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                                  Response to Home Affairs Committee Islamophobia inquiry

                                                                        January 2019

 

About us: The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no. 1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.

This submission follows evidence we provided to the Home Affairs Committee in 2017/18 for their inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences.[i] [ii]

 

  1. Use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ v ‘anti-Muslim’ hatred

We believe use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ is deeply problematic because it is vague and ambiguous. In a recent House of Lords debate, our Director Lord Singh, dissected the disparate elements that are often referred to when ‘Islamophobia’ is discussed. He said, ‘…there are four distinct aspects of hate crime against Muslims that are collectively known as Islamophobia: hate crime arising from common prejudice; hate crime arising from assumptions about the teachings of Islam; hate crime arising from perceptions of Muslim behaviour; and hate crime against non-Muslims due to mistaken identity.’[iii]  We are of the view that ‘anti-Muslim’ hatred, (like ‘anti-Sikh’ or ‘anti-Hindu’) is much clearer language to describe hate crime specifically against the Muslim community. We previously expressed this in written evidence to the APPG on British Muslims inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred.[iv]

 

1.1 Free speech and discussing matters of public interest

We have concerns that there are matters which extremists have an incentive to label ‘Islamophobic’ in order to shut down free and open discussion about matters of public interest – for example:

  • Legitimate criticism of the behaviour of a minority of Muslims i.e. sexual grooming gang cases like in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Telford.
  • Legitimate criticism of aspects of Islamic doctrine, like the sanctioning of death for apostates (ex-Muslims) for leaving Islam, reference to non-Muslims as kaffirs (a derogatory term), and persecution of homosexuals and minority Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyya.
  • Legitimate criticism of the treatment of minority faiths in Muslim majority countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the latter non-Muslims (like Hindus and Sikhs) are known to pay the jizya (tax of humiliation), and Christians often face blasphemy charges in Pakistan like the cause célèbre Asia Bibi. There are also reports of forced marriage and conversion of Hindu girls in Pakistan and persecution of Ahmadiyya.
  • Free discussion about historical facts, like the beheading of the 9th Guru of Sikhism – Tegh Bahadur who was executed by Mughal authorities when he stood up for the freedom of religion of Hindu priests, who were being forcefully converted to Islam.

*the above isn’t an exhaustive list, but just a few areas as means of illustration.

We note the National Secular Society (NSS) have stated, ‘accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ are often used to silence debate about (and within) Islam,’[v] and ‘the word ‘Islamophobia’ has entered common usage, but it conflates legitimate criticism of Islam, or Islamic practices, with anti-Muslim prejudice, bigotry and hatred’.[vi]  This view is entirely consistent with our position.

1.2 The definition proposed by the APPG on British Muslims

 

‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’.[vii]

 

Questions about race component in definition

Conflating race and religion is extremely problematic. There are of course occasions where race motivates hate crime against Muslims, or the ‘Muslim looking other’. An example of this would be the throwing of a pig’s head in the drive of former government minister Parmjit Singh Dhanda’s in 2010. Although a Sikh, he does not wear a turban nor have a beard. His detractors must have assumed he was Muslim due to his ethnicity. However, in other cases, it is more the conflation of religious symbols, like the Sikh turban (dastaar) and beard with the appearance of extremists like Bin Laden, the Taliban (or ISIS), which makes Sikhs and other non-Muslims susceptible to ‘Islamophobia’.[viii] This vulnerability – due to a visibility in the public space, is no different to that of Muslim women in hijabs, and orthodox Jews in skullcaps. Dr Jhutti-Johal an academic from the University of Birmingham has provided further examples of hate crime against Sikhs in a submission to an inquiry by The Youth Select Committee in 2016.[ix] Notably, white hipsters with beards have been confused with ISIS, and this is more to do with their hirsute countenance, rather than a prejudice born from, or ‘rooted in racism’. Furthermore, by framing ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘racism’, the definition miserably fails to encompass prejudice suffered by white converts, or European Muslims, like Bosniaks, Kosovars and Albanians.

