Monday, September 23, 2013

Tell MAMA's Working Definition of Anti-Muslim Prejudice

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.”
  “Anti-Muslim prejudice or hatred is a certain perception of Muslims, which may be expressed as hatred or outward hostility towards Muslims.  Hatred may take the form of anti-Muslim rhetoric and physical manifestations that are targeted towards Muslims or non-Muslim individuals considered to be sympathetic to Muslims and/or their property, towards Muslim community institutions, religious and other related social institutions.”
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.

20 comments:

Mohammed Amin said...

I think the working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice is very sensible.

I also am happy with the EUMC (now the EU Fundamental Rights Agency) definition of anti-Semitism.

What I do object to is the way some supporters of Israel misuse part of the explanatory addendum by excising words such as “taking into account the overall context” and reading “could include” as if it said “always include”.

Mohammed Amin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah AB said...

I think it is true that some accusations of both antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry may seem odd - whether we think those making the accusations are being oversensitive or have some more unfair motive (within the context of a debate).

But I am not sure I have ever explicitly seen the EUMC working definition invoked in this way (although that doesn't mean it hasn't happened), and if it was, that wouldn't be the fault of the w/d, as you suggest yourself. The same goes for this new w/d on anti-Muslim prejudice.

It's hard to assess this quickly without some further discussion. It might perhaps have been useful to have a sentence similar to this

'However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.'

i.e. something like

'However, criticism of Islam, similar to that levelled against any other religion cannot be regarded as anti-Muslim prejudice'.

Although I do see that this is implicit in the move away from the Runnymede w/d - the shift to a focus on Muslims rather than Islam

Kolya said...

I understand the necessity of trying to pin down formal definitions of antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice, for the purpose of trying to establish norms of acceptable public discourse. But I doubt I would ever look to such definitions to help me form a personal judgement about the acceptability of a given utterance.

In practice I take the pragmatic approach of judging expressions of opinion about minorities in terms of their moral implications, i.e. what range of future actions is the speaker giving themselves permission to advocate. This approach can sometimes lead to different conclusion from those derived from a formal definitions of prejudicial statements; or indeed to different conclusions regarding different instances of the same statement.

Take for example the comment quoted in the OP about the moral legitimacy of Israel's creation. I think it is quite possible to legitimately argue that in the context of the countervailing imperatives driving Jewish and Arab nationalism in the period leading up to the creation of Israel, history dealt unjustly with the aspirations of the Arab people. But it is quite another thing to treat that historical judgement as a manifest moral justification for reversing Israel's existence as a predominantly Jewish state. A similar argumenst can be made about trying to justify a reversal of the European settlement of the Americas, based on the historical injustice done to the Native Americans.

I don't think that my informal approach of looking to the moral function of a disputed utterance can fully replace a formal criterion for delineating acceptable speech, but I think it can serve as a reminder of what we ought to be reaching for in laying down a formal definition. We ought to be discouraging the use of language intended to stir up sentiment conducive to the unjust treatment of minorities.

To those who find this approach too subjective, I would say the remedies we are trying to construct cannot in fact be decoupled from substantive, and ineluctably disputed, moral judgements. Let's, by all means, look for formulations of criteria of acceptable discourse that build on uncontroversial moral principles – in so far as that is meaningfully possible. But no further.

Sarah AB said...

I completely agree, Kolya, with the distinction you draw between a discussion of the rights and wrongs involved in Israel's founding, and a discussion of Israel's current existence and legitimacy (leaving aside the OPT, settlements).

I suppose you wouldn't use such a w/d much because you have already considered the issues. But I think that some people might thoughtlessly echo some comparison between Israel and the Nazis, who could be made to realize why that's inflammatory.

The context caveat is very important, and I think that ties in with what you say about moral implications. That context might include the implied audience of the utterance and the identity/history of the person - the Muslim w/d is good on that I think. For example I follow the ex-Muslims forum on Twitter and think their trenchant criticisms of Islam and sharp satire of some Muslim groups/individuals is ok, particularly as they also condemn anti-Muslim bigotry. But some of their tweets would signify something different if made by a known EDL supporter.

