Debating Islamophobia on The Moral Maze

The recent suspension of Trevor Phillips from the Labour Party prompted the Moral Maze (BBC Radio 4) to make Islamophobia the focus of this week’s episode. The premise was an interesting one – Michael Buerk opened the programme with some brief reflections on the contested question of Islamophobia’s relationship with racism and the balance between protecting people from bigotry and ensuring that the freedom to criticise ideas is not curtailed. I thought panellist Matthew Taylor, in his own opening remarks, struck a helpfully nuanced note in declaring that, while he didn’t support Phillips’ suspension, he did feel that some of his statements could reasonably be referred to as Islmaophobic.

The first witness was Ibrahim Mogra from the MCB.  I had some sympathy with his feeling that Islamophobia is about ‘more than hatred of Muslims’ (about 5 minutes in) although I didn’t feel he quite pinned this point down. (By analogy, I don’t think ‘hatred of Jews’ captures all manifestations of antisemitism). He then maintained that it was indeed important to ensure that people could criticise Islam freely, but cautioned about the language people used, and the dangers of demonising the followers of Islam.  When Melanie Phillips asked whether the term ‘Islamophobia’ might be used to silence debate, he explicitly agreed that this should not be allowed to happen.  A little later (around 11:00) Tim Stanley asked whether the adoption of a definition of Islamophobia gave greater protection to Muslims than to other groups, e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses.  My own response to this question was that a combination of factors meant that a clear and detailed working definition would indeed be helpful. (Although I’m not sure that any current definition quite fits that bill.) These factors include the high profile of Muslims/Islam in the current news and media context, the prevalence of bigotry which sometimes manifests itself in violence, the complexity and variety of the tropes involved in this bigotry, as well as the importance of making sure that legitimate criticism of any individual Muslim/Muslim organisation/aspect of Islam is not jeopardised.

Fiyaz Mughal was the next witness.  I very much support the way he has taken a stance against both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamism, showing himself a firm ally of LGBT Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims and the Jewish community. However I didn’t agree with his characterisation of Trevor Phillips’ suspension as ‘obscene’.  Matthew Taylor quizzed him about this, recasting some of Phillips’ remarks about Muslims as statements about Jews.  Generally I agreed more with Taylor here when he argued (around 14:40) that there did seem some grounds for finding Phillips’ remarks bigoted, and Fiyaz Mughal himself agreed that they might have been better expressed.  He asserted the importance of considering Phillips’ comments in their larger context.  I agree – however I don’t think this works unambiguously in Phillips’ favour. His involvement with the Runnymede Trust certainly indicates a concern for victims of anti-Muslim prejudice. However a key lesson we have learnt from the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis is that a history of antiracism is not, in itself, a get out of jail free card, and there are quite a few separate charges against Phillips, even if some are marginal.

The prize for the most annoying witness goes, without question, to Myriam Francois.  She did open by making quite a helpful point, that the APPG definition is not legally binding and is useful as a point of reference. However things rapidly went downhill. Tim Stanley asked if she was happy with non-Muslims discussing and debating Islam. She retorted that she found the question insulting and refused to respond.  It would have been quite easy just to say ‘yes’, or perhaps, ‘yes, but I find the degree of scrutiny it attracts unsettling sometimes’. Or something.  Melanie Phillips then asked whether she thought any criticisms of Islam could be seen as legitimate. Again, she refused to answer the question, prompting Phillips to respond that she would draw her own conclusions. What’s frustrating here is that I can see no reason why Francois – who, while extremely irritating, is certainly no Islamist – couldn’t have identified some contested tenet of Islam – the death sentence for apostasy for example – as a suitable subject for criticism.

It was a relief when she flounced off to be replaced by Mohammed Amin.  He offered a very useful parallel between ‘banging on about Islam’ and ‘banging on about Israel’ –  positions sometimes used as cover for prejudice against Muslims and Jews respectively. Unfortunately I didn’t find the ensuing questions posed to Amin hugely helpful in teasing out further interesting insights. I would have liked to hear his thoughts about the suspension of Trevor Phillips, and his detailed comments on each of the key (perceived) counts against him.

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