‘Respectable’ politicians in ‘respectable’ newspapers fuel racist attacks and increase what is already a toxic climate of racism.The decision to write an article in the Daily Telegraph accusing women who wear the burqa or niqab of looking like letterboxes or bank robbers was a deliberate one by Boris Johnson, as was his decision to refuse to apologise for it. In all likelihood it marks the opening salvo in a leadership challenge to Theresa May sometime later this year, one in which Johnson calculates, no doubt correctly, that cheap racist rhetoric will play well with the Tory party rank and file.
It has much wider consequences than this however. Because all past and present evidence shows that racist filth spouted by ‘respectable’ politicians in ‘respectable’ newspapers helps to fuel racist attacks, helps to give credibility and confidence to the far right and fascists, and increases what is an already toxic climate of racism.
The disingenuous claim by Johnson and his supporters that this is just raising a topic of debate, and that Johnson is in fact a liberal because he does not want to ban the burqa, should fool no one. There is no shortage of racists already debating the issue of what Muslim women wear, no shortage of social media posts, no shortage of abuse and sometimes worse directed at Muslim women over their clothing.
The truth is that there is absolutely no point in raising this issue unless you are aiming for a ban. Discussion which just simply abuses Muslims may be satisfying to racists but it has no outcome. Instead, Johnson raised this precisely because he does want a discussion on a ban. It is clear from subsequent responses from other ‘respectable’ figures such as Jacob Rees Mogg and Johnson’s own family – his father, Stanley, and sister, Rachel, have both written newspaper columns defending his stand – that there will be further slippage in this direction. The egregious Christine Hamilton compares burqas to KKK hoods.
What the whole issue does is to raise the level of racism around the question. Why is it suddenly ok to discuss what certain items of clothing make women look like, in a way that it definitely would not be about nuns or Hasidic Jews? Why should the question of what women wear be the subject of discussion by anyone as long as it is their choice? And why is it not an outrage that Tory MP Nadine Dorries is allowed to imply that Muslim women wear such garments to cover up the bruises inflicted by domestic violence?
The argument is not really about the particulars, however, it is about racism. Very few women in any European countries wear the burqa or niqab (apparently 0.01% of Muslim women do in Britain), although far more wear the hijab or headscarf. Muslim women who choose to wear any of these items of clothing may do so for a range of religious or social reasons. It is clear that the majority do choose what they wear, and any coercion either by family or state should be vigorously opposed. But it is no one’s business but theirs how they dress. They should have the right to choose – like any other woman – what and what not to wear without fear of verbal or physical attack.
Islamophobia in the 21st century targets women heavily, reproducing all sorts of issues to do with fear of sexuality, or of independent women. It is not the job of feminists to go along with this, but to challenge this racism and sexism aimed at one of the most vulnerable groups of women who already face widespread economic and social discrimination.
Behind all this lurks the spectre of Tommy Robinson, the far right and the growth of fascism across Europe. There is an increasing merging of this ‘respectable’ opinion and that of the far right – witness Rod Liddle’s piece for the Spectator which openly calls for more Islamophobia inside the Tory party. What Robinson says today, Johnson says tomorrow. This follows a pattern we are seeing across the developed world, where far right politicians set the agenda over scapegoating Muslims and migrants, and their views are at least adopted by the mainstream parties including those of the social democratic left.
In doing so they make the most hideous racism respectable, and increase the scapegoating rather than stand up to it. Many countries have already banned aspects of Muslim women’s dress and passed other anti-Muslim and anti-migrant laws – including France, Denmark, parts of Germany, and Hungary. There will be increasing pressure here in Britain to move towards a ban – and Johnson has opened the door to Robinson, UKIP and the rest of the racist ragbag.
The alt-right guru and former Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, clearly involved in a major and toxic campaign to promote and encourage the far right across Europe, has in recent days praised both Johnson and Robinson, suggesting that the former would make a great prime minister and that the latter is the voice of blue collar workers in Britain. Both are absurd claims, but there is a deliberate process here where fascists and the far right hitch themselves to mainstream politicians, and use them to further spread their doctrine of hate and division.
There’s no pick and mix in the fight against racism
Johnson has been called on to apologise by the Tory leadership and has made it absolutely clear he’s not going to. Nothing will happen to him as a result – partly because Theresa May is too weak to enforce her will within the party, but mainly because the Islamophobic views that Johnson espouses are rife within the Tory party. Social media posts and remarks which show deeply held racist views about Muslims make regular appearances, yet receive only a fraction of the media and political attention apportioned to the issue of anti-Semitism within Labour.
Baroness Warsi and others within the Tory party have been agitating for some time about the level of Islamophobia. Their criticisms are pretty much shrugged off, along with the contemptuous dismissal of the Muslim Council of Britain as ‘extremist’ and the claim that having Sajid Javid as Home Secretary means there isn’t an Islamophobia problem.
Compare this with the endless demands for apologies and repeated pillorying of people within Labour for alleged cases of anti-Semitism. The clamour about this is continuing, with papers like the Daily Mail making repeated attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. I dealt with the question at length in last week’s Briefing, but for the sake of clarity to repeat; it has to be possible to distinguish between anti-Semitism, or racism against Jews as Jews, which can never be acceptable, and criticism of Israel which should not be prohibited or curtailed in any way by claiming that it in itself is anti-Semitic.
It is clear that the attacks are increasingly on Corbyn himself and are about the future of his leadership. They range from outright lies to distortion and innuendo, yet none have produced evidence of anti-Semitism on the part of Corbyn. Their short term aim is the demand that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism along with all its examples should be adopted in full by Labour’s NEC. At least one of those examples would open up those who criticise Israel to charges of anti-Semitism.
Corbyn is being accused of such because he has compared occupation of Gaza with the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad, or with Nazi occupation of various European countries. To deny the right to make any historical analogy with events connected to Nazism and the Second World War, even when it is not mainly concerned with the Holocaust, is wrong.
What an awful travesty of anti-racism it is when a paper which has a despicable history of supporting fascism, which regularly scapegoats migrants and Muslims, can set itself up as judge and jury of one of the most committed anti-racist politicians of our times.
What an even greater travesty it is when the Tory party, which created the hostile environment for the Windrush generation and which only just over a decade ago had as an election slogan ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking’, dog whistling anti-immigration politics, can join in the attacks on Corbyn, at the very time when its most popular politician is donning the clothes of the far right in his pitch for power?
We should remember one thing. You can’t pick and mix as the Tories are doing. If you pay lip service to opposing racism against Jews, then you have to oppose racism against Muslims or anyone else come to that. The fight against racism is indivisible – which is why the left has always made it central to its politics.
Lindsey German is national convenor of Stop the War Coalition.