Yes, the parliamentary debate over barring The Donald is about grandstanding and showmanship. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea.
- By Denis MacShaneDenis MacShane was a Labour MP for 18 years, with 9,000 Muslim Kashmiris among his constituents. His latest book is Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe.
LONDON — The performance to be enacted this coming Monday — let’s call it the British House of Commons vs. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump — recalls the dictum of the great Victorian-era historian Lord Macaulay: “We know no spectacle so ridiculous,” he wrote, “as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.” On Jan. 18, various Honourable and Right Honourable members will get to their feet, summon up all their oratorical abilities, and urge the government to ban the man once known as The Donald from visiting Britain.
Across the Atlantic, as everywhere in the world, parliamentarians and just about everybody else have watched agog at the escalating excesses of Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric over the past six months. But when Trump said Muslims should be forbidden entry into America, something here collectively snapped. With those words, Trump crossed a line. Is the debate mostly a silly instance of political grandstanding? Yes. Is it allowing politicians to parade their virtuous anti-racism credentials, while allowing them to dodge a deeper discussion that needs to be had about Muslims in modern Britain? Maybe. Could it be seen as a questionable act in a nation that claims to value free speech? Probably. Nonetheless: Ban Donald Trump from the United Kingdom! (At least until the end of the Republican primaries, anyway.)
Brits are no keener on Islamists than anyone else. We suffered 52 dead in July 2005 from Islamist suicide bombers in London. British holidaymakers have been killed by Islamists on beaches in Tunisia. A British jihadi seduced by the appeal of the Islamic State cut off the head of a British hostage in one of the horror videos that have become an Islamic State specialty.
But Muslims are our neighbors, our MPs, our mayors, our ministers, our journalists, our filmmakers, and our cricketers — they are us. Britain already has a long list of people banned from entry, from Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida man who threatened to burn Qurans in public in 2010 to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Both have said despicable things — but neither has ever gone so far as to tell Britain’s 2 million Muslims that they should be barred from entering America. The anger was real as the prime minister, the home secretary, and every other political leader from Scottish Nationalists to Greens all denounced Trump and, as one, said: If he wants to ban our friends and neighbors from America, we’ll show him!
Within days, more than 570,000 people had signed an online petition calling for a ban on Trump, easily clearing the 100,000-signature threshold required for Parliament to debate the measure. (Indeed, as of Dec. 10, it was the most popular petition on the government’s website.) If an instant referendum could be called, there is little doubt that Brits would vote to keep the Republican out.
The Commons debate is just that, however — a debate, without a vote at the end so the government will not be mandated to take any action. The debate was called by an octogenarian Labour MP from Wales, well-known, like many elderly politicians, for publicity stunts to remind voters that he is still around. Unfortunately, Trump is not alone in his views. A number of Eastern European political and church leaders say they don’t want to accept refugees from Muslim countries, with Slovakia’s prime minister winning the Donald Trump Europrize for saying he doesn’t want Muslims to come into his country. The U.K. can’t ban every bigot who holds higher office.
Nonetheless, Trump’s comments touched a real nerve here, perhaps in part due to our own less-than-sparkling history. More than 100 years ago, a British prime minister, Arthur Balfour, wanted to ban Eastern European Jews from entering the U.K., saying that Britain should “keep out everybody who does not add to the strength of the community — the industrial, social, and intellectual strength of the community.” The Aliens Act, as it was called, was passed in 1905 by a Commons in which Trump would have felt at home.
Today, however, Britain prides itself on an attitude of racial and religious tolerance that, for the most part, it manages to get right. A Muslim member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet, Sajid Javid, is being tipped as a possible Tory leader and prime minister; the next mayor of post-Boris Johnson London is likely to be Sadiq Khan, a Labour Muslim politician, while the most famous British Muslim right now is Nadiya Hussain, who won the most recent series of the cultural phenomenon that is the Great British Bake Off. British Muslims are now as much part of the patchwork of modern Britain as the Catholics who were once regarded with suspicion by the Anglican establishment or, indeed, the Jews who were turned away from entering the country in the 1930s, a time when papers like the Daily Mail ran headlines like “German Jews pouring into this country” and warned of “aliens” entering the U.K. through the “back door.”
As with elsewhere in Europe, Britain does face its struggles with the Muslim community. There are serious problems with radical Islamists preaching jihad in British mosques; the government regularly issues appeals to British Muslims, especially young women, not to be enticed by the Islamic State’s anti-West rhetoric to go to Syria to fight or be married off to jihadi fighters. Ever since the London Underground bombings, successive British governments have been trying to work out how to combat Islamist ideologues. The official Muslim leadership in Britain is middle class and middle of the road — successful business leaders, professionals, professors, and devout imams. But they cannot contain, and often are unwilling to confront, the extremist cocktail of Salafism imported from Saudi Arabia, anti-Westernism, hatred of Jews and Israel, and the offer of a better world once Islam has triumphed. And British Muslims face racist attacks, with the Metropolitan Police reporting 10 a day last month, including arson, after the emotions stirred up by the Paris terrorist attacks crossed the English Channel.
When Trump said crudely that Muslims should be banned from entering America, he insulted not only the 2 million British Muslims who live peacefully and quietly in their country of birth or adoption, but he also alarmed many who see a rising tide of illiberal racism and xenophobia aimed at immigrants and all foreigners in Britain. Cameron condemned the remarks as “divisive, stupid, and wrong” — not the normal diplomatic language used by a British prime minister about a fellow conservative with serious pretensions to enter the White House.
Under U.K. immigration legislation, the British home secretary has the executive right to ban any foreigner from entering the United Kingdom on the grounds that his or her presence would “not be conducive to the public good” — the formal government phrasing for “and stay out!” Banning entry into the U.K. has historically been a political act — hence the entry bans against the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who were barred during the Cold War for their leftist leanings. But sometimes no reason is given at all: Hollywood star George Raft and TV-cook-turned-convict Martha Stewart were banned from entering the U.K. with no explanation. Others Americans who have been at the receiving end of a ban: leaker Edward Snowden, boxer Mike Tyson, and rapper Busta Rhymes. (This, even though Cameron has refused to ban Russian officials linked to the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, despite the passage in the Commons of a similar resolution calling for a ban; London depends heavily on Russian money flowing into the British capital.)
Realistically, the chances of Trump’s joining that august list are slim. Nor should a liberal country like Britain actually be barring people from entry on the basis of a statement, however crude, vulgar, or Islamophobic it may be. As I noted earlier, the Trump row has allowed politicians and public figures all over Britain, from the prime minister downward, to proclaim their stance against racism, while allowing a deeper, much more complicated, much more important interrogation about how Muslims fit into modern Britain to go unaddressed.
But the fact remains that, if the British government remains in the business of issuing bans against Martha Stewart and Mike Tyson, why not send a message that democratic polities cannot respond to the undoubted evil that is Islamist ideology with the kind of stupidity Trump has shown? His call for a ban on Muslims has since made its way into Islamic State recruitment videos. Perhaps if he were kept out of Britain, it would send a message to the world’s Muslims that most of us do understand the distinction between a religion (Islam, which should be welcomed) and an ideology (Islamism, which must be confronted).
In mid-December, following his call for a ban, Trump dug himself even deeper into his Islamophobic hole by claiming there were certain radicalized no-go areas of London. An incensed London Mayor Boris Johnson fired back, saying, “The only reason I wouldn’t go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” Boris is not every Brit’s cup of Earl Grey — but for once, he spoke for the nation.
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