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A Confected Crisis

Valid concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry should not be used as an excuse to appease Islamist fanatics.

· 8 min read
A Confected Crisis
London, UK, 17th November 2018. Alamy

Following the Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7, 2023, Britain has seen months of demonstrations at which antisemitic banners have been waved and chants supporting Islamist terror groups and the Islamic Republic of Iran have abounded. Reported incidents of antisemitism were more than twice as high in 2023 as in 2022, according to the Community Security Trust’s figures. Many Jews now avoid London on Saturdays, when these marches are held, and Iranian dissidents have also been targets of abuse and violent assaults. Labour MPs have reported inboxes flooded with death threats and many are being picketed and menacingly informed that they “can’t hide” because they have been “charged with genocide.” A notorious antisemitic slogan was beamed onto parliament’s Elizabeth tower while parliamentarians debated a ceasefire motion brought before the House in response to threats and intimidation. It is in this context that the Labour Party is now courting Muslim voters by confecting an Islamophobia scandal for the Conservative government. 

The pretext for this scandal was an unambiguously bigoted comment made by one particularly demagogic Tory MP, Lee Anderson, who suggested that the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, had ceded control of the capital to his Islamist “mates” (Anderson has since had the Conservative whip withdrawn). Khan has been a reviled figure on the culture-warrior Right since at least 2019, when Donald Trump branded him a “stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London.” But whatever people think of his record on crime or his environmental policies, Khan appears to have little in common with Islamists. He has been a vocal supporter of gay rights, a champion of the England women’s football team, and he has pledged to fight antisemitism. (For all this, by the way, Khan is reported to have received death threats from Muslim extremists.) So, there appears to be no justification for Anderson’s association of Khan with Islamism except for the fact that Khan is a Muslim. 

A historical analogy can be drawn here with the McCarthyite hunt for “communists” in the United States during the 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers deployed the charge of communism promiscuously against their political enemies on the Left, just as today’s most radical culture warriors suspect anyone with a Muslim background of being an Islamist. That some conservative newspapers are now lionising Anderson—just as they celebrate Nigel Farage—as a voice of the common man, unafraid to say what everyone is secretly thinking, demonstrates that anti-Muslim bigotry is a genuine problem in Britain.

This problem is unlikely to be addressed by seeking the counsel of Islamists and notorious antisemites on the topic of Islamophobia. But that is precisely what the Labour Party—and a few Conservative rebels like Baroness Warsi—have done by adopting the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s (APPG) definition of Islamophobia, and by pressing the Conservative Party to do likewise. The APPG definition was partly informed by the recommendations of the Islamist organisation MEND and sociology professor David Miller, who has claimed that Zionism is a cause of Islamophobia. (In early February, an employment tribunal ruled that Miller was unfairly dismissed by the University of Bristol following allegations of antisemitism.)

The definition of Islamophobia that Labour has been pressuring the Tories to adopt is effectively a plagiarism of the definition of antisemitism popularised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Each clause in the former is directly lifted from the latter, with the words “Jews” and “Israel” replaced by “Muslims” and “Muslim states.” This is strange since antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry are different kinds of hatred, with their own distinct historical features and tropes. Many of the common kinds of antisemitism—like the conspiratorial belief in sinister Jewish power or Holocaust denial—are not common kinds of anti-Muslim bigotry.  

It is additionally strange since neither MEND nor Miller supports the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and both have made many statements that would be considered antisemitic under that definition. I suspect that the APPG definition has not been crafted to protect Muslims from hatred but to muddy understanding of antisemitism by placing it in competition with Islamophobia. There ought to be no problem with the first clause, which turns “justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology” (IHRA) into “justifying the killing or harming of Muslims in the name of a racist/fascist ideology” (APPG), except that MEND is emphatic that Zionism is a “supremacist ideology,” so anyone who supports Israel’s right to self-defence against Hamas could be vulnerable to accusations of Islamophobia. Indeed, MEND successfully campaigned to have Lord Austin suspended from his role as the chair of a housing association after he made an allegedly “Islamophobic” joke about UNRWA’s denials that it knew of the Hamas tunnels under its HQ. It isn’t hard to see why the housing association was duped by the accusation—Austin’s joke wasn’t particularly funny, and since he didn’t explicitly mention UNRWA, its meaning might have been lost on anyone unfamiliar with the story.

The potential for conflict between the two definitions is exacerbated by the reworking of the IHRA clause “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” into “denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour.” This will simply make it more difficult to oppose Islamist terrorism in either context. Whether or not self-determination is a terrorist endeavour depends on the group or groups that are struggling for it and the means they employ. If, like Hamas, they are deliberately murdering civilians in an attempt to replace Israel with a Judenrein Palestine between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, it is obviously not Islamophobic to point out that this is a terrorist endeavour. Nor is there any contradiction between that recognition of reality and support for the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state beside Israel. No one claimed that the Oslo Accords were a terrorist endeavour.

