Islamophobia and the Muslim Experience

JVL Introduction

The Labour Muslim Network (LMN) describes itself as “an inclusive organisation which seeks to promote British Muslim engagement with the Labour Party and in the political process based on our shared values of social justice and equality”.

In November 2020 it published a research report called Islamophobia and the Muslim Experience: The Labour Party report.

The Report does two things:

  1. It presents a disturbing picture of the widespread prevalence of Islamophobia in the Labour party
  2. It offers a definition of Islamophobia, accompanied by a number of examples, as its strategy for dealing with the problem.

The reality of Islamophobia in the Party, as revealed here, is deeply shocking, if not altogether surprising to us. Urgent steps are needed to tackle it.

Jewish Voice for Labour offers heartfelt solidarity to our Muslim comrades in resisting Islamophobia in the Labour Party and we look forward to exploring areas of common interest such as definitions of racism and recommendations for change.

However, based on our experience of the IHRA definition of antisemitism we have reservations about the way forward charted in this report, which are explained below.

Alison Harris reports

This report produced by Labour Muslim Network (LMN) on 13th November 2020 looks set to be very influential (click here for the full version).

It describes its research project in this way:

“The research commissioned and conducted by the Labour Muslim Network aimed to take an honest look at the prevalence and nature of Islamophobia in one of Britain’s largest political parties. Our goal has been to capture the experiences of Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party, explore institutional barriers and begin to develop solutions where the party falls short in tackling this racism. The research was conducted in the spirit that we make the Labour Party a safe and open space for Muslims and all peoples who wish to fight for a fairer, more just society.”

The report marks the largest consultation of Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party in history.

British Muslims have overwhelmingly supported the Labour Party for decades. In the 2017 general election, an estimated 85% of Muslims reportedly supported the Labour Party compared to the support of 11% for the Conservatives.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Muslim Labour members in the UK. The survey aimed to capture the experiences and views of a 1% representative sample of this constituency. In the end, 422 valid responses were analysed (over double the target).

Several aspects of the report are significant for Jewish socialists and our allies and, indeed, might have long-term (unintended) consequences for our Muslim comrades.

“Key insights”

The levels of Islamophobia experienced or witnessed by our Muslim comrades are perturbing to read.

  • Over 1 in 4 (29%) Muslim members and supporters have directly experienced Islamophobia in the Labour Party.
  • Over 1 in 3 (37%) have directly witnessed Islamophobia within the Labour Party.

Furthermore, among other findings, a significant proportion of respondents do not have confidence in the Labour Party complaints procedure to deal with Islamophobia effectively, do not feel represented by the party or the leader and do not trust the leadership to tackle Islamophobia effectively.

Islamophobia definition

The most striking aspect is the adoption of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims working definition of Islamophobia, for which the authors make the claim that it “has the confidence of over 800 organisations and has been adopted by all major parties, apart from the Conservatives”:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

Nine examples are given, modelled closely on the IHRA definition of antisemitism:

  1. Calling for, aiding, instigating or justifying the killing or harming of Muslims in the name of a racist/ fascist ideology, or an extremist view of religion.
  2. Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Muslims as such, or of Muslims as a collective group, such as, especially but not exclusively, conspiracies about Muslim entryism in politics, government or other societal institutions; the myth of Muslim identity having a unique propensity for terrorism, and claims of a demographic ‘threat’ posed by Muslims or of a ‘Muslim takeover’.
  3. Accusing Muslims as a group of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Muslim person or group of Muslim individuals, or even for acts committed by non-Muslims.
  4. Accusing Muslims as a group, or Muslim majority states, of inventing or exaggerating Islamophobia, ethnic cleansing or genocide perpetrated against Muslims
  5. Accusing Muslim citizens of being more loyal to the ‘Ummah’ (transnational Muslim community) or to their countries of origin, or to the alleged priorities of Muslims worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  6. Denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour.
  7. Applying double standards by requiring of Muslims behaviours that are not expected or demanded of any other groups in society, e.g. loyalty tests.
  8. Using the symbols and images associated with classic Islamophobia (e.g. Muhammed being a paedophile, claims of Muslims spreading Islam by the sword or subjugating minority groups under their rule) to characterise Muslims as being ‘sex groomers’, inherently violent or incapable of living harmoniously in plural societies.
  9. Holding Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of any Muslim majority state, whether secular or constitutionally Islamic.”

A critique

This definition seems a little confused. It offers an understanding of Islamophobia as deeply connected to “race” and racism, (rather than individualised fear or prejudice) which is a step in the right direction, but the definition is still ambiguous in how exactly this should be conceived. Later in the report, this is improved on when Islamophobia is described as: “not just as an overt kind of racism but as structural discrimination that disadvantages Muslim communities”.

