The Age of Intolerance: Fighting Racism, Antisemitism & Islamophobia in an Era of Austerity

25 Nov 2014

Ladies, Gentleman, Comrades- Good Evening.

I’m very pleased to be here this evening to talk about a central issue of our political times, which is the rise of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. And I’m particularly pleased to be doing it here at SOAS with its world class reputation in terms of research and its strong reputation in terms of politics and activism.

I want to talk about racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia and there could be no more difficult time to raise these issues. I have been in parliament for two decades and I have never known a more toxic atmosphere on issues around immigration and ‘the other’. To understand why the atmosphere is so toxic, to understand why mainstream politicians say the things that they are saying we have to put this discussion in a framework. Part of the debate on racism and Islamophobia is framed by an economic downturn, and it’s also framed by the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. 

I want to start with economics first. What we are seeing in Britain, Europe and the US is a long term realignment of the economies. Occupations like textiles, steel making, potteries, mining and manufacturing are in long-term decline. Much of this work has gone offshore. Previously certain communities, towns, and cities were built around that type of blue collar work with the high levels of trade union organisation and community cohesion that went with that. Now with the decline of their economic base these towns are often in a state of collapse. 

And it is no coincidence that UKIP has the strongest appeal not in our big cities like London or Manchester but in what were manufacturing towns, what were mining towns. Some of the poorer areas on the eastern heart of the country. Because when people are under economic pressure, they look for a scapegoat. Now this process of the decline of blue collar work and manufacturing and industry in the west has be known for some time. But it is thrown into sharp relief by the economic crash. The response of western governments to the economic collapse has put everything into a death spiral because the response of most western governments has been austerity. 

Austerity in the current political context means making the poor pay the price for bailing out bankers with big cuts in the public sector. The contraction of traditional employment together with cuts in public services have created a world that some people in this country no longer recognise. It’s led to endemic worry about security and significantly the ONS recently released figures that illustrate UK workers have had their sixth successive year of falling pay in real terms.

So it can be no coincidence that in the face of this sort of economic pressure and worry about the future, that against this background that we’ve seen the rise of racism and anti-Semitic parties across Europe. The national front in France for instance where one in four French voters voted for the nakedly anti-Semitic and fascist party, and the rise of golden dawn in Greece another overtly fascist party. Now, here in the UK we have UKIP.

Now, commentators like to puzzle about the rise of UKIP but for me the rise of UKIP is no puzzle. It’s quite straightforward. In times of economic difficulty people look to someone to scapegoat. In Germany in the 1930s it was the Jewish community and now its immigrants in the UK. But I will say more about UKIP towards the end of my remarks. 

I wanted to touch on issues around foreign policy, and how they’ve affected Islamophobic attitudes. We’ve seen a decade of war in Iraq which has left the region in more turmoil than ever. We’ve seen since the close of the second world war decades of Arab Israeli conflict with resolution further off than ever. 
The key thing we are seeing in the past decade is that after centuries of America and the west thinking they can fight wars in the third world at arm’s length, globalisation, the internet, and the a-symmetric nature of modern terrorism means that the west have had to deal with the consequences of their middle eastern interventions on their own soil.

This is a huge change. Who can forget where they were the day that the twin towers fell and more recently who can forget those front page newspaper pictures of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby up to their elbows in his blood? It is the international conflict and the disorder and the fear that flows from it that has framed and inflamed the debate about race and Islamophobia here in the UK.

So we have to start talking not about individuals, we have to start by talking about an economic framework which is one of economic downturn and from a policy framework which cold war like but for the soviet union we have cast the Muslim world. 

I want to begin by talking about racism and by saying that you could argue that currently too much of the debate about racism is about language and tone. Language is very important but its key not to get bogged down around terminology and important to discuss the very real challenges facing people of colour in society. It seems that now the people that hurl the accusation of racism, with the most vehemence are actually members of the majority community. It’s almost if they are determined to drive people of colour out of the public space and close own the debate. 

You see this most clearly online. When I was a new MP of twenty or thirty years ago I would receive a racist or abusive letter every couple of weeks, maybe once a month. Now I can get online abuse on an hourly basis. It would be more frequent than that if I wasn’t quite ruthless about blocking. The ease of use of the internet and crucially anonymity has unleashed a wave of online abuse against people of colour and women. But what I want to remind you all of this evening, is that behind issues around language, around issues about terminology, behind the to and fro of abuse on the internet, there are the hard facts of ongoing discrimination against BME and Muslim men and women in our society.

We know that unemployment levels amongst black and Muslim young men remain higher than amongst their white counterparts. And maybe a couple of generations ago you would have said that’s because they don’t necessarily have the education but that isn’t true now as many of you here are at this university will testify. I was reading a recent report entitled When Education Isn’t Enough that cites a study showing that even BME graduates from Russell Group Universities are more likely to experience unemployment. I think that we are going to find that unemployment amongst black and Muslim communities is going to be exacerbated by cuts in the public sector. This is because in recent times the BME communities have been disproportionately employed in the public sector, and even though that this government argues that the private sector will take up the slack, and even though self-employment is rising, I believe that even for some young people in this room who have worked so hard they are going to find some of the structural and systemic obstacles that we see up to now. 

