced when openly expressing their opinions on Islam or leaving the Islamic faith. In the majority of these cases, while individuals wanted to continue to be vocal about their opinions, they were forced to go into hiding or accept 24-hour police protection. Some of them did not receive any assistance from the State, due to a lack of understanding of blasphemy laws, or an attitude that this was a ‘cultural problem’ best addressed by the Muslim community itself.
Some more recent attacks include those on Sara Khan – the Counter Extremism Commissioner – who has received death threats and was accused of being a ‘traitor’ to her religion for her work on highlighting Islamist extremism. Similarly, my old colleague Maajid Nawaz received death threats after tweeting a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. Baroness Warsi – who has been leading the work on defining Islamophobia – was pelted with eggs by protesters linked to Al Muhajiroun during a visit to Luton, due to claims that she “purports to be a Muslim”.
The phenomenon of hatred, intimidation, and violence directed against Muslims by other Muslims is a serious challenge, and the current definition of Islamophobia fails to address the hatred that some British Muslims face from other Muslims. This includes those Muslims belonging to minority strands of the faith who are subjected to discrimination, particularly Ahmaddiya Muslims who have faced ongoing persecution, and Shia Muslims in Britain who have similarly suffered incitement from other Muslims. Individuals of a Muslim background who determine that they no longer believe in the Islamic faith are routinely branded as ‘apostates’ by extremists, and face being shunned by members of their communities. In particularly serious cases, British Muslims who leave Islam have had their lives threatened. Nahla Mahmoud, a member of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain, for example, received death threats following a television interview about Sharia law.
The term Islamophobia has a broad meaning that can easily be used to restrict free and fair discussion about the Islamic religion and Islamist extremism. Instead, an alternative definition of Anti-Muslim Hatred should be specific and narrow. It should focus on addressing bigotry directed at individuals, and avoid censoring debate or freedom of expression on religion. Finally, a comprehensive definition of Anti-Muslim Hatred must take intra-Muslim hatred into account to protect those who want to speak freely or express themselves differently.
Nikita Malik is currently the Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism (CRT) at the Henry Jackson Society, where I serve as a research expert in countering violent extremism, terrorism, and hate-based violence.