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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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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