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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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.