We must not introduce new blasphemy laws

The clampdown on ‘Islamophobia’ poses a grave threat to free speech.

Emma Webb


The UK schools exam board OCR recently disqualified a GCSE student for making what it called ‘obscene racial comments’. It turned out the student had called halal slaughter disgusting, and OCR ruled that this act of ‘Islamophobia’ constituted a ‘malpractice offence’.

When it was brought to OCR’s attention that the criticisms were made from the student’s perspective as a principled vegetarian, it promptly apologised. But what is truly chilling is the implication that it would have been less merciful had she been criticising an Islamic practice in its own right.

Indeed, OCR seems relaxed about policing students’ opinions, saying it ‘takes all incidences of suspected offensive material against a religious group in exams very seriously’. Apparently, there are ‘rules which are set out for all exam boards in such cases’.

Do we want students to be afraid of applying their own critical thinking to anything and everything? Surely, in an academic context especially, religious practices and beliefs should be freely discussed?

Such censoriousness runs deep. It is increasingly accepted in certain quarters that there are such things as ‘illegitimate opinions’ that must be silenced, and that we must search for the unseen motives of those who hold them to determine the extent of their guilt.

Historically, the accusation of Islamophobia has been employed like a blasphemy law to silence criticism and discussion of Islamic practices. It has been wielded against journalists and researchers investigating issues of public interest – from grooming gangs to Islamist activity – as well as against liberal Muslims, who are tarred as ‘Uncle Toms’ for working to counter extremism.

In November last year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims published its report on the definition of Islamophobia. The definition has already been adopted by political parties and councils. But it has not faced proper scrutiny. And it should. Because it could have potentially insidious effects on civil liberties. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that is certainly true of this definition.

The APPG defines Islamophobia as being ‘rooted in racism’ and as ‘a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’. This vague, expansive definition rests on the confused concept of ‘cultural racism’ – a form of racism that supposedly expresses itself through aversion to cultural practices. The Islamophobia definition therefore conflates anti-Muslim discrimination and mere criticism of beliefs and practices.

Criticising what is thought to be a symbol of Muslim culture – the hijab, for example – could, under this definition, be perceived as targeting expressions of Muslimness. Sound unlikely? Ofsted was accused of racism last year after it raised concerns about very young female pupils wearing the hijab to school (girls wearing the hijab from a young age can be construed as a form of sexualisation). For this, it was accused of Islamophobic racism.

The APPG definition attempts to draw a distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ criticisms of Islamic belief and practice. But such a distinction cannot be easily drawn, and I dread to think who might present themselves as the one to draw it.

In May, a diverse group of more than 40 experts, activists and religious leaders signed an open letter objecting to the APPG’s definition on the grounds that it would harm free speech and silence criticism of Islam. Others have warned that it has the potential to limit historical research.

The APPG insists that the definition won’t trample on free speech. But the report itself is dismissive of free speech, stating that ‘the recourse to the notion of free speech and a supposed right to criticise Islam results in nothing more than another subtle form of anti-Muslim racism, whereby the criticism humiliates, marginalises and stigmatises Muslims’ (my emphasis). ‘Giving up the term Islamophobia – and with it the possibility of creating legal instruments to tackle it – simply because of the perceived risk that may limit free speech would be highly misguided’, it goes on.

It is particularly worrying that the police are now calling on the prime minister to accept the definition, having previously expressed concerns that the definition would undermine counterterrorism efforts.

So far the government has showed more caution than most by rejecting the definition. But in the final months of her premiership, Theresa May set the wheels in motion towards adopting some definition of Islamophobia. She appointed Imam Qari Asim as an adviser. He had previously criticised Boris Johnson for fanning the flames of Islamophobia.

We have no reason to hope that any new definition reached by the government would be any less damaging than the last. Concerns are being expressed from all directions. But there is a real risk they will be swept under the carpet, and our civil liberties with them.

There are many ways to deal with the discrimination faced by Muslims, as a new Civitas anthology explores, but chilling free speech is not one of them.

Emma Webb is director of the Forum on Integration, Democracy and Extremism (FIDE), a project of Civitas. She is the editor of a new Civitas publication, Islamophobia: An Anthology of Concerns.

Picture by: Getty.

