UK: The Push to End Free Speech
- “We are concerned that the definition… could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states. There is also a risk it could also undermine counter-terrorism powers, which seek to tackle extremism or prevent terrorism.” — Martin Hewitt, Chair, National Police Chiefs’ Council.
- Islam represents an idea, not a nationality or an ethnicity. The conventional purpose of most hate-speech laws is to protect people from hatred, not ideas.
- The new proposed definition would criminalize criticism of Islam. Considering the origins of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, that is probably the whole point.
- “[A]n alternative definition of Anti-Muslim Hatred should be specific and narrow. It should focus on addressing bigotry directed at individuals, and avoid censoring debate or freedom of expression on religion. Finally, a comprehensive definition of Anti-Muslim Hatred must take intra-Muslim hatred into account to protect those who want to speak freely or express themselves differently.” — Nikita Malik, Forbes, May 20, 2019.
In April 2018, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims began work on establishing a “working definition of Islamophobia that can be widely accepted by Muslims, political parties and the government”.
In December 2018, the group concluded its work with a “Report on the inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia / anti-Muslim hatred.” The report defines “Islamophobia” as a form of racism, conflating religion with ethnic origin or nationality: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
The report, furthermore, claims that a definition of Islamophobia is “instrumental” to “the political will and institutional determination to tackle it.”
Most political parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives, have adopted the broadened definition of Islamophobia, but it has not been adopted by the government. According to a government spokesperson:
“We are conscious that the [all-party parliamentary group’s] proposed definition has not been broadly accepted – unlike the IHRA definition of antisemitism before it was adopted by the UK government and other international organisations and governments. This is a matter that needs further careful consideration.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council, which represents the leaders of law enforcement in England and Wales, have also expressed concern with the broadened definition. Its chair, Martin Hewitt, said:
“We take all reports of hate crime very seriously and will investigate them thoroughly. However, we have some concerns about the proposed definition of Islamophobia made by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. We are concerned that the definition is too broad as currently drafted, could cause confusion for officers enforcing it and could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states. There is also a risk it could also undermine counter-terrorism powers, which seek to tackle extremism or prevent terrorism”.
Richard Walton, a former head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police, wrote:
“Adopting the definition would hand the initiative to those who have been trying to dismantle the Government’s Countering Violent Extremism programme for years; it is no surprise to see many of those same campaigners and radical groups have been closely involved in the APPG’s work in developing the definition (as authors or sources)… how could the police or anyone else disprove that they had targeted an expression of ‘perceived Muslimness’?…
“If the Government accepts the APPG definition of Islamophobia, all of these [anti-terrorism] powers are more likely to be challenged by anti-Prevent campaigners and their supporters who would seek to label police officers ‘Islamophobic’ (and, therefore, racist)…
“… Whole government departments, the entire police service, intelligence agencies, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), judiciary and HM Prison and Probation Service could be branded and labelled ‘institutionally Islamophobic’ by anti-Prevent campaign groups. It would be an allegation that would be impossible to refute, owing to the indistinct and imprecise nature of the APPG definition…”
Similarly, the UK government, according to a Buzzfeed report, is concerned that defining Islamophobia as a form of racism “could mean people who criticise aspects of Islam might be prosecuted under discrimination laws.”
The UK government is right, of course. Islam represents an idea, not a nationality or an ethnicity. The conventional purpose of most hate-speech laws is to protect people from hatred, not ideas. The new proposed definition would criminalize criticism of Islam.
Considering the origins of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims, that is probably the whole point. The APPG on British Muslims, according to its website, was established in July 2017. The organization is chaired by MPs Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting and is meant to build on the work of a former APPG: the APPG on Islamophobia. That came into existence as the result of a meeting at the House of Commons in March 2010, hosted by, among others, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) — the largest Muslim organization in the UK, and that claims to be representative of British Muslims. It is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. By November 2010, after the APPG on Islamophobia had been formed, it quickly ran into trouble. The Muslim organization that was appointed as its secretariat turned out to be the Muslim extremist organization iENGAGE, which has since changed its name to MEND. Both MEND and the Muslim Council of Britain are among the many organizations and individuals that contributed written evidence to the report on a definition of Islamophobia.
Wes Streeting, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, recently criticized the government’s refusal to adopt the new definition:
“What we’re up against goes wider than anti-Muslim hatred. It is structural, often unconscious, bias…It is particularly disappointing to see a noisy chorus of vocal opposition making arguments in bad faith that accuse us of trying to use the term Islamophobia to shut down criticism of Islam and introduce blasphemy laws by the back door. In fact, our report makes it crystal clear that our definition does not preclude criticism of Islam or Islamic theology. God, if you believe in such a thing, doesn’t need protection from criticism.”
Streeting appears to pretend that Islam allows either criticism of Allah and Mohammed, or free choice of religion.
That is not the case: Sharia law prohibits questioning, seeming to regard it as a form of blasphemy:
“O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you. But if you ask about them while the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be shown to you. Allah has pardoned that which is past; and Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing.” [Qur’an 5:101, Sahih International translation]
“A people asked such [questions] before you; then they became thereby disbelievers.” [Qur’an 5:102, Sahih International translation]
The prohibition against questioning also seems why several Muslim organizations, such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), fight for the introduction of blasphemy laws in the West, to prevent questioning Islam.
The proposed definition also does not take into account the threats ex-Muslims receive from Muslims (here, here, here and here), and how the definition would only make life more difficult for those Muslims who dare to leave or speak out. According to Nikita Malik, writing in Forbes:
“The term Islamophobia has a broad meaning that can easily be used to restrict free and fair discussion about the Islamic religion and Islamist extremism. Instead, an alternative definition of Anti-Muslim Hatred should be specific and narrow. It should focus on addressing bigotry directed at individuals, and avoid censoring debate or freedom of expression on religion. Finally, a comprehensive definition of Anti-Muslim Hatred must take intra-Muslim hatred into account to protect those who want to speak freely or express themselves differently.”
Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.