In July last year, and on Theresa May’s last full day in office as Prime Minister, the government announced the appointment of Qari Asim as an independent adviser appointed to lead work to propose a definition of Islamophobia.
This followed the government’s rejection of a proposed definition of Islamophobia from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims. Instead, the government had announced that it would appoint two expert advisers to come up with an alternative definition. To date, Qari Asim is the only person who has been appointed to such a position.
Now facing calls to step down
This week, The Sunday Times reported that Qari Asim is facing calls to step down after being accused of questioning free speech. The article explains that a tape “has emerged” of him speaking at an interfaith meeting in 2018. At the meeting he argued that there could be some exceptions to free speech for things that Muslims find particularly distasteful or offensive.
I was at that meeting and I highlighted the recording and some of the comments he made in an article I wrote in August last year following his appointment as independent adviser. You can see the slides he used and listen to the audio recording for yourself – it is Paper 2 on this site.
Questions on free speech
The Times quotes Qari Asim identifying free speech in secular law as a challenge for Muslims and suggesting that: “we can have exceptions to the freedom of speech, on the basis of their being some words or some actions being offensive or distasteful.”
I pulled out the same quote with a bit more context in my original article about Qari Asim’s appointment last year.
Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is quoted in The Sunday Times as saying:
“Mr Asim seems to want British Muslims to be less British than others. I would urge Qari Asim to distance himself from the views he has aired or reconsider his role on the panel.”
Bob Seely MP, said: “There are serious questions about Asim’s suitability to lead a government inquiry.”
Qari Asim responds
Qari Asim put out a statement following the article in The Sunday Times. He claims that his quotations are misrepresented and taken out of context. This is something you can decide for yourself if you listen to them in context. He says he greatly values free speech and is committed to protecting it.
“The purpose of the definition of anti-Muslim prejudice will be to defend free speech, while challenging hate speech. The critique of political and theological ideas must be defended – while drawing a clear line when it comes to hatred against Muslims for being Muslim.”
His response raises questions
There are a number of points to make in response:
- Qari Asim deliberately avoids using the term ‘Islamophobia’ in his response, even though this is what he is tasked with defining. Has he decided to abandon this term? If so, he should make that clear. I have argued before that ‘anti-Muslim’ is clear and sufficient and that no new definition is needed. Is he now working on defining anti-Muslim prejudice?
- ‘Hate speech’ is also notoriously difficult to define. Threats of violence are criminal in any case. Otherwise we are left with ‘hate incidents’ which are currently absurdly defined by perception. How will Qari Asim define ‘hate speech’?
- He says that “critique of political and theological ideas mush be defended”, but he does not say that criticism of Muhammad must be allowed. This is the key point at hand.
- He has not specifically said that people should be allowed to say things that some Muslims may find “offensive or distasteful”. Therefore, he has not contradicted what he said on tape.
- I agree that “hatred against Muslims for being Muslim” is unacceptable. The question is how to define what is hateful so as to protect free speech. As last year’s Open Letter to the Home Secretary on Islamophobia, to which I was a signatory, said: “Current legislative provisions are sufficient, as the law already protects individuals against attacks and unlawful discrimination on the basis of their religion.”
Will the government protect free speech?
It appears that some in government are now paying attention to what I said last year about Qari Asim. As I said then, Qari Asim would like to have something like an Islamic blasphemy law. Qari Asim should be asked to step down and, if the government is serious about free speech it should abandon attempts to define ‘Islamophobia’ altogether. Existing laws are sufficient. Anti-Muslim crimes can and should be prosecuted. Free speech requires the ability to say things that some other people may find offensive or distasteful. It must include the ability to criticise Muhammad. I hope and pray that the government will have the courage to take a stand on free speech and put an end to attempts to define ‘Islamophobia’.