New Times,
New Thinking.

Rishi Sunak’s paranoid talk of “extremists” is dangerous for us all

Fringe politicians from George Galloway to the hard right are trying make Islamism a big election issue. For decency and a tolerant society, we mustn’t let that happen.

By Andrew Marr

Election year has become like a thick glass we must all squint through, a mutually agreed distortion turning everything weird and wonky. Through the glass, the Budget appears only about the size of an election bribe. And Britain’s response to the Gaza disaster becomes a “wedge issue” as excitable Conservatives talk of rising militancy, a new “enemy within”, and the possibility of a snap spring poll.

This distorting prism takes genuine disagreements and exaggerates them until they become barely recognisable. It suggests that, regardless of who wins the general election, Britain is doomed by the mid-2020s to catastrophic further reductions in the public realm – in health, education, local government and defence.

More imminently, it takes serious intellectual arguments about the validity of the term “Islamophobia” and the balance between security and the right to protest, and turns them into a party-political firefight.

There are real concerns here. MPs and councillors have been intimidated. There are, amid the majority of genuine protesters grief-stricken about Gaza, Jew-hating extremists who would like some kind of British conflagration. Passions, sparked in the Middle East between irreconcilable enemies, crackle and smoulder on the streets of London and Birmingham. To turn this into a divisive issue for a general election would be unforgivable.

Rishi Sunak’s speech outside Downing Street on 1 March in response to George Galloway’s win in the Rochdale by-election tried to be balanced, referencing Nick Griffin and the far right alongside Gaza protesters. But after telling police chiefs of the dangers of Britain’s slide into “mob rule” he seemed, as part of a revived Tory attack strategy, to be moving towards the charge that the left was surrendering to militant Islam and that this was a dark threat to democracy.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

There were forces “here at home trying to tear us apart”, he said. Since October, people had been trying to take advantage of Gaza “to advance a divisive, hateful ideological agenda. On too many occasions recently, our streets have been hijacked by small groups… who are hostile to our values and have no respect for our democratic traditions.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that Sunak was sincere in his horror, as he is sincere in being proud of his role as Britain’s first prime minister of colour. But the language – “hateful”, “divisive”, “hostile” – seems worryingly close to Suella Braverman’s talk of “the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites”.

The danger is that the vigorous prosecution of a wedge issue quickly drives everyone to extremes. Before Lee Anderson-ism spreads through the Tory party, we need to talk about Islamophobia.

In this conversation, one way or another, Keir Starmer is going to have to provide some balance and common sense. I think nobody else will. Looking at some of the subjects raised in recent “mainstream” media coverage of Islamism, we can see how difficult taking a balanced position is starting to feel. Should there be a ban on building new mosques? On minarets? On burqas and hijabs in public spaces? Should the law change to ban first-cousin marriage? Such matches are popular among Pakistani Muslims, though there is a debate in Islam on the subject. It worked for Queen Victoria and is recommended in the Talmud, but outlawing it might well break up inward-looking communities and perhaps help combat inherited conditions.

Banning cousin marriage is worthy of debate; but if the British state and national parties decide to press back against the spread of Islam inside the UK, all of the above may bubble up surprisingly quickly.

We know, not least from the French experience, how divisive that would be. But on the right of politics there is a rarely spoken belief that millions of voters are hostile to Islam and that this can be usefully stoked. (Why else have senior Conservatives been so tongue-tied when challenged to explain what was “wrong” with Anderson saying Islamists had control of Sadiq Khan and London?)

On the hard left, meanwhile, there has been a view that since Muslims around the world are among the most impoverished faith groups, all Muslims must be oppressed and therefore “good”; and that hostility even to aggressive and reactionary forms of Islam is racist. For many of us, this sentimentality is dangerous and illiberal.

The problem for Labour is that, as tempers rise, it seems easier for the Tories to speak out. A poll of 500-plus Tory members last month found 58 per cent thought that Islam poses a threat to Britain’s way of life – double the proportion of the general population who believe the same. More than half also believed that parts of European cities are under sharia law and are “no-go” areas for non-Muslims.

The danger on the left is that the popularity of the idea of Islamophobia – that, to put it crudely, arguing against any aspects of any forms of Islam is itself racist – produces a paralysis. One consequence of the arrival of Galloway in parliament is that this issue will recur relentlessly between now and the election. Labour now has no choice but to engage in the argument properly.

What should the party be saying? I come to this as somebody brought up in a strongly Scottish Presbyterian culture where we were taught to think that Roman Catholicism was dangerous. Catholics’ first allegiance was to a foreigner, the Pope, not to Britain; Catholic priestly celibacy could produce terrible abuse; the practice of confession allowed Catholics to sin and overcome the guilt too easily. And so on.

Catholics know well that priestly child abuse, for instance, was not a Protestant fantasy. The point is that growing up to work and become friendly with many Catholics made the chilly absolutism of the Presbyterian mindset absurd and intolerable. You can take any of the great religions, not just Islam, and make them seem an imminent social threat. A reading of the Old Testament, the Torah or the Koran can produce apparently frightening doctrines and endless absurdities – easy debating fodder for any even slightly eloquent freethinker.

The poison here is the confusion of religious doctrine, often taken to out-of-context logical extremes, with living people who were brought up in a different environment but who are more worried about bills, relationships and work. It is the confusion of “pure” theory with impure people, Salafism with Anderson’s talk of Khan’s “mates”. It’s the difference between discussing Islamism, which would love new blasphemy laws, and British Muslims, for whom they would be a terrible threat.

In the Commons there is a mood of pre-electoral hysteria, both about the timing of the election and its subject. Looking at the poll numbers, it’s hard to see the Budget alone turning things around for Sunak. Planes carrying asylum seekers to Rwanda might take off in time for a spring poll, but I doubt it. And so ministers are struggling to come up with new definitions of extremism that won’t net their own supporters. From Galloway to the hard right, there are plenty of people who want to make Muslims a big electoral issue. For decency, a tolerant society and our freedoms, the rest of us mustn’t let that happen.

As the Tories try to strip away any room for the opposition to manoeuvre, and the Labour leader’s office struggles with internal feuding, the question of what kind of leadership Starmer can offer us is a potent one. After his long fight against anti-Semitism on the left, I’m sure he is being urged to keep out of all this. But in these dark days of incitement and paranoia he could choose to speak up against the inciters and try to calm the paranoid. That is a leadership Britain badly needs.

[See also: George Galloway’s return isn’t a nightmare for Labour]

Listen to the New Statesman podcast

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

Topics in this article : , ,

This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain