Can the Brits Define ‘Islamophobia’?

Worshippers attend Friday prayers in the Baitul Futuh Mosque in London, England, in 2017. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
A proposed definition of Islamophobia gives relatively few clues about how it would be applied.

What criticisms of Muslims can be censured, sanctioned, or prosecuted? What kind of statements will we deem Islamophobic? The debate is starting to happen in the United Kingdom, and it will surely happen soon in American universities, corporations, and perhaps our legislatures. We ought to start thinking it through.

In the United Kingdom, the All Party Parliamentary Group of Muslims proposed a working definition of Islamophobia that runs this way: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” This definition has been rapidly adopted by smaller parties in the U.K., such as the Liberal Democrats, but rejected by the Tories and the government of Theresa May. It’s also been criticized by Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), who says such a definition, if it spread, could hamper anti-terror investigations.

Would such a definition, if adopted, apply to any of the following statements?

“They seek to enslave the bodies of women.”

“[H]e prefers theocracy to democracy. He preaches a message of enduring hatred and personifies the kind of politics that is inimical to everything the Labour party stands for. ”

“I genuinely believe that [Islam] is not, to put it at its mildest, a force for good in the world.”

As you may suspect already, I’m quoting criticisms of other religious groups. The first is from an argument about the Christian understanding of abortion driving restrictive legislation in Alabama. The second is from an old Guardian column on the Ulster Presbyterian firebrand Ian Paisley. The third is adapted from Stephen Fry’s opening statement in a debate on whether the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world that preceded his account of Catholic history, in which the emphasis was on rape, violence, and conquest.

For now Americans have some assurance that the First Amendment protects their right to free speech. But social sanction matters.

A decade ago, a professor of biology, PZ Myers, encouraged the theft of the Catholic Eucharist so he could demonstrate himself desecrating it on his blog. It caused a small controversy on the blogosphere, but nowhere else. Prominent columnists did not intone solemnly about America’s history of deadly anti-Catholic riots. Myers did not lose his job. No one even thought to challenge it. But when an extremely obscure pastor wanted to stage a Koran burning, he commanded the attention of a nation and got a phone call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Under the proposed definition of Islamophobia would you have to censure someone who suggested that phone call, based on fears of a replay of deadly riots by Muslims after a papal speech, reflected poorly on the Islamic faith?

Of course there is something almost perverse about the debate. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of British Muslims joined Islamic State. Why does it occur to people to decrease the ability of British citizens to talk about this religion? The phenomenon of British ISIS was so serious, the Syrian government is considering banning Britons from traveling to certain parts of their country, given that past support for a theocratic Sunni movement. Would this law from a Shia government also qualify “as a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness?”

You see the problem. The proposed definition gives relatively few clues about how it would be applied. As it stands it could easily be applied to Muslims themselves who are offering critiques of other Muslims. It could make it impossible to argue that certain tenets or interpretative traditions within Islam are more likely to predispose their adherents to political extremism or violence. It seems designed to punish people who pay less attention to the mannerly forms of political debate among the most educated sector of society, and who simply offer a plainspoken opinion on Muslims and Islam, with the same freedom and pungency of expression they might express themselves about Irish Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, or American Evangelicals.

This is, of course, the problem, when you think that a little extra management of free speech is all that’s needed to reverse or remediate every perceived inequality of esteem in society.

There is a real problem that rules around Islamophobia do seek to address, though they do so in a maddeningly tedious way. Millions of Muslims have moved into Western nations in recent decades, and they in many cases poorly integrated into their societies. In some cases this is because they are exposed to unjust suspicion and prejudice. In others because we simply don’t know how to do so.

Secularists tend to think of their rules for the separation of religion and statecraft as universally valid and applicable. But, in fact, all the extant law, intuitions, and understandings in the West about secularism are inherited from social and political conflicts with the Western Churches. The state saw the Church as a rival form of political organization. Secularists and liberals in society saw the Church as a vehicle for blessing majoritarian prejudice, bullying, and tyranny. But Muslims are a minority, and their concept of the ummah — the community of Muslim believers — is not really a great analogue to the Christian Churches.

And just as Islamic concepts are not always analogous to Christian ones, so too the history of racial discrimination in the West may not be a good template for building taboos around the discussion of one of the world’s largest religions.

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