Anti-Islamophobia: Beware the Cynical Bandwagon

16/07/2012 13:31 BST | Updated 13/09/2012 10:12 BST

Bandwagons are infuriating, especially those that offer a claim to some sort of victimhood. Last week saw a long overdue rally against Islamophobia, after journalistic luminary Mehdi Hasan wrote a brave piece detailing his experiences at the hands of racist trolls. When he asked 'who's with me?', Jonathan Freedland and Owen Jones emphatically answered his call as did numerous others on Twitter. Yet all that some right-wing commentators could manage was a shrugging 'join the club'.

In what must have been an attempt at progressing the conversation, Daniel Hannan introduced a retrograde idea: that there is no such thing as a 'hierarchy of hatreds' and that 'abuse is abuse'. By substituting the word 'tory' for 'Muslim' in a string of offensive comments, Hannan tried to highlight just how bad Tories 'got it' too. But substitute 'tory' with 'torturer' or 'trafficker' and this neat little trick quickly fails. Hannan's argument - that hate is hate is hate - fares little better under scrutiny. A conversation about prejudice always carries the risk of being co-opted by people insisting 'my abuse is just as bad as yours'. But in this instance, that cannot be allowed to happen.

To equate Tory baiting to the bigotry Muslims face is to fail to recognise that different forms of abuse have very different consequences. Hasan's most basic point is that Muslims are a marginalised minority. Despite being Britain's largest religious minority group, they are grossly under-represented in the mainstream. Hasan is one of a few Muslim public figures and one of only two mainstream Muslim commentators. Without having others 'with' him to combat Islamophobia, the largely voiceless moderate Muslim community faces being pushed further towards the fringes.

Hasan and Hannan are also talking about two very different kinds of 'progressive's prejudice'. The concept of 'progressive's prejudice' has been criticised but what Hasan is referring to is the willing of some liberal critics to allow abuses, like those carried out in Iran or by the Taliban, to tarnish the reputation of Islam. More than a billion people are adherents to the faith, not every one of them calls for the stoning of adulterers. It is this that makes the liberal dismissal of Islam as an intolerant ideology different, in kind and in substance, to a placard clutching leftie in an 'I hate Thatcher' t-shirt. Hasan's point is to warn us about the increasingly acceptable face Islamophobia has acquired and to lazily compare racism, even in its covert form, to tory bashing is to precipitate this change.

But Hannan's argument has an even more problematic aspect. The corollary of his no-hierarchy-of-hatreds contention is that all haters are equal. No matter how abusive or who you abuse, everyone - from the EDL stalwart to the strident feminist - is an abuser. This argument is patently wrong and on two levels.

Firstly, to dismiss everyone as hater is to fail to identify legitimate domains of criticism. Hasan himself admits to indulging in the occasional ad hominem attack and acknowledges that his faith is not beyond question. Hannan, on the other hand, pedantically dismisses the idea that there is a difference between attacking a person and their politics as 'sophistry'. But this difference is often obvious and always crucial. To use Hannan's own example: viciously criticising James Delingpole's body of work is fine, to say the same about his parenting or his children is not.

Secondly, and most gravely, by failing to single out the most egregious abuse and instead tarring everyone with the same broad brush, all Hannan does is deprive the most offensive offences of their offensiveness.

Hannan is at other points an odd idealist. It's 'unusual' to him that 'lefties' don't 'regret' hatred and he condemns the 'liberal' claim that 'some hatreds are unconscionable [whilst] others [are] laudable'. But this is plainly wrong and simply asking - is it wrong to hate Hitler? - collapses Hannan's position. There is an unbridgeable gap between hating hatefulness and being hateful, the former is justifiable and the latter is not.

Hatred is not inherently wrongful. Putting word games (is intolerance of intolerance intolerant?) and intellectual cowardice (this is all just a can of worms waiting to explode) aside, the point really is a simple one: to object to bigotry is not to become bigoted yourself. Hasan's article was as much about the way people expressed their suspicions of Islam at it was about those suspicions existing at all. There is an absolute difference between criticism and racism - in objecting to something and in being objectionable.

In the hierarchy of hatreds Islamophobia sits near the very top, alongside every other form of prejudice that attacks a person for things over which they have no control. If Anti-tory sentiment features at all, it languishes near the bottom. Politics is a legitimate target for criticism and vicious criticism is all part of the dialectic. To claim to be a victim for challenges to your opinion is, frankly, shameful.