Similarly if I had to answer 'yes' or 'no' I would say 'no' if asked if the Scarfe cartoon (the Netanyahu bloody wall one) was antisemitic - taking into account the overall context.

When I was looking for cartoons about Islam for this post I think I chose quite easy examples - but it would be really interesting to look at rather more uncertain cases. For example I saw a cartoon of a girl playing with paper dolls - all the cut out costumes were identical burkas. I thought that was ok, but my view might change depending in what context I saw it - rather than just contextless with a bunch of other cartoons having done a google image search.

bob said...

Mohammed, Thank you for your comment.

What I do object to is the way some supporters of Israel misuse part of the explanatory addendum by excising words such as “taking into account the overall context” and reading “could include” as if it said “always include”.

You are right that this is an important distinction, and of course some supporters of Israel are excessive in labelling anti-Israel stuff as antisemitic, but I have not really seen the EUMC WD used in this way that I can recall. Can you point to an instance where anyone of any status in the pro-Israel camp has attempted to use the EUMC in this way?

Kolya, Thank you too for you very thoughtful comments.

If I understand you, then I think I basically agree. For those of us who already think hard about racism and antisemitism, no working definition will be much use in coming to a judgement when we feel the need to. The EUMC and Tell MAMA working definitions have very specific purposes: in helping agencies charged with monitoring racist incidents with some working guidelines. Beyond this (and partly through this) they have a heuristic purpose, in sensitising people and providing some kind of usable benchmark for arguments.

On the specific example you use, I agree that "to treat that historical judgement as a manifest moral justification for reversing Israel's existence as a predominantly Jewish state" is wrong, but I don't think it is prima facie antisemitic. If, for example, someone said "just as the Europeans should leave the settler states of the US, Canada and Australia" then the argument would be perverse and excessive but not necessarily in the least antisemitic. Here too, surely, context is key. You are right that what we need here is a case by case approach, "looking to the moral function of a disputed utterance": the two working definitions allow for this through the context caveat.

One final point, echoing Sarah, it is important to stress that both working definitions, in "delineating acceptable speech" are NOT taking the step of saying that speech deemed unacceptable by this yardstick should be outlawed. Saying an incident - such as a tweet - is racist is not the same as saying it should be illegal.

(Obviously, some forms of abuse are illegal, and using unacceptable antisemitic or anti-Muslim language as part of this abuse should be seen as aggravating the illegality but not the essence of the illegality.)

Of course, some people would like to make certain criticisms of Islam illegal in themselves. If the Tell MAMA working definition was used to outline what should be legal and what illegal, I would strenuously oppose it. But I suspect its framers would also oppose this move.

Richard Armbach said...

Bob have you ever thought of investing in a dictionary ?

Anti-Semitism....

bob said...

I assume Armbach is referring to my usage of "antisemitism" with no hyphen or capital S, which he deems an "incorrect" rendering. To me, the term "anti-Semitism" implies the existence of something called "Semitism". In my view, there is no such thing as "Semites" or "Semitism", so I use the term "antisemitism" (originating from the German word Antisemitismus) to mean precisely hatred of or prejudice against Jews.

Rebekah Y. said...

"...make me prefer to begin with the assumption that those raising concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry do so in good faith"

Given the chronic abuse of accusations of bigotry in response to criticism, hardly limited to the topics of Israel and Islam, I have to question the sincerity of any person still siding by default with the accuser. An accusation is not a form of evidence, and very few accusations of bigotry in my experience include an actual substantive argument to back it up, especially on the Internet. Look at the consequences of putting the burden on the accused under our libel laws.

