A media attack on prominent imam Qari Asim seems part of a deliberate attempt to undermine, weaken and possibly even force the Government to abandon its Islamophobia definition inquiry, argues Nick Lowles.

Last week, The Sunday Times carried a stinging attack on Qari Asim MBE, a Leeds-based imam and a trustee of our charitable arm, HOPE not hate Charitable Trust, for supposedly challenging ‘free speech’.

The newspaper reported a presentation, given by Qari in 2018, in which he said that some Muslims found elements of free speech “distasteful” and “offensive”, particularly where it concerned the Prophet Muhammad.

The reason why this was a ‘story’ was that Qari was appointed by Theresa May, in her final few days as Prime Minister last summer, to be one of two commissioners to lead an inquiry to formulate a working definition of Islamophobia.

The Government announced at the time:

“This new work will build on the definitions of Islamophobia currently being considered, including the APPG definition. It will also draw on a wide range of opinions and work in close collaboration with the cross-government Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, to ensure that it commands broad support within Muslim communities and wider society.”

The Sunday Times article questioned Qari’s suitability to remain as one of the inquiry’s commissioners. Indeed, the opening sentence of Tim Shipman’s piece claimed that he “faced calls to stand down last night after he was accused of questioning free speech.”

In the piece, Sir Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was suggested as saying that Qari:

“should not have fuelled such ideas and called on him to consider his position.”

Tory MP Bob Seely was also quoted as saying:

“There are serious questions about Asim’s suitability to lead a government inquiry.”

And, as if to reinforce the point, Shipman noted – without providing any supporting evidence – “that officials in Downing Street think he should not remain in his post.”

Qari is insistent that The Sunday Times took his words out of context. Writing for both Imams Online and the Leeds Makkah Masjid website, he said:

“In the academic seminar at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies at which I was quoted speaking. I was setting out the history of Muslim jurisprudence, critiquing the arguments of those who claim that “Man-made Laws” should not be followed, and setting out the resources in Islamic thought which have been deployed to underpin the obligation on Muslims to uphold the rule of law in the country in which they are living.

He added:

“In the brief comments on freedom of speech, I say that it is a cherished value – while pointing out that some Muslims are torn on issues such as blasphemy. I was reporting that this view is held by some people, but I was not advocating it; offence is part of living in a free society. Britain no longer has blasphemy laws – and of course they would be entirely unworkable in a multi-faith and secular society – and an unacceptable restriction on free speech. My own view is that we need to challenge hatred – but that it is inevitable that sometimes people will be offended by the free speech of others.

And he said:

“I pointed out during the seminar that for Muslims, as for those of other faiths, many of the social changes in a liberal and secular society have been challenging. I spoke about how views on these questions differ markedly across generations. While views within faith communities have evolved at a different pace, I argued that minority communities will have to adapt to the social reality.’”

Qari then directly explained his views:

“I greatly value free speech and am fully committed to protecting it.”

Importantly, he added:

“I do not support restrictions on free speech. 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. The work done to tackle anti-semitic hatred, while protecting free speech, is a useful guide to the principles we should apply to anti-Muslim hatred. We need to build the strongest possible consensus – and I look forward to meeting Trevor Phillips personally to hear his views of how we achieve this goal, just as I have engaged with many others.”

There is clearly a wide disconnect between Qari’s views and those portrayed in The Sunday Times piece – and that is why so many people were outraged by the attack piece and subsequent social media attacks, and why those such as the Board of Deputies and Justin Welby have come out in support of him.

Qari Asim has been at the forefront of numerous initiatives to bring divided communities together. He has consistently spoken out against all forms of extremism and terrorism and has spoken out in support of several high profile anti-extremist campaigns, especially in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks, and helped lead initiatives to remember victims of terror.

As a leading figure within Imams Online and deputy chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, he has been one of the forefront of building stronger community relations in the country for the last ten years.

This is why the attack on him is so pernicious and needs confronting.

The Sunday Times article is clearly part of a deliberate attempt to undermine, weaken and possibly even force the the Government to abandon its Islamophobia definition inquiry. By attacking Qari, those behind this effort at best want him removed from the commission, and replaced with someone more to their liking; or at worst wish by forcing him out the commission so it will quietly fold.

There are many people who have objected to the Government coming up with any definition of Islamophobia. Some believe that adopting such a definition will only give encouragement to Islamists and jihadists; others have believed that any definition will automatically curtail freedom of speech, and in particular the right to criticise a religion. Often, it has been a combination of the two.

The appointment of Qari Asim to co-lead a commission to help define Islamophobia came in response to the Government’s rejection of the definition created by the APPG on Islamophobia, which concluded that:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

The APPG definition, which was the culmination of months of work and submissions by other 700 groups and individuals, polarised opinion. Many people felt it was a decent compromise, but others strongly objected.

Some of their concerns were around the broad nature of the definition – that it was not specific enough and could be interpreted in many different ways. Some asked what exactly “Muslimness” was, let alone “perceived Muslimness”.

The police strongly objected to the definition, claiming it would be used as a defence by extremists and so hinder counter-terrorist operations.

There was also a very practical barrier to immediately adopting the APPG definition in that existing legislation would need to be re-written and submitted to Parliament.

This article is not a place to discuss the merits and shortcomings of the APPG definition, but merely to reflect that it was because of the Government’s rejection – and also its insistence that a definition was needed – that a new commission was established and Qari Asim was asked to be one of the two commissioners.

The announcement of the commission happened in the final days of the Theresa May government and it is quite clear that the current Prime Minister has far less enthusiasm for this project. Six months after the commission was announced, the second commissioner has still not been found and there is apparently no real urgency from Number 10 to find one. An idea has even been floated that a third person should be added to the inquiry panel – which one might assume to be an attempt to further dilute Qari’s influence.

If those who do not want to see the Government come up with a definition for Islamophobia hoped that The Sunday Times piece would isolate Qari Asim and force him off the commission, then the tactic has clearly backfired. Not only was he able to clearly rebut the allegations made against him, but the outpouring of support – from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Board of Deputies – demonstrates that there would be a clear political cost to removing him from the panel.

In the short-term this hatchet job appears to have failed, and so the fight over a definition of Islamophobia and the future of the commission is very much a live challenge.