What unites Europe’s far-right parties perhaps more than any other issue is their loathing of Islam. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.