Hackney councillors vote unanimously to adopt Islamophobia definition

Hackney Town Hall.

Hackney councillors last night voted unanimously to adopt a new definition of Islamophobia that commits the Town Hall to speak out against the rise in racism against Muslims.

A speech by Cllr Humaira Garasia (Lab, Haggerston) on her fears of being targeted by Islamophobic racists received a standing ovation.

Cllr Garasia was speaking as part of her motion asking the Town Hall to formally accept the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia.

In a rare show of unity for the Hackney Council chamber, councillors from both Labour and Conservative party groups voted to endorse the definition.

Cllr Garasia said: “Do you know how it feels to think twice about waiting for a train at the platform, particularly when there’s a rush and you’re not so far from the yellow line?

“The thoughts that race through my mind – ‘Humaira, be careful. You’re wearing the hijab. Someone might push you onto the tracks. Keep your legs firm, have a look around.’

“I shouldn’t have to experience this, or even have such thoughts, but unfortunately I do. Every day the thoughts cross my mind – will I be pushed onto the tracks, under a train, because I’m Muslim?”

The APPG definition was introduced at the end of 2018, and became contentious in May last year when the government rejected it on the grounds that its wording needed “further careful consideration”.

The definition includes calling for the killing of Muslims, making mendacious, dehumanising or stereotypical allegations about Muslims, or accusing Muslims as a group of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by other Muslims.

Examples of mendacious stereotypes cited in the motion include conspiracies about Muslim entryism in politics, the myth that Muslim identity has a unique propensity for terrorism, or claims of a ‘Muslim takeover’ or demographic threat.

Accusing Muslims of inventing or exaggerating Islamophobia or genocides perpetrated against Muslims is included in the definition, as well as accusations of divided loyalties between the Muslim community and their country of origin.

Cllr Garasia used her speech to make clear that for many, Islamophobia is an “everyday occurrence”, citing examples of people not sitting next to Muslims on public transport, or moving away if they begin reading the Koran.

The Haggerston councillor also warned of the responsibility of the media not to perpetuate negative stereotypes, citing a 2018 Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) study showing 59 per cent of over 10,000 articles and clips examined associated Muslims with negative behaviour.

Cllr Garasia added: “Islam has been misconstrued and used by racists to create fear and promote their agenda for the future.

“The increase in hatred, misconception and scaremongering by the media, right-wing extremists and even politicians is damaging the way of life in this country.”

The definition is now widely adopted, with organisations including City Hall, a range of local authorities, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, Plaid Cymru and Scottish parties including Scottish Conservatives all voting to endorse it.

The Hackney Conservative group of councillors, in a rare show of support for a Labour motion, also voted with the opposing party to adopt it.

Cllr Harvey Odze (Con, Springfield) said: “I deplore the fact that this motion is necessary, but unfortunately it is, and I support it.

“There is no place for hate anywhere, let alone Hackney, be that hate against Jews, Muslims, gays, travellers, or anybody. Hate is a destructive emotion.

“I support this motion as the son of a sole survivor of the Holocaust whose aunt and possibly the rest of his family were murdered in Auschwitz.”

The move to adopt by Hackney was not universally applauded, with the National Secular Society (NSS) writing to every councillor ahead of the vote to urge they resist voting it through.

NSS CEO Stephen Evans raised concerns a week ago around infringement of the right to free speech and argued that the APPG wording conflates hatred and discrimination against Muslims, with criticism of Islam.

Evans said: “Whilst we unreservedly and emphatically condemn acts of violence against Muslims and recognise the urgent need to deal with anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry, we are extremely concerned about the uncritical and hasty adoption of the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia.

“While the APPG authors have assured that it does not wish to infringe free speech, the content of the report, the definition itself, and early signs of how it would be used, suggest that it certainly would.

“We are concerned that allegations of Islamophobia will be, indeed already are being, used to effectively shield regressive attitudes and practices within Islam from criticism. Formalising this definition runs a very real risk of it being employed effectively as something of a backdoor blasphemy law.”

Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville (Lab & Co-op) said: “It’s deeply sad that in 2020 that we have to make a motion like this, and take stances against hate, antisemitism and against Islamophobia.

“It can sometimes seem like we’re standing against a tide of hate but it’s moment where this chamber stand up firmly against things like hate, we’re also standing up for what we are for.

“We will stand up against those that seek to divide us, and I do that as somebody who doesn’t share all faith values – I’m an atheist gay white man who grew up in Hackney, but I stand absolutely with the people that do, and the people in this community that do so much to support all people to live the lives that they want to.”