Islamophobia and free speech

The Muslim Council of Britain now wants its own version of the IHRA definition, which for Eddie Ford can only be bad for freedom of expression

As extensively reported in this publication, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism has had a chilling effect on free speech. This is exactly as intended, given that its supposed examples of anti-Semitism excessively focus on Israel, deliberately conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. According to the IHRA, therefore, calling Israel a “racist endeavour” is an expression of anti-Semitism - even though the origins of that state in a colonial-settler ideology is a straightforward historical fact. Bizarrely, opposing a form of racism (Zionism) is now proof that you are a racist. Anti-racists are racists and racists are anti-racists.

The outcome of the IRHA’s definition is that people are being hounded out of the Labour Party or losing their job - such as Stan Keable, the secretary of Labour Party Marxists, who was sacked by Hammersmith and Fulham council for making “inappropriate comments” about Zionism, whilst talking to someone at the anti-Corbyn demonstration outside parliament back in March.1 Regrettably, there are plenty of other examples of how the IHRA definition has led to an intolerant and anti-democratic culture of witch-hunting, suspensions and sacking.

Perhaps inspired by these events, the Muslim Council of Britain is now effectively saying that it wants its own version of the IRHA. If Zionists can be protected, then why not Muslims? - a demand that has a certain logic, it has to be said. The MCB, of course, is a significant organisation, being a national umbrella body with over 500 mosques, educational and charitable associations affiliated to it - its current secretary general, Harun Khan, is the first British-born Muslim to take up the post. The MCB has been described as the “best known and most powerful” of the many organisations that have been founded over the last two decades to represent Britain’s Muslim population.2 Therefore what it says matters, whether you agree with its views or not.

Anyhow, on November 27 the MCB released a statement “welcoming” the definition of Islamophobia released on that day by the All-Party Parliamentary Group following a year-long consultation - the first ever “working” definition of Islamophobia in Britain.3 Beginning to sound familiar? According to the APPG, Islamophobia is “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. The MCB explains that this definition “aligns” to the three “essential principles” that they had previously set out - which were that Islamophobia is a form of racism, Islamophobia is more than just anti-Muslim hatred or bigotry; and, while Islamophobia does not incorporate criticism of Islam as a faith, some people may hide behind “criticism of Islam” when engaging in Islamophobia. In the same way, presumably, that some people may hide behind ‘criticism of Zionism’ when engaging in anti-Semitism.

Interestingly, the APPG’s 72-page Report on the inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred alludes to the same point - observing:

… we know all too well from the anti-Semitism debate engulfing the Labour Party over the summer that both the process of defining - one which does not undermine or marginalise the viewpoints of the victim group itself - and the meaning attached to the word, exemplified through demonstrable examples, are necessary if bigotry directed at particular sections of our society are to be widely understood and challenged, using every available lever in government, politics, policymaking, media, society and education.

Making the point even more explicit in its conclusion, the report notes that it found the IHRA explanatory notes and examples “both helpful and informative”, and it inspired much of the thinking of parliamentarians engaged in this process of proposing a definition of Islamophobia. It added that the IHRA’s explanatory notes “could, in all fairness, be adopted in their entirety to Islamophobia”. It is hard not to deduce that the APPG’s Islamophobia report is the son of IHRA.

The MCB goes on to tell us that the APPG’s proposed definition has “strong support” amongst academics in the field, and support from many Muslims across Britain. It wants Muslim communities to “embrace the definition” and “welcome the APPG’s road show across the UK to share their work in this area”. Khan said the publication of the report was a “significant moment” and hoped that the British government will “listen to Muslim communities and adopt this definition in the coming days and weeks”. To this end, the MCB has co-signed a letter with other Muslim organisations like Muslim Aid and Muslim Charities Forum, urging “all” political party leaders to sign up to the APPG definition, as it was “vital that the definition encapsulated the racialised reality of Islamophobia and its many manifestations over and above mere anti-Muslim hatred”. Additionally, “we believed it was important that the definition provided space for criticism of Islam that did not use the language of racism to target expressions of Muslimness”. So far, over 70 academics have publicly endorsed the APPG definition.

Naturally, the Muslim Association of Britain (essentially the UK wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) has also welcomed the “landmark” report as a “step in the right direction”, but argues more work has to be done.4 The working definition “should only lay the groundwork for further discussion”, states the MAB, as “comparing Islamophobia to racism - while providing an easy margin of understanding - does not tackle the issue in its entirety”. By which the MAB means that “alluding to only racial and cultural aspects of Islam, rather than the religious and symbolic elements, is problematic” - and must be “developed through an ongoing broad and extensive discussion”.

The MAB wants, it seems, the APPG definition-plus: something that protects Islam as a religion from ‘hate crime’ or ferocious criticism. Many readers of this paper may recall that our Socialist Workers Party comrades were very close to the MAB in the Stop the War Coalition and Respect - not uttering a word of criticism when the MAB issued a stern press release in 2006 condemning the BBC for screening Jerry Springer - the opera. It will be interesting to see what the SWP says about the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia (if anything).

Even after taking into account the vast difference in population numbers, in terms of hates crimes - accepting the definition for now - Muslims are far more likely to be victims than Jews, who despite that apparently face an “existential threat”, according to Zionist papers like the Jewish Chronicle. If we are to believe the statistics supplied by the home office, religiously motivated hate crime has risen by 40% in England and Wales, with more than half (52%) of offences directed at Muslims. Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released results of the first national survey of prejudice for over a decade, which that showed 70% of Muslims surveyed had experienced religion-based prejudice.

Yet whilst deploring any acts of violence or intimidation against members of the Muslim population, and anti-Muslim bigotry in general, communists stand implacably by the principle of freedom of speech. Of course, advocates of an IHRA-type Islamophobic law say that it would not affect the right to criticise religion or theological doctrine - but we all know it would. Councils would start sacking workers on bogus charges of Islamophobia, like the trumped-up charges of anti-Semitism. No, communists support free speech, which obviously does not mean it is acceptable to incite someone to murder - an entirely different thing.

On a broader point, communists fight for the complete separation of church and state. This means the democratic right to practise whatever religion you like and the democratic right to criticise religion, but we do not aim to gratuitously insult or offend someone’s religious beliefs or necessarily approve of those that seek to do so. After all, at the end of the day religion is “the sigh of the oppressed” - why would communists want to ridicule or mock those who take to “opium” for pain relief? Communists, as militant secularists, are against privileges for one religious faith, denomination or cult over another. There should be a strict equality of belief and non-belief.



1. ‘In defence of Stan KeableWeekly Worker March 29.

2. P Morey and A Yaqin Framing Muslims Cambridge MA 2011, p82.

3. https://appgbritishmuslims.org/publications.

4. www.mabonline.net/press-release-mab-welcomes-appg-definition-of-islamophobia.