DMU Government adviser: Islamophobia is racism

As Parliament today debates the official definition of Islamophobia, a lecturer advising MPs on the controversial discussion insists the term refers to racism.

Dr Ben Whitham, a lecturer in International Politics at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), has been working with Dr Nadya Ali from the University of Sussex to advise MPs on the official definition of Islamophobia, after the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims wanted to tackle what it called a ‘social evil’.

Dr Whitham and Dr Ali interviewed people across east London about their experiences of discrimination and abuse that they considered to be Islamophobic, before presenting their findings to the inquiry by the APPG on British Muslims.

Ben Witham
Dr Ben Whitham, lecturer in International Politics

Their evidence was cited in the final report, Islamophobia Defined, which was published in December 2018 and includes the definition: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

However, the Government has rejected the wording after critics, including police chiefs, warned that it could heighten community tensions and hinder counterterrorism.

“We know that Islamophobia is a form of racism, rather than simply criticism of a faith, because we have heard first hand from its victims,” explained Dr Whitham, who is also a member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at DMU.

“People are being singled out – whether it’s in the workplace, in the street, or interacting with the state – for the perceived ‘Muslimness’ of their name, their clothes, their skin colour. This is discrimination and abuse and has nothing to do with Muslim people’s actual beliefs, but rather with what those who target them assume them to believe and stand for.”

In response to Dr Whitham and Dr Ali’s work, MPs Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting, co-chairs of the APPG on British Muslims, wrote: “The final report of the APPG has cited your submission, and the primary research on which it is based, in numerous places throughout. We hope you will appreciate this as indicative of the high regard in which your contribution was held and demonstrative of its impact on the APPG on British Muslims’ inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia." 

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Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to argue against adoption of the definition on the ground of protecting free speech. 

James Brokenshire, the Communities Secretary, told the House of Commons the definition needed “more consideration”.

He said: “It is clear that with such a complex issue we need to interrogate this further as a matter of urgency. We will be appointing two advisers and ensuring this reflects the need for community representation. Our priority is to arrive swiftly at a collective position.”

However several parties – including Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have already adopted it, as has the Scottish Parliament, the National Union of Students, the Mayor of London and Mayor of Greater Manchester, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain.

“We are pleased that our research helped to shape the definition of Islamophobia which has now been adopted by so many organisations and most major political parties,” said Dr Whitham. “Our research is rooted in the lived experiences of people who have to bear the brunt of this increasingly common form of racism."

Posted on Thursday 16th May 2019

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