 

1.3 Evidence to APPG and the question of impartiality

Whilst our evidence, like that of Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and the NSS was accepted by the inquiry conducted by the APPG on British Muslims, not all was agreed in the definition. It was selectively used by the authors of Islamophobia Defined.[x] On aspects of SBS’s evidence, the report’s authors dismissively say it, ‘appears highly misguided’.[xi] We take the view this doesn’t reflect a standard of impartiality.

 

1.4 Being ‘insufficiently Muslim’ in the eyes of other Muslims

Baroness Falkner of Margravine gave a compelling speech in which she challenged the racial component of the proposed definition. She said, ‘When you define a religion—in other words, a belief system—as an adjective and declare that this is rooted in race, which is biological, you ascribe to belief an immutability which cannot work’.[xii] She also discussed the prejudice her family had faced moving from India to Pakistan in 1947, and that she had personally faced from her co-religionists in Muslim countries for being ‘insufficiently Muslim’, adding ‘but that experience was as nothing compared to the discrimination that Ahmadiyyas, Shias and various others still face today at the hands of other Muslims.’[xiii]

As Baroness Falkner rightly states, ‘Islamophobia’ also includes prejudice within Muslim communities against one another for being ‘insufficiently Muslim’. There is no mention of this aspect in the APPG report Islamophobia Defined, despite the definition referring to ‘expressions of Muslimness’. It is not clear if persecuted groups like Ahmadiyyas gave evidence to the APPG, or if their view has been given any consideration at all. The sectarian murders of Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow, and Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam in Rochdale demonstrate policy makers cannot simply ignore this issue.

Framing a similar argument to Baroness Falkner is Britain’s counter-extremism czar, Sara Khan. In an opinion editorial she describes, ‘increasing anti-Muslim hatred’ that she receives ‘from fellow Muslims’. ‘It is contradictory and unjust to recognise non-Muslim perpetrators yet ignore Muslims who engage in active hostility, abuse, hatred and discrimination against other Muslims’, argues Ms Khan. We believe this is an area which requires much more focus and we must acknowledge all bigotry, from wherever it comes, in equal terms.

 

1.5 Equality in public policy

One of the victims of a Rotherham grooming gang argues that ‘non-Muslim hate’ or hate against ‘those with a perceived lack of Muslimness’ should be taken just as seriously as discrimination against Muslims. ‘As grooming victims, my friends and I were called vile racist names such as “white trash” and “kaffir girl” as we were raped. Our Sikh and Hindu friends who were also targeted by Muslim Pakistani gangs were disparagingly called “kaffir slags” too.’ The APPG’s Islamophobia Defined report makes four references to grooming gangs. But it makes no effort to examine the motivations of the perpetrators. Instead, it suggests that discussion of grooming gangs could be ‘Islamophobic’. The government has a duty to take all forms of hatred as seriously as one another and we welcome the committee’s thoughts on this point.

To date government policy on hate crime has marginalised minority faiths like Sikhs and Hindus, because the focus is primarily on the suffering of Muslims and Jews. This is despite Sikhs suffering ‘mistaken identity’ attacks since 9/11. Whilst we sympathise with the Muslim and Jewish communities, the government needs to take steps to execute parity – irrespective of religious belief, or none. Our Director, Lord Singh has previously warned that Sikhs, who ‘do not have a culture of complaint’ are at risk of ‘falling off the government radar’ and believes the government ‘must be even-handed’ towards all communities.[xiv]

 

Conclusion

We request the committee gives our concerns due consideration. We believe the proposed definition is flawed and will have serious implications on free and open discussion about matters of significant public interest. It has the potential to act as a shield for extremists who want to shut down criticism of Islam or the behaviour of a minority of Muslims.

