Five Considerations When Refuting The Critics Of Islamophobia

25/01/2017 13:04
Jessica Hill/AP

Following on from the oral evidence I gave to the Home Affairs Committee at a session on the impacts of hate crime, I was asked to pull together a short briefing paper on how we might move towards establishing a working definition of Islamophobia (the final draft can be found here).

As with any discriminatory phenomenon, the process of definition can be complex and contentious and Islamophobia is no different in this respect. However unlike other discriminatory phenomena such as racism, Islamophobia has a far shorter history. It should be remembered that in its current manifestation, the term Islamophobia only entered the public and political lexicon two decades ago. Consequently, thinking and understanding about the phenomenon remains less developed than it does for other similar phenomena.

Nonetheless, numerous definitions of Islamophobia currently exist ranging from the academic and scholarly, through the community and advocacy sectors, to the policy and political. Few have acquired widespread acceptance however and so the search for 'the one' has become something of a search for El Dorado. But as with El Dorado, so too is it a myth to believe that conceiving and establishing a working definition of Islamophobia will simplify the phenomenon's complexity or overcome its contestation.

This is not to suggest that establishing a working definition is worthless. In fact quite the opposite is true. This is because to socially and politically tackle Islamophobia, there must be clarity and consensus about what it is and so supporting the move towards establishing a more consistent and coherent approach would be as beneficial to those engaged in advocacy and campaigning as indeed those tasked with shaping policy and political interventions.

Nonetheless, it is a myth to think that a working definition will in any way placate or deter those who seek to vociferously decry Islamophobia at every opportunity. For some, denying and decrying Islamophobia has become something of a cause célèbre, evident as much on the liberal left as indeed it is on the political right. For this reason, I included in my briefing paper a number of arguments that critics and detractors repeatedly put forward to try and derail any attempt to even begin to tackle Islamophobia. While these same arguments will no doubt continue to be thrown at all and sundry by critics and detractors, it is necessary to refute these claims and charges once and for all in order to highlight just how flimsy and subjective they are.

First off, it should be stressed that the non-existence of a widely accepted working definition never has been - or indeed ever will be - evidence that Islamophobia does not exist. This is in itself the hollowest of arguments posited by critics and detractors alike. Just because they do not believe it exists does not mean that beliefs are fact (or even an 'alternative fact' as per the Trump administration). Evidence to prove Islamophobia is nowadays widely available and undoubtedly verifiable, the Metropolitan Police being one such source.

Second, critics and detractors repeatedly dismiss Islamophobia out of hand on the basis that it is named inappropriately. While so, there exist no valid arguments for renaming Islamophobia with any of the alternatives currently in circulation be that 'anti-Muslim hatred', 'anti-Muslim racism' or indeed any other. None are any less complex or contentious and none would likely change the views or opinions of those who seek to dismiss Islamophobia's existence.

Third, the term Islamophobia merely needs to name: it does not need to literally describe or define. A precedent exists for this, illustrated by how the terms Antisemitism and homophobia name rather than literally describe what they are used to refer to. So for example, while Antisemitism is widely accepted and used to name rather than describe the discrimination, bigotry, hate and violence expressed and manifested towards Jews, Jewish communities and importantly, the religion of Judaism it cannot be used to accurately describe - literally at least - someone perpetrating such acts as an 'anti-Semite'. Islamophobia as a descriptor functions in exactly the same way and so should be able to be used to name in exactly the same way also: to name rather than literally describe. Arguments that seek to dismiss on the basis of literal interpretations and understandings must therefore be dismissed as mere smokescreens behind which critics and detractors seek to obscure the debates about the realities of Islamophobia and more importantly, the need to tackle it.

Fourth, critics and detractors argue that Islamophobia provides a shield behind which Muslims deflect criticism both of themselves and the religion of Islam. Similar criticisms are posited at Jews as regards Antisemitism and to ethnic minorities when such lurid claims are made as regards playing the 'race card'. It is worth unequivocally stating that neither Islamophobia nor indeed any other discriminatory phenomenon can ever be used to limit or censure appropriate, legitimate or proportionate criticism, disagreement or condemnation. In this respect, it is not Islamophobic to not uphold or agree with the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims. Nor is it Islamophobic to condemn atrocities or similar when committed by a group or individuals who are identified as Muslim or who claim to be acting in 'the name of Islam' as indeed some do. It is however likely to be Islamophobic if those criticisms, disagreements or condemnations are used as to demonise or vilify all Muslims without differentiation; something critics and detractors routinely and repeatedly do.

Establishing a working definition will support the process of differentiating the appropriate from the inappropriate, the legitimate from the illegitimate, and the disproportionate from the proportionate which brings me on to the final consideration. However, quite irrespective of which - if indeed any - working definition is established, it is highly unlikely that it will be warmly received by those who seek to criticise, detract from, and ultimately deny Islamophobia's very existence.

For this reason, their arguments should be seen for what they are and not be the reason for not moving forward regardless: let's not let a handful of people allow this unwanted and unfounded phenomenon continue to detrimentally impact the everyday lives of ordinary people.