Today’s political world is a depressing cesspit of populism. It is a populism that plays to both political hard right and left, is fuelling deep fractures in our society. And yet it is also leading to communities taking charge of their own futures.
For decades, we have been for the most part happy to rely on politicians to set the future political direction of the nation. This is now rapidly changing. Take for example the language of Corbyn, couched in terms of social justice and ending poverty: who could possibly be against that? But look beneath the surface and a deeply troubling set of questions arise: ones that puzzle Muslims who actively believe that you cannot fight anti-Muslim hate without equally standing against other forms of hate, too, such as anti-Semitism.
Corbyn’s relationship with Jewish communities is at rock bottom, and there is a strong perception within wide sections of Jewish Britain that Corbyn is stuck in an ideological Cold War, with fault lines igniting around Israel and the Labour leader’s past interactions with groups active on the Palestinian issue
As someone who has seen the cancer of Islamist extremism up close and the damage it has caused to young lives, it is the association of Corbyn with Islamist groups and a staff base who have a history of anti-Semitic discourse that shows a deeper problem.
His talk about tackling anti-Semitism also seems a tad hollow. Add to this the dismally slow reaction to serious charges of anti-Semitism within Labour, the tussle over the Labour National Executive Council’s adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition on anti-Semitism, and you can see why Jewish communities remain wary of the Labour leader.
For Muslims who strongly empathise with Jewish communities and who believe that Jews and Muslims must stand together at this time of political instability, Corbyn’s actions are extremely worrying. You cannot have a “blind spot” over sharing platforms with Islamist groups who have a history of anti-Semitism.
But the lack of leadership and divisive messaging does not only apply to Labour under Corbyn. The Conservatives have been accused of being “in denial on Islamophobia” and it’s not hard to see why. The charge comes from numerous incidents in which Conservative councillors and party members have made derogatory comments against Muslims.
One recent example was provided by Tory MP, Bob Blackman, who defended his decision to host parliamentary events attended by the controversial Hindu nationalist, Tapan Ghosh, who had previously called on the UN to control the birth rate of Muslims and praised the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma.
As part of attempts to address the impression caused by such incidents, I had the privilege of being invited to meet with the Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, two months ago. He was courteous, hospitable and showed a genuine desire to want to change the perception that the Conservatives were somehow institutionally anti-Muslim. It was a genuine attempt on his part to want to make a difference, leading to offers for us to help train local Conservative associations to better understand anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry.
After the meeting I wrote to the chairman’s team, saying that there was a “growing gulf that is developing between middle of the road, non-political Muslims who are also starting to turn against the Conservatives”. I suggested that the party convene an independent group of people who could “dip test” and check the rigour of the disciplinary process at local association levels, where the majority of anti-Muslim prejudice has been taking place. I also connected this to an internal review process for local associations in assessing whether candidates could demonstrate that they were able to work with diverse communities.
Two months after the initial meeting, we have been asked to meet, though no further details of tangible actions have been publicly demonstrated.
And then came the comments by Boris Johnson in August, comparing burqa-clad (including niqab-wearing) women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” and many of us could foresee the party walking into a metaphorical wall – as has happened.
Over the last six years, having made Tell Mama the lead national hate crime project monitoring anti-Muslim hate, I know first-hand the enormous efforts this Conservative government has made in countering and challenging hate. I know of Conservative ministers who care passionately that British Muslims deserve every chance in our society, to feel part of our country. I also know that the Prime Minister herself has been a passionate advocate for work countering anti-Muslim hate and all forms of hatred and intolerance.
Today, this positive legacy has been obliterated by the leadership aspirations and posturing of figures like Johnson, who decide to use language dehumanising some of the most vulnerable women in Muslim communities and with a flippancy that is breath-taking. Rightly or wrongly, the perception within wide parts of Muslim communities is that the Tories are too toxic, and that Corbyn fails to represent their views. Either way, it is an utterly depressing political arena, marked out by failings from both the main parties.
This is why Jewish and Muslim organisations are rallying, linking up and working together – they have realised that in the current climate, politicians seem to provide little leadership and are more interested in pandering to their own egos and cults of personality.
For example, Tell Mama has cooperated and learned benchmarking lessons from the (Jewish-run) Community Security Trust, which tackles anti-Semitism. But increasingly local Jewish and Muslim groups are also learning to stand together. Over the past year, I have seen a great improvement in Jewish-Muslim relations in the UK: which are probably at the best they have been in over two decades.
It is through the shared adversity of facing growing anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate that this care, empathy and compassion for one other is growing. Those from the far-right who co-opt Israeli flags to abuse Muslims and those who co-opt Islamic texts and the issue of Palestine to spread hate against Jews are being pushed back. So that is one thing we can thank both political parties for. Labour and the Tories’ inaction is helping to build a movement of hope, at a time when politicians on both sides are navel gazing.