Also since I know you are no more a fan of Glenn Greenwald than I, I shall use him as an exemplar of those switching from the old standbys of 'racism' and "Islamophobia' to the increasingly common label of 'anti-Muslim'. Whatever his faults, Glenn is a very smart man. He admits Islamophobia's inherent flaw (i.e. its status as an ideology not inborn characteristic) much like you, and much like you, he keeps saying how open he is to criticism of Islam, and much like you, he never gets around to actually criticizing Islam, because some other Islam critic is 'doing it wrong' for nefarious reasons. he also is convenient 'agnostic' when it comes to whether criticism of Islam is 'racist'. Thus anti-Muslim is a concept tailor-maid for his brand of rhetoric.

Disparate elements of the political left have been in search of a means of inherent delegitimizing criticism of Islam ever since it became a hot topic in the 1990s. Labels of bigotry have been and remain the most common ad hominem out there. They shock and bully simultaneously with minimal effort and have a certain level of credulous, knee-jerk acceptance by some people. Another lazy rebuttal, almost as common, is changing the subject of the conversation to Christianity or Israel or whatever Western ill serves the desired equivalency. More clever delegitimisation attempts to grind down debate by denying any ability to speak about "Islam". The 'broad brush' then becomes a more grievous offense than whatever human rights abuse rooted in Islam is the topic of discussion. The message is clear: right-thinking people should simply denounce the 'extremists', or if they simply insist 'all religions', and pretend that mainstream Islam is no more problematic vis-à-vis social and political freedom than Buddhists or Quakers.

I refuse to do so as should any sane leftist. Religion remains one of the greatest barriers to human equality and social cohesiveness. Endorsing the delegitmisation of criticism by default, however much you claim to be open to critique, is a dangerous mindset.

The short version of all this would be: Have you really learned nothing from the absurd reactions at LSE and UCL to "Jesus and Mo"?

Brian Goldfarb said...

Bob, you mentioned that UCU has dropped the EUMC Working Definition on antisemitism, but so has the Green Party (thanks in part to Deborah Fink who is both a self-proclaimed singer [have you ever heard those recordings of her 'singing'] and of Jews for Justice for Palestinians - JfJfP: isn't that a bit like being against sin? we all agree it's a bad thing, but how to operationalise it? Ay there's the rub).

This means that both organisations take the view that their executives know better than any alleged victim as to whether discrimination has occurred. The w/d makes it clear that, in the first instance, it is this victim who is in the best position to make this claim, though an appropriate court or independent tribunal will reach a judgement, not the alleged perpetrator.

We are in "judge and jury" territory here, and it's a very dangerous one.

Further, on the question anti-semitism or antisemitism: I have noted often on various sites that when academics refer to "Semites", they are referring to users of certain languages of the Middle East - Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic, and no doubt others. Thus the claims that, e.g., Arabs are also Semites, and thus cannot be antisemitic is an only superficial attractive position.

As Bob notes, the term antisemitism was, if not coined, then certainly popularised, by a vicious anti-Jewish, 19th Century German far-rightist, one Wilhelm Marr (google him for the unsavoury details).

bob said...

Rebecca,
I totally get your criticisms: I share many of the same feelings. But this, from Sarah's post is key: "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." A working definition should not be taken as a first draft of legislation. It is precisely a working definition, for reference in deciding if an incident involved some kind of racism. This is needed, for example, if you're in the business of trying to develop any kind of measurement of the rising and falling of such incidents, or in giving support to victims.

So, when you say "An accusation is not a form of evidence, and very few accusations of bigotry in my experience include an actual substantive argument to back it up, especially on the Internet", I think this is beside the point. We are not talking about a court of law. The requirement for evidence comes afterwards, not at the start.

In my view, as with other forms of bigotry but also with other sorts of offence and injustice, it is only correct (as Brian is basically saying) to start with the perception of the victim, to start by giving them the benefit of the doubt, to assume their good faith. (We can think of analogies with, say, child abuse or rape, where the word of a child or rape victim, rather than the word of the alleged abuser or rapist, should always be taken as serious in the first instance, even though we know some allegations turn out to be false.

It is wrong to elevate giving offence itself to the status of some kind of crime, so the perception of the victim cannot be sufficient if we are talking about something like a criminal conviction or something. But we're not in that territory here.

Rebekah Y. said...