This strategy of using an IHRA-type definition and examples is perhaps understandable given the purchase the original IHRA definition of antisemitism has had in UK institutions plus the focus on antisemitism in comparison to other even more prevalent forms of racism. However, there is ample evidence that the IHRA definition of antisemitism and examples have been misused. It would be tragic if the adoption of the above examples leads to the suppression of free speech on, for example, Palestine and Kashmir or Islamophobia itself.

The report emphasises that Muslims are not a homogenous group, which is welcome. This is an aspect of objectifying representation that Jewish socialists can identify with, given our repeated need to state that there is not just one Jewish community, as is frequently referred to by the leadership of the Party.

The Report ends with a series of initial recommendations

  • A public commitment to equality for Muslims in the fight for anti-racism, to come from the and deputy leader of the Labour Party, the party chair and the general secretary of the Labour Party
  • The development of comprehensive Islamophobia training to be rolled out in conjunction with LMN, the Muslim Council of Britain and other Muslim organisations as appropriate
  • All policies adopted by the Labour Party to be equality impact assessed
  • The adoption of the APPG definition on Islamophobia by all Labour-run councils, groups and constituency parties
  • A code of conduct surrounding Islamophobia to be developed with LMN and the Muslim Council of Britain, and used by the Labour Party Governance and Legal Unit
  • The publishing of a handbook educating members on Islamophobia – – including a list of commonly used tropes
  • A new complaints procedure with transparency and confidence of impartiality

We can agree in principle with many of these, in particular with the need for a public commitment by the leaders of the Party to equality for Muslims in the fight for anti-racism; the production of educational materials on commonly used tropes; and a new complaints procedure with transparency and confidence of impartiality.

But the devil is in the detail. Experiences from the 1980s have shown that mandatory antiracism training can backfire or be mishandled. JVL’s strong recommendation is for a more educational, awareness-raising approach. The problems revealed here cannot be solved by diktat, but require a long open-ended process which includes many things – in particular, a building of confidence among Muslim members that their voices will be heard; a transparent complaints and disciplinary process that calls to account those who engage in anti-Muslim racism; and, above all, a recognition that education through dialogue is the only long-term way of changing attitudes over time, of embedding anti-racism as part of the life-blood of the Party. There are no simple quick fixes.

Keir Starmer took several days to reply on behalf of the Labour Party and, glaringly, there was no apology. An action plan has been promised. Let us hope it will be more competent than the EHRC action plan. We call on the Labour Party to address the evidence of Islamophobia with urgency. There must be an end to the hierarchy of racism whereby one form of racism is privileged over others.

For further insights and recommendations, please read the full report.

Comments (5)

  • David Townsend says:

    I agree that the need is for education rather than training. You train a dog, but it doesn’t really *know* why it’s doing something.

    The beginning of awareness of all prejudice is surely that it lies in *me* and not in the other. Many of us will have grown up with societal prejudice against others who are not like ‘us’. The beginning of antiracism was when we began to educate ourselves about the other.

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    Things will only get worse, as long as Starmer remains leader. He and his cronies should be kicked out of the Labour party and banned for life. Also the BoD should be a proscribed group. Their hate filled dogma should have no place, and no influence on, the Labour party and its MPs.

  • John Thatcher says:

    I agree with both the above comments, but can I to Martyn’s comment that the problem with Starmer etc is not that they are themselves anti Muslim but, as they have demonstrated with the anti Semitism scare and the Brexit vote, they are without any principles at all and that is why they don’t belong in the LP. They are natural Tories, and the Tories lack of principle is almost their defining characteristic, and is the reason they are a difficult opponent for a party of principle. The answer is not to join them but to challenge them at every turn. The Labour party is indeed a campaigning party or it is nothing.

  • Lesley Levane says:

    As with all racism, it is at the institutional, systemic level where it is most powerful. Some of that is absorbed by all of us without us even realising – that is part of the “system” – it is not even about intention . This is not to say that addressing individual prejudice and bias in not important but this needs to happen along with understanding and challenging of the power relations – who benefits from “divide and rule”? Not the working class for sure, nor middle class members of minority communities. The failure to address Islamophobia is part of the structure, the failure to apologise is perhaps a personal failure. The amplifying a hierarchy of racism (that puts Jewish people at the top) is dangerous and also part of the structural racism in our society…..

  • John Clark says:

    Education yes – examples of islamophobic behaviour yes – but intergroup contact is vital in my view. My white suburban knowledge of racism came initially from apartheid and famine, but developed when I came to live in London and worked and socialised with people of backgrounds very different from mine. Not everyone has the confidence to break down that barrier, or the opportunity. The Labour Party should promote activities that join together people of different backgrounds in what is and feels like a safe space.

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