The Labour Party has a problem of trust with British Jews, and the fault lies entirely with the party. Yesterday, in adopting a new code of conduct on antisemitism, it rejected an established working definition of the term that is accepted by governments around the world and by most Jews.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has an appalling record of insouciance and indifference to Jewish concerns. It may therefore sound like a “tu quoque” argument to cite Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. Yet the argument needs to be made. There is an undeniable problem of anti-Muslim prejudice in British public debate, and the Tories should confront its manifestation in its own ranks.
Baroness Warsi, former Chairman of the Conservative Party, called this week for a full independent investigation of Islamophobia in the party. The Times has likewise endorsed the view of the Muslim Council of Britain that the issue needs investigating. And it does.
The term “Islamophobia” is, admittedly, in some respects unfortunate. I’ve tended to avoid it in the past, lest it elide the crucial distinction between criticism of people’s religious sensibilities (which I’m all in favour of doing, and which will cause offence), and promoting prejudice against a group on morally irrelevant grounds.
But then the term “antisemitism” is problematic too, as there’s no such thing as “semitism” to which bigots can be opposed. These terms exist, Islamophobia being the more recent, and they denote real and not phantom phenomena. A stubborn and pernicious theme in public life is that Jews have dual or divided loyalties towards Britain and Israel. It’s an outrageous charge because it’s unfalsifiable: it makes claims about psychological states. As Labour leader, Harold Wilson sacked a front-bench spokesperson (Andrew Faulds) for using this type of language.
The language being used by some commentators in public debate about Muslims has distinct echoes of the conspiracy theories that germinated in the infamous antisemitic fabrication, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. We know who these people are. In a parliamentary debate in 2013, Lord Pearson, the former UKIP leader, succinctly expressed this position: “We see large and growing Muslim communities which are set against integration with the rest of us. We see thousands of homegrown potential terrorists.”
It’s ignorant and inflammatory nonsense. It takes a genuine problem of extremism and the susceptibility of a small group of mainly young men to it, and calumniously attributes it to Muslims more widely, in Britain and throughout the world.
This demagoguery is not confined to the political Right. I noticed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s that the purportedly anti-imperialist Left defamed Muslim populations threatened by Serb aggression, and more recently the same people – often literally the same people – have backed President Assad’s grotesque campaign on the grounds that he is extirpating Islamist extremism. (He is not: he is pitilessly assaulting a civilian population, just as Slobodan Milosevic did.)
Yet the Right, and not just UKIP, has given sustenance to these ideas. Zac Goldsmith MP bears heavy responsibility. His mayoral campaign in 2016 made utterly false insinuations that his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, had associated with Islamist extremists, and sought to pit London communities against each other. One Tory leaflet, apparently targeting Hindu voters, claimed Mr Khan planned to tax jewellery.
A continual drip – not a torrent – of news stories suggests that some Tory politicians have little idea of British Muslims and their reasonable concerns. Baroness Warsi refers to the case of Bob Blackman MP, who has (in error, so he says) posted material by Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, on social media. The Tory Party is not a repository of hate and prejudice, and no sensible person would level such a charge. Rather, the problem is that myths and prejudices are going unchallenged, so toxic language and attitudes can seem unremarkable.
In what I believe was a generally shoddy and intellectually disreputable official review of integration by Dame Louise Casey in 2016, one statistic nevertheless stood out: “In 2015-16, 89 per cent of people thought their community was cohesive, agreeing that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on together. This feeling of cohesiveness has risen from 80 per cent in 2003.”
This is the reality of modern Britain. The idea of parallel communities, and of Muslim populations that stubbornly refuse to integrate or learn English, is mythical. British Muslims merely want to get on with their lives and provide for their families, with common citizenship under the rule of law.
There are some dismal currents in the Conservative Party that instead treat them on sufferance and engage in moral evasion. When Sadiq Khan declared a few months ago that “it’s time to act on hate speech”, Nadine Dorries MP tweeted: “How about ‘it’s time to act on sex abuse grooming gangs’, instead?” Instead? Instead? Can she genuinely not see how offensive her non sequitur is?
It’s long been evident that the Conservative Party needs to crack down on activity, especially coming from parliamentarians, that stigmatises Britain’s Muslims.