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Islamophobic Hate Crime: Why Is It All About Terror and Extremism Rather Than Hate Crime Per Se?

As part of National Hate Crime Awareness Week, I attended the University of Liverpool's "Challenging Hate Crime: Research, Policy and Practice" conference. Waiting to present a paper on the religion strand of hate crime, two things happened. First, the Home Office released the latest hate crime statistics for 2014/5. Second, David Cameron confirmed that Islamophobic hate crime would be recorded separately reiterating something the Home Secretary Theresa May first announced back in April. Both required me to furiously rewrite my paper.

As regards the latest hate crime statistics, the total number of recorded hate crimes across the five monitored strands (race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity) increased by 18%. Of those, 3,254 were recorded as being motivated by religion; around 6% of all hate crimes. In comparison to 2013/4, the religion statistics showed an increase of 43%. The previous year, there had been a similar increase of 45% increase. Explanations for the year on year increases include the belief that awareness of hate crime has improved and that it is now easier to report hate crimes citing both online and mobile phone apps as evidence. The increase in 2013/4 also reflected the upsurge in Islamophobic hate crimes that followed the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013. The same might be true of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris as regards the latest statistics.

In terms of Islamophobic hate crime, it was my intention to recommend the separate recording in my paper. Sadly, Cameron got there first and stole my thunder. From reaction on social media, it seemed that most welcomed Cameron's announcement. Some also used social media to take credit for convincing Cameron of the need for this (more later). For me, the announcement was both positive and negative.

Positive because my paper argued that recognising Islamophobic hate crime had the potential for 'normalising' it. By this I mean that because wider society generally knows what hate crime is and that it has no place in today's society, framing Islamophobia in this way had the potential to both speak to and indeed convince wider society that Islamophobia was akin to other forms of discrimination, bigotry and hate.

Recording Islamophobic hate crime separately - as Antisemitic hate crime is - was also positive in that the statistics it provided would go some way to countering those who continue to question and even dismiss the reality and existence of Islamophobia. In essence, it would offer 'proof'.

As regards the negatives, the most problematic was that all of this would be framed by - and duly be introduced via - counter-terror and counter-extremism legislation. Primarily this is because hate crime is significantly different to counter-terror and counter-extremism. We know this because in 2007, the Police Service, Crown Prosecution Service, Prison Service (now known as the National Offender Management Service) and other agencies agreed a common definition of hate crime: "any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic". In contrast, the Government's definition of extremism is the "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas".

Not only are the two quite different but little apparent overlap between them would appear to be evident. This prompts a number of questions. The first is that if Islamophobic hate crime is to be framed by counter-terror and counter-extremism, does this mean that something similar will apply to race, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity hate crimes? If the answer is no, then what might be exceptional about Islamophobic hate crime? Depending upon that exceptionality, does it still fit within the common definition of hate crime?

The second relates to a question asked of me on social media, whether hate crimes were perpetrated by those holding extremist views or ideologies? There is however no basis for this whatsoever. As stressed in a number of papers at the conference earlier, hate crimes are in fact committed by ordinary people. As research shows, not only are many hate crimes committed by perpetrators who know or are aware of their victims but so too that 'mission offenders' - those whose life's mission it is to rid the world of groups they consider evil or inferior - make up only a small number of all perpetrators. There is no evidence therefore to substantiate the argument that hate crime is perpetrated by extremists.

Why then frame Islamophobic hate crime within counter-terror and counter-extremism?

In truth, this has been a recurrent theme in the British political spaces. Take for instance when New Labour sought to introduce legislation to protect against assault or abuse on the basis of religion, it did so via the Anti-Terrorism, Crime & Security Act 2001. Likewise in 2009 when during an interview with the Muslim News, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that a future Labour Government was committed to doing more to addressing Islamophobia. The overarching emphasis of the interview however was to speak to Muslims about the need for even more counter-terror legislation and the need to strengthen the PREVENT agenda. The same too in December 2013 when in the report of the Extremism Task Force, it stated that "...[the Coalition Government] must tackle extremism of all kinds, including the Islamophobia and neo-Nazism espoused by the murderer of Mohammed Saleem to justify his terrorist attacks against mosques in the West Midlands". This was the only mention of Islamophobia however. The remainder of the report focused on how best to tackle both violent and non-violent forms of Islamist extremism. And then in April this year, Theresa May - the Home Secretary - first announced today's announcement by Cameron in a speech titled, "A New Partnership to Defeat Extremism". The political linking of Islamophobia with counter-terror and counter-extremism might therefore be rather more deliberate than today's announcement in isolation might initially suggest.

This serves two functions. First, it sends out the misrepresentative and misguided message that Islamophobia is consequential of terrorism and extremism. In other words, if Muslims stop blowing themselves up then people will stop hating them. Second, it is a pacifier. In other words, the Government is saying that if it commits to doing something about Islamophobia then Muslims - or at least those representing Muslims at the political table - should not rock the boat about the introduction of ever more stringent and pernicious counter-terror and counter-extremism measures.

And finally, what about those taking credit for today's announcement. If indeed they were the driving force behind Cameron's announcement, then why did they allow measures to address Islamophobia to be conjoined with counter-terror and counter-extremism measures that impinge on our civil liberties? Was it that they were hoodwinked by politicians or was it that they were just willing to accept anything Government threw at the in the desperate hope of keeping their seat at the political table? Quite irrespective however there is little doubt that those claiming credit would have seen their egos grow with every favourite and retweet on social media.

Of course, my concerns could be unfounded. Only time will tell - how long shall we give it?