This is a guest post by Sarah AB
I am very familiar with the EUMC working definition of antisemitism. I have defended it on several occasions. This is not to say it is perfect, or that I could not give or take the odd clause. But I was extremely concerned by the way it was ditched by the UCU – by the terms used to dismiss it and the tone of the discussion around the issue.
So it was with interest that I read a new working definition, this time of anti-Muslim prejudice. Although Islamophobia is often casually used as a synonym for anti-Muslim bigotry, the term is somewhat controversial, and Tell MAMA has (as is its usual practice) gone for ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ instead, reflecting its remit to monitor cases where Muslims face violence, abuse or discrimination.
There is clear evidence of a direct debt to the EUMC working definition of antisemitism. Compare these two passages, for example:
Working definition: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
As with the working definition of antisemitism, some clauses are going to cause more unease than others. Here’s a reminder of one element from the EUMC working definition which its critics feared might close down free speech. The w/d includes this in a list of actions which might be antisemitic, depending on the context.
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
I’ll confess I find this quite an uncomfortable area – I seem to have seen many angry references to it but little open discussion of what kind of discourse would or would not fall foul of this clause. Here is an example of someone, in a comment below a blog post, reflecting uncertainly on events of 1948 but not in a way which makes me reach for the working definition.
Perhaps, as many anti-Zionists argue, Israel was a mistake, perhaps, as they say, it was always the wrong answer to European and Christian antisemitism (even if there had never been any Palestinians living in the land before the late 1940s). And there were many forms of Zionism besides the political one that led to the founding of the nation state.
When it comes to the working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice it’s the other ‘I’ word – Islam – which makes some people twitchy. In my view the relationship between Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry parallels – albeit roughly – the relationship between Israel and antisemitism. Islam is a religion, an ideology – it should not be protected from criticism or mockery. Israel is a country – of course its actions should be scrutinised like those of any other country. Criticism of Islam or Israel may be trenchant without being bigoted. But sometimes it does become a vector for prejudice against all Jews or all Muslims.
So here’s one passage from the new working definition which may be viewed with suspicion by those (including myself) anxious about blasphemy taboos or any chilling of our rights to free speech.
Other manifestations of anti-Muslim prejudice or hatred could take the form of insults or attacks against Islam, as a means of caricaturing, dehumanizing and promoting hate towards Muslims. However, each case is specific and the context of the individual or organisation making such comments should be taken into account when making such a judgement. Context, past comments – whether overt and street based or on-line, will be factors that should help to assist in making the judgement. Other expressions may take the form of visual graphics, actions, stereotypical statements and alleged character traits that are based on negative perceptions of Muslims and sometimes of Islam itself.
Jesus and Mo is a sharp and funny example of satire which I think could be said to insult Islam, but does not do so in a way which dehumanises or provokes hate towards Muslims. Perhaps this is an example of a cartoon which uses criticism of Islam to stir up anti-Muslim prejudice. The implication is that Europe is in danger of a personified Islamic menace, anxious to stamp out her freedoms.
It’s really important to remember that using this working definition to consider whether a text, image or speech might be said to convey anti-Muslim prejudice does not imply one thinks such speech should be banned. Holocaust denial is not illegal – just socially unacceptable. This may not seem reassuring, however, to those who wish to speak out against certain individuals or groups, and who have no wish to be condemned as bigots. This new working definition does strongly emphasise a concern with collective punishment, suggesting that specific, evidenced accusations against people or groups are not its concern.
Finally, although I accept accusations of Islamophobia have been used to try to silence reasonable points and people, my experiences with the EUMC working definition of antisemitism make me prefer to begin with the assumption that those raising concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry do so in good faith, whether or not I completely agree with them.