Hostile Labelling of an Ethnic Group

Hostile labelling of an ethnic group is very divisive; the actions of a few people should not be used to demonise an entire community.

Hostile language towards an ethnic group, as in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, cannot be excused as exercising freedom of speech.  It can be too easily used to boost support for some ethnic groups at the expense of others – which is very damaging to society and is morally indefensible (

A common problem is to use broad labels to condemn an entire ethnic group because of dislike or disapproval of the actions of some people in that group.  Ethnicity may help to describe a person’s cultural background but, as with any other label, it is not in itself a reason for approval or disapproval of a person’s behaviour.  Criticism of politicians, for example, is a necessary and appropriate use of free speech – to hold them to account for their policies and specific actions – but it should not be directed towards the ethnic group to which they belong.

The Israeli government’s recent harsh reprisals against Hamas provocation from Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of many Palestinian children, have led to a totally unwarranted rise in hatred towards all Jews: anti-Semitism.  A BBC report, Anti-Semitism surge deeply disturbing – Robert Jenrick, quoted the communities secretary as saying that “Every time the virus of anti-Semitism re-enters our society it masks itself as social justice”.  He was making the point that criticisms of the Israeli government should not be a basis for hating all Jews (or for questioning Israel’s right to exist).  The Israeli government was elected by little more than half the voters in Israel (and some of those supporters doubtless disapproved of its actions in Gaza).  And none of the Jews who live outside Israel can be blamed for what that country’s government does.

A similar example of hostile labelling of an ethnic group is the use of criticisms of Islamic terrorism to fuel hatred for all Muslims: Islamophobia.  In a Guardian interview, The multicultural menace, anti-semitism and me, Melanie Phillips said of Muslims that:

“They are fuelled by an ideology that itself is non-negotiable and forms a continuum that links peaceful, law-abiding but nevertheless intensely ideological Muslims at one end and murderous jihadists at the other.”

…the British establishment is “transfixed by the artificial division it has erected between those who actively espouse violence and those who do not.”

She takes no account of the many Muslims who may be religiously observant but who are not “intensely ideological”, or the many more who would acknowledge their identity as Muslim but who are not observant.  And she didn’t mention the Ahmadiyya Muslims, whose creed “categorically rejects every form of terrorism”.

She seemed to want to categorise everyone as being divided on religious lines – failing to recognise that most people are content to live together peacefully.  Her language constitutes hostile labelling increases hostility to all Muslims.  And, as noted earlier (, stigmatising a group strengthens it and makes it more confrontational.

The impact of Islamophobia is to escalate tensions, in a rising spiral of violence.  After a brutal murder in London on 22 May 2013, by two men who were described as ‘Muslims’, the BBC article headed Woolwich murder sparks anti-Muslim backlash reported that “there has been a large increase in anti-Muslim incidents since the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich”.  The backlash affected people who had nothing to do with terrorism or that murder; the criminal behaviour of two men was used to demonise all Muslims.

Journalists, politicians and others have a moral duty to aim criticism carefully at specific behaviour of identified individuals – not at their ethnicity.  The careless use of broad labels, which unjustly spread criticism across all the members of an ethnic group, creates resentment and increases the risk of ethnic conflict.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4464.htm.