 

Network of Sikh Organisations


[ii] http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/hate-crime-and-its-violent-consequences/written/45945.html
[iii] https://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2018-12-20a.1937.0
[iv] http://nsouk.co.uk/nso-gives-evidence-to-appg-on-british-muslims-on-islamophobia/
[v] https://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/response-to-home-affairs-committee-islamophobia-inquiry.pdf
[vi] Ibid
[vii]https://static1.squarespace.com/static/599c3d2febbd1a90cffdd8a9/t/5bfd1ea3352f531a6170ceee/1543315109493/Islamophobia+Defined.pdf
[viii] Sikhs have suffered the negative reverberations of Islamism since 9/11. The first person to be killed in retribution was a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Phoenix. In Britain, there was an attempted beheading of a Sikh dentist in Wales in 2015 – a ‘revenge’ attack for Lee Rigby. Reference to Sikhs as ‘Bin Laden’, ‘Taliban’ and ‘ISIS’ are a normal occurrence – both Sikh men and women have suffered. Despite being one of the most ‘visible’ minority groups in Britain, eighteen years on from 9/11 we are still not viewed as a priority group by the government.
[ix] http://www.byc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/050-Jagbir-Jhutti-Johal.pdf
[x]  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/599c3d2febbd1a90cffdd8a9/t/5bfd1ea3352f531a6170ceee/1543315109493/Islamophobia+Defined.pdf
[xi]  Ibid
[xii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-12-20/debates/2F954D45-1962-4256-A492-22EBF6AEF8F0/Islamophobia#contribution-B9C080A2-4CBA-4687-BBCD-0A20C512D1FC
[xiii] Ibid

(Above: Afghan Sikhs carrying a coffin of one of the victims of the Jalalabad suicide bombing)

Following the deadly suicide bombing in Jalalabad targeting Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu minority the NSO has flagged its concerns with the government and taken steps to raise the issue with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).

You only have to look at the declining numbers of minorities to realise the gravity of persecution they face in Muslim majority Afghanistan. Prior to the collapse of Kabul government in 1992, there were 220,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country, and today only 220 or so families remain. Sikhs and Hindus need police protection to cremate their dead as it is deemed offensive to Muslims, they are forced to pay the jizya or ‘tax of humiliation’, and are fearful their women and daughters will be kidnapped and converted to Islam.

Afghan Sikhs we’ve spoken to in London have told us it is now time for Sikhs to leave Afghanistan and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The victims of the Jalalabad attack included Awtar Singh Khalsa who had planned to stand for parliament in elections this October.

In light of this most recent atrocity, our Director Lord Singh has asked the government 1. What discussions they intend to have with the Afghan authorities to safeguard the security and right to freedom of belief 2. What representations they intend to make to the government of India to encourage them to grant asylum to victims and families 3. Whether Britain intends to offer asylum to the families of those who were killed. We will be sharing the response received from Ministers.

We’ve also contacted the APPG for FoRB to ask them to follow up on this issue and include the persecution of Afghanistan’s minority faiths on the agenda for their next meeting.

News of the Jalalabad attack comes in the wake of a case highlighted by Justice Upheld involving a Pakistani Sikh forced to go on the run having received a fatwa (to kill him) by the Taliban. His only crime in the eyes of Islamists – the setting up of a Sikh school in Peshawar.

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO)

Evidence submitted to All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims on “Working Definition of Islamophobia/Anti-Muslim hatred”

About us: The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no. 1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.

Definition of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred

1.1 Our submission follows an e-mail request on 17 May 2018 from Suriyah Bi Researcher for the APPG on British Muslims. We are grateful to her for giving us the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry. As an organisation, we haven’t adopted a definition of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred.[1] That said, we are aware of Sikhs have faced the negative reverberations of Islamism ever since 9/11, and are subjected to so-called ‘Islamophobic’ hate. We would like to comment on the original Runnymede definition (1997) which suggests Islamophobia is: ‘a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam—and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.’[2] This early definition gave the term public and political recognition. However, we have concerns about the potential interpretation, scope, limitations and meaning of this original definition insofar as it provides little opportunity to distinguish a dislike of specific aspects of Islam, with prejudice faced by everyday Muslims (be it online or on the street). To this day, it remains ambiguous, problematic and at best confusing.

