In July 2023, two senior Labour councillors in Walsall were reported to police, accused of hate crimes against Ahmadiyya Muslims—a minority group within the religion. Local party leader Aftab Nawaz and his deputy Khizar Hussain were accused of distributing literature linked to Khatme Nabuwwat, an extremist organization notorious for its persecution of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, as well as participating in sectarian chanting directed against the community.
The incident was reported to the police as a hate crime, but a spokesperson for West Midlands Police declared: “We’ve carried out enquiries and no offences have been disclosed.” A formal complaint has been lodged with the Labour Party. Needless to say, the councillors deny the allegations. But no official statement has been released condemning the prejudice and hatred against British Ahmadiyya Muslims.
What could explain this depressing state of affairs, in which councillors elected to serve on behalf of the Labour Party—whose proud history of opposition to racism and prejudice of all kinds is supposed to be second nature to the movement it leads—have been implicated in religious bigotry of the most toxic kind?
Labour recently unveiled a its new “Islamophobia policy.” Sadly, it is a policy that completely fails to address discrimination—both overt and covert—faced by Muslims from the Ahmadiyya community on the streets of Britain today. While Labour’s new policy does acknowledge the importance of considering “hostility and prejudice towards Muslims” in relation to the status of their religion as a protected characteristic, the text fails to clarify how this objective will be implemented in practice. For some reason, the policy does not consider this recent incident of anti-Muslim bigotry to be significant enough to win its attention.
In 2019, Labour adopted the definition of “Islamophobia” proposed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG). But this definition may only have impaired Labour’s ability to protect people from discrimination regardless of their beliefs. The text reads: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” The APPG claims to have consulted widely in developing this definition. But the idea of the “expression of Muslimness” that it deploys manages to exclude many Muslims who apparently do not qualify as bearers of “perceived Muslimness.”
It is a term that has been routinely used in ways that completely undermine any claim to serious meaning it may once have had. It is widely deployed to ostracize secular Muslims—especially those who view Islamic jurisdictions and traditions as incompatible with liberal values. Meanwhile, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community are considered “non-Muslims” (infidels) by mainstream British Muslims—not even qualifying as having been Muslims in the first place.
Sadly, this situation has led the discussion around protecting individuals from bigotry to be hijacked by a futile debate over semantics. The term Islamophobia has been adopted without sufficient scrutiny or consideration of the potential negative impacts it may have on freedom of expression and academic freedom.
In February, it was reported that university professor Steven Greer was subjected to a campaign of vilification and intimidation when he was falsely accused of Islamophobia. He was forced to go into hiding after undergraduates complained that elements of his course were racist and discriminatory. While he was completely cleared of wrongdoing, he admitted to feeling afraid for his life after being smeared and hounded by students. Increasingly, accusations of this kind cause real harm to innocent individuals. This case provides further evidence that the term Islamophobia, coined to define anti-Muslim bigotry, has now been reduced to a tool wielded by religious zealots who have no hesitation in using it to silence dissent and smear those with opposing views.
Labour should have learned the perils of adopting such a contentious term when they wrongly suspended the former UK equality watchdog chief, Trevor Phillips, over alleged Islamophobia. Phillips has a long record of involvement in campaigns against racism. But he was subjected to a party investigation over his comments on Britain’s struggles with social cohesion. Though he was later reinstated, it was nonetheless appalling that progressive party should act in such a way as to chill and suppress open discussion among its senior members on such a crucial issue.
Phillips also criticised Labour for adopting the definition of Islamophobia agreed by an all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. He described the decision as “nonsense”—and rightly so. The definition is rendered incoherent by the fact that Muslims are not a homogeneous group and cannot be properly understood or represented in language borrowed from racial discourse.
Sadly, the definition has established a narrative that conflates criticism of any variety of Islam with bigotry against Muslims, which is highly misleading.
The reckless path of shielding Islamic beliefs from criticism—which has the effect of protecting extremists who purport to represent Muslims generally from proper scrutiny or opposition—has led to the introduction of blasphemy law through the back door. The determination of the Labour Party, among many other organisations, to parrot the term Islamophobia as if it were an effective means of identifying prejudice and hatred towards Muslims represents a betrayal of freedoms central to liberal democracy itself—freedoms of open speech and debate on moral and religion questions.
Existing laws in Western democracies already guarantee religious freedoms, protecting individuals against discrimination based on their faith. Rather than seeking to carve out special privileges for a particular group, Labour and other political organizations with a sincere interest in preserving western democracy must combine their energies to ensure that these laws are properly enforced, and that the values they embody flourish. Anti-Muslim bigotry is a problem that must be addressed. But mature political parties should not allow themselves to be manipulated by sectarian extremists, who use legitimate concerns for social justice for their own divisive ends.
A recently approved resolution on religious hatred passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council has caused widespread concern about religious censorship. The resolution, introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, was triggered by the burning of a Koran in Sweden. This manoeuvre represents an overt effort to enforce blasphemy laws in Western secular democracies by blurring the line between subjecting religious beliefs to scrutiny and bigotry against people.
Thankfully, the United States, the European Union and the UK voted against the resolution, arguing that “it contradicts positions [they] have long held on freedom of expression.” However, the Labour Party seems to have turned a blind eye to these ground realities. Their focus on vote-bank politics has caused them to overlook the toxic influence the term Islamophobia has on social and political discourse. If blasphemy laws are ever resurrected in British society, it will reflect the thinking inculcated by such terms. And if recent history is any guide, the Labour Party may prove instrumental in its normalization.
It is way past time to move beyond the use of divisive terms like Islamophobia and focus instead on protecting all people from hatred and prejudice, whatever its source.