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My year in Islamophobia

From Donald Trump's comments to my own (truncated) interview with Richard Dawkins, this year I saw just how acceptable the casual denigration of Muslims has become. 

Many years ago, when I accidentally flicked the TV to Fox News, my dad pointed out the need to be aware of what’s being said by those you disagree with, no matter how objectionable those views can be. It’s been the most important lesson for me to remain as inquisitive as possible, and the reason why I (as a Muslim) pounced at the opportunity to interview the most outspoken atheist living today, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins is in fact so outspoken about religion, particularly Islam, that I was genuinely stunned when he decided to angrily walk away from our scheduled interview after I confirmed my beliefs in the revelations of the Islamic faith, calling my views “pathetic”.

This is an area of great interest to him after all, and my friend Mehdi Hasan has made an excellent argument for the peaceful coexistence between science and faith, and distinguishing between evidence and proof. There is no evidence for the existence of parallel universes, for example, unless you’ve watched Jet Li kill multiple versions of himself in The One too many times. Yet I’m more than happy to sit down and have a sensible discussion with someone holding this view as well as those deemed completely intolerable. It’s just an opinion after all.

This unsavoury encounter got me thinking about the Islamophobia I’ve faced throughout the year like many Muslims, aided by the continuous stream of stories which leave me in a permanent state of facepalm.

It's so alarmingly difficult to identify as a Muslim today. I’m having to prove my sensible existence in a world dominated by dramatic headlines and tweets. The Charlie Hebdo attacks proved this. The whole purpose of that silly magazine (which has made international headlines in the past) is simply to offend, a degree above satire. It’s why I was terrified when “sensible” public figures like Stephen Fry were urging their followers that it had somehow become everyone’s duty to offend. Of course everyone has the right to be offensive and annoying (within the limits of the law), but why bother? The response to those attacks was Islamophobia, pure and simple, fuelling exactly what Islamofascists across the globe love.

It's also an argument of complete false balance, because insulting Christianity and Judaism in the same way would never have been tolerated (nor should it). Fanatics of all faiths continue to terrorise and kill all over the world, whether it’s in the Middle East, the Christian Right in America or the torment suffered by the Rohingya people in Myanmar. It’s hard for Muslims to make these simple comments because we’re immediately seen as conflating this with being apologetic or sympathising with such atrocities. I’m not at all defending such violence merely as a human being, let alone a Muslim, but that won’t stop people thinking that I am. It’s the way the world works now. You have to keep doubling down on your own dribble and see how far you can go. Just look at Donald Trump.

This is a multi-billionaire who is happily changing the debate in American (and subsequently, world) politics, pushing an-already far-right Republican Party further to the extremes, with breath-takingly racist and xenophobic rhetoric. It's no wonder the man has become the de facto candidate for white supremacists, making it easier to make sense of the reality envisioned in Bioshock Infinite, a game where non-white folks like myself have been totally eradicated.

Another example surrounding the difficulty of addressing Islamophobia is the recent knife attack at Leytonstone underground station. The bystander's shouting at the attacker claiming, "You ain't no Muslim bruv" was an excellent demonstration of someone knowing that Muslims don't follow a practice of stabbing random members of the public, making clear just how unwelcome he was.

However, I - and many of my friends and family members - were saddened by the fact that something like this needs to be said in our digital age, where people can dive deep and learn the true meaning of Islam and other religions so easily. But here comes the paradox: had the bystander not said anything, many people would have used the story as yet another reason for why Islam is "evil", in a comment that would have been muttered by a Ukip councillor at some point.

These stories and remarks translate to experiences of subtle bouts of racism every day. The blasé comments about the Syrian migrant crisis I heard while travelling in Europe in December, for example, or silly things such as someone jumping in front of me in the queue. And it’s absurd for those who distinguish their hate of religion to completely separate the effect it has on race, especially given the fact most Muslims in the world are black and brown, with names sounding more exotic than “Emad Ahmed”.

