[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the definition of Islamophobia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for permitting the debate. I introduce the debate as one of the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. It is a privilege to chair that APPG, and something that I take very seriously indeed. The year before I became a Member of Parliament in 2019, the APPG proposed a definition of Islamophobia. The group undertook widespread consultation with parliamentarians, experts, lawyers, community activists and victim-led organisations so that they could propose a working definition. This was a sincere attempt to give meaning to the word and the nature of what we call Islamophobia, and that definition has since been adopted by hundreds of different organisations and bodies. It was, and remains, a valuable piece of work.
During the 2019 Peterborough by-election, in which I came third, I canvassed a gentleman called Amir Suleman. He is, and was, a presenter on a local radio station, Salaam Radio, and he asked me what I thought about the APPG definition of Islamophobia and whether it should be adopted by the Government. Embarrassingly, I had very little to say to him, but I promised that if I were elected, I would become active on the issue. A general election and several tough interviews on Salaam Radio later, I have kept my promise, and Amir is my friend and a tremendous source of advice. I have a large Muslim population in my city and in my constituency, and I see day in, day out, the fantastic contribution Muslims make to life in Peterborough and throughout the whole of the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this this debate. I want to put on record that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak out for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs, and those with no beliefs. I support the campaign that the hon. Gentleman is describing; I think that the Government should respond to it in a very positive way and that the same freedom should be there for everyone of every faith in the United Kingdom, not just in word but in deed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that contribution. He will know as well as I do that discrimination against any faith can have a huge detrimental impact on the outcomes of people who are of that faith, so championing this cause and pushing back against discrimination and hatred against Muslims—my friends, my neighbours, my city—seems like the most natural thing for me to do. It is something positive I can do as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough, because Peterborough would not be Peterborough without the contribution of its Muslim residents.
Back in 2013, a report published to coincide with the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum in London stated that the nearly 2.8 million Muslims in the UK contribute over £31 billion to its economy, and wield a spending power of £20.5 billion. I see that economic input all the time in my constituency, with its hundreds of Muslim-owned businesses: these are entrepreneurial and charitable people, wealth and job creators, making my city more prosperous. Successful British Muslim entrepreneurs not only contribute to the prosperity of Peterborough and our country, but contribute to the fabric of British society and act as role models for us all.
Muslims contribute to the social fabric of my city. In Peterborough, as in other places, we have Muslim doctors, professors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, academics, pharmacists, care staff, charity workers, those who work in local Government and, of course, thousands working across the private sector. They contribute to our politics, with Muslim councillors in Peterborough representing all three major parties. In the Conservative-led administration, two Muslim councillors serve in the cabinet and the mayor last year was a Muslim Conservative councillor. From the Labour party, we have some of the longest-serving and respected councillors in our city. In the Conservative party, we have scores of activists, members and the only local branch, I believe, of the Conservative Muslim Forum. Considering the recent Singh report, I think we are one of the flagship Conservative associations in the country for engaging with the Muslim community and Muslim members of my party.
The APPG published another report in 2021, which demonstrated the role Muslims have played in fighting covid-19. Again, Peterborough is a fantastic example. Muslim institutions in my city, both charities and Islamic institutions, have shown us what being in this together really means. Those organisations and community activists, such as Zillur Hussain, who was awarded an MBE for his community efforts, have had me handing out face masks on busy streets, delivering food and hot meals to those who were shielding, to rough sleepers and the vulnerable, and promoting businesses like car washes offering free services. I have been photographed scores of times across my city with Muslim businesses and Muslims doing good things for everybody in our city. They have brought me, as their MP, into their hearts and homes. During covid-19, they showed the best of all of us.
It would take too much time for me to name all the Muslim businesses in Peterborough and what they have done during covid-19, but I listed 30 or so in a previous Westminster Hall debate. They know who they are, and I thank them from the very bottom of my heart. I know that this was replicated across the country, but despite that amazing contribution and those efforts, Islamophobia remains a social evil that has a devastating impact on British Muslims and on wider society. It is not just British Muslims who are impacted by Islamophobia, but British society at large, to the detriment of social harmony and inclusion.
In September 2017 the Runnymede Trust published a report titled “Racial prejudice in Britain today”. The report found that one in four Britons—26%—admitted to being racially prejudiced. Given that this admission is one that individuals would not readily make, the figure may be an underestimation of the actual number. A poll carried out by Savanta ComRes in 2018 found that 58% agreed with the statement:
“Islamophobia is a real problem in today’s society.”
That is a good thing. Almost one in two agreed with the statement:
“Prejudice against Islam makes it difficult to be a Muslim in this country.”
That is shocking. A further YouGov poll from 2018 shows that around one in four Britons believes that Islam is compatible with the values of British society. Alarmingly, around one in two believe that there is a fundamental clash between the two.
Despite the levels of prejudice evidenced in the national surveys, British Muslims continue to rise to high levels of British society, experiencing loyalty, belonging and social interaction with their fellow citizens. Some 93% of Muslims say they feel they belong to Britain, with more than half saying they felt this very strongly. The APPG report on Islamophobia clearly evidences discriminatory outcomes faced by Muslims in employment, housing, education, the criminal justice system, social and public life and political or media discourse. It contains a number of incidents widely reported in the press in order to demonstrate the breadth of Islamophobia in society. I am not going to name them all, because some of them, quite honestly, are too shocking to describe in a calm and respectful manner.
One incident really did catch my eye. An investigation conducted by The Sun in January 2018 revealed that the country’s top companies that provide car insurance would give far lower quotes to drivers with typical English-sounding names, such as John Smith, and far higher quotes to drivers with typical Muslim-sounding names, such as Mohammed Ali. This form of Islamophobia manifests itself in a subtler way than, say, an act of violence. This is institutionalised Islamophobia, and it impacts the lives of Muslims and leads to unequal outcomes. To make much greater progress in reversing these discriminatory outcomes, we must begin from the point of an agreed definition.
In response to the APPG’s report, in May 2019, the then Communities Secretary said that Ministers would appoint two expert advisers to work on a different definition of Islamophobia.
“To get a firmer grip on the nature of this bigotry and division we agree there needs to be a formal definition of Islamophobia to help strengthen our efforts.”
They pledged that the Government would develop an effective definition of Islamophobia that commands wide-spread support. Following this announcement, in July 2019, the first appointment was made. Imam Qari Asim, deputy chair of the anti-Muslim hatred working group, was appointed to lead the process for establishing a definition of Islamophobia. There has been no second appointment. Imam Qari Asim was appointed for his experience working with a broad range of communities to tackle Islamophobia, including in his role as deputy chair of the cross-Government working group to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. I have spoken to him and he is keen to begin this work. Muslim communities up and down the country are waiting; they are expecting something—they were promised something. This cannot wait. In the absence of any action, the APPG definition has already been adopted by scores of councils, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments are also now considering this.
