Why this new definition of Islamophobia is bittersweet

As British Muslims debate a working definition of Islamophobia, Yahya Birt argues for the reconciliation of intergenerational differences.

I’ve sat on this for a while. I’ve had mixed feelings about the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ (APPGBM) definition of Islamophobia (following on from the recent Runnymede Trust one last year). It is now being proposed that Islamophobia be seen as anti-Muslim racism or as racism directed at Muslimness, whether perceived or actual.

For me, it is a bittersweet, qualified victory with tragic elements of defeat in it.

It is a victory for the Muslim millennials who came of political age after 9/11. They have known nothing but vilification, but they have also witnessed the huge resistance to Muslim-first politics in Britain. Aside from the anti-war movement we Muslims have struggled to find allies with an Islam-infused public language. Unsurprisingly, Muslim millennials are willing to resort to other forms of resistance. Inspired by movements like Black Lives Matter and the resurgence of genuinely new political radicalism on campuses they have returned to the language of anti-racism, something that has only intensified since the Brexit vote and the rise of white nationalism. That so many have come to this conclusion represents a genuine intergenerational shift, and every generation has its own measure of political wisdom, narrative and journey of understanding and most importantly changed circumstances to contend with.

But it is also a defeat for the older generation that came of political age before and after the Rushdie Affair. Their times and their struggle were different. My plea to the Muslim millennials is not to forget them, even if they decide definitively to follow a different path. These pioneers were the first to develop the contemporary concept of Islamophobia in Britain in the 1990s. They did so to differentiate themselves from a secular race relations industry they saw as not standing up for their interests. This awareness came out of the mobilisation of the Rushdie Affair as well as their long frustrating experience of interacting with the race relations establishment. When advocacy for an extension to the blasphemy law to non-Anglican traditions came to a dead end, the emphasis was shifted towards tackling religious discrimination. This earlier conception of Islamophobia never denied the practical link with racism but did not consider Islamophobia to be racism both for philosophical and strategic political reasons. (There is a caveat: this intergenerational shift certainly does not mean that there weren’t advocates of the view that Islamophobia was a form of racism back in the 1990s.)

If we do end up agreeing on the secular public language of anti-racism as our best collective bet, then let us admit that it comes at a price too, for arguably the racialisation of Muslims and the countering of it through anti-racism is also party to their secularisation. The philosopher Richard Rorty once observed that the replacement of religious vocabularies with other secular languages best described how secularisation came about in Europe. And what is the public language of anti-racism except a way of not talking about Islam because it is deemed to be alienating? While we may gain in secular intelligibility we lose a bit of our souls. It therefore means that we have homework to do, for ultimately, as Toni Morrison once observed, the end goal of racism is distraction. It should never define who we are or who we might seek or dream of becoming.

We should also put this APPGBM definition into perspective. It is an advisory definition from some parliamentarians — one that this rather unsympathetic Tory government consumed by the Brexit crisis is unlikely to give much serious consideration to despite the huge urgency in adopting a working definition. On the positive side, this definition has some cross-party support and the backing of a considerable number of Muslim organisations, activists and academics. Activists are sometimes quick to label academics as ‘out of touch’. This is particularly unfair towards very many of the sixty or so academics who signed up to this. They are properly described as ‘scholar activists’, as they have a long track record of community engagement and service, and let’s acknowledge it real expertise.

However, we should in all honesty see the definition as a conversation starter rather than as a conversation stopper, as a definitive last word. Even Sayyid and Vakil, whose short definition of Islamophobia was adopted by the APPGBM, would not want to argue against this. In this spirit, let us try to acknowledge in the long intergenerational struggle against Islamophobia both the wisdom of its pioneers and the changed political calculus for Muslim millennials without denying either.

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Addendum

There is the view that my argument about the secularity of anti-racism may fit with the Runnymede Trust 2017 definition but not with the APPGBM 2018 short definition. The argument is that the latter has two components that revolve around racism/racialisation and iterations of Muslimness. Now the key points here are that Muslimness is (a) not secular in and of itself, except if self-selected by a Muslim, and (b) not defined separately by racism, religion or secularity but rather engages with all three. This clarification is helpful but I guess it still does not do enough to assuage the anxiety that the incorporation of Muslimness with racism and secularity won’t come without potential costs. We need to discuss these fully as the short definition elides over these issues. As it stands, the use of “Muslimness” in the short definition works as a master signifier (in the Sayyidian sense) because it is wide open to interpretation. It could be interpreted in any number of ways — including privileging secular ones given the current orientation of the race relations industry. I am warning that we should be aware of this possibility and work self-consciously to see off such a hegemonic colonisation of “Muslimness”. Nothing in the short definition addresses this of course, nor the longer questions and answers, so that is why I raised it.

It has also been suggested that I want to insulate Muslims in a box that excludes anti-racism as a possibility, as an intersectional matter of solidarity. This is a misreading of my piece. Nowhere do I suggest this. Rather, I ask what homework do we need to do as Muslims if we decide to adopt a public language of anti-racism that emphasises our identity of oppression over our identity of being, translated into a secular idiom. Syed Mustafa Ali points out that anti-racism back then isn’t what anti-racism could be now, and I agree that we should be open to this as a possibility. Part of this, he suggests is to acknowledge the origins of racism in the categories of otherized religions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which I agree is an important step.