David Cameron made this exact point in his recent party conference speech, that there is still a systemic form of racism in the job application process, where non-white sounding names are immediately deemed problematic. Despite this gesture, it comes from the same man who defended letters being sent to Muslim leaders after the Charlie Hebdo attack, asking for Muslims to cut out the terrorism, plz! Because history tells us, grouping people together in this way is not at all a form of bigotry and ignorance. And let's not even start with Islamophobia in schools, where 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for having a clock in the classroom.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what a person’s religious identity is, and I personally couldn’t care less either, so long as we can all act as functional human beings and get along with zero problems. I guess this is my sad, low expectation of what I see in a utopian world. After all, why would anyone want to live a life for the sole purpose of being offensive and annoying, just because you can? Like most people on the planet, I think of religion as a source of spiritual comfort and calm, something science simply can’t offer.

It’s about being tolerant of others, because proving or disproving the existence of God is the most circular argument you can have with someone, especially when it’s ultimately just an opinion. And you don’t want to fall down the slippery slope of thinking your opinion is somehow better than someone else’s, especially when it comes to faith and not take a peek into history and the effects of imperialism and slavery.

There’s a reason why we have laws against discrimination, even if some (usually white) people suggest we’re in a “post-racial” society and there’s no need for positive discrimination. I was definitely thinking this when I kept my head down and going through airport security more than once for a 90-minute flight to Dundee.

Sayeeda Warsi is someone I completely disagree with, politically. But when she said Islamophobia had passed the dinner-table test a few years ago, I thought it was so profound because it meant someone had finally come out and admitted it was the norm, even if it did take Donald Trump to break the code and say it as bluntly as possible. But us Muslims are still awkwardly sat at the same table whilst a handful of hate figures are savouring the taste.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.

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Ukip needs Nigel Farage to stand in the Stoke by-election

Despite becoming a global political celebrity, the party's former leader has been waiting 25 years for this moment to win a Commons seat. 

When Ukip's 20 MEPs - back at school today in Strasbourg to elect a new EU President - wave (no fists please) at each other today at lunch across the various dining rooms of the EU Parliament, their main subject of interest will not be the eight candidates they will be voting for by secret ballot to replace bearded German socialist Martin Schulz.

For the record, these eight MEPs include four Italians (the favourite is centre-right 63-year-old Antonio Tajani, a former Italian air force pilot and EU insider regularly seen at the best tables of VIP watering holes like the Stanhope Hotel in Brussels), two Belgians, a Romanian and, yes, a Brit. Thats's 66-year-old Jean Lambert of the Green Party. But nobody in Ukip really cares. The party has the worst attendance and voting record of any political party in the EU - ranked 76 out 76.

Electing a new EU president today in Strasbourg is not nearly of so much concern to Ukip MEPs as the upcoming by-election in Stoke - not the least as quite a few of them (especially representing the Midlands) will be thinking of standing. The central Midlands seat of Stoke Central is a dream seat to have come up for Ukip just as Theresa May is setting out her 12-point "clean Brexit" plan stall.

Ladbrokes still have Labour 4/5 favourite with Ukip 9/4. It's worth a bet as the stakes are so much higher for Ukip if they lose. If they do, many will ask whether Ukip really can supplant Labour in 2020? 

With the prime minister making it clear today in her Lancaster House speech that her government want a hard Brexit, this presents a potential dilemma for Ukip. If the Tories deliver a clean Brexit with no membership of the single market, or EEA, then does the purpose of Ukip "holding the Tories' feet to the fire" over Brexit become less relevant? 

If Ukip alternatively wishes to re-invent itself as the new working class party of the north and Midlands, it will need to show that it can beat Labour - now at its lowest ebb under Corbyn - in key seats like Stoke. Ukip know this and are very good at their by-election ground game with veteran by-election campaign managers like Lisa Duffy as good as any strategist. In Stoke, expect a full expeditionary force of Ukip's colourful and Falstaff-like army of by-election activist troops - arriving by train, coach and foot - to campaign and out manoeuvre Corbyn's New Left Red Army. 

Stoke Central is probably the most important by-election for Ukip since Heywood and Middleton in 2014 which became a watershed moment for the party. Even Ukip was taken off-guard by the result. Without much cash and without campaigning with the full Ukip army zeal, they lost by just over 600 votes and got a recount. 