When I appeared on Salaam Radio, shortly after my election, the first question I was asked was not about the economy, the NHS or foreign affairs, but rather about when the Government were going to complete this work. I shall be on again soon; please, let me tell them that we have, at least, started this work. My message is clear: quickly appoint a second adviser, or tell Imam Qari Asim to begin his work. I shall work with him, and with the working group to tackle anti-Muslim hatred.
I know I speak for other APPG officers and Members when I say that frustration is building. A definition of Islamophobia has the potential to be a tremendous force for good, and it is brilliant that the Government recognise that. It is the first step in a country-wide effort to stamp out this evil and improve outcomes for millions of people. I cannot stand idly by and allow the children, and grandchildren, of my constituents to face the same discrimination and racism that their parents and grandparents faced during their lives. Islamophobia not only impacts lives and outcomes, it holds us back as a country. If Muslim men and women are prevented from being all that they can be, this country will never fulfil its potential. Please, Minister, let’s begin this work.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mrs Murray. I would like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) on securing this important debate.
Before I was elected, I was nervous about being a Muslim woman in the public eye. Growing up, I had seen the abuse that prominent British Muslims were subject to—I knew I would not be in for an easy ride. Today, I would like to say that I was wrong to be worried. When young Muslim girls ask me what it is like, I would like to say that there is nothing to worry about, that they would face the same challenges as their non-Muslim friends and colleagues. However, in truth, I cannot say that, because in my short time in Parliament, that is not my experience.
Let me read out a few examples. One person wrote to me to say, and I quote, “Sultana, you and your Muslim mob are a real danger to humanity.” Another wrote and said that I was a “cancer” everywhere I go, and soon, they said, “Europe will vomit you out.” A third called me a “terrorist sympathiser” and “scum of the earth”—and that is sanitising their unparliamentary language.
I have discovered that to be a Muslim woman, to be outspoken and to be left-wing is to be subject to this barrage of racism and hate. It is to be treated by some as if I were an enemy of the country that I was born in—as if I don’t belong. It was summed up by these words, in a hand-written letter, “If you can’t stand the racism, perhaps you would be happier going back to your country of origin—foreigner.” It is worse when I speak up for migrants’ rights, speak in support of the Palestinian people, or criticise Tony Blair for the war in Afghanistan. One abusive letter said, and I quote, “Our cities are full of Muslims. Send them to Pakistan.” Another suggested that I must support the Taliban—all because I am Muslim and against endless war.
This Islamophobia does not come from a vacuum. It is not natural or engrained; it is taught from the very top. These fires are fanned by people in positions of power and privilege. When a far-right online account targeted me with racist abuse, suggesting that Muslims were an invading army, a Conservative MP replied, not by calling it out for its racism, but by insulting me instead. When our England football stars were subjected to vile racism, in the Chamber I highlighted that the Prime Minister had fanned those flames by ridiculing Muslims and black people. At the Dispatch Box, the Minister told me to watch my tone.
Although none of that is nice, the worst effects of Islamophobia and racism are not just abusive language, but policies and political decisions. This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. That horrific act of mass murder cast a long shadow. The war on terror, launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in its wake, set a narrative that too many readily embraced. Muslims, wherever we are, were portrayed as a security threat in need of discipline and suppression. Abroad, that was the background to disastrous wars in the middle east. False links were drawn between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, providing false legitimacy to a war that had more to do with oil than the safety of British citizens.
At home, it meant the erosion of the civil liberties of all and the targeting of Muslims in particular, with policies such as the Prevent programme, which countless studies and human rights groups have demonstrated discriminates against Muslims, from young girls being referred to the programme simply for choosing to wear a hijab to a Muslim teen being questioned by anti-terrorism officers for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge. I knew about that at university, so I, too, feared speaking out in class. I held back where I might otherwise have criticised Blair and Bush for illegal wars.
Growing up, I might have hoped that things would be better, but if anything they have got worse. Today, our Prime Minister mocks Muslims as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. Far from scrapping Prevent, earlier this year his Government announced that a review of the programme would be led by William Shawcross, a man who once said:
“Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”
That appointment led dozens of human rights organisations, including the likes of Amnesty International and Liberty, to boycott the review, saying that it was just there to rubber-stamp the discriminatory programme.
Closer to home, things are not good either. My party has seemingly welcomed back a man who said that Muslims
“see the world differently from the rest of us”,
and that we are a “nation within a nation”. It has been silent after a Muslim colleague was cleared following vexatious claims and endured 18 months of horrendous Islamophobia. In a recent by-election, it supposedly had a senior source pit Muslims against Jews, demonising whole communities.
I have always known what it is like to face racism, and through my political life I have come to understand this bigotry better—to see it in its different forms and to recognise the need to confront and challenge it wherever it is found. Islamophobia is very real in Britain today. It is something that I know too well, but it cannot be defeated in isolation. The people spreading this hate target not just Muslims but black people, Jewish people, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, migrants and refugees. There is safety in solidarity, and it is only through uniting our struggles that we will defeat racism.
I begin by referring to my unremunerated interest as advisory board chairman of Conservatives Against Racism for Equality.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), who made a very moving speech. I am very sorry indeed that she has been treated so very disgracefully. There can be no place at all in our society for the way she has been treated. We can all see how she has been affected by it, and I do not mind admitting that I am affected by watching her report what she has experienced. It is just a disgrace, and absolutely every one of us has an obligation and a duty to stand against such intolerance and hatred in our society. I certainly will do everything I can to stand with her, despite our occasional differences, to make sure she is secure and safe in her identity and valued for it. For what it is worth, I often agree with her anti-war views, too—even as a former member of the armed forces—but that is for another debate on another day.
I am very proud to represent Wycombe. According to the last census, about one in six of my constituents are British Muslims. Some of my very best friends and supporters in Wycombe are British Muslims. I am very proud to have their support, to knock on doors with them, to go to mosque with them, to have meals together and to share and celebrate their faith at all appropriate moments. They are people who have very often taught me even about my own Christian faith.
We have a wide and rich variety of institutions in Wycombe. Let this be understood: in a Conservative, home counties seat, our largest religious institution is the Wycombe Islamic Mission and Mosque Trust, which runs a number of mosques across the constituency. We have the Wycombe Islamic Society, the Imam Ali Islamic Centre, the Karima Foundation, which educates young people, Seerah Today and Jamia Rehmania. We have many imams, people whom I regard as the most godly and dignified people, capable of teaching us all how we should relate to one another in community. We have the Council for Christian Muslim Relations, which has worked extremely hard over many years to make sure that our churches and mosques come together and share values, friendship and fellowship across a broad range of issues. The council helps us, crucially, to listen to one another when things are difficult, when there is a matter of international relations or security and so on. The Wycombe Muslim Communication Forum is always keen to give us its views, and I am always grateful for them.
