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A few thoughts on MEND’s recent report on Islamophobia

Whereas definitions of antisemitism have of course been much discussed recently, I’ve seen little coverage of this report on defining Islamophobia.  The definition – and subsequent direct commentary – can be found on pp.20-23. Here are a few first thoughts. I’ve deliberately put to one side considerations of MEND as an organisation.

The short definition (p. 20) at first glance seems straightforward, describing unambiguous anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s possible to envisage ways in which it could be applied inappropriately, but this is true of all such definitions. Like many of the clauses in the key definitions of antisemitism (EUMC, IHRA) it is essentially a statement of the obvious.  It would catch out Paul Weston but that’s not saying much.

I was slightly puzzled by the next point. (I googled the phrase ‘tool used to gain and maintain power’, as I wondered if it had been copied from some other definition but ironically the only other example I could find of its use was to describe Islam!)

Islamophobia (in line with anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of hatred and discrimination) is a tool used to gain and maintain power. It is inextricably linked with socio-economic factors, and frequently reflects the underlying inequalities within society.

Although I don’t find anything immediately objectionable about this clause, I would say that anti-Muslim bigotry has been driven in part by those who feel ‘left behind’, by those who are at a socio-economic disadvantage, and that the same has historically been true (again in part) of antisemitism. However I don’t believe that is what the MEND writers are suggesting.

I liked MEND’s use of the helpful ‘taking into account the overall context’ caveat from the EUMC definition of antisemitism (at the bottom of the first column on p. 20). Then follow ten bullet points with specific examples of behaviour which might be deemed Islamophobic.

1 and 2 seem completely unproblematic.

The third requires some comment:

Charging Muslims with conspiring to harm humanity and/or the Western way of life or blaming Muslims for the economic and social ills of society

I agree that blaming Muslims as a whole for any of these actions, or ascribing extreme views to an individual Muslim for no reason, is completely wrong. However some Muslim groups can very reasonably be accused of endorsing views and actions which run counter to ‘the Western way of life’.

4, 5 and 6 seemed essentially fine, although (again, this is true of all such definitions) much depends on latitude in interpretation. Would ‘Espousing the belief that Muslims are inferior to other social or religious groups’ rule out evidence-based analysis of very specific issues (e.g. views on homosexuality)? I hope not – while acknowledging that discussions of these findings can be done in a bigoted way even if the data is sound -  just as nothing in the IHRA definition of antisemitism should rule out criticism of, for example, Israel’s new nation-state bill.

7, 8 and (particularly) 10 seemed uncontroversial. However 9 made me pause.

Applying ethnocentric approaches to the treatment of Muslims (judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture). For example, evaluating Muslim women’s choice of dress exclusively through the speaker’s expectations and without reference to the personal cultural norms and values of the women in question

Again, it all depends on interpretation. I expect everyone here would agree that women wearing hijab should not be abused or discriminated against – the nasty comments addressed to Nadiya Hussain on social media,or Kelvin Mackenzie’s bigoted remarks about Fatima Manji might rightly be captured in this clause.

But how far do we want to take this? I didn’t intend to bring MEND as an organisation into the discussion but I suspect this kind of case may be on their minds. My uncertainties about the clause made me want to reach for a caveat from Labour’s controversial recent statement on antisemitism:

For example, a comparison or an argument made in a work of analysis or scholarship constitutes a different context to a curt social media post.

In relation to Muslim dress codes I think this quite a helpful distinction. Vulgar and harsh comments about what an individual woman is wearing, assumptions about her views and motives, are one thing – but a reasoned critique of modesty codes (and some of those writing these will be Muslim women themselves) quite another.

Of course clause 9 only takes women’s dress as one example.  In practice this could be used to protect much worse views and practices perceived by some Muslims to be Islamic – or, to be fair, to identify intemperate and bigoted claims about halal.

A final paragraph about freedom of speech rounds off the definition:

While criticism of Islam within legitimate realms of debate and free speech is not in itself Islamophobic, it may become Islamophobic if the arguments presented are used to justify or encourage vilification, stereotyping, dehumanisation, demonisation or exclusion of Muslims. For example, by using criticism of religion to argue that Muslims are collectively evil or violent.

I noted with interest that, although MEND actively prefer the term ‘Islamophobia’ they seem keen to frame each clause in a way which would fit the term anti-Muslim bigotry equally well.  Even though I hope I’ve already made it clear that criticism of some of the many (sometimes contradictory) ideas and practices comprised by ‘Islam’ is entirely legitimate, sometimes what could be glossed as ‘criticism of Islam’ may also be bigoted. Just one example is a cartoon depicting a nuclear fireball and the caption:

some cancers need to be treated with radiation: Islam is one of them

So it would not have been inappropriate to include some clause such as this, which I’ve taken from a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice compiled by Tell MAMA a few years ago.

Other manifestations of anti-Muslim prejudice or hatred could take the form of insults or attacks against Islam, as a means of caricaturing, dehumanizing and promoting hate towards Muslims

Just one final point about a section on p. 25:

Whilst cherishing the right to freedom of speech in an open democratic society, one must not allow individuals to hide behind the free speech argument to peddle antiMuslim and racist agendas. There is currently no absolute right to free speech that harms others, and we would support that position.

I find it really concerning – and it’s not just MEND who do this – when definitions of bigotry slip into an implication that anything which falls foul of the guidelines should be illegal.  People should absolutely have the right to invoke free speech arguments to say offensive and challenging things – that’s exactly what free speech is for, not to enable you to say things no one could possibly object to.  Identifying anti-Muslim or antisemitic discourse might help one decide that someone should be expelled from a political party, than at an article should not be published in a particular paper or simply that you want to unfollow someone on Twitter.  It’s right that people should be able to recognize a spectrum of bigotry ranging from the extreme to the subtle and marginal – but the (appropriate) inclusion of the latter makes it all the more important not to see every example as something which should be punished or banned.