Islamophobia cannot go unchallenged

The racist backlash after last week’s atrocity was appalling but tragically predictable. Many will have had the experience of unfriending people on Facebook as their timeline became awash with racism. That the EDL and BNP have sought to use the horrific murder of Lee Rigby to push their own racist agenda is equally unsurprising. The climate last weekend was so toxic that many of my Muslim friends were too frightened to leave their home or travel alone. But what I find perhaps just as worrying as the apparent acceptability of openly articulating anti-Muslim rhetoric is the frequent reluctance to challenge Islamophobia from many people who identify as progressive or even or left-wing.

First all, I’d like to deal with some of the standard excuses. The claim is often made that Islamophobia cannot be racist because, so the argument goes, ‘Islam is not a race’. However, when people talk about ‘Muslims not respecting our way of life’, or ‘Muslims not integrating’ do they picture in their mind’s eye the relatively small number of white Muslims in Britain? Or are they in fact referring to Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Somalians, Turkish people and Arabs who reside in the UK and adhere to the Islamic faith? It’s really not a complicated issue and it is certainly nothing new. In 19th century Britain, job adverts which concluded ‘No Irish need apply’ just as frequently read ‘No Catholics need apply’ or ‘Protestant preferred’. No prizes for guessing why: because Catholic meant Irish. When Jews and their religious practices were attacked in the UK in the late 19th and early 20th century it was no coincidence that the vast majority were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Another clear parallel with the UK’s Irish community comes from the 1970s and 1980s where an entire community was often perceived as being made up of people who were either potential terrorists or terrorist sympathisers – and treated as such by the British state.

Like all Abrahamic religions, some of the ideas espoused by Islam are unpalatable to 21st century Britain. However, it would not take long to find similar passages in both the Bible and the Torah. Yet, no-one fears or hates Christians or Jews nor protests against the building of churches or synagogues because of Leviticus. Indeed, singling out Islam is striking given how much overlap there is with Jewish religious practices. For example, some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women wear veils that are identical to the burqa. The fact that most people have even heard of the burqa is an indication of how pervasive Islamophobia has become, given the incredibly small number of women who actually wear one. The existence of Sharia courts in the UK is often met with tabloid outrage, but do those same journos know about Beth Din courts, which serve the exact same purpose for the UK’s Jewish community? There is often opposition to Islamic schools, but the existence of Catholic or Jewish faith schools do not elicit the same hostile response. To give another illustration, kosher slaughter is identical to halal. At the risk of evoking Godwin’s Law, the fact of the matter is that the very first anti-Jewish measure passed by Hitler’s dictatorship was the outlawing of kosher slaughter. Was it because they were concerned with animal rights, or did it have more to do with isolating the Jewish community and marking them out as different? Today, if someone were to rant about the ‘barbarity’ of kosher meat, declare that Jews were a threat to ‘our way of life’ or fume about how the Torah and Talmud sanction the death penalty for a whole range of things, they would almost certainly labelled an anti-Semite, and rightly so. But say the same about the Qur’an and Muslims and the response would not be so clear cut.

Another feature of Islamophobia is to see Muslims as invariably intolerant on issues like gay rights and women’s rights and therefore, dislike of Muslims isn’t really prejudiced. But what is the reality? Is hostility to gay rights really something led by British Muslims? As far as I could see, opposition to the recent gay marriage bill in parliament was championed overwhelmingly by white, (nominally) Christian men on behalf of ‘middle England’. However, the majority of Muslim MPs such as Labour’s Rushanara Ali, Shabana Mahmood and Sadiq Khan all voted in favour of marriage equality, as did George Galloway, who enjoys the support of a large number of British Muslims in the Bradford West constituency. In addition, a poll in 2009 found that the vast majority of Muslims were ‘proud of how Britain treats gay people’. Likewise, when a few years ago, there were efforts to undermine abortion rights, this was not led by Muslims but by the likes of Tory MPs Nadine Dorries and Anne Widdicombe.

All of these rationalisations for Islamophobia from sharia courts to the burqa call to mind what George Orwell once wrote about the hated and feared minority of his day: ‘The Jews are accused of specific offences … which the person speaking feels strongly about, but it is obvious that these accusations merely rationalise some deep-rooted prejudice’.

