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 has sought to prohibit the ‘defamation of religion.’ […] This endeavour effectively aims for the introduction of a global blasphemy law.”
There is clearly something to this argument. The fierce criticisms levelled against Christianity, for example, have never been dismissed as forms of racism. To assume that criticism of Islam is rooted in racism would be a grave mistake. It is important to guard against that and preserve the right to criticise religion.
Yet a binary distinction between criticism of a belief system and hatred of people is still over-simplistic. It leaves out a third category: criticism of cultures or sub-cultures. Take, for example, female genital mutilation, which is practised only by very specific ethnic groups. Criticism of such practices should not be conflated with prejudice akin to racism or misogyny.
So where does that leave us? On paper, these three categories give us a simple way to distinguish Islamophobia from other criticisms of Muslim groups or persons. In practice, however, this is still insufficient. The boundaries between these categories are much more blurred. There are plenty of people who say, and perhaps sincerely believe, that their opposition to Islam is purely philosophical. But when such people do not understand what they are criticising and attack straw men, it is usually because the root of their opposition is some kind of prejudice dressed up as intellectual critique.
Criticism of Muslim sub-cultures can also be less reasonable than its cool, rational presentation often suggests, such as when a problem within a community is confined to a minority but the whole group is tarred with the same brush. Prejudice can also manifest itself in double standards. Muslims are frequently criticised for not integrating but I can’t remember anyone ever protesting about the various Chinatowns around the UK.
These complexities need to be kept in mind when we consider the specifics of the Phillips case. It is not simply a matter of coming up with a clear and cogent definition of what Islamophobia means in theory. We also need to look carefully at the details of specific cases to see what role, if any, prejudice is actually playing.
So where does this leave us with Phillips? We can make some judgments. Due to the confidentiality of the investigation against him, Phillips says “I cannot reveal the precise charges details of the charges.” However, several specific accusations are public. First, he is accused of behaviour that “may reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice, based on race, religion or belief.” An example given of this is his expressed concern about the “collision between majority norms and the behaviour of some Muslim groups. In particular, the exposure of systematic and longstanding abuse by men, mostly of Pakistani Muslim origin in the north of England.”
On our threefold distinction, this falls into the category of criticism of cultures or subcultures that is not necessarily prejudiced. You might think Phillips is wrong in his assessment but he is clearly intelligent and informed. The thesis that the cultural norms of Pakistani Muslims from some specific areas might have something to do with the abuse deserves being taken seriously, and in no way condemns all Pakistanis or Muslims. There is no reason to call this Islamophobia.
Second, he is accused of behaviour that “may reasonably be seen to involve Islamophobic actions, stereotypes and sentiments.” Alleged examples are saying that “Muslims see the world differently from the rest of us” and worrying about “the unacknowledged creation of a nation within a nation; with its own geography, its own values and its own very separate future.”
The first is baffling, since people of any religion or ideology are generally proud that they see the world differently from others. The second is, again, a statement that would betray prejudice if uninformed but coming from Phillips must be taken seriously, even if you disagree with it. Once more, Islamophobia seems absent.
Third, he is charged with “behaviour or use of language which targets or intimidates members of ethnic or religious communities, or incites racism, including Islamophobia.” Evidence for this includes his claim that “The integration of Muslims will probably be the hardest task we’ve ever faced.” But again, this is not necessarily uniformed prejudice. Phillips offers plenty of evidence for this claim, such as the fact that “a third of UK Muslims would like their children educated separately from non-Muslims” and that a quarter disagreed with the statement that “acts of violence against anyone publishing images of the Prophet could never be justified.” You might well question the legitimacy of these particular surveys, but the idea that Phillips is simply cherry-picking data to back his racism is absurd. Once again, you can dispute the claims without denouncing the man.
So on the face of it, nothing in these charges or in the one that Phillips “undermines the Party’s ability to campaign against racism” should fall under the label of Islamophobia under any reasonable definition.
There is however, a huge “but” in all this. What we mean and how we are understood are not necessarily the same. Some of what Phillips has said has perhaps been careless, too open to misinterpretation.
Phillips was challenged about this on the Today programme, when it was pointed out that his “nation within a nation” comment had been picked up by far-right campaigner Tommy Robinson. His reply was “As my grandmother says, just because the devil picks up a tune doesn’t mean it is a bad tune.” But if your tunes keep being played most often by devils that should be a warning that you are feeding the wrong fire.
What is missing from the—legitimate—defence of Phillips is an acknowledgement that sincere, reasonable beliefs can misfire. Labour is wrong that Phillips’s words can “reasonably be seen to involve” Islamophobia, but knowing that many will unreasonably take them as such is a good reason to be careful about what you say. Similarly, a person may have no intention at all to “target” or “intimidate” members of a community, let alone “incite” racism, but their words might inadvertently do just that.
The supposedly neat divisions between legitimate criticism of practices and ideologies and illegitimate prejudice are much messier in real life. Those who defend Phillips, as I would, need also to acknowledge that Muslims face a great deal of discrimination and that it is necessary to watch your language very carefully indeed. Phillips is no Islamophobe but that does not mean that none of his utterances have unintentionally caused harm.