We should be free to criticise any religious belief system so long as we choose our words with careby Julian Baggini / March 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
It is extraordinary that a former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one of the people responsible for introducing the word “Islamophobia” to the British lexicon, now stands accused of displaying just that prejudice. Yet this is the fate of Trevor Phillips, suspended by the Labour Party while it investigates charges against him.
The Phillips case is a worryingly instructive one. The problem is not just that the accusations appear to be unfounded, but that the discussion is riddled with simplistic distinctions that are clear on paper but much murkier in practice.
At the heart of the issue is what Islamophobia means. It is only by working this out that we can assess the rightness or wrongness of the charges against Phillips. So where to start?
It is not an easy task. The most common definition of Islamophobia now used is the one proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims in its 2018 report “Islamophobia Defined.” The report concluded that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” The Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the London Mayor’s Office and several local councils have adopted this definition.
Yet many have expressed doubts about its soundness. The main complaint has been about the elision of criticism of a belief system and hatred of a people. As Phillips himself said on the Today programme recently, the definition is “nonsense” since Muslims are “not a race.”
People have been making this point for some time. Richard Dawkins, for instance, has dismissed Islamophobia as an “otiose word that doesn’t deserve definition.” In a tweet he explained “Hatred of Muslims is unequivocally reprehensible. Hatred of Islam on the other hand is easily justified, as is hatred of any obnoxious ideology.”
More pugnaciously, Melanie Phillips went so far as to claim that the term is designed “to turn criticism of the Islamic world into a pathology.” A more measured version of this argument was put forward in a report by think tank Policy Exchange, “On Islamophobia,” co-authored by Trevor Phillips, which argued “the effort to promote a particular definition of Islamophobia domestically, parallels an international campaign—led by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—which…