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Volume 801: debated on Thursday 13 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the adoption of a formal definition of Islamophobia.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to stamping out anti-Muslim hatred and all forms of hate crime. It is unacceptable for anyone to feel unsafe while practising their religion. We continue to take a zero-tolerance approach to Islamophobia. The definition proposed by the APPG is not in line with the Equality Act 2010 and could have consequences for freedom of speech. We recognise the importance of this matter and will interrogate it in further detail.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. Islamophobia is of great concern to the Muslim community. I have raised this subject before in your Lordships’ House. Can the Minister assure the House that the process to be undertaken will not involve any preconditions such as recognising Islamophobia as a form of racism? Does he agree that any definition proposed by the Government must have the support of the Muslim community and Muslim representative groups, without which it will have little value? If so, can he confirm that this will be done?

I agree with my noble friend that Islamophobia, while a hate a crime, is not a form of racism as defined by the Equality Act 2010. Section 9 of the Act defines race as comprising “colour, nationality” and “ethnic or national origins”, none of which would encompass a Muslim or an Islamic practice, so conflating race and religion in conflict with any definition could cause confusion.

On the second question, it is important for the Government to listen to and engage with Muslim groups and communities, which we will continue to do.

My Lords, emotive definitions such as Islamophobia are simply constraints on freedom of speech. A phobia is a fear, and the best way to combat irrational fear or prejudice suffered by all religions and beliefs is through healthy, open discussion. Will the Minister endorse the commitment given last week by Heather Wheeler, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to protect all religions and beliefs without fear or favour?

The noble Lord is right. As I said, it is unacceptable for anyone to feel unsafe while practising their religion and the Government will never allow prejudice and discrimination of any kind against the Muslim or any other community. We take a zero-tolerance approach and recognise the importance of this matter.

My Lords, the definition of Islamophobia proposed by the APPG, like the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, is not a legally binding working definition, so there is no conflict with the Equality Act. My noble friend will recognise that the Government and the Conservative Party rightly criticised the party opposite when it felt that it could make the definition better and amend it, despite the Jewish community saying, “This is our definition”; that party was wrong for doing so. Does he further recognise the irony and hypocrisy of the Government’s position on Islamophobia, as opposed to the position that we took on anti-Semitism?

There are a couple of points there. The IHRA definition is widely accepted internationally and, by adopting this non-binding definition, we underline the UK Government’s determination to tackle anti-Semitism wherever it occurs. On my noble friend’s other point, as she will know, Islamophobia is a complex matter and there are different views in this House on the issue. There has been strong opposition to the adoption of the all-party definition from a wide range of organisations, including Civitas, Policy Exchange, the Barnabas Fund and the Henry Jackson Society. It is an ongoing issue and discussions are continuing.

My Lords, there are some appalling examples of the Muslim community being harassed and suffering racial abuse. Why will the Government not adopt this definition when it has been adopted by hundreds of organisations, including many local authorities and police forces and, I think I am right in saying—perhaps the Minister can confirm it—by the Conservative Party in Scotland? We need to hear much more from the noble Lord and his party about how they will deal with this appalling abuse.

The noble Lord has picked up on what I just said: it is a challenging issue. I can reassure him that we intend to move as quickly as possible to come to a definition. As I said, it is important to discuss this fully and make sure that we get it right.

My Lords, we on these Benches deplore all attacks on any religious groups and we note particularly the huge rise in the deeply concerning issue of attacks on Muslims. The Minister will be aware of the media reports on Imam Asim of Makkah mosque in Leeds and his comments on free speech. Does the Minister agree with me and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury that Muslims and all religious groups deserve better media? Does he further agree that, alongside law, we need to seriously address this through education?

The right reverend Prelate is right. I had brief sight of the abhorrent hate crime addressed to Qari Asim and I condemn it utterly. He is also right that we need to work harder on the schools and education policy to be sure that young people are not ingrained in any of this despicable stuff.

My Lords, at a time when anti-Muslim and Islamophobic hate crime has spiked by over 500%, and given that the APPG definition was arrived at after widespread consultation with hundreds of academic organisations and now has the support of most mainstream political parties, chief police officers, councils, trade unions and the Scottish Conservatives, why have the Government decided to appoint two advisers to come up with a different definition? Can the Minister not see that doing that, and delaying coming to a non-binding position on this, leads to the community losing confidence in the Government even further because they appear to be kicking something as important as this into the long grass and not taking it seriously?

Not at all—we take it very seriously. The question asked by the noble Baroness is very similar to that from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I say again that the definition goes against not only the Equality Act 2010 but international human rights law, which treats race and religion separately. Criticising somebody because of their race is regarded in international law as unacceptable, but criticising religions or beliefs is permitted. This remains a challenging issue, and we want to move quickly to resolve it.