Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)
Wednesday 11 December 2019
The sixth annual IHRC/SACC Islamophobia Conference will take place on Saturday with concurrent events in London and Glasgow. This year's conferences will focus on the relationship between Islamophobia and the widely-noted shrinkage of civil society space.
Non-governmental organisations, community groups, trade unions, professional organisations, public institutions and faith organisations all find themselves operating in an increasingly restrictive and sometimes hostile environment. Islamophobia is one of the forces driving this trend. It results in the exclusion or muting of Muslim voices and in the distortion of debate by wider society on issues like Palestine and the Middle East. The consequences include the corruption and brutalisation of political discourse that has been so evident during the general election campaign, and the wider failure of civil society to hold far-right political forces in check.
In January 2018, a report by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) hit out at governments for creating a hostile environment for civil society organisations (CSOs). A briefing by the Islamic Human Rights Commission a year later built on the report from a Muslim perspective, highlighting some of the ways that governments and those opposed to Muslim participation have marginalised authentic CSOs rooted in the Muslim community.
Problems highlighted by the FRA include the restrictions placed on charities and other campaigners during election periods in the UK, the effects of counter-terror laws in various EU countries, the closure under UK counter-terrorism legislation of the bank accounts of charities working in areas under the control of proscribed groups, the failure of governments to protect civil society actors from physical attack, surveillance by government agencies and hostile discourse and smear campaigns, including by government officials and politicians.
Organisations that SACC works with have been affected over the years by many of these forms of repression. Members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign have successfully repelled criminal charges arising from the supposed anti-semitism of activities intended to promote boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Pro-Palestine, anti-racist activists have faced suspension or expulsion from their political parties because statements critical of Israel were considered anti-semitic. The trend has reached alarming proportions in the Labour party and has been accompanied by unbalanced, strident and nearly ubiquitous negative publicity. It risks distorting the general election and will inevitably have a chilling effect on pro-Palestine campaigning by civil society organisations.
Allegations of anti-semitism have been directed against people of various communities, including Jews (especially left-wing Jews). But the chilling effect on Muslim organisations is particularly serious because such allegations are inevitably amplified by Islamophobia. A groundless smear against a Muslim individual or organisation is apt, through Islamophobic stereotyping, to become a groundless smear against a whole community.
Muslim organisations have been particularly vilified for campaigning against the Prevent programme. Many organisations that are not specifically Muslim, including SACC and a number of trade unions, have taken the same position without being vilified.
The various disincentives to Muslim involvement in civil society lie on a spectrum of repression whose sharp end includes prosecution under anti-terrorism legislation for political expression as well as extra-legal detention, torture and assassination overseas.
Moazzam Begg, former Guantanamo prisoner and Outreach Director of Cage, will be one of the speakers at the Glasgow conference. He said:
"Guantanamo is one of the most visible manifestations of Islamophobia. Few could have imagined that the principles of Guantanamo would one day enter mainstream British discourse. Imprisonment without trial, torture complicity, nationality and passport revocation, Schedule 7 airport stops, PREVENT and secret courts prove Islamophobia is deeply structural. SACC was campaigning with my father while I was in Guantanamo and were among the first to warn against it."
Omar Afzal, representing the Muslim Council of Scotland at the conference, said:
"This conference comes at an important time when we're seeing the normalising of Islamophobia and the ostracising of community groups and activists who are speaking out. Community representative organisations are having their voices drowned out by appointed gatekeepers and are being targeted and discredited by smear campaigns. This conference brings together campaigners, CSOs, academics and media professionals to discuss causes and cures of this strand of Islamophobia."
Ahmed Uddin, representing the Islamic Human Rights Commission at the conference, said:
"For the best part of two decades, successive governments and those opposed to Muslim participation have forced to the margins authentic CSOs from the Muslim community that do not conform to preconceived official strategies or desired policy outcomes. The effect of this has been to produce policies that are often counterproductive, discriminatory and which do not address the fundamental concerns, needs and aspirations of Britain’s approximately three million Muslims. This conference is a timely look at a worrying and growing problem"
- The Glasgow conference will be held on Saturday 14 December from 10.30am to 6.15pm at Renfield St Stephens Centre, Glasgow. It is open to the public but prior registration is recommended. More information at https://www.sacc.org.uk/events/2019/islamophobia-scottish-conference-2019. The conference programme is at https://www.sacc.org.uk/programme-islamophobia-scottish-conference-2019.
- Speakers at the conference are: Moazzam Begg (Cage), Ahmed Uddin (IHRC), Tasneem Ali (Muslim Women's Association of Edinburgh), Omar Afzal (Muslim Council of Scotland), Mick Napier (Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign), Malia Bouattia (former NUS President), Nargess Moballeghi (journalist) and Ibtihal Ramadan (researcher at the University of Edinburgh and former tertiary teacher in the Palestinian occupied territories).
- The report by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency can be found at https://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2018/challenges-facing-civil-society-orgs-human-rights-eu
- The IHRC briefing is at https://www.ihrc.org.uk/publications/briefings/20386-briefing-the-shrinking-political-space-for-csos-in-the-uk/
- Definitions of civil society actors vary. For example, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights includes faith-based organisations such as churches and religious groups, whereas the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, for the purpose of its report on Challenges Facing Civil Society Organisations, did not do so.
- For more information about the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), see https://www.ihrc.org.uk/about/about-us/
- SACC opposes all forms of racism, with a particular focus on state racism and human rights abuses related to the "war on terror". SACC is a member of the Scottish Parliament's Cross Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia. Jointly with IHRC, SACC has co-organised annual conferences on Islamophobia since 2014. More information at www.sacc.org.uk