Who really “made Islam a hot topic”?

A Mail on Sunday headline reading "On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world's greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?". There is a picture of a bombed-out London bus from the 2005 bombings.There has been an article published on the Daily Beast, the American news website that owns Newsweek, by Maajid Nawaz, explaining to their American audience the “real reason” why Islam was made an issue of during the recent mayoral campaign. It’s not just that the Tories used a consultant that is notorious for running racist campaigns that appeal to the worst in middle-class white provincials and suburbanites; no, it’s all down to “Islamists” and their friends on the “Regressive Left” in the Labour party and the liberal British media, who hold Muslims to “lower expectations” than others, and the “Populist Right” such as Donald Trump’s Republicans. He brings up things that were never mentioned in the recent campaign, such as the fact that he once shared platforms with people linked to extremists or who expressed unpopular opinions and that third parties told Muslim voters in Tooting not to vote for an “Ahmadi” Lib Dem candidate.

As someone who has been a Muslim since 1998, and used to make regular visits to mosques in Tooting and elsewhere in south London (I lived in Croydon until 2001), I can say that it’s difficult for Muslims not to come into contact with the people that Nawaz labels as “extremists”, and this was more true before 2001 than it is now because things were much more open, people were much less fearful and some groups held different positions to those they hold today. Many people would disagree with, for example, al-Muhajiroun’s policies on Muslims voting, but they did not intimidate anyone into not voting and the functions they put on (one of which I attended in 2000 or so) were social events where Muslims networked, and were not fraught or intimidating. Al-Muhajiroun changed their position in 2004 to an explicitly Salafi-Jihadi one and their tactics of holding disruptive demonstrations (including at other Muslim groups’ demos, such as those by CagePrisoners) started in earnest then. Some of the press reporting about the 2005 election campaign in Tooting (which Khan won) suggests that they were involved in some of the disruption.

Nawaz claims that there is a “left-wing bigotry of low expectations that holds Muslims to lesser, illiberal standards”. In another Daily Beast article linked off that one, he names the Guardian as a host for such attitudes. I’ve read the Guardian for years and most of their coverage of Islam is through a white liberal lens and there is a shortage of identifably Muslim contributors. When, for example, Nawaaz’s friend Usama Hasan was made unwelcome in the mosque he believed he would inherit the imamate of by dynastic succession for expressing a belief in human Darwinian evolution, the Guardian treated him as a wronged, brave dissenter. But the truth is that it is not a question of holding Muslims to lesser standards but of accepting that others’ standards are different, and don’t regard our standards as necessarily higher than theirs.

Picture of a high wall, on the left side of which children appear to be playing in a school playground in its shadow. On the right is a factory, houses and some sports fields.In places Nawaz appears to be relying on the ignorance of his foreign readership. I do not recognise his description of London as a “torn city”. This is not Belfast, or even Glasgow. It’s a place where, with the exception of some of the outer suburbs, people of different races and creeds live, work, study and travel together. People by and large keep themselves to themselves and do not strike up random conversations on the street or train — it’s not one big village or happy family — but they do know each other enough not to be afraid. The exceptions, and the places where Goldsmith did best, were in the white-dominated outer suburbs where people don’t see people of other cultures on a daily basis — they don’t, for example, have numerous perfectly civil encounters with Muslim women in hijab at college or on the train — and might perhaps be more susceptible to fear-based propaganda. This is how it is with racism in general; the more people actually meet those of other cultures or ethnicities, the less prejudiced they tend to be towards them. The outer suburbs tend to be the areas that vote Tory anyway, but the fear campaign did not make any inroads and, as London had elected a Tory mayor twice, actually lost them votes.

But in any case, the reason the Tories thought a fear-based campaign focussing on Khan’s background would work has nothing to do with the “regressive Left” and very much to do with the media, particularly (but not only) the right-wing press, which has drip-fed the public a series of stories about Muslims as terrorists, Muslims demanding one type of “special treatment” or other, Muslims trying to censor others’ free speech, Muslims simply doing things differently from others (e.g. having separate seating for men and women at events) with this being presented as a threat or as a scandal that it’s even allowed, and so on. Outrage is regularly manufactured about such matters that in fact threaten the life or liberty of nobody, and which are replicated in some other religious and even secular spaces (e.g. schools of other faiths and none, feminist conferences), with MPs joining in the frenzy.

A front page from the Daily Express, with the headline "Now Muslims demand: Give Us Full Sharia Law".The idea that every Londoner (let alone anyone else) is continually confronted by any kind of Muslim threat, or irritated by Muslim behaviour or obstructed by praying Muslims as they go about their business is laughable. People think Muslims are trouble because the papers tell them, and the ones who meet us every day won’t fall for fearmongering (and lies — we shouldn’t forget that the British mass-market tabloid press has a record of publishing malicious and fabricated stories) whereas those who only read about us in the papers probably will.

Bigotry is only to be blamed on the bigot, and the stirring of it only on the stirrer. We cannot blame Muslims, Islamists, the anti-racist left who do not demand humiliating renunciations of whole tracts of their religion, or anyone else for the Tory campaign against Sadiq Khan except the Tory party itself. It miscalculated, as it had a candidate who was fairly well-liked, who had been trying to build bridges with the Muslim community and has Muslim family connections, and faced a Labour candidate who was distrusted by his own community because he had taken a pro-Israel and anti-BDS stance, had attacked Muslim rights groups and made scaremongering remarks about Muslims and extremism to the press. He is considered almost as much an Uncle Tom as Maajid Nawaz is. The Tories had an open goal, and failed to take advantage of it because they thought that after decades of abuse from them and their propaganda press towards all their favourite targets, such as Muslims, a few smears targeting his religion and his human rights work before he became an MP would do the trick. What there is to celebrate is not that we have our “first Muslim mayor”; it’s that a racist negative campaign backfired spectacularly.

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