Looking back, Heywood was a pivotal moment in Ukip's short history. It was the moment the party realised that its future lay not so much in persuading Disgusted with Dave of Tunbridge Wells to vote for Nigel, but rather with disaffected Labour voters wanting something down about immigration that they saw was changing the very face and identity of their local towns, estates and cities. 

But can Ukip really win Stoke? Well, they really have to try as this is their best chance they might get for a while. Which means that the really interesting question being asked by Ukip MEPs today to Paul Nuttall is "Are you running?" The deadline for candidates on the party's Approved Candidates List to put themselves forward is 4pm on Wednesday 18 January.

So far Nuttall's official line - as told to the Daily Express - is that he is not ruling out standing. As a no-nonsense northerner himself (a working class boy from Bootle in Merseyside who played "junior", not professional, football for Tranmere Rovers), Nuttall would appear to be an ideal working class candidate to empathise with the voters of such a socially dispossessed pottery town.

As Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at East Anglia University wrote in the Guardian: "If Ukip doesn’t win, or doesn’t run Labour close, that calls into question its ability to win parliamentary seats...it would suggest that the referendum, far from being a staging post on the road to supplanting Labour, might signal Ukip's peak." 

Ouch. But Hanretty has a point: if Nuttall stands and fails to win in a working class Midlands seat where 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave, it does raise issues about how much impact can make on the Westminster electoral landscape should there be a snap election in the next few months as a result of repeated constitutional challenges to Article 50 (the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be announced this week) and legal challenges such as the Article 127 challenge brought by the pro-EU pressure group British Infuence, now postponed until February.

This case revolves around the claim that Parliament must be consulted not just over the UK's exit as a EU member but also (and separately) its exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) – and by definition from the Single Market. In her speech today, Theresa May made it clear that the UK will be leaving the Single Market, so this challenge is unlikely to go away. All this political jousting and legal posturing is likely to make for quite a political circus when the Stoke by-election date is announced (usually within three months of an MP dying or standing down). Should Ukip not win this by-election prize fight - or give Labour a very bloody nose and lose by a few hundred votes as they did in Middleton and Heywood in 2014 -  it would certainly be damaging for Ukip. 

Not the least if the party's leader and chief general (an MEP commander for the north west) chooses to stand himself. But Nuttall is faced with a tricky dilemma. If he stands and loses, the idea that that UKIP is the new party of choice for working class former Labour voters in the North and and Midlands may not look so convincing. Yet if Nuttall doesn't stand and the party puts up another strong candidate who goes on to win like deputy chairman Suzanne Evans (born in the Midlands) or West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge (who has a strong personal following in the Black Country and industrial Midlands), then Nuttall's own position as leader of a party with two MPs could be frustrated. 

So it is going to be an interesting day for Ukip in Strasbourg that's for sure. Ukip is a strange party in that two of its most senior and high profile politicians - deputy chairman and Health spokesman Suzanne Evans and the respected former Ukip mayor candidate Peter Whittle (culture spokesman and excellent film critic for Standpoint) are not even MEPs although Whittle is proving to be an adept member of the London Assembly.  

If Ukip win in Stoke, and Nuttall's name is not on the ballot, this could have political ramifications. There is a significant difference in Westminster powers and patronage in having two MPs in Westminster rather than one (as currently with Douglas Carswell with whom Suzanne Evans worked closely with as a Ukip member of Vote Leave, which was pointedly not the party's official designated Leave camp). With two MPs, Ukip becomes a party as opposed to a one man political solo show. 

If the newly-elected MP were to be, say, Suzanne Evans - one of the party's star performers on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You - Nuttall's power base as leader (no longer an MEP in 2020 after we exit the EU) might be diluted by another senior party member becoming a star performing Commons MP. 

So there is much at stake both personally and party-wise for Nuttall. Should Ukip be defeated in Stoke Central by some margin, this would be picked up by Tory and Labour strategists as offering evidence that Labour might not be wiped out by so many seats under Corbyn should May go to the country in say March or April to settle the Brexit mandate. Polls have been saying that under Corbyn Labour could lose as many as 80-100 seats should Ukip prove (with Stoke) that the party is, indeed, the number one threat to traditional Labour vote in the north and midlands.

Whatever happens in Stoke, the Tories won't win. They will be watching to see how the working class vote splits. This is why it is so improbable that May will attempt to call an 'early election' this year, even if the polls continue to show she would win by a landslide. 

