A few years ago you may have noticed lots of people adding “Pleb” to their name on their social media accounts. This followed the Tory chief whip being accused of calling a police officer a “f**king pleb” when the officer refused to allow him to take his bicycle through the gates of Downing Street (the scandal became known as Plebgate, and unusually for such scandals, it actually involved a gate). Today, in response to viciously bigoted article by Julie Burchill in the Spectator, I saw Muslims suggest among other things that we form an “ultimate dreg street fighting team to take down an army of racists”. Burchill’s article claimed that while Judaism attracts the supposed cream of western society as converts (she names Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and herself), Islam only attracts the ‘dregs’, among them “dozy broads who gravitate to it for kinky reasons after watching one too many Turkish Delight ads” like Vanessa Redgrave and Lauren Booth (right), “half-witted types who learn to build a bomb online”, “imam-huggers of the left” with “suppressed feelings of resentment towards the march of feminism”, and Prince Charles. This is, as you can see, an extraordinarily broad selection of people.
To begin with, the number of people over the centuries who have converted to Judaism has been fairly small, principally because the community does not put any effort into proselytising. This has not changed since the Jews ceased being a persecuted minority and became a prosperous and generally respected one. All sorts of people convert to Islam, however, and the religion now has adherents on every continent, but particularly Asia and Africa, who speak most of the world’s languages and come from every social class. I’ve been a Muslim for nearly 20 years and I’ve known people who have converted to Islam from every religion and none, and they include people of every class, some very ordinary (and some with serious problems) and some quite wealthy.
Of the three people she names as attracted to Islam, only Lauren Booth is a Muslim. Vanessa Redgrave is a Marxist and was part of a cult-like Marxist party in the 1980s whose leader was exposed as a sexual predator long before anyone thought Harvey Weinstein capable of it (at least those who didn’t know him). She just has a few Muslim friends. Prince Charles also isn’t, despite numerous rumours to the contrary over the years. But I also dispute her description of him as among the ‘dregs’ based on his mediocre grades when he was at school and college. Charles always knew that he was not destined for a career in academia; he was first in line to the throne and the usual career for a young royal was, and remains, the armed forces. Besides his extensive involvement in charity work, he is a major landowner and in many districts his estate is one of the few landlords who will accept tenants on housing benefit; my friend was in that position in Dorset a few years ago, and the flat she was able to rent was a good one at that. It is fine to disagree with his views on architecture, homoeopathy and conservation in Africa or to believe that a very wealthy family should not automatically produce the head of state, but he is very far from being the ‘dregs’.
She quotes a few passages from a letter he wrote to his friend, the South African writer Laurens van der Post, in 1986 which suggests that he is sympathetic to their side in the Arab-Israeli conflict and advocating that the US government “take on the Jewish lobby”, and then claims that his own mediocrity and his jealousy of the clever Jews with all their Nobel prizes is what inspires his “Islamophilia” rather than, say, admiration for the classical Muslim world’s architecture or its poetry, since he is likely to have heard of Rumi, Omar Khayyam and others. She calls his “Jewish lobby” reference a “classic anti-Semitic trope” when in fact — in terms of the idea of it being what guarantees American support for Israel — it’s much younger than the state of Israel. It’s more true to say there is an “Israel lobby” than a Jewish lobby as such, as much of the support for Israel comes from evangelical Christians, but the facts of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby over American politicians are well-known.
Her stereotype of the “clever Jew” is as useful to anti-Semites as it is to mawkish philo-Semites like herself; Christopher Hitchens noted a few years ago that anti-Semites were different from normal racists (who characterised those they despised as scum, or at least as inferior to them) in that they often appeared admiring, characterising the Jews as clever, well-organised and supportive of each other — they couldn’t form a coherent lobby, much less the global conspiracies some people accuse them of, if they were not. (A simiar phenomenon can be found with conservative Islamophobes like Mark Steyn, who praise the Muslims’ strong family values and warn that we are out-breeding everyone else because we love kids.) Burchill’s embrace of the Jews and Judaism and the excuses she makes for it makes some Jews rather uncomfortable because they do sound too much like anti-Semitism for comfort, especially coming from someone who displays such bigotry towards numerous other groups of people.
And really, what on earth is this drivel doing in a mainstream media publication — a magazine with a fairly small circulation admittedly but still considered the opinion magazine that members of a major political party read? It is poorly argued, offers unrepresentative examples, peddles stereotypes without realising their significance and throws around slurs and wild generalisations that are mostly untrue. As with the Observer which printed (and then withrdrew) an earlier rant of Burchill’s (about transgender people), there was plenty of content for the editors to choose from and they chose this hate-filled piece of dreck. When Burchill says “Islam only attracts the dregs”, readers will not be thinking of Prince Charles or Lauren Booth but the ordinary Muslim in the streets, and this is the sort of writing that leads to hatred and ultimately violence. There must be stronger laws about this type of thing, and editorial codes with more teeth and fewer loopholes.
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