Of course the relationship of black people and Muslim people with the state remains very troubled. We all know about stop and search which is all too easily done on the basis of simply racial profiling. The equality and human rights commission reported that in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched, and the figures for Muslims community is almost as bad. Overall black people were six times as likely as white people to be stopped.  I would remind some of you that concern about disproportionate non evidence based use of stop and search isn’t new it goes back decades. It was stop and search that triggered the 1981 Brixton Riots, the first major urban riots in UK for more than a century. 

But I would say this about racism, racism is not just a problem for those of us who are BME or Muslim background, it is a corrosive problem for wider society. You cannot have genuine community cohesion if large elements particularly of young people coming up are experiencing not just micro aggressions of racism and Islamophobia but real obstacles and real hurdles in being all they can be because the way the system is. Furthermore the UK lies in a globalised world. In order to live and survive and thrive in a globalised world the UK has to draw on its very best talent. Racism is stopping the UK drawing on its very best talent. 

I wanted to touch today on the issue of anti-Semitism, we have seen a rise in this worldwide. It’s inevitably related to the economic downturn. This summer the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Italy issued a statement condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric and action stating that it had no place in our society. Now some of this was related to protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza but I think it’s possible to overstate that. I do believe that it’s possible to be opposed to the policies of a particular Israeli government at a certain point in time without being anti-Semitic. But I think the economic circumstances across Europe are more tied in with the rise in anti-Semitism. Again the internet has led to some horrible incidents, my colleague Luciana Burger MP has received thousands of anti-Semitic messages and tweets. One showed a holocaust era skull superimposed on her forehead with the hashtag #hitlerwasright. 
One man was prosecuted for these tweets but since then she has received thousands more. A far-right website in the US which promotes the use of racist hashtags and messages to send her including death threats. One of the things that important to say this evening is that we have to stand up against racism and Islamophobia but we also have to stand up against anti-Semitism. In many places and many times they are both one side of the same coin. 

Let’s talk about Islamophobia. I believe that much of the public narrative around social and political issues is increasingly tinged with Islamophobia. Let me remind you that half of the UKs Muslim community lives in London. This community makes a very important economic contribution in London, over 14,000 small to medium Muslim owned businesses, provide over 70,000 jobs. Some of you who are students may well find yourself in a Muslim owned company. But there are also very high levels of unemployment amongst Muslim women. 

An increase incidence of anti-Semitism that I have referred to have been mirrored by a steep rise in the number of hate crimes directed at Muslims, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby last year. Muslims reported attacks on imams and mosque staff including petrol bombs and bricks, pig heads stuck to the entrance of mosques, vandalism and abusive messages. Some 40-60 per cent of mosques Islamic centres and Muslim organisations in the UK have suffered at least one attack since 9/11. The met police have confirmed a total of Islamophobic offences in London since 2009 of 303 and 57 since this April. It’s a rising tide and the official met police stats are likely to be an underestimate. We find that women dressed in hijabs or burkas are more likely to be targeted by these attacks. 

But in my view even more corrosive than actually physical attacks is the tone of the public debate around social and political issues concerning the Muslim community. So, we have this summer the case of Camden School for Girls which apparently has no uniform policy but when a girl in the 6th form sought to wear a burka she was told she couldn’t do it. No uniform policy unless you want to wear the dress which many devout Muslims want to wear. 

Rotherham; that has been all over the papers for a long time. The things that happened in Rotherham were horrible and we haven’t seen the last of it. I think there are more northern towns where we are going to hear about that type of abuse against young women. But we need to be careful that we don’t simply stigmatise the entire Muslim community because of the actions of some individuals. 
We will have read about the Trojan horse affair in Birmingham where Muslims were accused of infiltrating governing bodies and imposing extremist Muslim ideology. Now, where a governing body is seeking to impose socially conservative norms particularly on women I think that is something that needs to be pushed back against. But in the main cases in Birmingham these Muslim parents genuinely wanted to be involved to improve their children’s schools. And we have to ask how this society can on the one hand tell our BME and Muslim members of the community they must get more involved. But when they get involved they find themselves stigmatised. 

And most recently we are hearing a debate around Jihadism. Tomorrow I believe we are going to have a statement from our home secretary about a new set of government policies designed to de-radicalise would be jihadi’s and to make institutions including universities responsible for monitoring extremists. 

Now let me say this, when one hears about universities monitoring extremists of course there is concern and fear about some incidents that we have seen. There’s concern in the wake of what happened to Lee Rigby and there is a very proper concern to secure and safeguard the population. But let us remember London is the place when in the Victorian era Engels, and Marx would come and write and work and send letters across Europe with their ideas about politics which at the time were seen as dangerous. We need to be very careful as a society that in the process of protecting this society’s values and way of life we don’t end up undermining some of our core values about freedom of thought and freedom of expression. 
Because there is an argument that has become more current that somehow having strong views about western policy in the Middle East, how being a devout Muslim is some sort of conveyor belt to being an extremist that poses a threat to the state. I believe that we have to be very careful about that line of thinking, for instance- I have strong views about western foreign policy in the Middle East, I voted against the gulf war under a labour government, under a tory government. I voted against the bombing of Syria but I believe that people are entitled to have strong and even contentious views about foreign policy issues without being stigmatised as a threat to the state and their tutors and invited to inform on them. 

