Tory Islamophobia doesn’t marginalise the British far right – it fuels it

Like Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher before him, Boris Johnson is making racism respectable. 

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Let’s start with Anders Breivik and work our way back to Boris Johnson. In 2011, Breivik murdered 77 people, including 69 young members of the Norwegian Labour Party, as a protest against the Islamisation of Europe. Boris Johnson penned a provocative, Islamophobic article, peddling offensive stereotypes against Muslim women, in the Daily Telegraph. One is a fascist, the other a socially liberal member of the Tory party but they are both part of a bigger game being played by someone else.

It is necessary to describe the game, the dynamics and the range of potential outcomes. Because if you play with fire, sometimes you just burn your own fingers; if you’re really unlucky, real people go up in flames. The game is promoting irrational fears of an Islamic takeover of Europe.

Breivik met the leaders of the English Defence League in 2010, when he visited London to protest on behalf of Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders. Former Trump adviser and Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon praised the EDL’s former leader Tommy Robinson as “the backbone of this country” in a radio interview last month. Johnson has been in “direct contact” with Steve Bannon since he quit as foreign secretary.

The subject of the Johnson-Bannon discussions have not been revealed but here’s what Johnson should have said: “Look, your mission to bring white nationalism to Europe is disgraceful. The alliance of far-right parties you are trying to build will destroy democracy and tolerance in this continent. I know that what you are trying to trigger is the chaotic meltdown of a rules-based order, and with it the institutions that guarantee human rights for non-white people. But the British bourgeoisie, of which I am a member, wants none of that. So fuck off.”

After slamming down the phone, Johnson – who reportedly wants to be prime minister and lead Britain through the final phases of Brexit – might have then asked: how do I stop this guy? How do we, the representatives of liberal capitalism, stop the far right weaponising widespread cultural antipathy to Islam among white Christians?

If he did, then the column he wrote for the Telegraph was the wrong answer. The tenor of the article was to express distaste and ridicule for women wearing the niqab while admitting there is no point trying to ban the garment as it would only “create martyrs”. Johnson may have calculated that it was better to express mild Islamophobia in order to head off its more extreme forms; to own xenophobia and racism within the Tory party as a way of preventing more violent and extreme expressions of it.

If so, he was only following the same catastrophic impulse that led Enoch Powell to make his “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, and Margaret Thatcher to express her concern that the country was being “swamped by people with a different culture” ten years later. On both occasions, the use of the racist dog whistle was sold as a way of isolating and defeating fascism; both fed it.

But now we are in a much more dangerous situation. First, because Islamophobia in Britain is real and rising. According to Hope not Hate, a quarter of English people believe Islam is “a dangerous religion that incites violence”. Fifty two percent of those surveyed in 2017 agreed with the statement that “Islam poses a serious threat to Western civilisation”.

And while attitudes among the liberal, multiculturalist segment of the UK electorate have softened, Hope not Hate’s survey after last year’s terrorist attacks saw 84 per cent of those already actively hostile to Islam deepen their hostility. Two-thirds of Brits surveyed regularly support banning the niqab.

Second, because the old routes to softening and overcoming racism don’t work with Islamophobia  – and the political establishment refuses to recognise this. The traditional liberal response to non-white immigration was to recognise its economic benefits while tacitly hoping that newcomers would assimilate or integrate culturally into British civil society.

The growing numbers of second generation migrants in parliament and leading business roles, from the Indian sub-continent, Hong Kong, Africa and the Caribbean testify to the fact that this has worked up to a point. However, with Britain’s poor and working class Muslim communities there is high geographical segregation and concentration. More than half of all Britons don’t know any Muslims. Meanwhile, the radical Imams, and teachers such as those who used the term “white prostitute” in a Muslim-run primary school in Birmingham, do the work of accentuating the cultural isolation.

Third, because the entire tinder box is open to matches thrown into it at will, either by the far right or by Islamist extremists and terrorists. Robinson has 830,000 Facebook followers. In the online undergrowth, the new far right uses memes and subtexts to communicate: when they say animal rights they mean banning halal and kosher meat. Every rape committed by a migrant or asylum seeker across Europe is reported into the Facebook timelines of small town Britain via Breitbart.

Fourth, and most important to get your head around, the British far right is mutating rapidly. Organisationally, Ukip has in the past months begun to absorb all the disparate strands of the extremist right: former cadres of the EDL have been allowed to join, so have the US-centred alt-right commentators Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopoulous. Under new leader Gerard Batten, Ukip has actively collaborated with the openly violent Democratic Football Lads Alliance.

The project is backed by far-right American money and influence: the Middle East Forum donated a five-figure sum to Robinson’s legal defence, while Trump ambassador Sam Brownback lobbied the British government for his release. That is the background to why a small demonstration against the banning of the US website Infowars, led by Ukip activists, turned into a fascist-style attack on the left-wing Bookmarks bookshop.

