Stop comparing Labour anti-semitism with Tory Islamophobia—there is no hierarchy of race hate

Bigotry arises in whatever form society deems permissable. Rather than pointing out that another party is worse, we should be fighting prejudice wherever we see it

July 19, 2018
Baroness Warsi (pictured) has . Photo: PA
Baroness Warsi (pictured) has . Photo: PA

A few months ago, Muslim leaders placed full-page ads in two broadsheets, the Telegraph and the Times, condemning antisemitism. The ads, stating that British Jews did not stand alone in the fight against antisemitism, came as the Labour party’s handling of the issue within its own ranks was dominating the national news (much as it is today).

After months of media-relayed accusation and denial over the issue—during which British Jews often felt like unwilling pawns in a political game—these ads were a welcome message of solidarity. They were also an echo of previous acts of collectivism, such as when Muslim and Jewish organisations jointly complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) last year over a column in the Sun that referred to a “Muslim problem”.

This phrase, they noted, “harked back to the Nazi use of the phrase ‘The Jewish Problem’ in the last century, to which the Nazis responded with ‘The Final Solution’—the Holocaust.”

Such cross-faith unity shouldn’t be hard to comprehend. Racialised minorities know all too well that race-hate is a shape-shifter, attacking and scapegoating different groups interchangeably depending on the social standards of the day.

In 2011 the Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test” of social acceptability in the UK. By that time, European far-right parties had, in attempts to rehabilitate and go mainstream, dropped the overt antisemitism and taken instead to hating Muslims and migrants.

Sometimes, though, antisemitism is too hard a habit to even pretend to break. Hungarian far-right prime minister Victor Orban’s attacks on philanthropist George Soros depict him not just as a “billionaire speculator” but as one who is trying to “Muslimise Europe.”

Such hateful scaremongering casts Muslims and Jews as united in a secret mission to destroy Christian Europe, by which, presumably, Easter eggs and Christmas trees will be banned, but bagels and falafel are fine (not together, though. Obviously.)

Earlier this month, Baroness Warsi reiterated her call to the UK Conservative party, of which she is former co-chair, to tackle the Islamophobia within its own ranks. In this, she is echoed by the Muslim Council of Great Britain and other Muslim groups.

There are ample examples to warrant the concern and calls for an inquiry—Warsi describes the scale of the problem as “more than weekly incidents.” Just for starters, there’s the anti-Muslim post retweeted by Tory MP Bob Blackman, and the Conservative councillor Mike Payne, who shared an article that called Muslims “parasites.”

Going further back, there is the anti-Muslim London mayoral campaign run in 2016 by Conservative Zac Goldsmith standing against Labour’s Sadiq Khan. More recently, conservative MP Michael Fabricant had to apologise for reposting an appalling image involving Khan and an inflatable pig.

The baroness also signposted a corollary problem: that the Conservative party cannot call out antisemitism within Labour if it then ignores its own Islamophobia. Bluntly, that would reek of hypocrisy.

But in some ways, the consequences go deeper. Asking that different prejudices be taken equally seriously is not an attempt to equate the two. They are different; there are specifics—among them, of course, the systematically murderous history and distinct perniciousness of antisemitism.

The trouble is that, with the Tories ignoring Islamophobia and Labour trying to deal with antisemitism (badly, but at least the party isn’t denying it), an impression may be transmitted of a sort of hierarchy of race hate.

Already toxic, this is made more damaging still because the idea of Jewish people seeking special treatment is itself an anti-semitic trope. And it means a grim competitiveness has emerged, whereby denials of a prejudice problem in one party are packaged with claims the other party is worse.

This harmful asymmetry is maintained by Labour evidently taking its own racism more seriously, which is one reason there are people inside the party pushing it to tackle antisemitism, which then creates media attention over the issue—in a way that does not happen to the same degree over Islamophobia. (Yes, antisemitism is also sometimes weaponised to attack the Labour leader, but let it go for once. This is not the point we’re exploring here.)

Meanwhile, we have an overarching climate in which Islamophobia, as Baroness Warsi noted, is more socially acceptable—to the extent that it is routinely on display within our national press. Worse, it is sometimes denied as being a prejudice at all, even while hate crimes committed against Muslims spiral and police launch an investigation into “punish a Muslim” letters, promising rewards for violence against Muslims and sent out in UK cities. Indeed, much of the work of the far-right has been to conflate manufactured fear of Muslims with fear of migrants, so that hostility to the latter is a proxy for hostility to the former.

At a time of far-right resurgence globally, when we are witnessing the most appalling racism and bigotry go mainstream, it’s more urgent than ever to fight back against hatred of Jews and Muslims alike.

This isn’t just a matter of how our political parties handle prejudice within their own ranks. It is about the poisonous, rupturing effect on our society and our communities when they fail to tackle such hatreds consistently, clearly—and with equal commitment.