This is the crucial point: if we are willing to listen to one another in good faith, we can make progress. That is what has happened in Wycombe over many years. I am extremely proud of the level of integration and the very flourishing relations that we have. They are the products of a great deal of effort. I want to make something very clear. We have moved far beyond what one might call tolerance, where one agrees to disagree and to go separate ways. We have moved into deep integration and friendship, and that is something of which I am very proud.
There is, however, something that we cannot tolerate in our society: the kind of anti-Muslim hatred that the hon. Member for Coventry South has so powerfully described today. That is why I need to say the following to my hon. Friend the Minister. As a Conservative Government, we have been in power for 11 years, and we will go into the next election having been in power for 14 years. One in six of my electors are British Muslims, and thousands of British Muslims voted for me. That is why I am here. I am quite sure that, if I lost the Muslim vote in Wycombe, I would lose the seat—and I can assure him that people tried extremely hard to dislodge me in that way. Minister, we have to represent, value and respect the votes of those thousands of people in Wycombe, in Peterborough and elsewhere who have put their faith and trust in Conservative representatives. To do that, we really must define anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. We must have a working definition, one that we can be proud of, that is not susceptible to exploitation for political purposes and that also—it has to be said—respects the equal worth of Muslims.
Around the world there are conflicts based, I am afraid, on religious grounds. Like Christians, Muslims around the world are persecuted for their faith. I think of the Rohingya; I think about Xinjiang. And it has to be said that Israel-Palestine is very often seen through a prism of faith. I just say in passing that we must not forget the plight of Muslims in Gaza and on the west bank as we move between periods of conflict.
Something that we can do that would be really meaningful, particularly for young people in constituencies such as mine, is to say, “We not only value you; we respect you. We respect the dignity of your identity in Islam, and we are going to define what it means for people to express Islamophobia. We are going to say, very loudly and clearly, that we absolutely will not tolerate that form of prejudice and hatred.”
I have probably spoken for long enough. I will finish where I began, by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry South. I know she is not a huge fan of Conservatives, but wherever we have disagreed I would have thought that every Member of this House would agree that every person should be secure in their identity. Islam is one of the world’s great faiths and no Member of Parliament should suffer anything approaching what she has suffered. I, for one, am extremely grateful to her for speaking as she has done today. I am very humbled by it. And I am very sorry, once again, that she has ever suffered anything like that.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). This debate is much richer for the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). In our words, may Allah make it easy for you.
In the main Chamber right now, there is the debate on the legacy of Jo Cox. My hon. Friend mentioned what happened in Batley and the divisive attitudes from different quarters, particularly with regard to Islamophobia. I and I am sure many others wanted to attend that debate—it is a shame that we cannot—but let us in Westminster Hall not forget the words of Jo Cox, that we
“have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
We are here today because this Government have failed British Muslims. Prior to 2018, the Government disregarded the need for a definitive definition of Islamophobia altogether. Having come to their senses in May 2019, the Government were happy to accept a definition—just not the one that the Muslim community supported. Instead, the Government proposed to appoint two independent advisers on Islamophobia to go in search of their own definition, and 845 days later we have only one nominal Islamophobia adviser and no definition. It is clear that this is not a matter of the Government not trying; it is a matter of the Government not caring.
Time and again, I have raised the fact that if it is absolutely okay for women to understand and define patriarchy and feminism, for Jewish people to define antisemitism, for people of colour to define racism and for LGBTQ+ communities to define homophobia, why will this Government not adopt a definition of Islamophobia rooted in the experience of British Muslim communities? In total, 75 academics and over 750 Muslim organisations and institutions have endorsed that definition, from the Muslim Council of Britain to British Muslims for Secular Democracy, including organisations representing every single sect of Islam.
In my adult life, I have never seen an issue in the Muslim community receive such widespread formal support as this definition has. In rejecting that definition, are the Government really telling me, this Chamber and the House that their proposed definition will also garner the support of Muslim communities? The Labour party has adopted the APPG definition and we have also written to Labour councils to follow suit by adopting it on a local level. The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, the Greens and even the Scottish Conservatives have adopted the definition, and yet this Government feel that they can silence Muslim communities by rejecting the definition that those communities support.
The last time that there was a debate on this issue in the main Chamber, the Government’s concerns about the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia centred on the opinions expressed in a letter to Downing Street by police chiefs, which was leaked, insinuating that it would hinder UK counter-terrorism efforts. Yet on further investigation, both police chiefs—Martin Hewitt and Neil Basu—concluded that the definition does not in any way affect counter-terrorism efforts. It was this ludicrous claim about the definition that the former Member for Beaconsfield and former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, described as “total and unadulterated rubbish”.
Additionally, it has been repeatedly noted by the APPG and experts that the working definition of Islamophobia being proposed is a non-legally binding definition and therefore presents no challenge to statute, which takes legal precedent, and therefore it does not impede on free speech, as the Government claim. The APPG definition of Islamophobia is a working definition, similar to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
In fact, the APPG definition of Islamophobia is built on the IHRA framework; every single example used by the APPG definition comes from the IHRA definition of antisemitism. If one definition does not impede free speech, why do the Government think that another definition, which is built on the very same framework, does so? If the APPG’s definition does contravene the Equality Act 2010, as the Government have previously suggested, why do they not publish the legal advice they have taken on holding such positions?
The fact is that the Government maintain their silence as hate crimes targeted at Muslims exceed 50%. They turn a blind eye to the qualified, educated Muslim women denied jobs. They benefit from the Muslim contribution to the pandemic response—need I remind the Government that more than 50% of doctors’ fatalities from covid have been Muslims?—yet ignore the Islamophobia that 81% of medical professionals face. They allow social media to perpetuate narratives of terrorism around Muslims, while failing to call out the one in three articles that misrepresent and generalise Muslims. They delay a definition that is both timely and imperative; a 2019 YouGov poll found that 45% of British people saw a “fundamental clash” between Islam and the values of British society, while 73% of complaints in the Government’s own party relate to Islamophobia.
This is not a matter of a Government’s not trying, but of a Government’s not caring. If the everyday Islamophobia faced by British Muslims is not enough to shake this Government into action—if the daughter of the Muslim Scottish Health Secretary being denied a nursery place because of a Muslim-sounding name and a young Sikh boy wearing a turban being called “Taliban” and racially attacked for being perceived as a Muslim are not enough—then the terror attacks that have taken place against Muslim communities should wake them up.
