OPINION
17/04/2020 06:00 BST

As Ramadan Approaches Under Lockdown, It Would Be Foolish To Underestimate The Far-Right

History shows us economic anxiety and fear can lead to a rise in vote shares for extreme parties and populist figures, Naz Shah MP writes.

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We must not underestimate the ability of the far-right to capitalise on coronavirus, Naz Shah MP writes.

Coronavirus has sparked an economic, societal and psychological upheaval that is leading to many unforeseen changes across our society. On the whole, our communities have risen to the challenge. We have all been touched by the kindness on display and the gratitude shown by people up and down the country for our NHS and care staff, shop workers, refuse collectors, bus, train and delivery drivers, and other key workers.

However, while this crisis reminds us of how important our social bonds are, and how a community working together can make a real difference, we must never be complacent.

History shows us economic anxiety and fear can lead to the rise in vote shares for extreme parties and populist figures. This is backed up by studies which repeatedly show that societal threats directly increase support for groups and political parties with an extreme and divisive message.

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Unfortunately, today, like in past eras, we have prominent voices across the world who would like nothing better than to repeat the mistakes of history and use this crisis to sow divisions in our communities for their own political gain.  

The rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election strongly correlated with a perceived link to job losses caused by rising imports from China. So, it is no coincidence he has tried to cover his own failings in this crisis by going back to the same “dog whistle” rhetoric he relied on during his election campaign.

Already, hundreds of Chinese Americans have reported being violently attacked because of “China virus” racism. And in a sign of how irrational hatred can fester anywhere, African minorities in China have been targeted – despite the virus likely being of Chinese, not African, origin.

Closer to home, “accelerationist” groups, who believe in hastening the collapse of society in order to build a white supremacist one in its place, have started to seize the Covid “opportunity”, using social media platforms to encourage acts of terrorism and sabotage in the name of white nationalism.

I hope and pray we meet again with a renewed belief in the power of society and a renewed determination to never be divided by those who seek to blame and scapegoat.

Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins, two of Britain’s most notorious far-right figureheads, are similarly latching onto the pandemic to attack Muslims. Robinson recently shared a video of Muslim men supposedly flouting social distancing by attending a “secret mosque” in Birmingham – allegations that were dismissed by West Midlands police. He is also warning of a “Germ Jihad”, claiming that Muslims are carrying out coronavirus attacks to “increase the torment of non-believers”, claims which are totally unfounded.

Hopkins is again fuelling hatred by claiming that Britain was locked down over Easter so that isolation ends in time for Ramadan, in a preposterous tweet that has since been deleted. The far-right seems intent on attacking Muslims for the most outlandish of reasons, to propagate the outsider Muslim narrative.

The reality British Muslims are facing could not be more different – and this is a story we all must tell, proudly and relentlessly. The Muslim community is on the frontlines of the NHS fight against the disease. Muslim-led charities have launched a Campaign for National Solidarity.

And it’s not just Muslims playing a vital role but people from BAME backgrounds across our society putting themselves in harm’s way to help the rest of us. We must remember, the first 10 doctors in the UK named as having died from the virus were all BAME and their heroic work should be celebrated long after this pandemic.

However, for those that seek to divide us, reality does not seem to matter in these trying times. In traumatic circumstances, people often seek dramatic explanations which makes it even more worrying when we see wild conspiracy theories spread across social media. 

I was recently appointed Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, a role which is of particular importance now as the trauma of the pandemic tugs at our social fabric.

To protect ourselves from inheriting a bitterly divided post-crisis society, we must celebrate the contributions of minorities in Britain, from NHS professionals, to bus drivers, to care workers and remember all those people who have made great sacrifices at this time.

Over the coming months, I am determined to harness the goodwill, the kindness and the solidarity that has been on display across our communities and ensure Labour’s message to people up and down the country is one of unity and solidarity.

We will be a strong voice in taking on divisiveness, bigotry and hatred. When the Queen says: “We will meet again,” I hope and pray we do so with a renewed pride in our communities, a renewed belief in the power of society and a renewed determination to never be divided by those who seek to blame and scapegoat.

Naz Shah is MP for Bradford West and Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion.