A human rights lawyer has refuted claims that a working definition of Islamophobia, which has been rejected by the government, would curtail freedom of speech.
A working definition put forward by a cross-party parliamentary group – with the backing of 750 Muslim organisations and community groups – was rejected by the government this week.
The definition reads: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
The government has said it needs to give the definition further consideration, with Buzzfeed News reporting that it was concerned it would hinder free speech.
Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, added in a statement that the definition was “too broad as currently drafted” and “could cause confusion for officers enforcing it.”
He said: “It could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states.”
Free Speech Implications?
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Speaking to RightsInfo, human rights lawyer Shoaib Khan said it is was unclear how the proposed definition threatens freedom of speech.
While there seems to be no reason that the proposed definition would curtail freedom of expression, if it was found to do so, it would have to yield to human rights law.
Shoaib Khan, Human Rights Lawyer
“Freedom of expression is protected by human rights law and no definition of any term would change that,” he said.
“While there seems to be no reason that the proposed definition would curtail freedom of expression, if it was found to do so, it would have to yield to human rights law.”
He explained that any laws introduced based on the agreed definition of Islamophobia would need to be compliant with Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention (HRC).
“The definition would not be allowed to trample on freedom of speech,” he said.
“The right to freedom of expression is, of course, not an absolute right anyway, and has to occasionally give way to other considerations.
“However, the state can only restrict freedom of speech for reasons including national security, public safety and prevention of disorder or crime.
“No definition of Islamophobia would change that.”
Mr Khan lamented the government’s rejection of the definition and the time it will waste coming up with a new one “that is highly unlikely to command the same support from the Muslim community”.
The report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims was developed following consultations in London, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham.
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The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – the UK’s largest Muslim representative body in the UK – reacted to the government’s move with incredulity.
Its statement read: “It is truly extraordinary that the government believes it is better placed to determine the harm that Muslim communities face than Muslim communities themselves, who – alongside dozens of leading academics in the field – have overwhelmingly endorsed the APPG definition of Islamophobia.”
It added: “We can only hope that this decision will be revisited.”
Ilford North Labour MP Wes Streeting, co-chair of the group told RightsInfo: “The government fundamentally misunderstands the role of the working definition and we believe its concerns about free speech are unfounded.
“We’re committed to working through these issues with the government.
“They must proceed with a definition that has the full confidence of the majority of Muslim communities across the UK”
A government spokesperson said: “Any hatred directed against British Muslims and others because of their faith or heritage is utterly unacceptable.
“We are conscious that the APPG’s proposed definition has not been broadly accepted – unlike the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism before it was adopted by the UK government and other international organisations and governments.
“This is a matter that needs further careful consideration.”