1.2 We believe all faiths (including our own) should be open to criticism. Therefore we take the view criticism of Islam, as a system of beliefs must be made absolutely distinct from specific incidents of anti-Muslim hate. Moreover the Runnymede definition fails to consider the wider repercussions of Islamophobia on non-Muslims or individuals of no faith. This maybe related to the fact a more significant backlash began post 9/11, a few years after the original Runnymede report was published.

1.3 We acknowledge Runnymede’s recent report – Islamophobia – 20 years on, still a challenge for us all,[3] includes a Sikh case study. Indeed since 9/11 we have witnessed what we would best describe as a ‘racialization of Islamophobia’ – colour prejudice and hatred towards Islam have become conflated. So we have seen emergence of another sub-category of victims under the broader ‘Islamophobia’ umbrella – the ‘Muslim looking other.’ Of course for turbaned/bearded Sikhs, ‘mistaken identity’ attacks have resulted in assaults and murders in US, but there have also been assaults in the UK. In Britain we have seen the attempted murder of a Sikh dentist in Wales by Zack Davies, an individual linked to the now prescribed group National Action. In targeting Dr Sarandev Singh Bhambra, Davies wanted to take ‘revenge’ for Lee Rigby.[4] Reports indicate Davies also drew inspiration from Islamic State executioner ‘Jihadi John’.[5] Disparaging remarks like ‘Bin Laden’ or ‘Taliban’ are a common occurrence for Sikhs with turbans, and we recently saw the conviction of a man for calling his Sikh neighbours ‘ISIS slags’ and ‘ISIS bitches’.[6]

1.4 However when Sikhs face criticism for the behaviour of individual Sikhs, their beliefs or their identity, there is no equivalent word to shut down this criticism akin to ‘Islamophobia’. We don’t challenge those who smear Sikh teachings as ‘Sikhophobes’, and suffice to say ‘Hinduphobia’ hasn’t established itself in the vernacular either. The question is why? Moreover, when Sikh teachings and the Gurus are belittled or smeared by missionary faiths out to convert Sikh heathens, gentiles or infidels, we remain open to such criticism, and have confidence Sikh teachings which promote sarbat da bhalla, or equality for all human beings are robust enough to overcome any such challenge. Are all Abrahamic missionaries ‘Sikhophobes?’ We think not. We may not agree with the approach, but they have every right to question our values and beliefs, as we do theirs. Importantly Sikhism believes in absolute free speech and the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for standing up for the freedom of religious belief of Hindus facing Mughal persecution. He may not have agreed with Hindu practices, faith or rituals, but willingly faced martyrdom standing up for their inalienable right to freedom of religious belief.

1.5 Worryingly, over the years, we have been witnessing a trend in the use of the accusation of ‘Islamophobia’ as a stick to beat those critical of aspects of Islam, and or the behaviour of a minority of Muslims. As discussed we believe all faiths should be open to criticism including our own. We have experienced the accusation of ‘Islamophobia’, when pointing to the disproportionate number of those of Pakistani Muslim heritage convicted in sexual grooming gang cases. This clear trend in criminality is evidenced by research published by counter extremism think-tank Quilliam.[7] Criticism of heavy-handed military action of the Israeli state can also be cynically dismissed as ‘antisemitic’. This is also wrong and troubling. We view the use of these words in these particular contexts, as a convenient mechanism to silence critics, so as to avoid the need to address underlying issues or take responsibility. This element must be taken into consideration when differentiating prejudice faced by everyday Muslims, which is real and despicable, with legitimate criticism of aspects of Islam, or the behaviour of a minority of Muslims. We are afraid anything less falls short of the mark.