My quick response bob would be that public denouncement for bigotry can have effects on people's lives much like a criminal conviction, especially when a seemingly legitimate organisation makes them (giving an appearance of more than just personal disagreement).

Further accusation of racial prejudice against non-whites (with the alleged bigot being white) is the one unforgivable crime of values. In our upside-down world, the Left will forgive other forms of racism, misogyny to almost any degree (we let people get away with FGM after all), antisemitism, hatred for the white working class, homophobia, and transphobia.

bob said...

Sorry Rebekah I didn't see your comment.

It's true that a "public denouncement for bigotry" can be a personal disaster in some milieux.

However, as I've said many times, I personally think we need to move away from a discourse of "bigotry". I think we need to focus on racist acts and not on imputing some deep "racism" to people's souls. I only just noticed that the TellMAMA definition is of "anti-Muslim prejudice and not of anti-Muslim racism, which is what I had read it as before. I think this adds some fuel to your objection, as it purports to give the user a guide to identifying some psychological state inside the perp ("prejudice") rather than simply designating an act or statement as anti-Muslim.

On a different note, I think that the accusation of bigotry is only damaging in some milieux, e.g. in public sector jobs.

I think that bigotry or discrimination from members of groups that are relatively powerful in the specific society towards members of groups that are less so should be considered differently than the other way around. Despite huge changes in the last decades and some striking examples of individual non-white people gaining significant positions of wealth or power, all the stats show that in aggregate white folks are still ahead, as Louis Armstrong put it.

It seems to me that expressions of bigotry towards Muslims are pretty mainstream and widespread, as well as towards Gypsies, Travellers and European Roma and towards migrants in general. Maybe not amongst Guardian readers (although they're not unheard there), but among most ordinary people, including members of long-settled minority ethnic populations.

Here's a good counter-fact to your point: Geoffrey Bloom's career survived talking about "Bongo Bongo Land", but didn't survive him talking about "sluts".

bob said...

Correction: Godfrey Bloom.

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Richard Armbach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Armbach said...

I wasn't referring to how you spelt Anti- Semitism I didn't even notice.

I was referring to your evident angst and difficulty over a definition of the expression.

I was helpfully suggesting you invested in a good dictionary, where you will find a definition of the expression based on observation of the aggregate force of the uses of the expression by the great mass of ordinary speakers of the language. Or aren't the ordinary speakers of the language good enough for your elitist selves ?

BTW the " EUMC working definition" doesn't exist, never did exist and deserves never to have existed.

I say this while being fully aware of the logical problems surrounding negative existence statements.

Further. if you stood on any random street and asked 100 people what they understood by Anti-Semitism, Israel wouldn't get a mention.

Discredited Andrew said...

In the EUMC-WD there is no passage like this:
"Other manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice or hatred could take the form of insults or attacks against Israel, as a means of caricaturing, dehumanizing and promoting hate towards Jews."
It is rather that certain criticisms of Israel are taken to be anti-semitic in their own right rather than that they are used to dehumanise Jews.

In my opinion the worst clause is this:
"Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation."
Which pretty much spells out that it is talking about discrimination against the Jewish state and not about discrimination against Jews per se.

So all in all the TellMama definition might have been influenced by the EUMC-WD but it does not repeat it's fallacies.

Discredited Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Discredited Andrew said...

There is a flaw in the TellMama definition here:
“Anti-Muslim prejudice or hatred is a certain perception of Muslims, which may be expressed as hatred or outward hostility towards Muslims.”

The problem is not that this is objectionable but that it says next to nothing and does not help clarify the phenomenon of anti-muslim bigotry. What does a "certain perception" mean? The word "hatred" is also vague. The small print of the TellMama definition helps us here:
"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."

Here they introduce criteria by which to judge statements and their contexts. A similar statement should be at the top of the page rather than as a subclause about criticisms of Islam.

The EUMC-WD (which was the result of lobbying from Israel special interest groups) does not offer any such clarity anywhere in the text and lifting from it makes TellMama's definition more murky. These are matters where clarity is of prime importance.