Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 5 March 2024

Rishi Sunak doesn’t want to talk about Islamophobia because he wants to use it

 This week I was going to post the final part of my ‘detoxifying government debt’ series, but Sunak’s statement from No.10 last week means that it will have to wait.

Lee Anderson had the Conservative Whip withdrawn because he said something wrong and didn’t apologise for it, but ministers were comically unable to say what was wrong about what he had said. They certainly didn’t want to say it was Islamophobic, although it certainly was. [1] Many commented that the Conservative party was reluctant to call Anderson’s words Islamophobic because that would expose the extent of Islamophobia within the party and its members.

I think it is worse than that, and these fears were confirmed by the Prime Minister’s No.10 lectern statement on 1st March. At first sight, and to most media commentators, that statement was a fairly standard call for unity and tolerance in the face of differences, and an attack on extremism. Much of it was that, but the statement bears closer inspection. All quotes until the final paragraph are from the statement.

The first point to make involves timing and context. The statement was given on the day that the Rochdale by-election result was announced, and that result was explicitly referred to at the start of the statement by Sunak as “beyond alarming”. Now try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who had voted for the winner in that by-election. You might have had many reasons, but what is currently happening in Gaza is likely to be one of them, if not the main one. As is often the case, you may have voted as much or more to ‘send a message’ than for the character of the person you voted for, and it is fundamental to a democracy that you can do so.

The Hamas attack on 7th October and the subsequent invasion of Gaza were inevitably going to lead to increased tensions, concerns and anxieties among Jewish and Muslims in the UK. It would be a statesman-like act from a Prime Minister to try and speak to those tensions and calm anxieties, including to those Rochdale voters. This is particularly the case when the UK government, and to a considerable extent the media, are not neutral. The UK supplies arms to Israel, and the government has withdrawn funding from UNRWA. It would be natural, therefore, for Muslims who take a different view to feel the need to make their voices heard, whatever you may think of the person they elected as their MP. [2]

In this context, saying that the by-election result was “beyond alarming” was hardly an attempt to empathize with the concerns of those voters, but instead a suggestion that their concerns were evidence of the extremism he was warning against. If that was not the intention you wanted to give, why chose this particular timing? [3]

But even before the reference to the by-election, we are given a strong clue about what the statement is really about. Sunak says

“What started as protests on our streets, has descended into intimidation, threats, and planned acts of violence.”

“Descended”? It is unbelievable to suggest that the peaceful marches that have taken place since 7th October in our capital cities have in any way caused any acts of intimidation etc. Why link peaceful protests to intimidation, threats, and planned acts of violence? Perhaps because that is a link you want to put in the mind of the listener.

At first the statement is full of appeals to pluralism and moderation, carefully coupling what Sunak calls “Islamist extremism” with that of the far right, but as it progresses it becomes clearer that the statement’s real intention is to link peaceful protests against what is happening in Gaza, reflecting the views of most Muslims and many others in this country, to Islamic extremism.

The first stage in that process of justifying this link is to misrepresent what the protests are about. He says

“Since October 7th there have been those trying to take advantage of the very human angst that we all feel about the terrible suffering that war brings to the innocent, to women and children to advance a divisive, hateful ideological agenda.”

But from the point of view of many on the peaceful protests, their concern about what is happening in Gaza is not just “human angst that we all feel about the terrible suffering that war brings to the innocent” but what an international court has found may amount to genocide.

The second stage is to suggest many legitimate concerns that many people have are in fact extreme. He talks about extremists who “want us to believe that our country, and the West more generally, is solely responsible for the world’s ills…and that we, along with our allies, are the problem.” Except plenty of people who are not extremists do see the government of Israel as the problem right now, and politicians in the US in particular who continue to unconditionally supply the weapons that are killing civilians. He talks about extremists who “claim that Britain is and has been on the wrong side of history, we should reject it, and reject it again”. Extremists who “tell children that the system is rigged against them or that Britain is a racist country”. This is casting the extremist net pretty wide, and I suspect deliberately so.

The third stage is to talk up the extremist threat. A speech designed to calm troubled waters would do the opposite, but this statement says “On too many occasions recently, our streets have been hijacked by small groups who are hostile to our values and have no respect for our democratic traditions.”

And then we have

“We must be prepared to stand up for our shared values in all circumstances, no matter how difficult. And I respect that the police have a tough job in policing the protests we have seen and that they are operationally independent. But we must draw a line.”

The idea that he is talking equally about the far right and Islamic extremists now disappears. Instead he talks about beaming “antisemitic tropes onto Big Ben”, support for “a proscribed terrorist group, like Hamas”, and calls “for the eradication of a State – or any kind of hatred or antisemitism.” He then adds 

“This week I have met with senior police officers and made clear it is the public’s expectation that they will not merely manage these protests, but police them.”

The threat from extremists has now morphed into the threat posed by peaceful protests against a possible genocide. He goes on [4] 

“And I want to speak directly to those who choose to continue to protest: Don’t let the extremists hijack your marches. You have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens.”

It is a standard tactic of those who want to discredit protests, often to be found in the right wing press, to find the odd banner or chant that goes too far and tar everyone on the protest with that brush. Of course the organisers of large protests cannot police every banner that is raised or every chant that might be heard, but this is what Sunak now expects them to do, and he knows he is setting them up to inevitably fail. When they do inevitably fail he wants the police to “draw a line” and by implication act more forcefully than they have so far. Yet by all accounts the police have been active when they believe individual marchers are breaking the law, although the number of arrests remain tiny compared to the size of the marches. By suggesting the police need to do more Sunak is risking turning what have so far been well managed and peaceful events into something else.

Many have attacked the speech for its hypocrisy in ignoring Islamophobic statements from his own MPs, prospective MPs and the Islamophobia that is common among Conservative party members. But this treats the speech as what it pretended to be, a call for unity and against extremes, rather than what it actually was, which was much more dangerous. Rather than hypocrisy, on close reading the speech seems entirely consistent with the growing displays of Islamophobia in Conservative ranks.

The media, and the Labour opposition [5], like to present Sunak as a ‘moderate’ within his own party, constantly having to cope with the wilder statements of those to his right. In reality we have a politician about to enter an election where he is way behind, and where he seems prepared to do anything to reduce that polling deficit. From this speech it is clear that anything includes using what is happening in Gaza and the protests against it to reinforce prejudice and create a climate of fear among some voters that he hopes the government will benefit from.

When addressing police earlier Sunak said that “There is a growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule.” On the more hysterical pages of the right wing press, maybe, but in reality we are seeing peaceful protests against ever growing civilian deaths in Gaza. The Prime Minister wants the police to risk turning these peaceful protests into confrontations, confrontations that perhaps he believes his party can benefit from. It was not a speech seeking to heal divisions, but part of an attempt to inflame them for his own advantage.

[1] Anderson said “‘I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London”. A useful thought experiment is to take what he said and replace Islamist by Jewish or Zionist and imagine it was referring to a Jewish mayor of London.

[2] More generally there is a clear gap between the stance of the media and the two main political parties in the UK on the one hand, and what polls suggest the public actually thinks on the other.

[3] It is telling that this part of the statement about the by-election was missing from the version posted on the government’s website, because it was described as ‘political content’.

[4] It is clear from this that he is talking about mass protests, rather than smaller groups outside MPs homes or offices.

[5] It suits both to do so. The Labour opposition can then claim weakness when he takes no action against these statements.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.