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Volume 816: debated on Monday 15 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their position on adopting a formal definition of Islamophobia.

The Government remain committed to acting against Islamophobia in all its forms. We utterly condemn the prejudice, discrimination and hatred directed towards British Muslims due to their faith. While we are considering definitions of Islamophobia, this in no way restrains our ability to monitor, prosecute and punish those perpetrating religiously motivated hate crime. We have provided Tell MAMA with £4 million over the last five years to monitor anti-Muslim hate crime and to support victims.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his response. I first raised this matter in your Lordships’ House on 11 July 2019. We were told then that the Government agree that there needs to be a definition and that two advisers would be appointed. One adviser was appointed more than two years ago and nothing tangible has been done since. The Muslim community is concerned about issues relating to Islamophobia, and would ask that a second adviser now be appointed and their terms of reference agreed, which must include consultation with the community. We need to do this without any further delay and to commence the process.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for raising the concerns of the Muslim community, for his contribution to how we tackle the issue of Islamophobia and for his advice on how best to proceed. We remain committed to tackling Islamophobia where it exists across our communities, and we will continue to consider this issue with the utmost seriousness.

My Lords, the Government’s own hate crime statistics show that nearly half of all recorded religious hate crimes were against Muslims. What specific urgent steps have the Government taken to end this abuse and will the Minister commit to working with Muslim groups to ensure urgent progress?

My Lords, it is quite correct to say “nearly half”—around 45% of religiously motivated hate crime was against Muslims. As I mentioned in my Answer, we provided Tell MAMA £4 million over the last five years to monitor anti-Muslim hate crimes and support victims. We have also awarded £1.8 million through the faith, race and hate crime grant scheme to support established community groups and civil society organisations to boost shared values and tackle religiously and racially motivated hate crime.

My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged that the Home Office’s own figures show that 45% of all recent recorded religious hate crimes in England and Wales targeted British Muslims, but he has not yet said why the Government are so reluctant and are dragging their feet over coming up with a clear definition of Islamophobia. Why have they refused to do this? Is he aware that it is mainly Muslim women who are being targeted, because of the way they dress? Young people are being targeted and bullied in schools and on the streets. Given the scale of this problem, and given the rise in far-right extremism, can the Minister tell me what actual action, besides funding an organisation to monitor it, the Government will take to reassure the 3 million British Muslims of their commitment to tackling hatred, and the violent crimes and discrimination they are experiencing?

My Lords, we recognise the seriousness of this, but we also recognise the point made by Khalid Mahmood MP in the other place that there are issues with the term “Islamophobia”. It has been weaponised by particular groups to tackle free speech. We recognise that it is important to establish a definition, but as he himself says, this is a difficult thing to solve and the first principle is to do no harm. We will proceed slowly and carefully in order to get this right.

My Lords, I think the House will be united against anybody who discriminates against somebody on their beliefs, but I will follow up on the last question about what exactly we mean by “Islamophobia”. I understand that it means fear of Islam. Why should one be frightened of one of the great religions of the world? It is fair enough to be frightened of the people who blew up the Manchester Arena or whatever, but surely not of Islam itself. I think the Minister is on my side in this: could we please be absolutely clear what it is that we are trying to do?

My Lords, part of the difficulty of adopting some of the definitions that are being proposed, including that proposed by the APPG, is that they effectively conflate anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia with race. They also do not deal with issues around sectarianism. I completely agree that we want to tackle prejudice that discriminates against people based on who they are.

My Lords, a phobia is a fear. An irrational fear of Muslims is best countered by leaders of the community explaining that discrimination against women and violent attitudes to other faiths have nothing to do with Islam. Will the Minister agree with a previous government statement that all faiths and beliefs should be given equal protection, and that giving special consideration to one or two groups at the expense of others is totally contrary to the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

My Lords, I can give that assurance. We must provide our faiths and beliefs, particularly a religion such as Islam, with the same protections as all other important religions, but we must not make the mistake of conflating religion with race, as I said in the previous answer.

My Lords, it is crucial that we distinguish between aberrant anti-Muslim bigotry and the highly contentious concept of Islamophobia which threatens free speech for fear of it being labelled Islamophobic. Does the Minister acknowledge this chilling effect for liberal Muslims, as is well described in the Don’t Divide Us film “‘Islamophobia!’ The Accusation that Silences Dissent”, muting any criticism of Islam as a religion and even muting critiques of political Islamism, however dangerous? Does the Minister accept the nervousness of politicians from all parties in supporting the Batley Grammar School teacher who was forced into hiding under shouts of “Islamophobic”, effectively allowing a default blasphemy law to be snuck in for fear of being called Islamophobic?

My Lords, I do recognise that issue and I was trying to point that out in the responses I gave to previous supplementary questions. There is no doubt that the term “Islamophobia” is used as a heckler’s veto to shut down alternative opinions. We need to come up with a way forward that does not compromise free speech, and that is absolutely what we are committed to doing.

Imam Qari Asim, whom the Government appointed to assist with this in 2019, has been a magnificent ally in the fight against anti-Semitism and had a huge impact in West Yorkshire on Covid vaccinations in the Muslim community. Would it not be in the Government’s interests to find more work for Qari Asim to do?

My Lords, as someone who has spent time with and engaged with Qari Asim—I met him in my previous role as Faith Minister—I recognise that he has much to contribute and I am sure we will continue to make best use of his undoubted reputation and track record.

My Lords, Islamophobia is a real problem in the UK. Prejudice against Islam must be taken very seriously. The Government are certainly proceeding very slowly—there is no question about that—as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. Can the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s intention to adopt a definition, or are they not planning to do so? It is very easy, either way.

My Lords, I always thank the noble Lord for providing me with an easy question. Of course we want to work on establishing a definition that can be adopted, but I want the House to recognise that this is not a straightforward matter and will take time.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that in any attempt to elucidate a formal definition of Islamophobia, religion and not race must be the central tenet? I agree with the noble Lord’s earlier response. Will the Minister give a personal assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, me and others that he will do everything he can to resolve this as a matter of urgency?

My Lords, I can give the assurance that we are tackling this as a matter of urgency. I completely agree with the point made about the need not to conflate race with religion. We need to get the definition of Islamophobia right.