Exclusive: Reappointed communities secretary Michael Gove opposes definition and says it would bring ‘dangers’
The government has dropped work on an official definition of Islamophobia that was promised more than three years ago, amid mounting concern over inaction on the issue.
Muslims are the most frequently targeted group for religious hate crimes in England and Wales, while a string of scandals have exposed anti-Muslim hatred within the Conservative Party.
Ministers will be questioned on the issue in parliament on Tuesday, which marks the start of Islamophobia Awareness Month.
Labour MP Afzal Khan is to raise a point of order asking why successive prime ministers have not responded to any of his letters concerning the matter for two years.
“Their lack of action since 2018, coupled with the damning allegations made by Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani, all show that they simply do not take the issue seriously,” he told The Independent.
“Year after year, British Muslims are victims of the highest proportion of religiously motivated hate crime. This trend shows no sign of abating under the Conservative government.
“Yet this revolving door of chaos has meant that consecutive prime ministers have failed to tackle Islamophobia and deliver on their promises.”
In May 2019, the late James Brokenshire – then the communities secretary – said the government would seek to establish a working definition of Islamophobia, adding: “To get a firmer grip on the nature of this bigotry and division, we agree there needs to be a formal definition of Islamophobia to help strengthen our efforts.”
An adviser was appointed but work stopped after Boris Johnson became prime minister, and current communities secretary Michael Gove opposes the establishment of a definition.
Appearing at a debate on extremism last month, when he was not in government after being sacked by Mr Johnson for disloyalty, Mr Gove said he wanted to target “political Islam”, which he called a “virus”.
He denied being an Islamophobe and said there was “resistance” in Whitehall because of a “desire not to cause offence”.
Mr Gove agreed with another panellist’s description of an Islamophobia definition formulated by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on British Muslims in 2018 as “drivel”.
Describing Islamophobia as a “type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness”, it was accepted by Labour and other opposition parties but rejected by the Conservative government, triggering the process announced in 2019.
Mr Gove told the event hosted by the Counter Extremism Group on 6 September that it “would be very difficult to get a precise definition”, adding: “I think there are dangers if a university or another organisation which should be the home of free debate uses a definition like that to police what people can say in order to penalise them for it.”
Yasmin Qureshi, the shadow minister for women and equalities, warned that the “scourge of Islamophobia is on the rise”, with hate crimes targeting Muslims up year-on-year.
“The Conservatives are the only political party in the UK to reject the APPG on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia,” she told The Independent. “Now Michael Gove has broken his promise to develop an alternative.
“With the revolving door of prime ministers scrabbling round to fix the mess they’ve created with the economy, it’s clear that tackling Islamophobia is an afterthought.”
The government hired an expert adviser to draw up an Islamophobia definition on the day before Mr Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, but he told The Independent in January that the process “didn’t really start”.
Imam Qari Asim said that several letters to ministers had not been answered, including one requesting a meeting with Mr Gove. Mr Asim said he had been given no office, no financial resources, no staff and no terms of reference to draw up the definition, and that there had been a “lack of meaningful engagement” from the government.
He was fired without notice by Mr Gove in June this year after being accused of supporting “a campaign to limit free expression” over a controversial film depicting the life of the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, which Mr Asim denied.
In a letter responding to his dismissal, the imam said the government had “reinforced perceptions that it is not serious about addressing growing anti-Muslim hatred in this country”.
No new advisers have been appointed, and there is no ongoing work towards a definition of Islamophobia.
A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain said: “British Muslim communities have witnessed over three years of failed government policy towards defining Islamophobia.
“Home Office statistics consistently show that over 40 per cent of religiously motivated hate crime targets Muslims, the most of any faith group in the UK.