1.6 As discussed, we prefer to refer to prejudice faced by Muslims as anti-Muslim hate. Any sensible working definition of ‘Islamophobia’ must be able to differentiate any legitimate criticism of a system of beliefs, culture, polity and tradition with incidents of anti-Muslim hate. Importantly, it should also be flexible enough to be inclusive of sectarian hatred within Muslim communities themselves. The persecution of the Ahmadi minority, illustrated by the murder of a Glaswegian shopkeeper Asad Shah[8] being a prime example. Should this not be defined as Muslim Islamophobia?

Consequences of not adopting a definition of ‘Islamophobia’

2.1 As discussed, we believe it is better to look at a working definition of ‘Islamophobia’ rather than ‘anti-Muslim hatred’. The latter is self-explanatory; the former is vague, confusing and can be used as a smokescreen to shut down those critical of aspects of Islam or the behavior of a minority of Muslims. As discussed above, the consequence of not adopting a sensible definition of ‘Islamophobia’ has serious implications for free speech. We must be clear about the meaning of words. Can legitimate criticism of aspects of Islam be deemed Islamophobic? Secondly, in the absence of a sensible working definition, the wider suffering of non-Muslims who face Islamophobia will continue to be disregarded. For example, much of the hatred directed at Sikhs is down to ignorance about Sikhism and Sikh articles of faith. This is why Sikhs, and other non-Muslims are being recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ by forces like the MET police. The figures we’ve obtained via FOI from the MET show that 25% of victims of so called ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ in 2016 are non-Muslims or of no recorded faith, and for the previous year the figure is 28%. This includes Sikhs, but also Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists and Agnostics. For Sikhs, the conflation of Sikh turbans and beards with the attire of Islamic extremists such as Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or the Taliban – (happening since 9/11) has resulted in the murder of Sikhs in the U.S, and attacks in Britain.

2.2 It is clear that visible differences are a motivating factor in such incidents. This is as true for Muslim women in hijabs as it is for orthodox Jews or Sikhs. In recent correspondence with the Judicial College who’ve published a new section on ‘Islamophobia’ in their Equal Treatment Bench Book (March 2018) – we pointed to the issue of non-Muslim victims of Islamophobic hate backed by police statistics. They responded suggesting the statistics ‘provide background information’, but may be an, ‘unwanted distraction’. This is simply not good enough and frankly an insult. But it’s not just the Judicial College that takes this parochial view.

2.3 Government policy in the area of religious hate crime is wholly inadequate. We point to in particular the ‘Abrahamic-centric’ four-year hate crime action plan (2016) blithely ignore the suffering of many non-Abrahamic victims, including Sikhs.[9] It appears that the government’s primary concern is the welfare of Muslims and Jews, and there appears to be a myopic view no one else really suffers hate. This is simply not good enough and the government urgently needs to address this blind spot. The adoption of a sensible definition for ‘Islamophobia’ therefore matters not just to Muslims, but to non-Muslims too. We all face the negative reverberations of Islamism and it’s only right that any sensible working definition reflects this so policy in this area is inclusive.

[Ends]

Note: we would be willing to give oral evidence to support our submission if required and 19 June 2018 (pm) is our preference

[1] As we haven’t adopted a working definition we feel its not appropriate for us to tackle the later questions posed in the call for evidence

[2] https://www.runnymedetrust.org/companies/17/74/Islamophobia-A-Challenge-for-Us-All.html

[3] https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/Islamophobia%20Report%202018%20FINAL.pdf

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-east-wales-34218184

[5] http://www.itv.com/news/2015-06-25/zack-davies-drew-inspiration-from-jihadi-john-before-carrying-out-racially-motivated-attack/

[6] https://metro.co.uk/2016/09/18/ex-soldier-jailed-for-racially-abusing-sikh-neighbours-and-calling-them-isis-bitches-6135147/

[7] https://www.quilliaminternational.com/press-release-new-quilliam-report-on-grooming-gangs/

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/09/tanveer-ahmed-jailed-for-murder-glasgow-shopkeeper-in-sectarian-attack

[9]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/543679/Action_Against_Hate_-_UK_Government_s_Plan_to_Tackle_Hate_Crime_2016.pdf

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