Nusrat Ghani row: Imam appointed to define Islamophobia has had ‘no meaningful engagement’ from ministers

An imam appointed by the government to draw up a definition of Islamophobia says he has received no “meaningful engagement” from ministers in years.

Qari Asim MBE was commissioned to lead an official process in 2019, but told The Independent that the work “didn’t really start”, and letters to ministers as recently as last month have gone unanswered.

The intervention came as a row over fresh Islamophobia allegations engulfed the Conservative Party, after MP Nusrat Ghani said she was sacked as a minister because of colleagues’ concerns about her “Muslimness”.

Mr Asim said the allegations “once again demonstrate the importance of having a definition of Islamophobia” – something that was commissioned in May 2019.

The government is to be questioned about the delay, and its wider efforts to tackle anti-Muslim hatred, in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Afzal Khan, a member of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on British Muslims, will bring a point of order questioning why Boris Johnson has not properly responded to letters on the subject dating back to November 2020.

The Labour MP will say: “The shocking and serious allegations made by [Ms Ghani] remind us that this Conservative government continues to ignore the blatant Islamophobia in its own ranks.”

Mr Khan said that in November he was formally promised a response to letters asking what the government was doing to better safeguard British Muslims, but he has received nothing.

Meanwhile, Mr Asim said he had been given no office, no financial resources, no staff and no terms of reference to draw up a definition that it was hoped would help tackle the issue.

“Other than an announcement and conversations [with ministers], there hasn’t been any progress, and that shows a lack of political will to define Islamophobia,” he added.

“I’m perplexed over the reasons for lack of engagement when the government time and again say they have zero tolerance to anti-Muslim hatred.”

Mr Asim, who is an imam at the Makkah Mosque in Leeds, said several letters to successive communities secretaries had gone unanswered – including two written to Michael Gove in November and December.

✕ Boris Johnson apologises for ‘hurt and offence’ caused by Islamophobia in Tory party

Mr Gove committed to “the importance of countering anti-Muslim hatred” in the Commons on 1 November, alluding to Mr Asim’s work and a working group set up to tackle anti-Muslim hatred.

In a letter sent following his comments, Mr Asim told the communities secretary that nothing had progressed, and asked why. He asked for a meeting but received no reply.

“I have set out my plan on how I thought a broad-based consensus can be achieved, but there has been a lack of meaningful engagement,” he added.

“Initially I didn’t pursue it during the first year of the pandemic, because I wanted to give the government the space to deal with that, but from the community’s perspective it’s hugely disappointing and undermines trust and confidence in the government. Something needs to happen.”

Mr Asim called for the government to publicly recognise that Islamophobia “is a real issue” and move forward with the definition.

He said: “Some people don’t like the term Islamophobia because they think that it’s more about protecting the faith itself, but it’s not the case.

“The faith has been critiqued since its inception – this is about protecting people and deterring those who target people because of their faith.”

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The APPG on British Muslims formulated a working definition and called for it to be adopted in 2018, saying the lack of one was allowing Islamophobia to “increase in society to devastating effect”.

The Conservative government rejected the proposed definition in May 2019, and announced that it would commission independent experts to draw up a different one.

When Mr Asim was appointed that July, the government said it agreed that a formal definition of Islamophobia was needed, but added that “concerns have been raised that the APPG definition could unintentionally undermine freedom of speech, and prevent legitimate criticism of Islamist extremism, or of unacceptable cultural practices”.

A report into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, published last year, found that two-thirds of discriminatory incidents reported to party headquarters over six years were in relation to anti-Muslim discrimination.

The review considered cases including a 2018 newspaper column written by Mr Johnson in which he compared Muslim women who wear full-face veils to “letter boxes”, saying such incidents “give an impression to some of a party and leadership insensitive to Muslim communities”.

In the year ending March 2021, 45 per cent of all religiously motivated hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales targeted Muslims, compared to 22 per cent targeting Jewish people.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities did not answer The Independent’s questions over the reasons for delays to the Islamophobia definition, lack of resources given to Mr Asim, or the absence of responses to his letters.

A spokesperson said the department would respond to his correspondence “in due course” and added: “The government is absolutely committed to supporting freedom of religion, and believes faith has an important role in public life.

“We take a zero tolerance approach to anti-Muslim hatred in any form and will continue to combat discrimination and intolerance.”