The election merry-go-round: Labour anti-Semitism and Tory Islamophobia

The election merry-go-round: Labour anti-Semitism and Tory Islamophobia
Comment: Countering accusations of Islamophobia with others of anti-Semitism reduces the much-needed politics of anti-racism to the sleazy business of partisan political propaganda, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
15 Nov, 2019
A general election in the UK has been called for 12 December [Getty]

Aside from the fallout over Brexit, much of current election campaigning has focused on a litany of instances and accusations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party, as well as gross cases of Islamophobia from Tory representatives.

There ought to be no ambiguity on these matters; any instance of racism should be exposed and the perpetrator held to account. It doesn't matter whether the racism emanates from a political party or individual you support, and it doesn't matter which group of people the racism targets - you cannot pick and choose when it comes to the general principle of anti-racism.

As soon as any form of racism is "weaponised" as a tactic against a political opponent, anti-racism in general is being dangerously degraded. Unfortunately, this dynamic, or  "exploitative anti-racism", too often seems to condition these very serious issues.  

The Tory party has gone out of its way to publicise instances of anti-semitism within Labour, but it continues to repeatedly dodge inquiries into its own problem of rampant Islamophobia.  

Earlier this year, there was an extensive poll of Tory members regarding Islam. The results were disturbing, showing 43 percent wouldn't accept a Muslim prime minister, while large numbers endorsed other far-right Islamophobic myths.

This engendered calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia within the party, but 
the disinterested reaction from the Tory leadership only serves to underline the exploitative anti-racism of that party.  

When then prime minister Theresa May was directly challenged to hold such an inquiry in the commons, she reacted by deflecting the entire issue by bringing up the awful manner in which Labour has dealt with anti-semitism.  

You can't pick and choose when it comes to the general principle of anti-racism

Following in May's contemptuous tracks on this question, current prime minister Boris Johnson has reacted to appeals by his parliamentary colleagues to account for his own personal instances of indulging in and inciting Islamophobic sentiment by – yes, you guessed it – bringing up anti-semitism within Labour.

The sum of all these exchanges tell us that that the upper echelons of the Tory party takes neither Labour anti-semitism nor Tory Islamophobia seriously.

The cynical logic behind this stance is that instances of anti-semitism within Labour are simply ammunition to be used to cancel out Tory Islamophobia - their mutual deflections end up meaning that the issue of political racism can never be properly addressed by either. 

Johnson, as Tory leader in the age of Brexit, knows that to investigate Islamophobia within his party - despite the recent exposure of widespread Islamophobia among Tory councillors - would lead to the investigation and potential depletion of his increasingly radicalised base.   

Islamophobia is in turn exploited by those within Labour who want to shield their party from accusations of anti-semitism.  Whenever a Tory or a perceived Tory-aligned newspaper or commentator points out instances of anti-semitism within Labour, the first response will be to bring up Islamophobia as a deflection.

In fact, again earlier this year in an exchange in the commons in the merry-go-round of exploitative anti-racism, Theresa May took Corbyn to task over anti-semitism in Labour. You might have already surmised that his only retort was to reference Tory Islamophobia.  

Read more: How Israel manipulates the struggle against anti-Semitism

The emergence of this entirely pointless back and forth reduces the much-needed politics of anti-racism to the sleazy business of partisan political propaganda, and is potentially catastrophic. 

However much both anti-semitism and Islamophobia are cynically used by political parties against each other, not only are the instances real but they are also intertwined with much wider societal racism, with Muslims in particular being rounded upon.   

For those sceptical of the "real world" effect that racist rhetoric from political figures has on the real world, they ought to consider the findings of the anti-racist monitor, Tell MAMA. After the publication of Johnson's notoriously Islamophobic article in The Telegraph, which likened women who wear the niqab to "bank robbers" and "letterboxes", Tell MAMA noted a 375 percent spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the following days and weeks.  

Similarly, according to anti-racist charity the Community Security Trust, there was a 10 percent increase in anti-semitic incidents between 2018-2019, with such incidents hitting a peak during a time when issues involving anti-semitism within Labour were prominent in the media.  

One might say that this isn't the fault of the Labour Party. But their response to the veritable deluge of anti-semitism within their party has been severely inadequate. In addition, the leadership's attempts to downplay very real anti-semitism by conflating it with their anti-Zionist stance, and attaching it to populist notions that accusations of anti-semitism were due to Corbyn's "anti-establishment" stance, attracted the support of Neo-Nazis such as Nick Griffin and David Duke. 

The struggle for Palestinian self-determination is itself an anti-racist struggle

Whether Labour like it or not, their own problems with anti-semitism, which, as I've written about before, often emerge from a distorted form of anti-Zionism, have these kind of ramifications.

To make the already convoluted dynamic of exploitative anti-racism even more so, is that some critics use accusations of anti-semitism as a means to deflect from genuine criticism of the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestine.

This makes an appeal to principle above propaganda all the more difficult, yet all the more necessary. The struggle for Palestinian self-determination is itself an anti-racist struggle.

Indeed, using Palestine and Israel to justify or define anti-semitism is simply another form of the very parochial and chauvinistic partisanship that leads to the exploitation of anti-racism by political opportunists.

Though Muslims have become the bête noire of the modern far-right, anti-semitism is usually somewhere under the surface

The Muslims and Jews on the receiving end of racist hate crimes in the UK and around the globe are, more often than not, willing to come together and recognise that the threat they face is a shared one.

Despite the partisan dynamic of exploitative anti-racism, the reality is that the worst racist political forces across the world hate Muslims and Jews almost equally. 

Though Muslims have become the bête noire of the modern far-right, anti-semitism is usually somewhere under the surface. This is why you'll find the 
openly Islamophobic Donald Trump endorse anti-semitic Soros conspiracy theories, while his supporters carry out massacres in both mosques and synagogues.  

The principle of anti-racism is only degraded by those who seek to use it for their own political gain. Given the climate in which we live, with the overt racist outburst of Brexit perhaps reaching some form of crescendo, as well the spectre of fascists gaining political power around the world, we need a principled anti-racism more than ever.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.