You know ever since 9/11, those most concerned about civil liberties in parliament had to fight off a series of proposals around the liberty o the subject. Tony Blair wanted to bring in 90 days detention without trial and failed, Gordon brown came back with 40 days detention without trial and failed. Do you know that in parliament whenever we debated those issues, some of the most compelling speeches against undermining the counties civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism came not from left wingers like myself, came not from MPs perhaps of the Muslim faith- they came very often from former Conservative army officers who had served in Northern Ireland and who argued that the government did not know what it was doing in seeking to impose oppressive and repressive measures on a community that would undermine their civil liberties because the British experience in northern Ireland that those things only pushed people towards organisations like the IRA.

You cannot have a trade off as a society between supporting freedom of expression and civil liberties and fighting to defend that society. I will listen with great attention to the detail of what Teresa May is suggesting tomorrow but I am not minded to vote to turn university lectures into spies on their students. I do not believe that in the end that this set of measures would necessarily make us any safer. 
On the question of Islamophobia, the West engaged in the two hundred crusade against the Muslim world, I do not believe that we need to be reverting to the era where year after year, decade after decade, the Muslim world whatever people protest to the contrary is seen as the enemy and the enemy within. We do not want to rerun the crusades and we need to examine the Islamophobic tones of our discussions. 

But I wanted to say a little about the rise of UKIP because it’s very concerning to me how both major political parties, labour and conservative are seeking to almost out UKIP- UKIP. Let me say a few things about UKIP. UKIP professes to be talking about Europe but if you poll UKIP supporters their big issue is immigration. When you ask them what they mean by this they mean every ethnic group that has entered this country post war. And that is the heart of the problem of political parties seeking to out-UKIP, UKIP because if a political party follows the narrative that immigrants are the problem then people will neccesarily expect to see less immigrants on the streets as a consequence of your policy initiatives. But many of the people that UKIP voters see as immigrants are not subject of immigration control at all, they are third generation British nationals, they are refugees, asylum seekers- people who are lawfully settled here. It may seem like clever politics to go along with UKIP and this anti-immigrant rhetoric but in the end you raise expectations you cannot possibly hope to fulfil. 

The problem is the anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on no statistical basis whatsoever. UKIP argues that immigrants are responsible for low wages and exploitation. It is predatory employers and lack of enforcement of the minimum wage and weak trade unions that create the low wage, not immigrants. 
I feel that a labour government should be talking about these things not about measures which taken on their own perhaps I wouldn’t object to but framed in a context that suggests that immigrants are a problem. You cannot go far right enough on immigration to suit a small cabal of UKIP voters and for the rest, you mislead them in thinking that their problems are caused by immigration. 

There are so many myths around the current debate around immigration. For instance we are told we are not allowed to talk about immigration. I have to tell you that the past decade I don’t think there has been a day of the week where some paper hasn’t run a ridiculous story about immigrants. I’ve never known a time when immigration and migrants was there in the media and yet we are told we are not allowed to talk about it. 

We’re told that immigrants are a drain on the public sector. You know my mother came here as a nurse in the 1960s and I’m not afraid to say that without immigrants we wouldn’t have an NHS. We’re told that immigrants are a drain, and a pressure on the school system but we are now seeing research that one of the reasons schools in London have improved results over the past decade has been because of the numbers of high achieving and ambitious immigrants in those school. So far from being a drain on the public sector the truth about immigration is that they put more into the economy than they take out on benefits. So it is alarming that both parties are willing to go along with UKIP myth making on immigration. If both Tories and Labour are saying yes Nigel Farage is right, I think all that does is encourage our poor voters that we might as well vote for UKIP. 

I think that it is possible to overstate the impact of UKIP electorally. They did well in May on a low turnout election but it still remains the case that they will take more votes from the Conservatives than Labour.  So there is no reason for the blind panic around UKIP that you see in the political circles in Westminster. 

So, let me say this about race and anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia; I think that it is important that we unite on these issues, nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner. These are difficult times, these are dark times, and maximum unity is vital. It’s important that we understand that for many of these social issues whether its unemployment, or education- colour-blind solutions will not work. We need to understand the structural problems that we’re holding back some of our brightest and to address these structural problems working with the voluntary sector, working with faith groups, working with activism. We also have to understand that jihadism is the other side of the coin to Islamophobia, the more people feel marginalised from a society, the more they feel that their freedom to think is restricted, the more they are driven to activities which ostensibly politicians try to go against.

It’s a difficult time to talk about these issues, but it’s vital to talk about these issues. It’s vital to name racism where we see it, it’s vital to raise ISLP where we see it and it’s vital to come together on these issues. 

I’ll end by quoting by a well-known poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller during the Second World War:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

My message to this audience is however beguiling the media narrative is, we have to stand firm defending each other we have to push back against this toxic anti-immigrant narrative because if we don’t we will find that there will be nobody left to come for us. 

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