Over a century ago, the great German social democratic leader August Bebel unequivocally condemned popular sentiments which fused anti-Semitism with anti-capitalism as ‘the socialism of fools’. Today, instead of echoing Islamophobic discourses with a secular or left-wing slant, we must forthrightly defend the rights of Muslims in this country. The idea that a community which makes up less than 5% of the population poses an existential threat to society as we know it is nothing but hysteria. And just for the EDL, who were recently in Newcastle, there has been a Muslim community in the North East for well over a century and they’re not going anywhere.

There’s nothing progressive about Islamophobia. It cannot just be the case of Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism opposing the EDL and the BNP. We all have a duty to speak out against this bigotry in every day life. It is not Muslims, many of whom are among some of the poorest people in the country, who are selling off the NHS, forcing people to use food banks, subjecting disabled people to Atos, imposing the Bedroom Tax or cutting jobs but those at the top. And as long as anger about a whole range of social problems is directed at Muslims (or any other minority group for that matter) rather than at the government’s policies, the urgent task of transforming society for the better will be severely hampered.

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Over on Channel Twitter…the Über Blairites gather for #pac13

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By now, you should know who Progress are. For those of us in the Labour Party unfortunate enough to have been engaged in ideological warfare with the Blairite pressure group, the battle lines are clear. However, for the uninitiated, it’s by no means so obvious. Jon Lansman did an excellent job on the Left Futures blog in summarising their “project” back in 2011. Not long after that, in February 2012, Progress were dealt a seemingly knockout blow when a 20 page dossier was circulated amongst Constituency Labour Parties, calling for an enquiry into their activities, funding and attacks on Ed Miliband’s leadership. Since then, they have been denounced by union leaders and been the subject of much scorn amongst ordinary union members. However, they weren’t to be deflected either by the report or by the increased scrutiny of their activities and merrily carried on as if nothing had happened.

The people involved in Progress are not stupid, however. They are fully aware of the unpopularity of much of their core programme and their ideological framework. They’re equally aware of how few Labour members actually want to continue or resurrect the New Labour project, so they blur the lines between their Blairite values and Labour loyalism. They do this with the sophistry of language. Nobody can miss the fact that their name, Progress, is a misnomer, but listen to the way they describe themselves:

“Progress is the New Labour pressure group which aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century”

Impressive stuff, but what could it possibly mean?

Well, let’s see. Would an organisation set up (in 1996) by Paul Richards, Liam Byrne and Derek Draper really be interested in developing a radical and progressive politics, unless you skew the meaning of those words beyond recognition?

In the introduction to their ‘Purple Papers’, tantalizingly subtitled ‘Real Change for Britain, Real Choices for Labour’, we have this:

“We seek to discuss, develop and advance the means to create a more free, equal and democratic Britain, which plays an active role in Europe and the wider the world. Diverse and inclusive, we work to improve the level and quality of debate both within the Labour party, and between the party and the wider progressive community.”

If you were a teacher, you would simply have to get your big red pen out and scrawl all over it: “define this”, “don’t waffle” and “and….”

I thought it would be an interesting and possibly comical exercise to read between the lines of the excited Progress twitterati as they gathered for their Annual Conference last Saturday, the 11th of May, at Congress House in London. For full comedic effect, imagine that this is an episode of ‘The Thick of It’. You never know, I thought, they may even let their guard down and let us in to the (purple) heart of darkness, if only for a second or two:

Early doors, and new Progress MP Steve Reed, fresh from winning the Croydon by election, seems pretty excited about cutting, sorry, I mean reforming public services:

@SteveReedMP Looking forward to @progressonline conference today – will be speaking about reforming public services by empowering users #pac13

Progress die-hards always use very positive sounding phrases like “empowering users” when we all know that they mean outsource, privatise, sell off and take away people’s universal rights to free health care, welfare etc.