Mohammed Saleem, Mushin Ahmed and Makram Ali are the three grandfathers who have already been murdered in Islamophobic terror attacks across the UK. Across the world, we have witnessed 51 Muslims murdered by a far-right terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand, and only this June we witnessed a terror attack that led to three generations of a single family being murdered in Ontario, Canada.
It has been a decade since Baroness Warsi, the former Conservative party chair, said that Islamophobia had
“passed the dinner table test”.
We have seen not only a year-on-year increase in Islamophobic sentiments online, in the media and across society, but a terrifying rise in attacks on Muslim communities.
When I say that all the evidence points to the Government not caring, I am not saying it merely as an Opposition Member, but because if, God forbid, there is another deadly terror attack on Muslims in the UK, this Government’s inaction, negligence and often silent condoning of Islamophobia will be partly responsible. When they deny Muslim communities even a simple definition of Islamophobia and halt the work of the Government’s own anti-Muslim hatred working group, it is that serious.
If the Minister disagrees, I am happy to let him intervene to tell the House the last time the Government’s anti-Muslim hatred working group actually met. Who are the two independent Islamophobia advisers? Has one of the advisers the Government appointed even started his role, two years on from his appointment? The answer is no—just as I thought.
The reality is that Islamophobia is widespread. A report by the Centre for Media Monitoring, analysing media output over a three-month period in the fourth quarter of 2018, comprising analysis of more than 10,000 published articles and broadcast clips, found that 59% of all articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour, and 37% of articles in right-leaning and religious publications were categorised with the most negative rating of “very biased”. More than a third of all articles misrepresented or generalised about Muslims, and terrorism was the most common theme.
Recent research by Professor Imran Awan and Dr Irene Zempi found that, be they one-off events or a series of repeated and targeted offending, Islamophobic hate crimes not only affect the victim, but send reverberations through communities as they reinforce established patterns of bias, prejudice and discrimination. In the British context, Islam and Muslims have increasingly been seen as culturally dangerous and threatening to the British way of life. Muslims have been labelled both “deviant” and “evil”.
We know, and we witnessed through the height of the pandemic, how untrue those sentiments are. When the nation needed communities to come together, to serve, to unite and to protect our nation, British Muslims played a leading role. Sadly, however, far-right extremist and Islamophobic stereotypes peddle a narrative that can lead to worrying consequences for Muslim communities.
Adopting a definition is only the first step. Preventing, tackling and challenging Islamophobia is a debate that must still take place. Nobody—not I, nor the British Muslims here today or in my constituency—is asking for special treatment from this Government. All we are asking is simply that the Government accept the definition, so that we can help people and better understand Islamophobia. We need to put out a political statement that Islamophobia, in all its forms, is unacceptable and that attacks on Muslims must stop. That is all we asking for—literally, it is just equality. This is not about requesting a change of law, or Muslims asking for extra protection. We are simply asking the Government to recognise Islamophobia, accept a non-binding working definition and make a political statement to that effect. That is why I end by asking the Government to end the discriminatory behaviour towards Muslims. The Government should accept the definition, and let us all work together to tackle racism, prejudice and hatred in all its forms.
As always, it is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing the debate, and I also thank the Members who spoke before me. I particularly thank my young colleague and former constituent—her family are still my constituents—my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for the heartfelt issue that she raised. She is a Member of Parliament who spoke so movingly about the hate that she has received. We serve in this Parliament and it is absolutely disgraceful, in this day and age, that the media allow that sort of behaviour to take place. It is absolutely crucial that the Government look at how we deal with that sort of media. I commend my hon. Friend and hope that she continues in the same vein, because she will be a wonderful Member of Parliament and represent the interests of her constituency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West has said, the definition of Islamophobia under discussion is non-binding. That is not good enough for me or my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South. It is not good enough for all the people who are affected by the continuing hatred of Muslims. It is not good enough for us in this day and age. Every day that we in this place vote and go through the Lobbies, we do so to vote for legislation. We have a right to protect our citizens—that is what we are here for. We can talk as much as we want, but that is the real reason we are here, and it is what this great democratic institution allows us to do—to make legislation, day in, day out.
I am concerned about the definition of Islamophobia, as I have made clear for a long time. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust referred to Islamophobia—although its first term for it was “anti-Muslim prejudice”, which it aligned with antisemitism. What we are really discussing is the issue of hatred. That should be put in legislation and it should be a legal requirement for us, and other committed people, to deal with it. That is what I am here to speak about. There is a certain irony in the fact that the chairman of the Runnymede Trust when it produced its first definition of Islamophobia was one Mr Trevor Phillips, whom I believe is still under investigation following his criticism of the definition of Islamophobia that the Labour party has now adopted.
I might just point out that it would be very wrong of us to comment on any individual investigation. My understanding of the case that my hon. Friend mentions is that it has nothing to do with the definition. From what is quoted in the press, my understanding of the individual mentioned is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South pointed out, he said that Muslims have a different view from that of everyone else. It is not about the definition in question. Does my hon. Friend agree?
No, I would not, because my hon. Friend just got up and said that she will not discuss the individual case. She then proceeded to do the very thing that she said we should not do. We need to look at that in much more detail. Certainly, I do not wish to discuss the substance of the case; I merely pointed out the history of the individual.
The term Islamophobia suggests that it could be a medical term, with “phobia” being used. Medical phobias include tomophobia, which is a fear of medical procedures; haemophobia, a fear of blood; trypanophobia, which is fear of needles; dentophobia, which is fear of dentists—a lot of people have that—and nosophobia, which is a fear of getting sick.
Of course. I had not completed my list, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for completing my list.
If Islamophobia is being suggested as a medical fear, then the term Islamophobia is acceptable. If not, as it seems, and the terminology is incorrectly used, then the correct term would be anti-Muslim hatred, racism or Muslim hatred, which clearly defines on the basis that that is something being done. The actual definition that has been put forward for Islamophobia encompasses any distinction, exclusion, restriction towards or against Muslims, that has
“the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social and cultural”
and other fields.
As has been said, Muslims have been discriminated against by companies when they have Muslim-sounding names. The hon. Member for Peterborough, who led the debate, mentioned that and that is what we want to get away from. The only way we will get away from that, as with the Race Relations Act 1968, is to have definitions that are purely actionable in terms of Muslim hatred. That is what we want to look at and that is what we are here for.
We are not here to have a term for people to accept, with no real translatable meaning and which we cannot act upon. If we want to serve our constituents and tackle the issues of Muslim hatred that they go through, we should pin down the definition. We should make it clear that if people behave in such a way, somebody will call on their door and deal with it, and that if people do that through social media, somebody will look them up and call them to account. We want a definition that actually works, a definition that actually delivers for our people—not a definition that claims “a fear of”, because I never agreed with that definition.
