Who needs Tommy Robinson and the EDL, when Islamophobia has gone mainstream?

It doesn't matter whether Tommy Robinson has reformed (or rebranded) himself. Islamophobia hit the mainstream long ago, with help from large sections of the press.

It was the most stunning volte-face since Libya’s foreign minister Mousa Kousa defected to the west in 2011. Or perhaps since Sol Campbell left Spurs for Arsenal on a free transfer in 2001. On 8 October, Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Andrew Mc- Master, aka Paul Harris), the co-founder and leader of the English Defence League (EDL), quit the far-right group and joined hands with the Quilliam Foundation, a “counterextremism” think tank. Robinson, lest we forget, has described Islam as a “disease” and the Prophet Muhammad as a “paedophile”, and threatened to subject British Muslim communities to “the full force of the EDL”.

Can a fascist renounce fascism? Of course. Can he do it overnight? I’m not so sure. On 6 October, two days before his “defection” to Quilliam, Robinson tweeted that “sharia legalises paedophilia”; on 4 October, he claimed that Islam was “fuelling” a “global war/Holocaust on Christians”. On 2 October, he tried to intimidate a critic of the EDL by turning up unannounced at what Robinson (wrongly) believed was his home.

Forgive me my cynicism. At a press conference on the day he quit the EDL, the 30-year-old sunbed shop owner from Luton did not apologise for or acknowledge his previous anti-Muslim remarks; nor did he renounce, denounce or disown the EDL. So far, he seems only to have rebranded, rather than reformed, himself. Robinson, however, is an irrelevance. So, for that matter, is the EDL. The hate-filled antics of these balaclava-clad thugs have distracted us from a much bigger issue: Islamophobia went mainstream long ago, with the shameless complicity of sections of the press.

Look at the numbers. A Cardiff University study of 974 newspaper articles published about British Muslims between 2000 and 2008 found more than a quarter of them portrayed Islam as “dangerous, backward or irrational”; references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.

Look at the little-noticed conclusion of Lord Justice Leveson’s November 2012 report into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press: “The identification of Muslims . . . as the targets of press hostility . . . was supported by the evidence seen by the inquiry.”

Look, above all else, at the way in which headlines, stories and columns reflect much of what Robinson says – without being tainted by the fascist whiff of the EDL.

“There is a two-tier system, where Muslims are treated more favourably than non-Muslims,” Robinson claimed in a speech in Leicester in February 2012. Consider, however, the lurid headline on the front of the Daily Express, in February 2007: “Muslims tell us how to run our schools”. Or the Daily Star’s splash in October 2008: “BBC puts Muslims before YOU”.

Spot the difference?

On 5 October, a jubilant Robinson tweeted: “2 more muslim paedos caught in Bristol [sic].” “The common denominator is that they’re all Muslim,” he declared at an EDL rally in July, referring to the criminals convicted in various child sex grooming scandals. Yet a Times column by David Aaronovitch on grooming, in April 2012, was headlined: “Let’s be honest. There is a clear link with Islam.” A year earlier, in January 2011, the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips attacked “Muslim sexual predators” who targeted non-Muslim girls, she alleged, out of “religious animosity”.

Spot the difference?

Robinson has called for an outright ban on “Muslim immigration” (a demand he repeated on Twitter as recently as 29 September), while EDL supporters have been caught on camera chanting: “Burn the mosque!”

This is the language of fascism, plain and simple. Yet my old sparring partner Douglas Murray, a regular contributor to the Spectator and the Mail, has said, “All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop,” and called for mosques accused of spreading “hate” to be “pulled down”.

Spot the difference?

The stock response to such criticisms from conservatives and liberals alike is to cry “9/11” or “7/7” – as if the terror threat justifies Muslim-baiting polemics or fear-mongering headlines. How, then, do we explain their obsession with halal (rather than, say, kosher) meat? Or the endless debates over the face veil, worn by less than 0.05 per cent of the population?

To claim that hostility towards Islam or Muslims is a product of 9/11 or 7/7 is disingenuous. The pernicious “clash of civilisations” thesis appeared on the scene in the early 1990s.

The denialism about rampant Islamophobia, on the left and the right, has to stop. Today, otherwise respectable commentators channel Robinson and his allies and pretend their focus is on “Islamism”, not Islam, in the same way so many anti-Semites pretend only to have a problem with “Zionism”, not Judaism.

No faith or community should be protected from criticism and even ridicule. In the past year, I have challenged anti-Semitism and homophobia inside Muslim communities in Britain on these very pages. But we’ve reached a point where you can now say things about Muslims that you simply cannot say about any other minority group.

The far right, meanwhile, has cleverly eschewed anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist rhetoric. Instead, the BNP “bang[s] on about Islam”, Nick Griffin once told his supporters, “because, to the ordinary public, it’s the thing they can understand. It’s the thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with.”

Griffin, thankfully, has been unable to ride the Islamophobic tiger into the mainstream. But will the savvier ex-EDL chief succeed where the buffoonish BNP boss failed?

On the morning of his resignation, Tommy Robinson retweeted messages of support. One was from a “militant atheist”, Matthew Barlow: “Good luck with whatever you do next, with or without the EDL we rely on people like you to say what most people are scared too [sic].”

With or without the EDL, indeed.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK where this article is crossposted

Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) with his EDL co-founded Kevin Carroll outside Westminster Magistrate's Court. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder