London Diary: Is ending Islamophobia a hindrance to freedom of speech?

Can ones freedom of speech be curtailed by defining and ending Islamophobia, the British government seems to think so!

Representative Image (Social Media)
Representative Image (Social Media)

Hasan Saroor

Defining ‘Islamophobia’

What is “Islamophobia”? Are Muslims right to see any criticism of Islam or Muslim practices as Islamophobic? Or is it an attempt to shut down any debate on Islam?

British Muslims are up in arms after the Government rejected a definition of Islamophobia drawn up by a cross-party parliamentary group after a six-month inquiry into a sharp spike in attacks on Muslims and their places of worship.

In a report, the All-Parliamentary Party Group described Islamophobia as “rooted in racism” and a “type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” The Government believes the definition is too broad and could “hinder” free speech.

Critics further argue that Muslims don’t constitute a race and Islam like any other ideology is open to criticism. An argument of course dismissed by Muslims as disingenuous pointing out that the definition of anti-semitism that the government follows is broadly the same.

The Muslim Council of Britain called the government’s stand as “truly astonishing”. Sayeeda Warsi, a former Tory cabinet minister who has accused her party of failing to tackle Islamophobia within its own ranks rejected the free speech rationale.

“The report makes clear that the definition does not seek to protect or stop criticism of Islam – to suggest it would is disingenuous and divisive,” she said.

The parliamentary group which wrote the report insisted that its definition was not intended to curtail free speech or criticism of Islam as a religion. It was being deliberately misinterpreted.

The definition has been accepted by several parties including Labour and Liberal Democratic Party—and the London Mayor’s office. If it’s good for them, why not for the Tories?

Rise in racism

One of the most dangerous fallouts of the increasingly polarised Brexit debate has been a sharp rise in racism. Ethnic minorities have reported increasing levels of overt racism in the wake of the bitterly contested 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.

The percentage of people from Asian and African communities who say they have suffered discrimination has gone up by ten points in the past three years—- from 58 percent in 2016 to 71 percent in 2019, according to a nationwide survey. Incidents of online racist abuse has also risen.

Anti-racism campaigners have warned that there is danger of racism becoming “normalised”. “It is no coincidence that this rise has come as antimigrant populists seek to divide the country using the playbook of Donald Trump,” Labour MP David Lammy told The Guardian.

Main political parties are doing little to tackle the issue. On the contrary, their divisive Brexit discourse is fuelling xenophobia. Sounds like “back home”?

Woman Arabic writer’s triumph For the first time, a woman Arabic novelist has won the £50,000 Man Booker International Prize. Oman’s Jokha Alharthi has won the prize for her novel, “Celestial Bodies” translated into English by Marilyn Booth. A coming-of-age account of three Omani sisters, it has been described by judges as a “richly imagined” work that raises profound questions about Omani society.

‘Obscene’ to ‘sacred’ Of the millions of copies of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” sold in the UK since it was legally allowed to be distributed here in 1960, one has gained such rare status that the British government has stepped in to ban its export—and writers charity Pen has launched a fund-raising campaign to buy it from its current owner Sotheby’s auction house to prevent it from being sold to on overseas buyer.

It’s the heavily annotated copy that was used by judge Sir Laurence Byrne during the trial in which Penguin Books was sought to be prosecuted for allegedly breaching the Obscene Publications Act. Penguin went on to win the case establishing the primacy of freedom of speech in modern Britain, and paving the way for the sexual liberal “swinging ‘sixties.”

There’s an interesting aside to the case. Before the trial, the judge got his wife Dorothy to read the novel to test the prosecution’s case that it tended to deprave and corrupt public morals and was not the sort of book to be lying around in a family home.

He asked her to highlight for him passages which she as a lay reader thought were obscene. Which she diligently did— marking up phrases like “course” and “love-making”. And it’s that copy that is now regarded as a national treasure that should remain in Britain.

Antonia Byatt, Director of Pen, described it as an “iconic” symbol of freedom of literary expression. “It’s a kind of sacred text,” she said adding that she wanted the book to remain in the country in order to educate future generations. Pen is seeking to raise £56,000 —the sum needed to “save” it.

Lastly, it’s now official: women are right to complain about “sexist” air conditioning at workplace which, a study has confirmed, is invariably set to suit male body requirements leaving women freezing. Women are most comfortable at 3-degree-Celsius higher than the threshold for men.

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