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Paul Jamie Drebelion

28th August 2019 at 1:22 am

No-one is, or ever was perfect. So why pursue an impossible dream in pursuit of unattainable perfection? Political and religious principals should be challenged without the risk of persecution. Delusion should be challenged, not encouraged, ring-fenced and considered unchallengeable despite its flaws. Humanity needs truth, not dogma. Every principle, religion and philosophy should be ope to debate and challenge – even those threatening murder/beheading as part and parcel of their creed. Diabolical and barbaric practices need to be called out, not cowed to.

Danny Rees

27th August 2019 at 11:53 am

If opposing bigotry and discrimination towards Muslims is conflated with silencing/censoring criticism of opposition to Islam then often opposing bigotry and discrimination towards Muslims is conflated and confused with defending /apologising for Islam and apologising for and defending horrors such as terrorist attacks, FGM and grooming gangs.

Amelia Cantor

27th August 2019 at 11:06 am

The days of privileged and arrogant whites telling communities of colour that “free speech” is more important that the murders, beatings and impoverishment of BAME folk are rapidly ending. Communities of colour are not fooled by whitesplaining and they know that “free speech” is merely a figleaf for the toxic tsunami of hate belched out by fascists like Trump, Salvini and the Bullingdon Buffoon Boris Johnson.

Hate speech is not “free speech”. Hate has to end. And communities of colour will use their growing demographic and political muscle to end it. Just watch, cisgender white males and the coconuts who are allied with them. That is, watch if you’ve got time before you join an ever-increasing number of your fellow cisgender white males on the right side of the daisies (i.e., under ’em, six feet down).

Danny Rees

27th August 2019 at 11:44 am

Trolling the fight to end racial discrimination and hatred with your terrible attempt to “parody” the Left.

Words like “coconut” are not words we use to describe BAME people we disagree with.

You’re “satire” is not even Titania McGrath level which is pretty low as it is.

Ed Turnbull

27th August 2019 at 12:45 pm

Actually Danny ‘coconut’ is exactly the word that many of the woke use to describe non-white folk who hold the ‘wrong’ opinions. (Isn’t assuming that someone should think or behave in a certain way because of their skin colour kind of…er, racist?) Amelia’s use of it in her (zer?) comment is completely on point.

I’ve go to say: I *do* find Amelia funny. Ok she’s (zhe’s? ze’s?) not as polished as Titania (whose show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last week and it was bloody hilarious, even my leftie fiancee was in stitches), but I suspect if ‘Amelia’ worked on it she (ze? they? it?) could improve.

C’mon Danny, don’t be so po-faced when someone mocks the social-justice / woke orthodoxy. It’s royally worthy of mockery, and I’d rather people were taking the piss than there be blood in the streets (though it seems we already have blood in the streets courtesy of those oh so woke Antifa tossers).

Danny Rees

27th August 2019 at 3:56 pm

Ha ha you think there will be blood on the streets over social justice .

Ha ha ha comical.

Ven Oods

26th August 2019 at 7:21 pm

The OCR’s initial action led me to wonder whether it’s staffed by academics or a bunch of Titania McGraths.
That they needed to have their error explained to them was more worrying still. And their subsequent climb-down and mumbled excuses were just the cherry on the halal mince pie.

Hana Jinks

26th August 2019 at 7:15 pm

If they feel as if they’re being discriminated against, then they should go back to the shi thole from where they came from. We are allowed to be anti-islam, but our governments are not allowed to be nazi’s.

Danny Rees

27th August 2019 at 11:45 am

What shows you to be a person of low intelligence is not so much your statement but the fact you are taking seriously the “views” of a parody.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 4:27 am

Fair point, Danny.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 8:54 am


Mark Lambert

26th August 2019 at 1:21 pm

By the way, your links to the Civitas documents are not working.

Esau Bloggs

26th August 2019 at 1:03 pm

Yes, the oxymoronic concept of Cultural Racism is at the heart of the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia. Details here:


Mark Lambert

26th August 2019 at 1:03 pm

Spot on. The APPG blurb states that “Criticism of religion is enshrined in our freedoms”. Fine. It then says, “No religion is above criticism”. Also fine.