We should push the Government—of course we should—to adopt that definition. My two learned colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), have both been barristers. I am sure that if they were to look at this in far more detail they would find that a much more appropriate way of going forward and trying to resolve the issue. I do not know why my hon. Friend is shaking her head, because we want to have laws that enable us to prosecute people who have racist tendencies towards Muslims. That is what I want. I do not want excuses.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I was actually just moving my head; I was not agreeing or disagreeing. On the point about prosecution, yes, we have laws in place, but that does not detract from the fact that the definition of Islamophobia needs to be made. As a barrister, if someone is asking my legal opinion, I would say yes, we do need the definition.
In answering that, I say to the hon. Lady, as a barrister, that I explained what phobias there are, and they are usually used in medical terms, not in legal, prosecutorial form. The Government have to define this and we have to define this in legal terms—that is what is important.
It is not static at all. Of course language develops—I am fully aware of that. However, there is language that we have to use in Parliament, which has been established for over 500 years. Our work is based on precedent; we will continue to formulate our laws based on precedent, as we have done in the past.
Just to help my hon. Friend, the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims had a number of lawyers engaged on this matter. Just for his assistance, I am also a lawyer. Even the former Attorney General of this country went over this. I am not sure why he is too concerned, as though lawyers were not engaged: they have been.
I thank my hon. Friend for his words of wisdom. However, I said to the former Attorney General, in the debate we had in the Chamber, that I did not believe what he intended to write. He accepted that, because he said he did not have enough time to look at that. So I agree with my hon. Friend.
Again, my hon. Friend is trying to fight a battle that I do not oppose. I am saying that it has to be done properly, in statute. That is what we are here to do; that is what I want to do; that is what is important. Using the word phobia will damage us and it will not allow us to get what we want. I want there to be a law against social media abuse—a law that helps my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South, because it affects her; a law that will allow the social media companies to tackle that abuse. I want a law that deals with someone trying not to deliver a service to my constituents because of their name. I want a law under which people get recognition for the work they do, and are not targeted because their name is religious or Muslim. I want there to be no discrimination against them, and I want an ability to formally track, log and see that abuse. I am fed up of just having words. We are here to legislate, and that is precisely what I want to do.
What I am saying is that the Government can adopt it, and I think that they should adopt it. It means nothing. I am essentially making the same point as the hon. Gentleman. I want to put it in statute so that we can continue to deal with this properly, effectively and legally, and deter those who abuse people based on their religion—on being Muslims in this country. My great-grandfather served in the British Army; my great-grandfather and grandfather served in the British merchant navy. We have a right because we are Muslims, and we are proud of being Muslims in this country. All I want is for our children and grandchildren to be protected by the legislation and not be targeted for being Muslim.
I appreciate that. There are so many people who are interested and who wanted to intervene on me. I apologise for that. Therefore I conclude by saying that I want Muslims to be put on an equal footing through legislation, so that they are protected legally by us, here in this Parliament.
Thank you, Mrs Murray. My difficulty is that I cannot do any justice to this debate in two minutes, so please bear with me. I can certainly assure you that I will not take as long as the previous speaker.
I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing this important and pertinent debate. I thank all individuals and campaign groups who bravely fight to raise awareness of Islamophobia and tackle it in our society on a daily basis. I also thank Bradford Council for Mosques, which this week celebrated a proud 40 years of serving our communities. I want to take this moment to commend its work, commitment and leadership, not just in Bradford but on a regional level.
Sadly, I cannot speak in this debate without feeling a deep sense of frustration and disappointment because, since we last debated this issue, Islamophobia has continued to run rife in our society. It has continued to blight our communities and, sadly, has not got any better. Indeed, the campaign group Tell MAMA last year reported that the UK had seen a rise of almost 700% in Islamophobic incidents. Let us take a minute just to take that in: a 700% rise. That is borne out by the sickening stories that people tell me of Muslim men, women and even children of all ages, in my constituency and across the country, who still face Islamophobic attacks and Islamophobic persecution on a daily basis, who are still subject to vile abuse because of their religion, and who are still told go home—even in the very town where they were born and raised.
It is a sad day when we have my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) reduced to tears for merely trying to do her job. That my hon. Friend, as one of the youngest Members, has come here and told this House that she feels she is unable to carry out her job as a democratically elected Member of Parliament is shocking and disgusting. We must all hang our heads in shame over the appalling treatment of my hon. Friend and Members like her.
At the heart of the issue is the normalisation of Islamophobia in our society. I accept the definition; I will not get into debates about a definition. The reality is the vile poison that has spread. We have seen the creation of a culture that tells people that it is acceptable to discriminate against, to persecute, to abuse Muslims because everyone else seems to be doing it. It has spread because it has been actively promoted in the rhetoric espoused in the media, and by countless public figures who reinforce over and over again a false narrative that Muslims are dangerous, and second-class citizens in our society. It has spread because it has been pushed and endorsed even by our own politicians—even by the Prime Minister, who thinks it is okay to describe Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”—as well as by many others who are in the public eye, talking down Muslims, treating us as a policing and social problem and promoting divisive policies that disproportionately target Muslims, such as Prevent. It has spread because society has normalised it, and that is the real problem.
Indeed, the normalisation of Islamophobia has now reached the point where it has become so commonplace and trivialised that, even if we do not see an active discrimination against Muslims that manifests in the most extreme way as violence and a vitriolic hatred by racists and bigots, we still experience a bias against us that sees Muslims denied employment opportunities, taken less seriously, and talked down to, because it has now become so endemic and so institutionalised that it has become subconscious discrimination. This normalisation is therefore as big a threat as the far right, because it creates an atmosphere on which far-right thugs and fascists feed—an environment in which they feel welcome, and in which bigoted Islamophobia can flourish unchallenged.
Mrs Murray, I am looking at the clock. I have a lot to say, but I will cut it short because of your request. The last thing I will say is this. If we are serious about tackling Islamophobia—this is where I agree with the point made earlier—we must move on from discussing the definition. We have spent the last two years talking about a definition, but that has not stopped Islamophobia. The point is that we need a definition in legislation. At the moment when these matters go to judges in courtrooms, they are not obliged to take it into account; it is a mitigating factor that they may take into account if they so wish. We need to legislate against this, which was the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Peterborough. We must stop talking and start acting—acting to stop religiously and racially motivated hate through legislation and acting, as a society, to challenge and tackle the vile and appalling normalisation of Islamophobia.
