Zulfi Bukhari writes that after the Conservative Party was found by an independent report to retain aspects of Islamophobia within its ranks, wider reflection on the West's approach to Islam must be undertaken.

Last month, an independent report found that Islamophobia 'remains a problem' in the ruling UK Conservative party. Many feel that the superficial solidarity of the last year, fuelled by the pandemic and the BLM movement, is already coming apart. In fact, for Muslims, it never really existed, as shown by the recent arrest of five young far-right terror suspects for plotting an attack in Keighley, Yorkshire. Many assumed that the target was the large local Muslim population during the key period of Ramadan.

This has become depressingly common in the UK. The day before the arrests, a Met police officer was convicted of belonging to a Neo-Nazi terror group. Right-wing extremism is the UK's fastest-growing threat and, usually, the targets are Muslims.

But many seem less outraged by terror when Muslims are the victims, not the perpetrators. It is time to ask the difficult questions – just as we have when attacks are committed in the name of Islam – about where this terror comes from, and confront it head-on. Just as Britain has spent decades debating and understanding extremism carried out under the banner of Islam, we must do the same with the newer (and perhaps more dangerous, due to its larger recruiting pool) danger of far-right extremism.

Extremist acts committed in the name of Islam do not emerge from a vacuum. Everything from Western foreign policy to early Islamic history and Muslim males' 'toxic masculinity' has been blamed for the actions of an infinitesimally small number of individuals. Barely an element of Muslim beliefs, culture, or history has been left unchallenged for the sake of public safety.
We must now do the same with Western culture. There is an aggressive secularism at play in Europe, which far from being a neutral position that keeps religion to the private sphere, is an aggressive force that attacks Muslim life in a specific and targeted way. Islamophobia is the West's last acceptable prejudice.

France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and Bulgaria all have bans on female Muslim clothing. In all these countries a nun, for example, is free to wear her habit as she wishes. It is no coincidence that many Islamophobic attacks target visibly Muslim women.

But much more shocking to Muslims around the world than preventing their sisters from dressing as they please, is insulting our beloved Prophet. It is difficult for the secular mind to understand just how hurtful it is for Muslims when their Prophet is disrespected. He is loved so dearly by Muslims because that love is a perfection of their faith. He is seen as the pinnacle of humanity, and the ultimate role model for every Muslim.

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The link between those smears and extremism is clear: if the founder of a religion is regularly mocked as a barbarian, terrorist, or worse, his 1.8 billion followers – who love and respect him dearly – must be just as bad. And, by extension, they must be fair game.

Free speech in any society is essential. However, if it endangers individuals and harms societies, it is not 'free' – it comes at a huge cost that we must not pay. We only need to look to the United States to see the impact of unchecked racism, dressed up as 'free speech'. Here in Pakistan, those who want the ideas and imagery that fuel the far-right to continue to run amok in our culture accuse those who want to restrain it, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, as supporting 'blasphemy laws' in an attack on the sacred idol of free speech. But this is false.

If Muslim lives are truly equal, there should be the same laws against inciting Muslim hatred as there are for inciting racial hatred, whether the hater describes him or herself as a radical – or a satirist.

All Muslims want is equal treatment. Rightly, there are laws in various European states against Holocaust denial. This is not because historical revisionism is in itself a crime, but because denying the crime of the Holocaust inevitably leads to Antisemitism, which fuels acts of violence against Jewish communities. By the same measure, anything that fuels Muslim hatred should not be considered permissible. In April, a Devon police officer was put on trial for sharing an offensive meme about George Floyd. Would he have still found himself in the dock if it were the Prophet Muhammad?

The Muslim world is increasingly asserting its right to equal treatment, and arguing that their Prophet should be afforded the same protection from abuse and mocking as the victims of the Holocaust or police brutality.

Western nations have a proud tradition of preserving and projecting their values around the world. Similarly, leaders in the Muslim world are increasingly using their economic, political, and cultural clout to defend their values through peaceful means.

Ensuring the safety of societies should be enough of a motivator to legislate and enforce against Muslim hatred. In the same way African American communities are vocal in the aftermath of racially motivated incidents, the Western world must be ready for criticism from Muslim nations if Islamophobia continues to go unchecked.

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