Another clause would prohibit claims that Muslims have spread Islam “by the sword,” or that Muslims have been guilty of “subjugating minority groups under their rule” in order “to characterize Muslims [negatively].” Of course, the majority of Muslims today are not spreading Islam by violent means, although many Islamic countries have a horrendous record when it comes to the treatment of minority groups (and Jews, in particular). But as the historian Tom Holland (also a recipient of Islamist death threats) has pointed out, this could easily prohibit historians from touching the subject of Islamic imperialism, thereby detering honest scholarship about the history of Islam. It would be like using the term “Christianophobia” to outlaw historical writing about the Crusades. 

Perhaps the most troubling clause contends that “accusing … Muslim majority states of inventing or exaggerating Islamophobia” is Islamophobic. As the French philosopher and political theorist Pascal Bruckner pointed out around 15 years ago in The Tyranny of Guilt, the term first started to enter common parlance as an accusation aimed at feminists critical of the oppression of women in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It was a deliberate ploy by the Islamist regime to associate women’s rights with anti-Muslim bigotry. Are we to now deny the use that the Islamic Republic made (and makes) of “Islamophobia” for fear that the accusation will fall on us?

A Reply to Nick Cohen
My description of the Islamic veil as a strategic tool in the struggle for control of the public space causes Cohen great indignation.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has accused Western feminists like Germaine Greer of being cowed by the suggestion that it is culturally imperialistic to demand that women in Muslim countries enjoy the same rights as women in the West. The idea that one culture cannot be better than another is no different to saying there is no moral difference between 21st-century Europe and the era of witch trials. But when comparing different contemporary cultures, many seem to embrace the idea that there are different “regimes of truth” (Michel Foucault’s infamous relativistic take on totalitarian Iran). The same regime shielded from criticism by Western concerns about Islamophobia soon demonstrated that it had no such qualms about imposing its own culture on the West, when Iran’s supreme leader sentenced British writer Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy in 1989.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has tried several times to have “defamation of religions” codified as a human-rights offence. The idea that someone’s rights can be violated by criticism of their religion has created significant moral confusion in the West. At the time of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons controversy in 2005, the Western liberal press was almost unanimous in the view that an intolerable Islamophobic offence had been committed, but had little to say about the eruption of murderous violence that followed.

Of course, one might take the view that the publication of the cartoons of Mohammad was needlessly offensive, while also condemning the violent reaction they elicited—so long as they were published with the intention of offending or ridiculing Muslims. But that was not the case—as the editor of the newspaper explained in an accompanying editorial, the cartoons were published to test the limits of freedom of expression with respect to Islam, prompted by the story of a publisher that had been unable to find an illustrator for a children’s book about the prophet. It was clearly a necessary experiment, because it has demonstrated that this particular Islamic prohibition now applies to all non-Muslims all over the world. Very few mainstream newspapers, magazines, or news channels dared to republish the images, even though they were a news story. They were not even included in the Yale University Press book about the controversy, The Cartoons that Shook the World, which ran to some 240 pages. 

Since then, we have witnessed the murders of the editors of Charlie Hebdo—another event that ignited an unedifying debate about the victims’ supposed “Islamophobia”—and of a French school teacher who showed his students an image of Mohammad in a class about free expression. A British school teacher and his family now live in hiding after he did the same, and the headteacher of his school, Batley Grammar, suspended him and apologised for the Islamophobia that those who were making threats against his life had endured.

The Guardian has just published the results of an Islamophobia survey of Conservative Party members, which found that 58 percent believe that Islam is a threat to the British way of life. This, says Britain’s leading liberal-left daily, represents an increase in Islamophobic attitudes among Tories since the same survey was conducted four years ago. The article was accompanied by a comment piece titled: “Think Tories Are Islamophobic? You Don’t Know the Half of It.”

It says more about the Guardian than about Tory members that it pillories them in this way after they were asked to give a yes or no answer to an obviously complex question. While the religion of Islam, practiced privately, would be no threat to anyone’s way of life, Islamism (or Islam as a political movement) quite obviously is. It has already succeeded—through credible threats of violence—in normalising antisemitism, enforcing an Islamic prohibition against the depiction of Mohammad, forcing a teacher into hiding for underestimating the seriousness of that prohibition, and, lately, in intimidating parliamentarians to an extent that the Speaker felt compelled to break procedural rules for their safety.

In the 1950s, Sidney Hook argued that McCarthyism was the wages of sin for those American liberals who had denied Soviet espionage and maintained “an ignorance about the communist movement so carefully nurtured as to be almost perverse.”  By dismissing the genuine threat of communism and Soviet espionage and slandering anti-communists as hysterics or even “fascists,” they guaranteed that a demagogic extremist movement of the Right was going to arise. If liberals and leftists refuse to take Islamism seriously, they will bear a considerable share of the responsibility if there is an anti-Muslim reaction on the political Right.

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