Fear and free speech: why defining Islamophobia could do more harm than good

(Photo: Unsplash/Ali Arif Soydaş)

This past week an open letter was sent to the Home Secretary expressing concern regarding the new mooted definition of Islamophobia.

The proposed definition by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Muslims suggested the following be adopted by the Government: "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness."

What is most interesting about the open letter is the variety of people who have signed - Muslims, experts on Muslim history, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, human rights activists, humanists and famed atheist Richard Dawkins.

I don't think that any letter of this type has ever before been signed by so many disparate people, which in itself says a great deal. What has united them is their shared concern about this very ill-thought-out definition of illegal hostility towards a particular religion.

The Government has rightly rejected the definition. The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives are among those who are reported to have adopted it.

It is notable that missing from the list of signatories to the letter of opposition is any of the leadership of the Jewish community - in my view, a sad indictment of contemporary Britain and also, as a Jew myself, a tragic reminder of the cowardice of the Jewish community when faced with a threat to their way of life, which I have to say I believe this definition would present if adopted.

There have also been unhelpful comparisons drawn between antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Antisemitism is to do with hating Jews simply because of an accident of birth and, sadly, it can be found right across universities, churches, trade union circles, parts of the media and in politics - the British Jewish community's concerns about the Labour Party are well-documented.

Islamophobia, as many have pointed out, is fear of Islam. But fear is not a crime. There are often very good reasons why people are afraid. And the roots of that fear desperately need addressing - now.

If this definition of Islamophobia were to be adopted, it would make that much harder and free speech cases such as those recently involving academic experts Professor Jordan Peterson and Professor Sir Roger Scruton would only escalate.

Sir Roger is right, by the way, to have called for the overhaul of British universities - the same concern about the university system is also being expressed in the USA and Canada.

Fear of offending Muslims has reached such heights in this country that self-censorship is becoming the norm, but we must be free to question and to voice our concerns, whether it is about Islam or any other religion.

In Muslim-majority places like Pakistan, the Middle East and parts of Africa, Christians are under terrible threat. By that I mean that they are murdered, forcibly converted and made to self-censor with impunity, even though they try their best to integrate into the places they live.

One of the great exceptions to the terrible mistreatment incurred by Christians in places where they are a minority is to be found in the Jewish State of Israel.  There, Christians are not only flourishing, but constantly come out top of all groups in their educational attainments, often reaching the highest rungs of society.

By contrast in Pakistan, Christians have been mown down in churches by Islamist terrorists, sometimes in collusion with the police who were supposed to be there to protect them. In 2013 in Peshawar, for example, 127 Christians were killed in an attack on a church. That was the worst church attack in Pakistan, but sadly there have been others and more lives have been needlessly lost.

It is part of the very core of Judaism to be critical of ourselves. Simply adhering to commandments is not what Judaism is about but rather constantly questioning, delving into the Hebrew, taking G-d to task, and enquiring into the latest scientific developments in order to make the Jewish way of life easier for adherents.  That is the essence of Judaism.

Blind obedience and the imposition of our beliefs it certainly is not.  Go to Israel and you will see what I mean.  One time on a beach in Haifa, I saw a woman dressed in a bikini talking happily to another Israeli dressed in a burkha, while veteran Russian immigrants in their 80s did some Tai Chi exercises.  I think that says a lot about our approach to cultural and religious differences.

In Israel, some restaurants exist on a partnership arrangement with joint ownership by Jews, Christians and Muslims all working together in harmony – one part being certified kosher, the others adhering to their own dietary requirements and the customers being able to choose.

If this dangerous new definition of Islamophobia were to be adopted by the UK Government, it would simply entrench self-censorship even more deeply into our society and to put it frankly, make it hell to live in the UK. Why do I put it as strongly as that? Because it would encourage suspicion and fear rather than the kind of honest coexistence that I describe above.  Instead of creating a climate where raising legitimate questions or concerns was acceptable and to be welcomed, people would stay silent out of fear of being mislabelled, with possibly terrible consequences.

There are laws in the UK that already operate in cases of racist abuse so a separate definition of Islamophobia is not really needed and Islam is not more worthy than other religions of being protected.

In fact, in my view, Islam has yet to show itself capable of being open to challenge and criticism from within. This can be seen in the experience of converts from Islam - even in the UK - who often have to practise their new faith clandestinally, so scared are they of the repercussions.

The plight of Asia Bibi is another case in point. After years of persecution in Pakistan, the UK didn't make an offer of asylum; that was left to Canada. Truly, the behaviour of the Foreign Office in this instance has been unforgivable - just as it has been towards the State of Israel, I must add.

Taking all of this into consideration, I can't help but wonder that the only religion that seems to hold sway over the powers that be in this country is Islam, because they certainly don't seem to be falling over themselves to protect other faiths and this is profoundly to be regretted.

There are around 50 Muslim countries in the world and sadly, in many of them, minorities are not treated well.  Jews wouldn't be safe visiting the vast majority of them, and as for living there and worshipping in synagogues – forget it!

But before I end, let me be clear about something else. Islamophobia is not racism; it is fear of some types of hostile behaviour undertaken by some Muslims, either individually or in groups. Muslims should therefore do some soul-searching, much like other faiths have had to do, and ask themselves why people are afraid of them or their faith - and seek to address that fear.

Only when that happens will we be able to reach the stage in society envisaged by the great Jewish prophet Isaiah, who foresaw a time when the wolf would truly lie down with the lamb.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.