Islamists previously stymied by the central government in their effort to police speech in the UK are still making headway by convincing local cities and towns to embrace a definition of "Islamophobia" that stigmatizes criticism of Islam and Islamism as "racism." These are the findings of a new report published by a prominent British think tank Civitas, which notes that one in seven municipalities have quietly adopted a definition of "Islamophobia" promoted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in 2018 but rejected by the Conservative-led British Government the following year.
"Despite the Government's refusal to accept the APPG Islamophobia definition, some groups campaign relentlessly to change this," declared Charles Moore, a prominent center-right columnist and former editor of the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, in the forward to the report.
When the APPG put forth its "Islamophobia" definition in 2018, Richard Walton, a former UK Counter terror chief, warned acceptance of the definition by government would, "seriously undermine the effectiveness of the UK's counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) putting the country at greater risk from Islamist terrorism." Civitas also warned against adopting the definition in a 2019 pamphlet that raised free speech concerns. While the definition was nevertheless adopted in 2019 by all major UK political parties – except the Conservatives – following intense lobbying by the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), two Islamist charities that seek to influence public policy in Great Britain, it never became national law.
Report author Hardeep Singh told Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) that concerns over free speech were "largely dismissed" and that local councils did not do enough research before adopting the contested definition rejected by central government. Two jurisdictions, both Labour-run – Wakefield and the London Borough of Waltham Forest – refer to the lobbying efforts of MEND in their minutes.
One group, the National Secular Society (NSS), was able to prevent councils from adopting the definition
Singh reported, adding that "where opposition voices have been carefully considered, some councils have chosen not to formally adopt the APPG definition ... such as Lancashire County Council and Aberdeenshire County Council."
Of the 52 councils that have adopted the APPG's definition, the majority (34) are Labour-led councils, Singh reports. Nine other councils that adopted the definition had no dominant party in control. Five were run by Liberal Democrats and four were Conservative-led.
If the UK elects a Labour government in 2024, they are likely to introduce a landmark Race Equality Act which could include the contested APPG definition in official policy, Singh warns.
"If Islamophobia is considered 'a type of racism,' there may well be serious implications to free speech when discussing evidence-based criticism of religious doctrine, extremism, and, even more remarkably, historical truths," he said.
In addition to tackling the impact of the concept of "Islamophobia" on free speech, the report raises concerns about the associated concept of "Muslimness," which the report warns can be used to stifle debate by portraying criticism of Islamic practices as a form of "racism."
To prevent the APPG definition from eroding the right to free speech in the UK, councils that have adopted it must clearly define what they mean by 'Muslimness' and provide specific examples with case studies, Singh stated.
Officials must also reassure employees that they can talk freely about history or religion without being deemed "racists" and affirm the principle of free speech with reference to section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 which bans any policy that "prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs."
If Labour does win the 2024 general election as a recent poll suggests it will, the effort to impose the "Islamophobia" definition on a national level in England will likely gain traction, with a negative impact on the right to free speech in England.
"If the APPG definition of Islamophobia were to prevail, our society would cease to put all religions on the same footing and would empower those unrepresentative Muslim leaders who are keenest to silence critics. Britain should not admit a blasphemy law by the back door (or by the front!)," Moore wrote.
Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society, which pushed back against the "Islamophobia" campaign in local cities and towns, told Civitas in a written statement that the fight to protect free speech from dilution in England will continue.
"We will continue to play our part in holding back the tide," he wrote.
Hannah Baldock is a UK-based researcher on radicalization and terrorism.