What unites Europe’s far-right parties perhaps more than any other issue is their loathing of Islam. Photo: Getty
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How do I tell my daughter that people across Europe fear minorities like us?

Anti-Semitism is now taboo in mainstream political discourse in a way in which Islamophobia isn’t.

In 2006, at the height of the hysteria over the face veil, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland imagined what it must be like to be a Muslim in Britain. “I wouldn’t just feel frightened,” he wrote. “I would be looking for my passport.”

On Sunday, as the European election results began to flood in, with far-right parties on the march from Scandinavia to the Club Med, I joked with my (American) wife that we might have to start packing our bags and head across the pond.

Hundreds of column inches have been devoted to explaining how austerity economics, democratic deficits and mass immigration have helped bolster the continent’s far-right fanatics and neo-Nazi nutters. Our politicians and pundits have been less keen, however, to discuss the Islam-sized elephant in the room: what unites Europe’s far-right parties perhaps more than any other issue is their fear and loathing of people such as my wife and me.

Take the Front National, which won the European elections in France. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, bangs on about the “progressive Islamisation” of her country and compares Muslims praying in public to the Nazi occupation of France. Consider also the Danish People’s Party, which topped the polls in Denmark. Its founder Pia Kjærsgaard refers to Islam as a “political movement” and claims that the Quran teaches Muslims “to lie and deceive, cheat and swindle”.

How about the Finns Party, which doubled the number of its MEPs? The senior MEP, Jussi Halla-aho, has accused Islam of “sanctifying paedophilia” and a Finns councillor called Amon Rautiainen has called for Muslims to be “boiled alive”. In neighbouring Sweden, the populist Swedish Democrats gained their first two MEPs. The party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, once referred to Muslims in Sweden as “the biggest foreign threat since World War II”.

Here in Britain, there is Ukip, which is equally obsessed with Islam. Nigel Farage supports a ban on the burqa; Ukip’s chief whip, Gerard Batten, wants to stop the building of mosques; its former leader Lord Pearson has claimed “the Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us”. In recent weeks, Ukip candidates were shown to have accused Muslims of “grooming” children to be “sex slaves” and claimed that “anyone who does not fear Islam is a fool”.

In some respects, Muslims are the new Jews of Europe. The vile shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May, in which three people were killed, might make this statement sound odd. Anti-Jewish attacks are indeed on the rise in Europe, which is deplorable and depressing, but thankfully anti-Semitism is now taboo in mainstream political discourse in a way in which Islamophobia isn’t. These days, most anti-Semitic attacks are carried out by second-generation Arabs and are linked to anger over Israeli policies. Anshel Pfeffer, of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, acknowledged this in his report on the Brussels museum attack: “Some of the far-right parties in Belgium, such as Vlaams Belang, have actually tried to transform their image and hide their anti-Semitic legacy, professing to be friendly to Jews and supportive of Israel.”

Yet Islamophobia has gone mainstream. So it is time to ask my fellow Britons: is there a future for my family and me on this continent? I’m a proud British citizen, born and raised here, not to mention an ardent Europhile; my seven-year-old daughter is counting down the days until she can watch England play in the World Cup.

Nevertheless, Muslims are bombarded with hostile headlines and subjected to verbal or physical attacks on a near-daily basis. Social media has emboldened an army of online Islamophobes; in the real world, mosques have been firebombed and politicians line up to condemn Muslim terrorism/clothing/meat/seating arrangements.

It is establishment parties that helped pave the way for the Muslim bashers of the “new” far right. In France, it was Nicolas Sarkozy, not Marine Le Pen, who declared that halal meat was “the issue that most preoccupies the French”. In Germany, it was a Social Democratic Party politician, Thilo Sarrazin, who published a book claiming that Muslim immigrants were inferior to everyone else. And, here in the UK, it was a Labour immigration minister, Phil Woolas, not Nigel Farage, who published election pamphlets accusing his Lib Dem opponents of working with “militant Muslims” and whose advisers circulated emails discussing the “need . . . to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out”.

Meanwhile, poll after poll shows Europeans worrying about the spread of Islam – despite Gallup finding that European Muslims are as patriotic as their non-Muslim peers (and, in the case of the UK, more so!). Three out of four people in France say that “Islam is incompatible with French society”. Only 22 per cent of Germans think Islam is part of German society. Just over half of Britons – 52 per cent – believe “Muslims create problems in the UK”.

How do I explain these polls, and these election results, to my British-born, England-supporting daughter? Should I worry for her safety? Or am I being paranoid?

If only. Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were lined up and shot in the heart of Europe. It was the worst genocide on the continent since the Second World War and was made possible by a far-right campaign of demonisation and dehumanisation. I wish I could believe the mantra of “never again”. But these European election results fill me with dread. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted

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.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.