Responding to Rod Liddle . . . Sigh

I don't know whether to ignore or engage with this self-proclaimed champion of Islamophobia.

Remember Rod "Islamophobia? Count me in" Liddle? He produces the same upmarket, Richard Littlejohn-esque, "It's all political correctness gone mad" column in the Spectator week in, week out.

So I'm never sure whether it's best just to ignore his attention-grabbing attempts at garden-variety bigotry or engage and debate and rebut.

His column this week, on page 19, claims that "the ideology of Islam" lends itself to:

. . . a) homophobia, b) the subjugation of women, c) anti-Semitism, d) viciousness towards so-called apostates, e) authoriatianism and f) a somewhat medieval approach towards crime and punishment.

He adds:

And then there's the barbarism of female circumcision, forced marriages and the notion that those who are not Muslims are not quite human -- that their lives are worthless.

I have a few questions for the editors of the Spectator: 1) Do you have fact checkers? Do you not think it'd be worth providing some evidence from the Quran or elsewhere for such serious and inflammatory accusations against the 1,400-year-old faith of 1.2 billion people across the globe? Find me a single verse of the Quran that justifies or allows "forced marriages" or "female circumcision", or which portrays non-Muslims as "not quite human". I dare you. 2) Would you publish a similar screed on page 19 if the author was a Mr N Griffin of the British National Party? I mean, let's be honest -- Griffin and his ilk would probably not disagree with a single word that I've quoted above.

In such columns, Liddle often claims, as he does here, that he draws "a distinction between Islam and Muslims" -- ie Muslims as people = good; Islam as ideology = bad. I tend to take the reverse view -- Islam is a religion of morals and justice and peace; it is Muslims who fail to adhere to its tenets, pervert its principles and hijack the faith for self-serving, politicised and/or criminal purposes. As George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked, "Islam is the best religion but Muslims are the worst followers." I'd add: judge Islam on its own principles and not the barbaric and backward practises (female circumcision, suicide bombings, anti-Semitism) of a minority of its followers.

On a side note, God bless Peter Oborne, on page 16.

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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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