What Now For The Working Definition On Islamophobia?

Chris Allen
May 21 · 4 min read

At the tail end of 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims put forward a new working definition of Islamophobia. In its report titled “Islamophobia Defined”, it stated that:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”

The 2018 report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims

The culmination of almost two years of consultation and evidence gathering, the working definition was a welcome development and one that I remain happy to endorse. I did this again this past weekend, as a signatory to an open letter published in the Guardian newspaper.

At the time however, I set out in a piece for the Conversation that it was necessary to remember that the working definition was only a recommendation and there were no guarantees the Government — or indeed anyone else — would adopt it. While both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have since done so, recent reports suggest the Government will not be following suit.

Honestly, I’m not surprised.

Writing about the lessons learned from last year’s ‘Summer of Islamophobia’ — in particular the lack of seriousness British politicians attribute to the need to tackle phenomenon — I warned about having too high expectations for the working definition. I did so because at the time, it seemed that some were beginning to believe that the mere publication of a working definition would cut through the contestation and confusion that has surrounded Islamophobia for the past twenty years.

On publication, all would be right with the world.

As I warned however, the working definition may not necessarily provide the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’. The reason being that few seemed to understand what exactly the ‘problem’ was.

Since then, what has become readily apparent has been the lack of strategic thinking that has accompanied the launch of the working definition. If you want evidence of this, consider the recent drive to encourage universities to adopt it. While there may be a symbolic value in doing so, what else does adoption offer universities? Even before answering that question, one might first contemplate why universities and why now?

For me, there seems to be no rhyme nor reason in doing so: a mere afterthought about what to do next once news broke about the Government’s intention to reject the definition.

With hindsight, maybe too much truck was placed on the relative success achieved by the working definition of Antisemitism. Having been adopted by numerous governments and state institutions around the world, it would seem likely that many believed the same could be achieved with the Islamophobia equivalent.

While there is some sense to this, seeking to merely mimic or replicate the achievements of those working towards tackling Antisemitism has — and indeed always will -be counter-productive. There are a number of reasons for this.

The first is that Antisemitism currently attracts greater political capital than Islamophobia and is attributed with greater importance by politicians in the contemporary British setting. One can only speculate why this might be so.

The second is that merely mimicking or replicating Antisemitism negates all that is distinct and different about Islamophobia. While some similarities do exist, Islamophobia — like other discriminatory phenomena — has its own history, trajectory, drivers and manifestation. Accordingly, any approaches to tackle it will need to take Islamophobia’s differences and distinctivities into account.

The third is that Britain’s Jewish communities seem to be able to work together to respond to socio-political issues in ways that Britain’s Muslim communities are not. For this reason, I am yet to see an ‘all communities’ approach to tackling Islamophobia in the way I have Antisemitism.

As I wrote last year, the working definition should be seen as a catalyst for change. It should be a mechanism through which new constituencies and collaborations can be created in order to bring about positive and tangible change. If the working definition was adopted, then all well and good. It shouldn’t however be the only measure of success.

I also added that it was highly unlikely the working definition would appease or placate the detractors and critics of Islamophobia. What is particularly depressing is that not only has it failed to appease or placate, it’s afforded an opportunity for them to again recycle and regurgitate their same old, well-worn tropes. Even more depressing is how the Government has given credence to them, listening to such ridiculous claims as a working definition potentially limiting free speech or playing into the hands of extremists.

As Nesrine Malik rightly notes, all are quite irrelevant: mere smokescreens from behind which Islamophobia can again be dismissed out of hand.

Where next then for the working definition?

First, there is a very real need to step back and adopt a more strategic approach to ask where and how the working definition might add value. Those who came up with it are likely to be best placed take this forward. Having said that, this needs to be collaborative and so a broad constituency should be sought to buy-in to what might come next.

Second — and as before — the working definition must be seen as an opportunity through which we can collectively and collaboratively draw attention to the very realities of Islamophobia: to talk about it openly and highlight the detrimental impacts it has on the lives of far too many ordinary people going about their everyday lives in today’s Britain. This should neither be undervalued nor underestimated.

How this plays out is — at present — quite unclear. However, quite irrespective of what ensues, it is imperative we continue to work together to try and bring about the positive change — with or without the working definition-that is so necessary yet which continues to remain, for whatever reason, wholly elusive.