Then it does the big “BUT”, and says that you have to ask is the criticism “fair and reasonable” and if determined not, then it is “Islamophobic”. As you say, who is going to determine that?
In my experience, no criticism is “fair and reasonable” with some – some of whom present themselves as the most “moderate” and liberal.

The words of the student certainly would not have passed their test.

The people of the APPG , Wes Streeting, Anna Soubry, Naz Shah and Sayeeda Warsi say that they found the “tests” (of which there are five and provided by Professor Tariq Modood) “compelling” and “a useful guide”. This either suggests to me that they are monumentally stupid, or they wanted that get-out clause in there. The latter makes me very worried.

We have got to the point of Jo Coburn on BBC Politics Live, frowning at James Cleverley because the Conservatives had not signed up to it, in an almost “how dare you not sign it!”
It is not a matter (as some are pushing) that the “Islamophobia” definition *must* be signed by default, because the anti semitism definition was signed up to. The two are very different. There was nothing at all about Judaism in the anti semiticism definition. But it appears we have religious jealousy going on. There is no reason for non-Muslims to join in with that.

Over time, since 7/7 the government and media rushed to “Muslim commentators”, some of whom had to later be dropped liked hot potatoes. I still think we are on a learning curve with this. Which imam should we take any notice of? One has carved out regular appearances on all radio and TV, and I cannot fathom why. He has started telling radio presenters (three on LBC) that they should not use the words “Islamist” or “Islamism”. He has a Facebook entry (one month after the Nice truck attack) which ends with him not being happy until France disappears from the face of the earth (this was regarding its secularism and at the time, some burkini bans). More recently, he has propped up the Birmingham school protests, affirming that homosexuality is not accepted in Islam. There is much, much more. Should we use him to arbitrate? I’d say not a chance, but the media fawn over him.

Certain characters from the MCB (Muslim Council) and and few others knocked up witch-hunt lists of journalists, radio presenters and politicians, saying their words, (said or written), had been complicit in the New Zealand mosque attack. The ridiculous outrage at Boris Johnson and his less than favourable opinion of a frock went on and on. Plenty of non-Muslims joined in with this and have become the “useful idiots” in this desire for a blasphemy law, in statue or de-facto by the back door.

While we are still in the middle of Islamic terrorism and religious extremism, it is time for someone to be tough on this. We do not know who or what we are dealing with. I can heavily frown when I see Wes Streeting, Naz Shah and Sayeeda Warsi snuggle up to MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development), a group which has been criticised for hosting extremists.

There are few who stand up to all this, and we could do with more, because all they get called is…………”Islamophobe”.

Ven Oods

26th August 2019 at 11:19 pm

I think that all organised religions are disgusting. Does that make me super-racist, or just atheistic?

Danny Rees

27th August 2019 at 11:49 am

“Over time, since 7/7 the government and media rushed to “Muslim commentators”, some of whom had to later be dropped liked hot potatoes.”

Every time there was an Islamist terrorist attack the mainstream media news channels would put on the cameras some hook handed swivel eyed fundamentalist wackjob who would try to justify the attack and bang on about Jihad.

It could not have taken them too much time to find a Muslim who might have gone “hang on, this is a bit shit isn’t it?” in response to the terrorist attack.

Mark Lambert

27th August 2019 at 4:16 pm

But they found plenty of “moderates” who would do the two-pronged sentence of “of course there should not have been violence, HOWEVER……..”

And the second half might contain criticism of Western foreign policy, or how much they love Mohammed (so cartoons are right out), or reminding us of limits of free speech, or insisting on Muslim victim hood never mind that 22 young people in Manchester had been killed, etc.

Neil McCaughan

26th August 2019 at 1:00 pm

It would be better to criminalize failing to criticize islam.

christopher barnard

26th August 2019 at 10:32 am

Episodes like Rochdale and Rotherham show that new blasphemy laws effectively exist even thought they are not on the statute book.

John Reic

26th August 2019 at 5:57 pm

I agree with Chris Barnard

Danny Rees

27th August 2019 at 11:51 am

It was claimed in the media and from unnamed sources that the reason why the grooming gangs were covered up and not acted on by the authorities was due to “fears” that exposing them and taking action could be viewed as “racist”.

Nothing to do with blasphemy and also this kind of child abuse has nothing to do with religion but evil on the part of the perpetrators.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 10:04 am

Thanks Danny. Great post.

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