Tackling religious hatred through dialogue not definitions

Imam Qari Asim at Leeds mosque. Image credit: @QariAsim

By Liz Harris

The government has announced a new definition of extremism, which has drawn criticism for targeting Muslims and being a means to divide society further. Faith leaders told a Religion Media Centre (RMC) briefing of their concerns and of the impact of this approach to tackle extremism. They believed the best method to tackle hatred was building relationships between people of different faiths.

The definition, announced by the communities secretary Michael Gove, is: “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 1 negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or 2 undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or 3 intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

Amid the worrying spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism, now was not the right time to introduce a new definition of extremism, faith leaders told the briefing. It was, one observed, “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

The new definition may lead to more arrests at pro-Palestine marches, where signs and slogans are viewed, at best, as “extremely problematic” for members of the Jewish community. But there were concerns that it played into fears among the Muslim community that already felt under a greater level of scrutiny.

Faith leaders agreed that the way to tackle religious hatred in society was through continuing dialogue and building relationships between people of different faiths.

Why no meetings?

There was genuine surprise and alarm that government working groups on anti-Muslim hatred and antisemitism had not met for four years, despite a rise in hate crime.

Akeela Ahmed joined the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group when David Cameron, who was then the prime minister, set it up in 2012 with Baroness Warsi.

As former chief executive of the Muslim Youth Helpline, she had years of experience dealing with vulnerable groups and reports of Islamophobia. Members met four times a year and worked with the police, the media and other institutions. Several initiatives were born, including Tell Mama, which was set up to monitor anti-Muslim hate.

Then came the pandemic. The last formal meeting was in January 2020 and that March members were told that all resources were being redirected to Covid. Members understood and continued working on Islamophobia in their own time. But in 2021, Ms Ahmed felt it was time to ask minsters when the working groups could be restarted as the country moved into the recovery phase.

Initially there were some positive noises recognising the work members had done, but when she pushed to get things moving there was no response. While the group’s relationship with faith ministers in the past had been “very good”, from 2021 they were blanked.

No one has contacted Ms Ahmed since she went public with the story in The Observer on Sunday. The day before publication, Fiyaz Mughal, who was lined up to lead the government’s work on anti-Muslim hatred, resigned after receiving abuse, even before he had started the job.

When asked for a comment on the failure to meet, the government referred the RMC to a statement made in the Commons: “The government continues to take a broad approach to religious hatred, which will develop on the work of the previous antisemitism and anti-Muslim working groups. We plan to appoint a new adviser on anti-Muslim hatred and we will update the house shortly.”

Asked how she would respond to the imminent new definition of extremism, Ms Ahmed said: “Now is not the right time … with the war in Israel and Gaza playing out in this country in ways we never expected … The time is to bring the country together.

“Remember that overwhelmingly British people … get along with one another. They are good-hearted. They are not sitting at home thinking about how to commit hate crimes. They’re not feeling hatred for each other.”

A job without an office

Imam Qari Asim, chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, chaired the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group from 2019 to 2022, when he was sacked. This was the first time he has spoken publicly to the RMC about his experience.

After being involved with the working group from its inception, prime minister Theresa May appointed him as an expert to draft a new definition of Islamophobia just before she left office in 2019. The purpose of redefining the term was not “to bring in blasphemy law through the back door” as some had feared, but for the purpose of “protecting people being abused, on the street or online”.

Another adviser was also due to be brought in, something Imam Asim found “unusual”. Yet no one else was ever appointed — and Imam Asim was not provided with an office, or terms of reference, despite repeated requests.

“I obviously wrote to the Department of Communities and then also to No 10 … I outlined what I thought in terms of we should be doing … and I never got any response.”

Qari Asim even approached Boris Johnson when he came across him in a meeting.  “I … spoke to him [so say] this is this is really important and it had just reached a kind of impasse where we were not making any progress and he said, ‘Write to me in No 10,’ which I did again and never got any response.”

In 2022, he discovered from a journalist that he had been sacked. This was for his comments about protests against The Lady of Heaven, a film that claims to tell the story of Lady Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. He says he was never contacted by anyone from the government, but that an undated and unsigned letter was posted on the Gov.uk website announcing his dismissal. He wrote to the government in response to the allegations but has never received a reply.

Asked how he would describe the relationship between Muslim communities in the UK and the government, he said: “Muslim communities feel, by and large, that there is a much greater level of scrutiny when it comes to [them]. There is a deeper level of disenfranchisement among the young people because of the way the Muslim community is sometimes treated by the establishment.”

He went on to criticise the government and senior ministers for not challenging “vilifying, extremely shameful and offensive Islamophobic things about Muslims” made by those in influential positions, such as Lee Anderson, the MP who was suspended by the Conservatives and has now joined the Reform Party.

Spike in antisemitism incidents

The next to speak was Daniel Sugarman, public affairs director for the Board of Deputies for British Jews. Asked about rising antisemitism in the UK, he said that according to the Community Security Trust (CST), 4,103 incidents were reported in 2023 — more than any other year on record. In fact, the number of reports between 7 October and the end of December last year exceeded the annual number of all previous antisemitic incidents since recording began.

He drew attention to the fact that antisemitic incidents shot up before Israel took action in Gaza: “They started immediately in the wake of the 7 October attacks … as the CST themselves have said that did not seem linked to … Israel’s response. That antisemitism appeared celebratory in nature, which was extremely disturbing.”

