Islamophobia should be called out
Published by The i paper (30th July, 2018)
I went to get my eyes tested on Saturday and ended up in fascinating conversation with my optician. She told me her family story, a typical immigrant saga of her father arriving from rural Pakistan with almost nothing and now running a thriving business while living in a plush home. She admitted being torn between her traditional culture and London’s modernity, respecting her father yet disliking the subservience of her mother’s generation. Clearly she navigated this tricky familial path with finesse.
Millions more Britons could tell similar stories, underlining how migration has rejuvenated our country. Many of them are Muslim: working in hospitals and offices, schools and factories. Some are devout, attending local mosques; others prefer a good party. Yet flick through papers or scroll through social media and there seems only fear of this community, portrayed in casual cliches of alien culture.
Note how the toxic issue of grooming gangs abusing young women keeps bouncing back. Sajid Javid, the ambitious Home Secretary, has said he is ordering research into the ‘particular characteristics’ of the perpetrators. One more dog whistle for the increasingly nationalistic Tory party, just days after he dropped British objections to the death penalty. His latest announcement came in a letter to Sarah Champion, the Rotherham MP forced from Labour’s front bench for saying Britain ‘has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.’
Clearly there are problems in some places with abusive gangs. Yet in the obsessive coverage, with Champion now being hailed for heroism, we should not forget Nazir Afzal, lead crown prosecutor in the landmark Rochdale case, said the attackers were defined not by race but by their treatment of women. ‘There is no community where women and girls are not vulnerable to sexual attack,’ he said. More recently in Newcastle the judge stressed victims were chosen ‘not because of their race, but because they were young, impressionable, naive and vulnerable.’
The key issues are power and vulnerability, not race and religion. Yet these cases are used to imply Muslim men are predisposed to attack white girls, alongside endless scare stories about sharia courts and Islamic terrorists. Since two people in my circle have been murdered by jihadists in separate European attacks, I do not need lectures on dangers of religious fanaticism. But nor do I go along with those such as the prominent commentator who once asked if there was ‘something within the religion of Islam which somehow encourages, or merely facilitates, extremist Muslim maniacs to maim or kill non-Muslims?’
There has been similar scapegoating of successive waves of migrants. The great Victorian prime minister William Gladstone even wrote a popular pamphlet claiming Catholics followed a foreign creed with split loyalties, saying they hid ‘crimes of liberty behind a suffocating cloud of incense.’ Then it was the turn of Jews with fears of separate communities, a strange language and alien customs. As Labour’s furore shows, the stench of anti-Semitism has not dissipated yet. Islamophobia is especially disturbing at this time of intense division. Former Tory party chairman Sayeeda Warsi rightly said this is the socially-acceptable form of racism. I am often shocked by the bigotry on this issue spewing from otherwise impeccably liberal mouths. Warsi was right to support demands for a Tory inquiry into prejudice in their ranks.
But the dangers go far beyond an internal party issue when Islam is freely used as code for hostility to immigrants, especially when an all-parliamentary probe has found victims include Sikhs. The far-right – inspired by nationalist resurgence in Europe and the rise of Donald Trump – seeks to inflame this seam of fear and hate.
Sometimes they use the cover of free speech. Look at the campaign to release former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson from jail, his supporters arguing he has been silenced from discussing grooming gangs when he was really jailed for contempt of court. Other extremists with huge followings on social media hammer away at related issues of Islam, identity, political correctness and refugees.
These corrosive forces are entwined with Ukip, which has dropped all pretence of decency under its latest leader, Gerard Batten, who calls Islam a ‘death cult.’ Earlier this month he spoke at a rally to free Robinson, ranting that ‘rape gang members are predominately followers of the cult of Muhammad’ and calling the founder of one of the world’s great religions ‘a paedophile.’ In fact most British paedophiles are white men – but of course, white men are not all paedophiles. Yet polling shows slight uptick in Ukip support as Brexit flounders and Tories feud.
Into this fetid mix wades Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist who aims to fuse the far-right across Europe with a new foundation after whipping up anti-Islam bigotry at home. ‘Let them call you racists, xenophobes or whatever else – wear these like a medal,’ he told France’s Front National. It is no surprise to see Ukip after its ugly makeover wanting to work with Bannon’s group. Far more alarming are suggestions that influential Tories such as Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove are liaising with this repulsive figure.
These are disturbing times. Many people feel justifiably frustrated by conventional politics, partly because of the selfish antics of wealthy politicians who focus only on their own ambitions. The Brexit mess shows what happens when such mainstream figures flirt with nationalism. Now politicians of all persuasions need to show some moral fibre and do their patriotic duty by standing firm against prejudice – whether it is anti-semitism on the left or Islamaphobia on the right. This is not time for cheap political games when savage forces confront our society.