Living in a world of memes means that we can offer a snapshot of something through funny pictures and captions without needing to say much else. One that is particularly funny is Spider-Man and his doppelganger pointing at each other as if to say, “we’re the same”. For political geeks it’s borrowed to explain a moment of hypocrisy or a behaviour accused on one side yet heavily evident on the other too.
The recent maelstrom of controversy stirring in British politics has been about the structural evidence of anti-Semitism in Labour Party. It has been poorly dealt with by the leadership and much of the members. Many would find it surprising to trace racism in a progressive party when one considers it the natural terrain of the nationalist, populist anti-globalist right. And yet here both wade deep in hypocrisy. Some forms of racism are more legitimate than others, therefore allowing both sides to ignore the criminal negligence of bigotry within their ranks. Labour treat anti-Semitism poorly compared to others and the Tories have failed to deal with the rise of Islamophobia within their party. Neither side can claim much in the way of sincerity to fighting for these causes when reducing the other of the legitimacy it too deserves.
It’s a meme for these times therefore, and what I think of when I see Melanie Phillips’ article about anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism.
It goes without saying that this is not a writer with form for writing sympathetic pieces where it concerns the discrimination of Muslims, and this isn’t so much a descent into the latest apologia vile as wallowing deep in its currents. To Phillips, Islamophobia is a buzzword used to silence conversations regarding how British Muslims behave and cannot be compared to anti-Semitism. It doesn’t exist and is grossly exaggerated to inflate a group’s sense of marginalisation when it cannot lay claim to such treatment.
If you want to be kind to Melanie Phillips, and I really don’t, you could make the argument that criticism of Islam is not bigotry at all and rather part of a forgotten yet once celebrated tradition on the left of mocking organised power and institutions. Islam isn’t a minuscule part of world religions but a very big one whose history extends across Asia, Africa and Europe. Its past, its legacy, is a complicated mix of scientific innovations, occasional social progress and a lot of bloody wars that many Muslims don’t want to admit. There are others who make the argument that a perceptible difference exists in the bigotry towards Muslims and bigotry based on skin colour and it isn’t racism therefore.
The problem with all of this is when a Muslim woman is being attacked for her faith, the subtle differences and rationales that exist in the minds of those who regard Islamophobia as fictional do not mean much. Islamophobia feels increasingly institutionalised never mind mythical. Hate crime has been soaring, dramatically in wake of security incidents, and even as police numbers have begun recording and trying to clamp down on it, it hasn’t abated. And as the Finsbury Park attack showed, it is lethal too.
Most Muslim women I know have been racially abused. I’ve lost count of the number of times I receive dirty looks when boarding the Central line on the Underground. Fear and hatred of Muslims is whipped up routinely by unaccountable newspapers who insist, as Phillips does, that anti-Muslim bigotry is not a problem in the mainstream press. And when they dismiss Islamophobia as simply the paranoid fears of a poorly-integrated community still wedded to customs belonging to different and hostile cultures, they provide a sense of liberating legitimacy to those responsible for the assaults and abuses that come the way of Muslims. If these attacks, rising sharply always, are not indicators of a systemic problem with Islamophobia then what are they? What is Islamophobia? Is pulling the hijab off a woman not a hate crime? Is shouting abuse of ‘go home’ not a problem? The rhetoric of those who insist Islamophobia is exaggerated conveys a demoralising message to the marginalised victims of anti-Muslim hate crime and shows an indifference to the perpetrators, much to their benefit.
And yet I suspect these are the same people condemning the left for failing to tackle anti-Semitism within its party.