A leading British think tank has warned of the dangers of adopting new laws that would criminalise an offence of Islamophobia as racism.
A Policy Exchange report on Thursday said the move would give a platform to special interest groups that could exploit the existence of a race-based crime to pursue their own agenda.
The position paper was drawn up after a group of British MPs gave their backing to calls for an official definition of Islamophobia that would threat any instances as racist in nature.
Britain has extensive hate crime laws that outlaw attacks such as Islamophobia or anti-Semitism without making additional links to racism.
One of the authors of the study, former diplomat Sir John Jenkins, said the process that produced the findings appeared to be deeply flawed. “It should be beyond question that anti-Muslim hatred must be tackled with the same determination as any other form of prejudice, bigotry or racism in Britain,” he wrote. “The question that matters, however, is whether this initiative will help or hinder that broader effort. There are important questions about the report itself – and how it was compiled – that need to be asked, especially by those in Government who are being urged to adopt the definition it proposes.”
A leading campaigner who headed Britain’s former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Sir Trevor Philips gave his backing to the warning, as someone who had embraced the terms more than two decades earlier.
“What exactly is “Islamophobia”? In 1997, when I was chair of the Runnymede Trust, we published the report that introduced the word into Britain’s political lexicon,” he said. “It encompassed the overt, covert and sometimes unwittingly unfavourable treatment of people from a Muslim background."
Classifying Islamophobic attacks as racism undermines the allegiances of many Muslims in Britain who have no wish to make such a distinction, he said.
“It reduces the lives of British Muslims – the vast majority of whom feel strongly attached to the UK – to the status of perpetual victims and pawns in some wider battle,” he said. “British Muslims are so much more than this, and before the Government or any institution adopts a definition that treats them in this way, much deeper thought is required.
“The spectacular misreading of both Muslim needs and non-Muslim attitudes to which the APPG’s report has fallen prey may well serve the interests of sectarians and those hostile to integration between Britain’s communities, especially the Far Right and Islamists; but it will do little to advance the prospects of those who follow the faith.”
The report itself questions the credentials of those who gave written or personal evidence that was used to draw up the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims.
“What the APPG report does not confront is the possibility that the definition it proposes and the processes for managing and applying it may be manipulated in order to control the boundaries of public debate in the service of sectional agendas,” it said. “One can already see this in the way that “Islamophobia” has sometimes been deployed in Britain in the recent past.”
Anna Soubry, a co-chair of the group, explained their findings last month. “Overwhelmingly Islamophobia is rooted in racism and therefore is, racist,” she said. “This definition recognises this truth and I hope it will now enable the serious work that needs to be done to tackle Islamophobia.”
But by broadening the scope of the laws there is a danger that new opportunities would open up for activists to take advantage of controversies to further political goals. “The charge of Islamophobia has been used to attack positions that cannot be said to reach any threshold for a plausible definition of anti-Muslim hatred,” it said. “Those who have exploited the use of this term in this way include groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) – highly vocal supporters of the APPG recommendation – but it is used far more widely than by these groups.”
Victoria Atkins, a British government minister, rejected the report findings when asked for a response in the House of Commons. “We do not accept the need for a definitive definition, but we know that Islamophobia is clearly recognised and that we have very effective monitoring systems of all race-hate crimes,” she said.
One of the pitfalls identified by the report is that groups like the MCB seek “yet another expansion of a divisive form of identity”.
“This only creates new opportunities for self-appointed gatekeepers. The Muslim Council of Britain, for example, which only a small minority of British Muslims regards as representing them, have pursued this approach to gain influence over the Government in the past.”
The witnesses identified by the MPs are also linked to controversial campaign groups, such as Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). “Antonio Perra, an academic based at King’s College London, was a senior policy analyst at MEND,” it said. “Professor Salman Sayyid, the Leeds-based academic who suggested the one-line definition adopted by the APPG has held at least three public events with the IHRC (Islamic Human Rights Commission).
The IHRC hosts annual Islamophobia awards at which previous "winners" have included Barack Obama.