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Government rejects controversial definition of Islamophobia after warning from terror police

A young boy wearing a Union Jack hat accompanied by Muslim women in Oxford Street, London. Credit: Yui Mok/PA

The Government has rejected a controversial official definition of Islamophobia after a warning from police that anti-terrorist operations would be undermined.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims wanted to define it to tackle what it called a "social evil".

But a government spokesman has now said the wording needed to be re-examined.

The u-turn comes just hours after it emerged the leader of Britain's police chiefs, Martin Hewitt, said that defining Islamophobia risked heightening community tensions and could hinder counterterrorist policing powers and tactics.

An article in The Times today revealed he had written to the Prime minister, Theresa May, expressing his grave concerns.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to comment on the letter but said: “We are conscious that the APPG’s proposed definition has not been broadly accepted...This is a matter that will need further careful consideration.”

The definition was due to be the subject of a backbench debate in Parliament tomorrow.

The climbdown has ignited the fury of Baroness Warsi, treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims that came up with the definition.

She called the police claims “extraordinary and disturbing”.

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Conservative peer Baroness Warsi is furious the definition of Islamophobia has been rejected. Credit: PA

The definition given by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims stated: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

The wording had been accepted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.

However Neil Basu, head of UK counter-terrorism policing, said the definition would allow suspects to challenge legitimate investigations on the grounds they were Islamophobic.

Basu said the wording was “simply too broad to be effective”.

He said: “It risks creating confusion, representing what some might see as legitimate criticism of the tenets of Islam – a religion – as a racist hate crime, which cannot be right for a liberal democracy in which free speech is also a core value.

“Free speech cannot be an absolute right or freedom to harm, but as it stands this definition risks shutting down debate about any interpretation of the tenets of Islam which are at odds with our laws and customs, which in turn would place our police officers and members of the judicial system in an untenable position.

“Despite the fact it would be non-legally binding, it would potentially allow those investigated by police and the security services for promoting extremism, hate and terrorism to legally challenge any investigation and potentially undermine many elements of counter terrorism powers and policies on the basis that they are ‘Islamophobic’. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

A member of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) gave evidence to the APPG but was not consulted on the final wording, he said.

Neil Basu said the wording of Islamophobia was ''“simply too broad to be effective”. Credit: PA

NPCC chairman Martin Hewitt expressed similar concerns in a letter to the Prime Minister.

In a statement he said: “We are concerned that the definition is too broad as currently drafted, could cause confusion for officers enforcing it, and could be used to challenge legitimate free speech on the historical or theological actions of Islamic states.

“There is also a risk it could also undermine counter-terrorism powers, which seek to tackle extremism or prevent terrorism.”

The APPG report on its definition said it had been reached after “widespread consultation with academics, lawyers, local and nationally elected officials, Muslim organisations, activists, campaigners and local Muslim communities”.

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Martin Hewitt expressed his concerns to the Prime Minister in a letter seen by The Times. Credit: PA

Baroness Warsi said on Twitter that she had written to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill about Mr Hewitt’s letter being leaked to the Times newspaper because “the issues involve national security”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to comment on the letter but said: “Any hatred directed against British Muslims and others because of their faith or heritage is completely unacceptable.

“We are conscious that the APPG’s proposed definition has not been broadly accepted, unlike the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism before it, which was adopted by the UK Government and other international organisations and governments.

“This is a matter that will need further careful consideration.”

Shadow minister for women and equalities Naz Shah said if the Prime Minister rejects the definition, “the message she sends to the Muslim community will be heard loud and clear”.

She went on: “It has been a great struggle to get the police to record Islamophobia as a specific crime, so it is deeply worrying to see the National Police Chiefs’ Council bringing terrorism into the discussion about tackling Islamophobia.

“This shows a worrying trend of seeing British Muslims through the lens of terror and security, and the Prime Minister must distance herself from this immediately.”