Knee-jerk Islamophobia: why Trevor Kavanagh is wrong about British Muslims

This kind of evidence-free, stereotype-laden assault on the British Muslim community has got to stop, says Rob Ford.

On 6 August, after an extraordinary night in the Olympic Stadium, the Sun's Oliver Harvey was moved to write: "A ginger bloke from Milton Keynes, a mixed race beauty from Sheffield, an ethnic Somali given shelter on these shores from his war-ravaged homeland. This is what Britain looks like today. Three Britons from wildly different backgrounds that gave this generation its 1966 moment." His colleague Anila Baig added: " We’ve heard a lot about belonging and loyalty and allegiance, Muslim first or British first. On Saturday Mo Farah gave us the answer: British Muslim and proud proud proud."

What a difference four months make. As summer sun gives way to winter snow, Sun Political Editor Trevor Kavanagh has posted an editorial painting a rather different picture: "Yes Africa is a terror hotbed, but fanatics are here too." There is no evidence of any British Muslim involvement in, or support for, the atrocities taking place in Algeria, but Kavanagh isn't going to let that inconvenient fact stand in the way of a broadside against the British Muslim community whose most prominent athletics representative his paper was recently lionising.

Out come the usual myths and misrepresentations. We are told Britain is home to hundreds of thousands of Muslims from all over the world, but warned "not all are grateful. Indeed, some are outspokenly defiant". We are not told what they are supposed to be grateful for, or what they are defiant of , which complicates any effort to analyze this bizarre claim, but how about this for starters: Do Muslims identify with Britain? Are they proud of British democracy and institutions? Are they integrated into British political and social life? Yes, yes, and yes.

As my colleagues and I have shown in a report for the government's Migration Advisory Committee, Britain's Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage populations (the bulk of the British Muslim population) are more likely than white native born Britons to say they belong in Britain, and more likely to express trust in the British Parliament. Other research has shown that British Muslims rate being British as central to their identities, and are more likely to express pride in Britain than other groups, something Kavanagh's own newspaper noted "shatter[s] the myth that Muslims are not patriotic". In Kavanagh's world, British Muslims are resentful and defiant. Out in the real world of evidence, a world reported by his own news desk, Muslims are proud British citizens, often more attached to British culture and institutions than other groups.

Then there is the vexed issue of integration. Kavanagh, echoing the notorious comments of Trevor Phillips, raises the spectre of segregated, Muslim-dominated inner city districts: "One London borough is so staunchly Muslim it has become known as the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets." Really? I don't know who  refers to Tower Hamlets this way (and Kavanagh doesn't enlighten us) but it strikes me as an odd way to characterise a borough which the most recent census recorded was 32 per cent Bangladeshi, 31 per cent white British, 12 per cent white other, and 25 per cent from a host of other heritages including African, Caribbean, and Chinese. Tower Hamlets is not an "Islamic Republic". In fact, Muslims constitute just over a third of the population, and are massively outnumbered by those who are either Christian or state no religion at all, as Kavanagh would have known had he bothered to visit the Tower Hamlets website before smearing a whole London borough. The community Kavanagh demonizes as a ghetto of Muslim fanatics is in fact a proud melting pot of multiple ethnicities and faiths, where no group dominates. It is (to quote the Olympics-era Sun) "what Britain looks like today".

Even if segregation were a problem (which it generally is not), it is not clear what would satisfy Kavanagh as a solution. Maybe Muslims could integrate by moving away from areas where they are concentrated towards more homogenously white areas, something University of Manchester census analysts have shown all ethnic minority groups have been doing? This won't do for Kavanagh, who attacks it as Muslims "colonising the suburbs". Leaving aside the absurd labelling of people often born and raised in Britain as "colonisers", it is not obvious what Muslims caught in Kavanagh's Islamophobic catch-22 are supposed to do. If they stay in the inner city areas to which their families first migrated, they are attacked as setting up segregated "Islamic Republics". If they set out for the suburbs they are attacked as "colonisers" looking to impose their values on others. No matter that neither bears any resemblance to the everyday truth of ordinary, hard working Muslim families looking for decent, affordable homes, good schools and regular contact with friends and relatives, just like everyone else.

This kind of evidence-free, stereotype-laden assault on the British Muslim community has got to stop. In an era when all the relevant evidence is available at the click of a mouse, it is not acceptable for a senior journalist at the nation's most read paper to make demonstrably false claims about one of its largest minority communities. Kavanagh's article is irresponsible rabble-rousing of the worst kind. What a shame he didn't think to talk to his more informed colleagues from the Olympics press-pack before launching into this ugly tirade.

Rob Ford is a lecturer at the University of Manchester politics department

Members of the Muslim community shopping in Whitechapel in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Rob Ford is a lecturer at the University of Manchester politics department.

Photo: Getty
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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