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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.