With religious hate crimes on the rise, Afzal Khan and Benedict Rogers, a Muslim and a Christian, call on the Conservative Party to protect lives and religious freedom

This month marks Islamophobia Awareness Month, so it seems particularly appropriate for the two of us, a Muslim and a Christian, to join forces in an appeal against religious hatred and for religious freedom – for everyone, everywhere, no exceptions.

Around the world, people of different faiths face severe persecution. We have worked together to highlight the genocide of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in China and the Rohingyas in Myanmar. But Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, Jews and others face persecution across the world. Earlier this year the United Kingdom hosted an International Ministerial Conference on the issue, bringing together political and religious leaders, civil society groups and human rights defenders, to confront the challenge. The government, and the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Fiona Bruce MP, deserve credit for this.

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But we can only effectively tackle violations of religious freedom abroad if we tackle religious hatred here at home. Both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, and the latter is especially pervasive, resulting in violent hate crimes and targeted discrimination. Together they make up 65% of all hate crime. According to the Home Office’s own figures, hate crimes against Muslims accounted for 42% of all recorded hate crimes in 2021/22, year after year the highest proportion of religiously motivated hate crimes. In the past year, the overall number rose by 28%.

Equally alarmingly, according to Muslim Census, a 2021 survey of 1,000 British Muslims found that 92% of them believe the Government itself is Islamophobic and only 29% feel their freedom of speech is protected in the UK. The fact that so many have that perception is dangerous.

Neither of our parties, Labour and Conservative, has a clean record. Labour had its own challenges with anti-Semitism, and more recently with Islamophobia, as shown by the 2020 Labour Muslim Network report. However, there are reasons to be deeply concerned about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. The 2021 inquiry into alleged discrimination in the Conservative Party by Professor Swaran Singh revealed institutional failings in the party’s handling of Islamophobic complaints. However, it also failed to consult a single Conservative Muslim member and was accused of “whitewashing” the issue. In the 2019 leadership election, all candidates promised to conduct an inquiry into Islamophobia in the party, but until now, no such investigation has materialised.

Perhaps one of the problems in the past may have been the lack of a clear and accepted definition of Islamophobia. Legitimate criticism of radical Islamist ideology, jihadism and extremism – as distinct from the Islamic religion and Muslim people – as well as genuine disagreement with particular theological teachings or practices, and honest and respectful intellectual inquiry should always be protected in an open society that treasures freedom of expression. But that is very different from, and should never be translated to, verbal or physical assaults, discrimination, or hatred against ordinary British Muslims. 

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In 2018, after a six-month-long inquiry, the cross-party group for British Muslims provided a definition of Islamophobia. It stated that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” The parliamentary inquiry heard from representatives from across British Muslim communities.

Over 900 British Muslim organisations endorsed the definition, representing a broad range of communities, from the Muslim Council of Britain, to the Muslim Women’s Network, and British Muslims for Secular Democracy. It was adopted by the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SNP, and even the Scottish Conservatives. The Mayors of London and Greater Manchester, and hundreds of councils across the country also adopted the definition.

The Government rejected this and announced it would draft an alternative definition. It promised to appoint two independent advisors to investigate Islamophobia. Only one advisor, Qari Asim, was appointed in 2019, and he was removed in June of this year. No new definition has yet been published.

Recent Conservative Cabinets have been ground-breaking in the number of ethnic minority politicians in senior ministerial positions. But the Government should not ignore the deeply concerning rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes any longer. It is certainly vital to protect freedom of speech, but it is equally vital to protect ordinary lives and livelihoods against hatred and assault.

If the current definition is not acceptable, the Government must follow through on its promise to produce a new definition. This will protect both legitimate freedom of speech while ensuring everybody in society, of all races and religions and none, feels safe and valued. 

The Labour Party has accepted the recommendations of the Labour Muslim Network report, the Government must now do the same, stop kicking the can down the road, and urgently take action to safeguard communities. 

The Islamophobia PandemicThe Rise of Muslim Detention Camps in Asia

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The late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once wrote: “We still have to fight for the truth that every group should feel safe; and that our differences, not just our similarities, are what make us human … A society that has no room for difference has no room for humanity … Where there is hate, freedom dies.”

His seminal books The Dignity of Difference, The Home We Build Together and To Heal A Fractured World provide, even just by their titles, a clue for how to proceed. This inter-faith week, and just after we have remembered those who gave their lives for our freedoms and future in past wars, let us resolve to turn his message into action.

Genocide always begins with hatred. We have seen where hatred against Muslims in Xinjiang and Myanmar leads. We cannot hope to stop those genocides if we don’t ensure that we tackle anti-Muslim hatred in our own society. Violence, abuse and discrimination against any community have no place in modern Britain.

Afzal Khan is Labour Member of Parliament for Manchester Gorton and Shadow Justice Minister.

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

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