With regard to the new definition of extremism, Mr Sugarman said: “I do not want any sort of definition … that singles out a specific religious or ethnic minority group.” While the Jewish community was not monolithic, “many Jewish people feel that the climate here since 7 October has become more difficult” as a result of the protests.

Language mattered, he said, and while “many of us believe the marchers are … genuinely concerned with the tragic situation in Gaza … among those crowds, there are people who will hold up signs or will chant slogans which many people within the Jewish community view as extremely problematic at best”.

While the relatively low number of arrests was held up as proof that the marches were peaceful, for many within the Jewish community this signalled that antisemitism was not being taken seriously. Those with these concerns, would be hoping that the new definition of extremism, “would tackle that particular issue and lead to further arrests”.

Asked about the government’s role in tackling religious hatred, Mr Sugarman said it should provide space for community representatives to come together to discuss issues freely and in confidence “perhaps with the Chatham House Rule”.

Being able to speak privately was important, he said, so they could express themselves frankly and not be attacked by members of their own communities, “who might be very upset that they are meeting with specific people”.

He revealed that while meetings with senior government officials had taken place with Jewish organisations over the past few months, the cross-government group on antisemitism, had also not been resumed since 2020.

“To my understanding the cross-government group on antisemitism has similarly not met in a frequent way since Covid,” Mr Sugarman added. “That’s not to say the government does not consult frequently with the organisations within the Jewish community with regards to antisemitism. It does.”

How to tackle hatred

The briefing was joined by Professor Adeela Ahmed Shafi, who co-founded the Bristol Muslim Strategic Leadership Group. She explained that protests about the war in Gaza had been taking place every week in Bristol since October. Yet the relationship between the Muslim and Jewish communities there remained strong.

She described how Muslims and Jews had a history of coming together in times of crisis and that communities were taking the lead in maintaining harmony. “If incidents of Islamophobia and antisemitism occur … we come together quickly to explore what those look like,” she said. “Because it’s not just good enough to look at the numbers of incidents. You want to see what those incidents look like. What do they constitute? Who were the perpetrators?”

Professor Shafi was alarmed to hear of the government’s lack of structured conversations with Muslims and Jews. In an environment where there were events nationally that pitted people against each other, locally things became especially challenging.

“In some ways we’re having to pick up the pieces locally, with local communities doing much of the work to keep some of that harmony together,” she added.

“I want the government to learn from us … to learn from what communities are doing — to reassess — starting from lack of engagement with working groups, starting with their … distrust of something like the interfaith network, which they’ve just recently defunded.”

The issues that had pitted Muslims and Jews against each other were geopolitical, rather than religious, she said, and it was important not to conflate the two. This was why, in her opinion, community relations had been maintained in Bristol.

For Rabbi Debbie Long-Somers, from the Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, religious education was the key. She told the briefing that an “aversion to religious education” had contributed to religious intolerance.

“Religious education is not today about trying to convert anyone to anything. It’s about really understanding who we are and who our neighbours are, whether that’s from a faith perspective or a worldview perspective.”

The inability to “disagree well” has also played its part, she said. Yet there were signs of hope. In a couple of weeks, the Jewish community in Hendon will host an iftar — the evening meal with which Muslims break their fast during Ramadan — the first time the community has done this. That felt like a precious moment.

Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko, interfaith senior adviser at the Board of Deputies, said politics was in “a state of flux” as people are “setting out their stall for the next election, which can do harm to communities who are somehow the victims of that”.

She referred to Bristol as a “shining example” of good community relations, noting that there may be “more tensions” in London simply because it was so large. Strong civil society groups and current relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews were factors that had been helpful during the past few months, she said.

Julie Siddiqi, a grassroots activist who has founded and led many groups bringing communities together, was concerned at the announcement to redefine extremism.

She said that while language mattered, certain slogans and phrases meant different things for different people. The definition by Michael Gove risked criminalising and labelling people who were not extremists. It was a “sledgehammer to a nut approach” which was not going to be helpful or do “what we — as Muslim and Jewish communities — need it to do”.

Language mattered for public officials as well, Ms Siddiqi added, and that some of what has recently been said in the public space about Muslims was “really unacceptable”.

She reminded  speakers that this week was the fifth anniversary of the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand and that Friday is Anti-Islamophobia Day.

Ms Siddiqi asked everyone “to hold in your hearts what can happen when things are not dealt with properly”. In Christchurch, she said, 51 people were murdered in two mosques during Friday prayers. It could “absolutely happen here”, she warned.

Ahmed el Halabi from the Bristol Muslim Strategic Leadership Group also agreed that language mattered and criticised the government’s labelling of the protests as “hate marches”. It was important, he said, to differentiate between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. He said there were many Jews who were anti-Zionist who went on the marches.

Mr Sugarman said while some Jews went on the marches, most Jews believed the only way someone publicly Jewish would be safe on these marches would be by disassociating themselves from the beliefs of the rest of the community with regard to Zionism and Israel’s right to exist.

Giving the last word on the session, Ms Ahmed agreed with Mr Sugarman that the term “Zionism” should not be misused, and nor should “Islamism”. This word had been used as “code” to talk about Muslims “in difficult and dangerous ways”.

She said it was clear there was a need to deal with anti-Muslim hate and Islamophobia and that a definition was one part of that. Government engagement to deal with all hate crime was essential, but from the discussion today it seemed that civil society was taking the lead. They were trying to deal with it “on their own terms and in their own way but they need support, and we’d really like to see leadership from the government on this”.


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