Two years ago, we had a general debate on Islamophobia in which I delivered the Labour party’s position. Sadly, two years later, no progress has been made and the Government have failed to take any action on Islamophobia. The APPG on British Muslims has worked tirelessly on creating the definition. My colleagues have already touched on the detail of accepting this definition. Many councils, 800 Muslim organisations and almost all political parties, including the Scottish Conservative party, have accepted it. However, two years later, the Tory party have shown that they are in pure denial of Islamophobia through their refusal to accept the definition proposed by the APPG and their failure to conduct an independent investigation or to appoint Government advisers on this issue. They promised all of this.
What concerns me is that the Tory party has an institutional problem and, frankly, does not care about Islamophobia. The damning Singh review earlier this year revealed institutional failings within the Conservative party in how it handled Islamophobia complaints and that it failed to engage with any Conservative Muslim parliamentarians—it did not even acknowledge or mention the term “Islamophobia”. When a definition has such widespread community support, I ask the Minister why the Government are insistent on reinventing the wheel. Let me tell him why: I know the Conservative party does not care about Islamophobia. After writing to the Prime Minister during Islamophobia Awareness Month urging him to take action and meet me and key Muslim organisations, I never received a response. It has been 10 months. Perhaps I can try again during this year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month.
The UK is home to 2.7 million Muslims, but Islamophobia is on the rise and can have distressing and real-life implications for our Muslim community. A prime example was the far right peddling false narratives during the pandemic that British Muslims were spreading coronavirus. As a result, Muslim communities have suffered a shocking 40% increase in online Islamophobia during this period, according to Tell MAMA.
The Government’s own figures reveal once again that Muslims have been victim to the highest proportion of all hate crimes committed this year. The ugly face of right-wing racism reared its head in the horrific attack in Ontario, Canada—a sobering reminder that Islamophobia can kill. Here in the UK, we have seen the chilling results of Islamophobia too. Just this week, a young Muslim student in Rotherham was repeatedly punched and kicked by fellow students, leaving him hospitalised.
These are not isolated incidents. Home Office data supports this, and shows that referrals to Prevent for extreme right-wing ideologies have exponentially increased. I, along with colleagues, have pushed for the independent review of the Prevent strategy for several years. A coalition of more than 450 Islamic organisations, including 350 mosques and imams representing thousands of British Muslims, have boycotted the Government’s review of Prevent in protest against the appointment of William Shawcross as its chair. Shawcross has openly expressed hostile views of Islam and Muslims, including saying:
“Yes, the problem is ‘Islamic fascism’”.
Will the Minister urgently outline why the Government have appointed someone with Islamophobic views? Will he also respond to the overwhelming discontent over the Shawcross appointment and put on the record why the Government refuse to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest Muslim organisation in the UK?
Finally, as chair of Labour Muslim Network and vice-chair of the APPG on British Muslims, I reaffirm my commitment to tackle Islamophobia. I hope that today the Minister will finally endorse the definition and pledge to take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing this debate, and for their excellent speeches, as I am for all the excellent speeches today.
As an officer for the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, I am always struck by what a fantastically constructive cross-party space that group is. With our collective purpose and determination, we have much to be positive about. That is just as well, because there is much to do and a great distance to travel.
Some people ask me why we need to define Islamophobia. We have to be clear about what we are talking about, what is acceptable, and why. We cannot effectively deal with Islamophobia if we and others are not confident of what it means. That matters, because we need to develop that understanding more widely. People need to know what Islamophobia is, why it is a problem, how it manifests itself, and, vitally, the impact that leaving this terrible stain on our society untackled has on far too many individuals in our communities.
We have heard the figures from Tell MAMA: there has been an increase of 700% in Islamophobic incidents. That is horrendous, and I sincerely hope that the UK Government are listening. It may be uncomfortable to confront the reality that society, even now—especially now—is Islamophobic and intolerant, but we need to acknowledge that if we hope to drive change. That is why we need the UK Government to step up and shape up.
Recently, I was pleased to receive an email from Peter Hopkins of Newcastle University; he authored a powerful report on Islamophobia in Scotland, working with the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group. Hon. Members will, I suspect, be used to me patiently explaining how Scotland is a brilliant place. It is, of course, and I am proud to represent one of the most religiously diverse constituencies in Scotland. However, it would be a mistake to suggest that Scotland is some unique haven of tolerance, or that we, uniquely, are not affected by Islamophobia. We need to be grown up about this, and about our politics. Accepting that Islamophobia is an issue is vital. I am particularly glad that the Scottish Government has the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon on this, because I know that she is absolutely unflinching on this issue, and that really matters.
We should take heart from the people in Kenmure Street in Glasgow, who came out of their houses at Eid and stopped the Home Office from deporting their neighbours. There are things to be positive about, but we must also look hard at ourselves and recognise the reality that much progress remains to be made. A big driver in my support of independence is the opportunity for equality, respect and fairness to be the building blocks of the country. However, as we move to that, we need to act. That is why the adoption of this definition, and action, matter.
I recently had a very useful meeting, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), with Zara Mohammed, the new general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. She is the first Scot, the first young person, and the first woman to hold that role. Zara is focused on, among many other things, the dearth of Muslim women in public life. She is absolutely right. We need far greater diversity, particularly where it would be most visible—in the higher reaches of public bodies, in leadership roles and in politics. Although I am very pleased that the Scottish Parliament is looking much more diverse this Session—I applaud all parties that contributed to making it so, and would particularly like to mention my colleague Kaukab Stewart, the new MSP for Glasgow Kelvin and the first Muslim woman elected to Holyrood—there remains a great deal to do, and Zara’s work will make a difference in that.
It is clear that women are disproportionately impacted by Islamophobia in many ways, and there are two issues to reflect on there. First, if we accept detriment to any minority group, we are opening the doors to detriment to others. Intersectionality is important, and, as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) said in her important speech, that interrelationship between different equality groups is important, as is, I would say, the relationship between different religious groups. On the same day that I met Zara Mohammed, I also met representatives from the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities. Those organisations have very understandable concerns about antisemitism, but were also keen to discuss working with Muslim colleagues, and shared concerns regarding Islamophobia and the impact of this intolerance on all our communities.
The intolerance is increasing, as is the normalising that we heard about from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). There is a nasty, dark underbelly of bile, which is enabled by right-wing populists such as Trump and Farage, though they are not alone. That contributes, here and further afield, to the othering and mistreatment of Muslims. I must again reflect on the Prime Minister’s absolutely disgraceful comments about Muslim women looking like letterboxes. Those comments will have contributed to countless hardships and worse. They should not have been made. They are completely indefensible, and I struggle to understand how people can defend them.
