Government Fails to Engage Adviser Appointed to Help Define Islamophobia
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Friday February 18 2022
Imam Qari Asim MBE, who was appointed in July 2019 as an independent adviser “to provide expert advice on a definition of Islamophobia to the government”, says that ministers have failed to respond to his requests to start work on formulating a definition. Having rejected the definition of Islamophobia drawn up by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims, the Government announced it would appoint two “expert advisers to lead a study in close collaboration with the cross-government Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group” (AMHWG) in order to establish its own working definition of Islamophobia. However, nearly three years later, no progress has been made and a second adviser has not even been appointed. In the words of Qari Asim, this highlights a clear “lack of political will to define Islamophobia” on the part of the Government, which illustrates that the Government should abandon this futile exercise and urgently adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia.
The Government claims to “take a zero tolerance approach to anti-Muslim hatred in any form”, but its failure to engage with Qari Asim illustrates that it is not actually committed to tackling Islamophobia. Qari Asim, who is also Deputy Chair of the AMHWG, says that he has sent numerous letters and emails to Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, as recently as December 2021. His correspondences have emphasised the need to make headway in the process to define Islamophobia, but have repeatedly gone unanswered. Furthermore, he has not been given any support from Gove’s Department, including no financial resources nor personnel with which to formally commence the process to define Islamophobia. He explained, in relation to drawing up a definition of Islamophobia, that he has “set out [his] plan on how [he] thought a broad-based consensus can be achieved, but there has been a lack of meaningful engagement”. As such, the fact that he has been consistently ignored underscores the Government’s clear reluctance to have a formal definition of Islamophobia.
Worryingly, Qari Asim’s revelations should come as no surprise considering the prevalence of Islamophobia among Conservative ministers currently in government such as Johnson and Gove. In a 2018 article for The Telegraph, Johnson compared Muslim women that wear the Burqa to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”, which led to a 375% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the week after the article was published. Similarly, journalist Peter Oborne has labelled Gove as the “unsung commander-in-chief of the Islamophobes inside the Conservative party”. As Education Secretary, Gove ordered an inquiry in 2014 into the alleged Islamist takeover of Birmingham’s schools, knowing full well that the only piece of evidence for this was a fabricated letter. As revealed in a recent New York Times podcast, the “Trojan Horse Affair” heightened Islamophobia in the education sector and helped shape the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, particularly through the introduction of the statutory PREVENT duty in 2015. This made it compulsory for public sector workers, including schoolteachers and staff, to “have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”. The PREVENT strategy has been widely criticised for discriminating against Muslims and has been described by the former Co-Chair of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, as “broken” and “toxic”. Hence, it is ironic that Gove is responsible for overseeing the Government’s plan to form a definition of Islamophobia given that he himself is deeply Islamophobic.
Therefore, the Government would not want a formal definition of Islamophobia because many of its own policies, such as PREVENT, and various high-profile figures in its party are themselves Islamophobic. This helps explain why the Government and Conservative Party politicians, in general, often use the term “anti-Muslim hatred” instead of “Islamophobia” because the former refers primarily to verbal and physical hate crimes, yet fails to encompass structural forms of Islamophobia that permeate the social, political, economic, and public spheres of life.
Indeed, by conceptualising Islamophobia as a “type of racism”, the APPG definition highlights that Muslims are victims of more than just overt expressions of hatred and abuse, but are subject to a system of discrimination, control, and socio-economic exclusion. In this way, the APPG definition is capable of capturing all the different forms of Islamophobia that may otherwise go unnoticed, thereby illustrating that Islamophobia manifests itself in the same way as other forms of racism and functions as a form of racism. Moreover, a formal definition of Islamophobia will allow policymakers to identify how Islamophobia manifests itself and functions and in turn, devise meaningful strategies to tackle it. Thus, it is critically important that the APPG definition of Islamophobia is adopted across society, including by the Government.
The Government’s failure to engage its own adviser on Islamophobia makes it abundantly clear that it has no real intention of drawing up a definition of the term. This is rooted in anti-Muslim sentiment within its own ranks, for which reason its announcement in 2019 that it would establish its own definition of Islamophobia was nothing more than an empty promise. As such, MEND urges the Government to abandon this exercise and adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia, together with the explanatory guidelines put forward by the Coalition Against Islamophobia, so that this phenomenon can be tackled meaningfully and effectively.