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UK drops working on Islamophobia definition days before awareness month

Michael Gove accused of 'active contempt' against British Muslim civic engagement after abandoning long-awaited definition
Communities Secretary Michael Gove leaves after attending the first cabinet meeting under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 10 Downing Street on 26 October 2022 (AFP)
Communities Secretary Michael Gove leaves after attending the first cabinet meeting under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 10 Downing Street on 26 October 2022 (AFP)
By Rayhan Uddin in London

The UK government has quietly dropped working towards establishing an official definition of Islamophobia, sparking criticism at the beginning of an awareness-raising month against anti-Muslim prejudice. 

Tuesday marked the beginning of the tenth annual Islamophobia Awareness Month, a campaign launched by British Muslim organisations in 2012.

Just days before the launch, a report in The Independent confirmed that Communities Secretary Michael Gove opposes the establishment of an official definition of Islamophobia and would abandon the long-awaited adoption of one by the Conservative government.

“I think there are good arguments both for and against having an official definition but the adoption of a definition which had the confidence of Muslim communities and organisations would have signalled to them that the government took the issue of Islamophobia seriously,” Khadijah Elshayyal, a researcher at Edinburgh University with a focus on Islam in Britain, told Middle East Eye. 

“It could also have served as a reference point to those seeking redress against structural Islamophobia, or for those educating against it.”

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In 2019, after six months of consultations, the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims proposed the definition: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” 

It was adopted by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, but was rejected by the ruling Tory party. 

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Instead, the then communities secretary, the late James Brokenshire, announced the government would establish its own definition “to get a firmer grip on the nature of this bigotry and division”. 

Muslim scholar Muhammad Asim was appointed in July 2019 to advise the government on the definition, but he later claimed that letters and emails he sent to Gove and 10 Downing Street on the issue were completely ignored. 

He was subsequently publicly sacked in June, without being notified beforehand, after being accused of "limiting free speech" by allegedly backing protests against the screening of a controversial film depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, which he denies.

“This sorry saga of the Islamophobia definition illustrates that this situation is not even about indifference from the Tories, it's about active contempt for Muslim civic engagement and activism,” said Elshayyal. 

The Department for Levelling Up declined to confirm to Middle East Eye whether the definition of Islamophobia has been dropped.

A spokesperson for the department said in a statement: “We remain committed to stamping out anti-Muslim hatred and all forms of religious prejudice and we will outline our next steps in due course.”

'Stop dithering'

The dropping of a definition has been strongly opposed by figures in the opposition ranks. 

“It’s the start of Islamophobia awareness month. Hate crimes against Muslims increased during the pandemic & continue to hurt communities today,” tweeted shadow minister for local government and faith Sarah Owen on Tuesday. 

“They can’t tackle something undefined - Govt should stop dithering & adopt the @APPGBritMuslims’s definition of Islamophobia.” 

Last month, Gove told attendees at an event hosted by the Counter Extremism Group: “I think there are dangers if a university or another organisation which should be the home of free debate uses a definition like that to police what people can say in order to penalise them for it.”

Elshayyal said Gove's claims were addressed to his "hawkish neoconservative audience" and demonstrate "his view of Muslim civic activism as a source of suspicion and threat".

The Conservative Party has for years been dogged with allegations of Islamophobia. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has long called for an inquiry and submitted evidence to that effect to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

An inquiry led by Professor Swaran Singh last year found that there was a perception that the Conservatives were "insensitive" to British Muslims, but cleared the party of institutional Islamophobia. The report was described as a “whitewash” by several UK Muslim leaders.

In January, Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani claimed that a party whip told her she was sacked from her ministerial position because her Muslim faith was “making colleagues uncomfortable”.

The move to drop the definition of Islamophobia was also condemned in Conservative ranks too - the former Cabinet minister Baroness Saeedi Warsi said: “At a time when anti Muslim attacks are the highest for any faith group this is A-grade gaslighting by the government.

“Doubling down on discrimination by refusing to protect.”

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