Our Governments need to be alive to and focused on this issue, as do political parties. I am pleased the Scottish Government are taking this seriously, and that the SNP Westminster group adopted the definition of Islamophobia, but this is not political—or should not be. It should be about being part of a decent society—one to which our Muslim communities contribute immensely in Scotland, the UK and further afield.
Colleagues will wish to make use of their time, and it is important to hear what the Minister has to say, so I will conclude. So many Muslim groups in my area do really important work in our communities. We heard about all the amazing contributions made during the pandemic, but I want to put on record the immense amount of work that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society did to support people in need during really difficult periods of the pandemic. Congregations such as those in the Woodfarm Education Centre and Langrig Road in my constituency offer vital support day in and day out.
I point out, as others have done, that this is a big issue across the world, but we need to start here by looking closely at ourselves. The fact that it is a big issue is all the more reason for us to take our position in this Parliament seriously and use it to drive forward change, so that we can better challenge Islamophobia, wherever it is. We cannot carry on as we are, so the UK Government should recognise that adopting a definition of Islamophobia is not only important, but increasingly urgent.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on obtaining this urgent and timely debate. I thank all colleagues who have spoken. It has been a sterling debate. I particularly want to touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) was saying. I do not know if it will help her, but many of us Muslim women have been abused in a similar format. I have had emails and messages on social media saying that I am, and I quote, words beginning with “f” and “b”, and that I should be sent off to Saudi Arabia to be raped. There are all kinds of interesting words being used and letters written. That does not help, but I hope that she understands.
Islamophobia has been rising in this country and in the western world at a very disturbing rate in recent years. Despite this, as we have heard today, there is still no accepted definition of Islamophobia. There are three million Muslims in the UK—almost 5% of our overall population. Despite Muslims having been present in this country as far back as the 16th century, many believe they are treated as the other. Islamophobia permeates all domains of our society. It threatens education, limits employment prospects and impacts everyday issues, including health, wellbeing and housing.
It is time that we finally address the issue. In 2019, the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims worked tirelessly to create a definition of Islamophobia that was widely applauded and supported by over 750 organisations. As was mentioned, the definition has been adopted by the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, the Mayor of London and the Mayor of Greater Manchester. It has been debated in this House and has received cross-party support, so it is disappointing that two years later, we are still urging the Government to do the right thing. That is an absolute denial from this Government. To add insult to injury, they cannot even bring themselves to use the term “Islamophobia”.
In May, the Singh report, resulting from an independent investigation into the handling of Islamophobia by the Conservative party, was published. It was a damning indictment of the discrimination rife in the party. It found that Islamophobia is a serious issue for it, and that the concerns had too easily been denied or dismissed. Indeed, it even looked at the Prime Minister’s comments about women wearing burqas looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, which we have heard a lot about. It found that Islamophobic incidents of hate rose by 375% in the week after the Prime Minister made those comments. The report called for the party leadership to publish an action plan to set out how it will tackle the failings it found. Will the Minister today acknowledge the scale of the problem? Will he update us on the progress his party has made on the action plan and the new code of conduct?
In my party, I pay tribute to the work of the Labour Muslim Network, which brought to our attention its findings and concerns about Islamophobia. Unlike the leadership of the Conservative party, we are seriously committed to tackling and eradicating Islamophobia, both in our party and in society.
We are often told by critics of the APPG’s definition that it should not imply that some Islamophobia is rooted in racism, yet the evidence says otherwise. Last year, the largest number of referrals to the Government Prevent programme related to far-right extremism. Indeed, the Security Minister warned that far-right terror poses a growing threat, and we all know the consequences of that ideology.
A recent report by Hope Not Hate found that Islamophobia has become the driving force behind the rise of far-right movements in the UK, and that anti-Muslim prejudice has replaced immigration as the key driver of such groups. A poll found that 35% of Britons think that Islam is generally a threat to the British way of life. We see this happening globally, and particularly in western Europe, where there has been a rise of far-right political parties and discriminatory laws passed in France and other countries. Earlier this year, a UN expert concluded at the UN Human Rights Council that Islamophobia has reached epidemic proportions globally, and that Muslims are often targeted because of visible characteristics, such as names, skin colour and clothing.
Many, including this Government, argue that Muslims are not a race. Of course they are not a race, but they are racialised when they are treated as having characteristics that mark them as wholly different. The question when it comes to racism is whether there is a set of attitudes and behaviours that are socially widespread and used to justify discrimination against a particular group. That is why it makes sense to call antisemitism and Islamophobia forms of racism.
I am the chair of the APPG on religion in the media, and last year we conducted an inquiry on religious literacy in the British media. Our report found that media reporting can be sensationalist, and that it reinforces stereotypes and contributes towards discriminatory attitudes. Headlines such as “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis” and references to “Muslim problems” have real-world consequences. Of course, journalists should be able to question and criticise religion—we live in a democracy that values freedom of speech—but this is about not censorship but transparency. We ask the Government to consider looking at press regulation, because the current system of self-regulation is not working.
Does the Minister at least accept the inescapable reality, which is that Islamophobia has damaging consequences for the life chances of and equalities enjoyed by British Muslim communities? There are people in the UK who are scared to leave their home for fear of verbal or physical attacks. People have withdrawn from public services, with devastating knock-on consequences for their health and education. They feel like outsiders in their own country. That should shame us all.
Last year, in the other place, when the Government were asked about the progress that they had made on adopting a definition, they said that the definition proposed by the APPG was not compatible with the Equality Act 2010, which treats race and religion separately, and
“could have consequences for freedom of speech.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 February 2020; Vol. 801, c. 2337.]
Can the Minister tell us whether he or the Government have published for public scrutiny any evidence regarding the legal advice that suggests that the APPG definition is incompatible with the Act? It has been repeatedly noted by experts that the working definition of Islamophobia is not legally binding, and therefore presents no challenges to statute, which takes legal precedence. I ask the Minister not to revert to the predictable, rehearsed responses and platitudes that we have heard from the Government. Each time they do that, they show their disdain for the British Muslim community.
In this debate, the ask is simple: adopt this definition, which has been accepted by cross-party MPs, national groups and hundreds of organisations. In some respects, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). We need a definition because it will be a starting point for addressing the real issue of Islamophobia that we face in this country. Islamophobia is rising not just in the United Kingdom but in France, Austria and other parts of the western world. Muslims are being treated as though they are fifth columnists—as though they do not belong in this society.
I referred to our inquiries on media coverage. I do not want to restrict free speech—I am sure nobody here wants to—but we ask the Government to look at cases in which the newspapers and others publish pure lies. There is a difference between covering something and carrying blatant lies, like the story about one in five Muslims having sympathy for Isis, or The Sunday Times coverage of a Muslim family who had adopted a child in the east end of London, which turned out to be completely made up.