From the street fighters of the EDL through to the leadership of Ukip and the propaganda site Breitbart News, the whole project of authoritarian xenophobia in Britain is held together by hostility to Islam; by fears of a cultural takeover, sharia law and the ever-present racial slander of the “Muslim paedo-gang”.

As Robinson himself said, when confronted with Breivik’s links to the EDL after the Norway attack, “[His] blogs are full of facts. You can not yell at people because they tell the truth. You may find the truth hurts, but it is still the truth. I read the blogs themselves – they contain facts about Islam.” Robinson condemned Breivik’s actions but went on to state: “We don’t want English lads blowing themselves up on our soil, but that will happen if they don’t give us a platform.”

The logic – support my non-terrorist Islamophobic street violence or you get terrorism – is mirrored at the other end of the political scale: tolerate off-colour Tory jokes about Muslim women looking like letter boxes or you’ll get a reinvigorated Ukip.

It’s time for a rethink – not just in the liberal centre but on the left. For centrist politicians, editorial decision makers and commentators who still think ignoring the fascist street violence will make it go away, I would plead with them to read just one actual book written from primary sources, about what happened in Italy in the early 1920s, and Germany between 1929 and 1933.

To those who think echoing Islamophobia in a milder form will prevent the rise of an anti-democratic right, I would plead with them to remember the words of an National Front organiser to the left-wing journalist Paul Foot, in 1969: “Before Powell spoke, we were getting only cranks and perverts. After his speeches we started to attract, in a secret sort of way, the right-wing members of Tory organisations.”

And to the left, currently mulling the idea of a revived version of the Anti-Nazi League, I would say: we are fighting a vastly different problem. What’s feeding fascism is a mixture of ethno-nationalism on the right and failed multiculturalism from the liberal centre. All studies of the US-based alt-right show the core idea to be white, male “oppression”: whites have to form their own ethno-centred identity to play the game of patronage against blacks and Hispanics; men have to redefine themselves as a group oppressed by women. Faced with this, the integration and assimilation projects don’t work. We are up against a heavily theorised, and millionaire sponsored version of what Hannah Arendt called the “alliance of the elite and mob”.

You can try to drive such people off the streets – though 30 years of militarised policing and public order legislation suggest that most of the argy bargy will be between riot cops and the left. You can ban the outright violent organisations and – as Apple, YouTube, Spotify and Facebook have begun to do – strangle the outlets of racist propaganda and incitement.

But you cannot drive the ethno-supremacist logic out of people’s minds when they have ready access to a global network promoting it: you have to defeat the logic through ideas and actions – the most strategic of which is constructing a society that works economically for everyone.

The movement we need to build has to be granular enough to reach every small town high street, every pub and club, every school and college, and to have the rational, face-to-face arguments against xenophobia and white supremacy. The essence of the argument is this:

A woman in a burqa is a human being. She’s adopted a cultural symbol you don’t like or understand. But if we can create a more secular, tolerated, prosperous, educated and less segregated society, there is a chance that she or her daughters will, one day, choose not to wear one. But the upsides to tolerating it outweigh the downsides of banning it. Tolerating it does not just mean not banning it; it means not taking the piss out of it, not abusing her in the street, not refusing to serve her in your shop. Moreover, the same institutions that guarantee your human rights guarantee hers. Over time, we, the white, Christian cultural majority in Britain are going to live with people of different colours and religions by getting to know them, and engaging together in common struggles and endeavours.

This is a conversation I’ve had, like many other Labour canvassers, on numerous doorsteps since 2001, but it cannot be left to Labour and the other progressive parties alone. Nor is it an easy argument to win unless you can actually deliver prosperity, education and a secularised political space. It is particularly difficult to win if senior Tories are fuelling the hostility with dog whistle racism.

So who else can have the conversation? Thatcherism smashed the trade unions, which when they were a mass force used to be very good at promoting a kind of working class integration story. The Anti-Nazi League, in its heyday an effective purveyor of a radical cultural integration story, was by the mid-1990s effectively a soft anti-fa group: good at chasing the BNP around the Isle of Dogs, bad at preventing them from attracting a million votes.

Momentum has been fast out of the blocks in responding to Tommy Robinson crisis, and the Ukip-led attack on Bookmarks, producing good, punchy videos comparing Robinson to Oswald Mosley and Hitler. But an activist organisation of 40,000 Labour members is not the right vehicle to lead the fightback.

In fact, we need something much more effective than an ANL 2.0. We need a confident anti-racist narrative and network stretching from the far left to liberalism and the progressive nationalist parties. And we need public broadcasters to understand how they are being played and to deprive the authoritarian far right of an echo chamber.

Where the fault line lies is clear – inside the Tory party. I hope there is still time for Boris Johnson to reverse out of his political engagement with Steve Bannon’s nationalist xenophobia and engage, instead, with the confident, progressive and tolerant traditions of the British people.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.