The truth is she can't realistically call an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even if she she wants to. The Act (one of the worst legacies of the Coalition govt which many MPs want repealed) requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for going to the country - something that not even the most suicidally inclined of Labour MPs will be prepared to do as they will be joining MEPs in being out of a job. 

In the event that Labour take the view that a political blood bath - with Ukip the likely winner in many seats like Stoke Central - is the only way to purge the party of Corbyn, then they will also have to swallow the fact that May (if pushed into an election by troublesome, unelected peers) is likely to spike her election wheel with a manifesto pledge to abolish most of the powers of the House of Lords, as well as booting many of the eldest, most pompous and idle. Such a mandate for radical reform of our largely unelected Lords would hardly be difficult to secure. More blood on the carpet. 

In the event that the Supreme Court rules this week that Article 50 must be signed off by both the Commons and the Lords, any Lib Dem and Labour pro-EU zealots will know that any attempted Kamikaze-style amendments (which could technically delay Parliamentary assent for up to thirteen months) will be met with punitive retribution from Downing Street. 

Ukip only lost in Stoke to Labour's Dr Tristram Hunt in 2015 by around 5,000 votes - largely thanks to disaffected working class voters feeling that their once proud industrial "pottery" city - once a Victorian symbol of industrial creativity and production - had become a symbol of a working class British city in decline. Faced with immigration, housing and other social issues, Stoke voters have felt for some time that the pro-EU metropolitan leaning Labour Party has abandoned them.

Not so Ukip, which is exactly why Nigel Farage chose to stage a major Brexit rally hosted by Grassroots Out (GO!) last April at Stoke's Victoria Hall urging the good people to vote to leave the European Union.

Addressing the packed hall, against his political opponent Tory Chris Grayling MP, and Labour's Kate Hoey (herself a Leaver), Farage drew applause from the Stoke crowd when he said: "This is not about left or right – this is about right or wrong." Farage then started up the audience of hundreds in a chant of "We want our country back." 

In other words, Nigel he knows perfectly well that Ukip can win Stoke. Which leads to the obvious question in Strasbourg today: "Are you going to stand Nigel?" 

Officially, Farage has ruled himself out saying he wants to focus on his international and speaking, broadcasting and advisory career. But as Farage said after picking up the leadership reins after they came loose following the resignation of Diane James: "I keep trying to escape ... and before I'm finally free they drag me back". 

The truth is that in his political heart, I suspect Nigel must be going through a dark night of his political soul over whether he should have stood for Stoke Central. Or still can? In so many ways, he has been waiting over 25 years for this moment. By the time the all-important Heywood and Middleton by-election result came on October 2014 (Ukip share of the vote up 36 per cent), Farage had already committed to standing for the south of England seat of Thanet South - his seventh election campaign to become an MP. Had Nigel stood in the Heywood by-election, he probably would have won. 

All his Ukip parliamentary election campaigns have been in the South, South-West or Home Counties, beginning with Eastleigh in Hampshire in 1994 when he won just 952 votes. But the interesting trend to note is that in his last two attempts to get into the Commons,  he has doubled his vote each time. In 2010 election, standing in Buckingham he won 8,410 votes (almost the same number as I won taking votes of Midland labour voters in North Warwickshire in 2015). In 2015, Nigel got 16,026 votes in South Thanet. 

My point is that had Nigel Farage stood for a solid Labour Northern or Midlands seat in 2015, he may well have won then. Yes, Nigel has said that he wants to get his life back after his extraordinary years as the "Mr Brexit" Ukip leader - apparently now the subject of a Warner Bros Bad Boys of Brexit comedy biopic. 

But as somebody who knows how much the pull of the green leather Commons bench - the true seat of western parliamentary democracy - means to Nigel, I sincerely hope he will re-consider standing for Stoke Central. Yes, he wants to earn money and become a global political superstar. But it will certainly be something to think about as he flies through the night to take up his front row seat in Washington on Friday's inauguration. 

And just think, after what Nigel did for Trump campaigning in Mississippi, how could Donald Trump possibly not campaign for his Brexit friend in Stoke? Now that really would be political theatre.