Those kinds of stories cause people to view Muslims with suspicion and lead to hatred towards Muslims. Let us face it: a lot of people will probably never meet a Muslim in their life, and their understanding of what a Muslim is comes from what they read in the newspaper or watch on the television. Therefore what our media, social media, press and others say is an important part of this debate.
My hon. Friend makes a really valuable and pertinent point. Does she agree that the situation is far worse than that? We see Islamophobic tropes increasing under the guise of freedom of speech. Would she agree that freedom of speech is not an absolute right? It does not give you a right to promote hatred, and it certainly does not give you a carte-blanche right to attack Muslims.
I will proceed as quickly as I possibly can. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) on securing this debate.
I want to begin by saying that although, unfortunately, the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and I agree on nothing politically, I admire her tremendously. Together, we have done the local politics programme in the west midlands—it is always a pleasure to be on it with her. I can only imagine that she is a true inspiration to women of all political persuasions when it comes to entering politics. Whatever abuse she may suffer from a bunch of idiots, she is reaching far more people as an inspiration. She should take heart from that.
I am blessed in my constituency to be aided by two excellent Muslim councillors, who are true community representatives; Councillor Gaz Ali and Councillor Amo Hussain do tremendous work across their ward, and across all demographics with people of all faiths and none. It is a pleasure to work with them. I am also delighted that Imam Hafiz Shahid Bashir Qadri gifted me a copy of the Koran, and has taken time to explain parts of it to me. My education is an ongoing project, but I am incredibly grateful for his kindness and his patience.
My point is that people learn by experience; when they experience members of the Muslim community, they see the tremendous work that they do within the community. That is to everybody’s credit, and that is how we will build a better society.
My hon. Friend has reminded me that I did a terrible thing and failed to acknowledge the great plethora of Conservative councillors who I have in my constituency. I said “supporters”, but there are councillors too. We have had many Conservative—and, indeed, Labour—Muslim councillors in Wycombe for a very long time. I am extremely grateful for all of the brilliant work that they do.
I completely concur with my hon. Friend’s comments.
As a man of faith, I firmly believe that Muslims in our country should be able to practise their faith in freedom. This Government have always been clear that they do not, and will not, tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form, and will continue to combat such discrimination and intolerance wherever it occurs. We have instituted some of the strongest legislation in the world to tackle incidents where people incite religious hatred, or are engaged in criminal activity motivated by religion. We have also supported Muslim communities in combating anti-Muslim hatred. We are supporting groups fighting anti-Muslim hatred on the ground, including through the places of worship protective security funding scheme, which has supported more than 240 places of worship, with approximately £5 million in grants enabling them to install measures such as protective alarms, security lighting and access controls.
Following the Christchurch attacks, we funded faith associations to run 22 training sessions during, and prior to, Ramadan, to provide advice to mosque leaders on how to improve security. In November 2020, we awarded £1.8 million through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government faith, race and hate crime grant scheme to support established community groups and civil society organisations to run projects to boost shared values and tackle religiously and racially motivated hate crime. We funded work in schools and with young people, including through the Anne Frank Trust UK and Solutions Not Sides; these two organisations, funded through our grant scheme, aim to bring religious communities together to tackle prejudice and discrimination against religious groups from a young age. Today we announced the faith new deal: a pilot fund that will provide £1 million to support faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects that will benefit communities as they recover from the impact of covid-19.
We believe that the definition proposed by the APPG for British Muslims, although well supported, is not fit for purpose, and that, if adopted, it would create significant practical and legal issues. Islam is a religion that includes a wide range of races and thus stating, as the definition does, that Islamophobia is a type of racism is incorrect and conflates religion with race. These concerns have been raised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. A poll by the organisation Muslim Census found that only 21% of Muslims polled agreed with the APPG definition, primarily due to the confusion it creates between race and religion. The report says:
“For attacks on Muslims and Islam to be dealt with appropriately, selecting a definition that the majority of Muslims agree with is vital. The findings of our survey suggest that the APPG definition does not have the backing of the community.”
I would be interested to understand whether the IHRA definition accepted by the Government was accepted unanimously, by every single person, because there is lots of debate on that—yet, when it comes to this one, the Government have said what they have said. I would really value any examples that the Minister could point me to on the issues of the legality, given that it is a non-legally-binding definition.
I am not sure whether the definition that the hon. Lady refers to was completely universally accepted, but it is internationally accepted—and therein lies the difference.
As has been raised by the former commissioner for countering extremism and the Government’s current independent adviser for social cohesion, the APPG’s definition does nothing to address the issue of sectarianism or the right of minority Muslim groups such as the Ahmadiyya community, who may receive prejudice from other Muslim communities who do not agree with their views.
Finally, the definition suggested may have negative implications for free speech. Concerns have been raised that the lack of clarity in the definition could lead to its being used as a back-door blasphemy law, providing a shield for Islamists to espouse hatred, and to criticise or disregard anyone who challenges them as Islamophobic.
The Minister just referred to the back-door blasphemy law. If there is a back-door blasphemy law, it is what the Conservative party is putting through with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which protects statues because of commemorative feelings. That is back-door blasphemy, not this definition.
I would really like to understand: since when does any definition deal with issues among communities? It is absolutely like a dead cat on the table: “Let’s just not adopt the definition”—more than 750 organisations, more than 60 academics. This is just the Conservative party throwing the issue into the long grass, because they do not want to take responsibility and they do not care about Muslims.
I am afraid time will not allow interventions, if I am to conclude.
We remain committed to there being a robust and effective definition, and we will outline our steps to achieve that in due course. I thank hon. Members for the views they have put forward. However, we cannot accept a definition of Islamophobia that shuts down legitimate criticism and debate. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a healthy society, allowing for debate and disagreement underpinned by the values that bind people together—tolerance, equality and fairness. It is important that all have the right to speak freely and provide legitimate criticism.
Since being elected in 2019, I have heard a few speeches that will remain with me for the rest of my life. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and I will agree on little, but she will find me standing side by side with her in her fight against Islamophobia. I was humbled and privileged to listen to her speech.
We have had an interesting debate today. What is clear—I hope the Minister takes this away—is the strength of feeling people have on the issue, and that Muslim communities up and down the country have. We heard some positives about the contribution that Muslim communities have made to this country, and we have heard some negatives, sadly, about Islamophobia, discrimination and racism.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) made a statement about the Conservative party. There is a difference between the Conservative party and the Government; when she conflates those two things, it does her case no good whatever.
I hope that the Minister will have heard very clearly the need for this definition. Once the definition is there, we can move forward together. It is just a start, but we can start rooting out anti-Muslim hatred.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the definition of Islamophobia.