British campaign to criminalise Islamophobia condemned as dangerous

Hidden agenda to promote divisions seen in politicians calls for new 'racism' laws on Muslim hate crimes

Anna Soubry, a Conservative lawmaker, departs following a media interview in the Westminster district of London, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Faced with a Brexit vote she can't win, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be gambling that running down the clock to a no-deal departure might change the arithmetic in Parliament. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
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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.