The amount of times a “Labour Majority” is mentioned is truly astonishing. Why bother? Surely it’s pretty vacuous to go on about a “Campaign for a Labour Majority”? What’s the alternative position? A “Campaign for a Labour Minority”? However, you see, Progress are like those awful managers who think that we’ll all be impressed by their jargonising. Of course, it’s also important for Progress to project the image that they are the hardest working, most loyal part of the party (unlike those lefties). What would we do without them? I think the hashtag from Stephen Twigg may have been gilding the lily a little though:

@StephenTwigg Heading to #pac13 to hear @Ed_Miliband & speak in closing plenary to promote Campaign for a Labour Majority http://prog.rs/53j  #LabMaj

No populist, rightwing-sounding policy must ever be off the agenda – especially “the anti social behaviour agenda” (TM Hazel Blears). Conjure up images of lager swilling yoofs as much as you possibly can. Apologies from Gloria De Piero’s spelling by the way. I blame the parents:

@GloriaDePieroMP Off to #pac13 to listen to Ed Miliband. Afterwards ill be talking about why the anti social behaviour agenda is crucial to Labour’s success

And Richard Angell, who has done much to build up the organisation from a collection of Blairite MPs and councillors to, well, a collection of Blairite MPs and counillors, loves this one from Ed – straight out of the Progress Bible.:

@RichardAngell No issue can be a ‘no go’ area for Labour. If the voters are talking about it, Labour is talking about it’ says @Ed_Miliband #pac13

No no go areas is a mantra for the average Progressite and it of course has the added benefit that it can be used as a catch all for any anti-immigrant, anti-welfare rhetoric:

Of course, Tory switchers are manna from heaven for the true believers. We must reassure them, the story goes. We must not challenge middle England. Repeat ad naseum (check out the hashtag, making another appearance):

@FelicitySlater Peter Kellner: We need to convince those Tory to UKIP switchers tht they have nothing to fear from an Ed Miliband premiership #pac13 #labmaj

Even John Denham gets in on the act. Prog pluralism, he says:

@JohnDenhamMP Real progressive change depends on active support of millions of people not all of whom vote for the same party  Prog pluralism. #pac13

However, is that the mask finally slipping? Yes, we want a #LabMaj, but let’s face it, we need the Lib Dems and the Tory switchers to scare the left in the party a lot more.

And just in case you thought this was about politics and an agenda to push the party back to a discredited Blairism, it isn’t. It’s a technical thing about credibility (Read: cut hard and cut fast):

@owenalunjohn Bang on from @andrew_harrop. It’s not about how left or right we go, it’s about how credible we are #pac13

Sorry, I meant “realistic spending”:

@JoshNewlove Impressed by @PCollinsTimes as always. Vital words on realistic spending met with indicative policies based on resources available. #pac13

Indicative policies, by the way, are ones that don’t really exist in the run up to the election, or at party conference, but are made up on the hoof by Special Advisers linked to Progress once in Government. Thank the Sun Tanned One for that!

This one is a real treat for all of our Newcastle based readers:

@Joe_Dromey Just heard from @nick_forbes, leader of Newcastle at #Pac13. Sounds like great things going on there. He’s one to watch

Yep, great things are happening in Newcastle. Great things, like closing libraries, youth services & swimming pools. ‘One to watch’ in the next safe selection in the North East, I would presume. With a record like that, what could possibly go wrong for speed boat enthusiast Forbes?

Ed Miliband is politely tolerated and whatever Blairite treasure can be dredged from the whole One Nation thing is pounced upon, but the real excitement is reserved for the entrance of the Dark Lord, Peter Mandelson. Stephen Bush even tells us (the whole darn Twitter universe) how we feel about the man:

 ‏@stephenkb I love Mandy – who doesn’t?

Mandy’s opening remarks occasions one of my favourite tweets from the whole of the Progress conference. What makes it even more beautiful is that it was tweeted by the official ProgressOnline account and that it was retweeted by 5, presumably sentient, adults. Genius:

@ProgressOnline ‏Peter Mandelson: we shd simply aim to win outright in 2015 #pac13

Delving into the murky world of Progress should come with a health warning. If this is what they’re saying on their iPhone’s to millions, imagine what they are saying in Pret a Manger! It’s not all bad, though. Just by searching the #pac13 hashtag, you do come across some healthy cynicism about the management double-speak of Progress. This one is my favourite, only let down by the fact that the offending statement is not attributed to anyone:

@SohoPolitico “@ChrisMasonBBC: Where else but at a political conference could you hear the phrase ‘proofing our narrative’?? #pac13” <In hell, maybe?

And on that bombshell…

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