Islamophobia Is Boris Johnson’s Problem Now
The U.K. Labour Party’s abject failure to address anti-Semitism has garnered headlines, but hatred of Muslims is even more rampant in Britain—and the prime minister and his party have contributed to making it socially acceptable.
“What would you do to get the hate out of politics?” a British citizen asked Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn a week before the Dec. 12 U.K. election, during a BBC debate. It was a legitimate question to put to both of them, as the leaders of the two major British national political parties.
For Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, it was primarily about the accusation that the party leadership, himself included, had not been strong enough on tackling anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks. For Johnson, it was about Islamophobia and bigotry against Muslims in his Conservative Party. Neither gave an answer that differed tremendously from previous statements; they were perceived as dodging and deflecting the accusations.
Considering that reported hate crimes against Jews in England and Wales doubled in 2018 to 2019 as compared to the previous year (1,326 compared to 672), anti-Semitism is plainly an issue that needs to be addressed by the Labour Party and U.K. society as a whole. In the same period, almost three times as many hate crimes (3,530) were committed against Muslims, accounting for almost half of all hate crimes against religious groups in the U.K. altogether—yet attention to that issue has been paltry in comparison.
When it comes to anti-Muslim sentiment, it isn’t just that there is a problem with Islamophobia among Tories. After all, the current prime minister once wrote that “Islamophobia—fear of Islam—seems a natural reaction” and insisted that “Islam is the problem.” More recently, a number of Conservative Party officials have been suspended over Islamophobic discourse, but the Tories seem unwilling to sufficiently address Islamophobia within the party.
But it isn’t just in the Conservative Party where anti-Muslim bigotry is found. It’s much more widespread throughout British society. In-person hate crimes against Muslims from 2016 to 2017 increased by 30 percent; the following year, “Punish a Muslim Day” letters were sent to Muslim members of Parliament and families around London; mosques nationally have been attacked, including when a van plowed into a group of pedestrians who had been worshipping at a London mosque in June 2017. And now that the election is over, that problem isn’t about to go away. On the contrary, Islamophobia has been mainstreamed in a way never seen before in modern Britain. And it could get worse.
Indeed, the problem of Islamophobia is more dire today than after the 9/11 attacks or the 2005 London train and bus bombings. Shortly before the Dec. 12 election, an ICM poll surveyed voters about their attitudes toward Muslims. When it came to Conservative voters, 37 percent admitted to viewing Muslims in a negative light, 55 percent said that there should be a reduction in the number of Muslims entering Britain, and a staggering 62 percent said they agreed with the statement that Islam threatens the British way of life.
Those numbers are deeply troubling but not surprising. Concerns about the prevalence of anti-Muslim bigotry in the Conservative Party have abounded for years now. Numerous complaints about Tory officials and activists’ behavior and rhetoric toward Muslims have been lodged. In 2018, no less than a former chairperson of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, declared that the Tories had to form an inquiry into Islamophobia. Indeed, years earlier, while still serving as co-chairperson of the party, Warsi said that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test,” meaning it had become widely tolerated and acceptable.
Warsi wasn’t wrong. The more striking numbers in the latest ICM poll weren’t the ones about the Conservative Party but those for the British public as a whole. When it comes to British voters more generally, the poll reported that 26 percent view Muslims in a negative light, 41 percent said that there should be a reduction in the number of Muslims entering Britain, and 45 percent agreed with the statement that Islam threatens the British way of life.
I have researched extremist Islamists for much of my career. I’ve received threats from extremist Islamists many times for my work—sometimes for arguing that these extremists pose a threat to the U.K. or that they are a menace to Muslim communities worldwide. After all, it is Muslims who are the main victims of extremist Islamism worldwide, and it is Muslims who have paid the highest price in terms of fighting extremist Islamist groups.
But it isn’t extremist Islamists whom the poll asked about. It asked about Muslims in general and Islam as a religion. Hostility toward Muslims wasn’t limited to a small minority of Britons—nor even in just one political party. Rather, when almost half of voters according to the ICM view Islam—not extremists, not radicals, but regular, believing Muslims—as a threat, Britain has a grave problem to reckon with.
The increasing prevalence and acceptability of Islamophobia is the result of three factors. The first is the statements from significant political figures who engage in Islamophobia. No less than the president of the United States, Donald Trump, has said such things as “I think Islam hates us”—again, not a declaration about extremism, but about Islam. Compare this to how the U.S. president at the time of 9/11, George W. Bush, responded—Bush visited a mosque to make clear that the enemy wasn’t Islam as a faith, nor Muslims writ large. When powerful figures make such proclamations as Trump did, it spreads the discourse of bigotry far beyond them, making space for much more damaging rhetoric to emerge and to be regarded as acceptable.
The second factor is the existence of a well-documented network whose purpose is to problematize Muslims more generally in the West. The U.S.-based Center for American Progress, in two landmark reports titled “Fear, Inc.” and “Fear, Inc. 2.0,” carefully laid out the different foundations and webs of influence that are focused on spreading and supporting the narrative that Muslims and Islam aim to destroying Western civilization from within. This is not by accident but by design, with funding streams that support demagogic politicians in North America, Europe, and beyond.
The third factor is the mainstreaming of hateful views by people who are not extremist Islamophobes themselves, as the researcher Tom Kibasi pointed out last month: “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many in the British media dismiss Islamophobia because they believe Islamophobes have a point.”
Too few politicians, public intellectuals, or media figures have been willing to confront this issue. On the contrary, they’ve all too often been satisfied to engage in dog-whistling on the topic, for short-term political gain. As the saying goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Underestimating this kind of threat to the social cohesion of our societies is not an option we should countenance. That kind of attitude led to the widespread notion that Jews in Europe posed a threat in the early 1900s, and a systematic scapegoating of them that eventually led to the Holocaust. That lack of seriousness brought about the demonization of Bosniaks in the 1990s, which led to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims. And the toleration of that sentiment two decades ago paved the way for a disgraceful gesture to be made last week by the Nobel Committee.
The Nobel Prize is meant to signify recognition of the greatness of its recipient. But on Dec. 10, the Austrian author Peter Handke was given that prize—the same Handke who denied the Bosnian genocide. He was granted the Nobel Prize with a handshake from the Swedish king. Anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia are not disqualifiers in Europe’s corridors of power these days— arguably, they are rewarded.
The hallmark of a healthy society should be the protection of its most vulnerable minorities, and the hallmark of a deeply troubled society is negligence of that responsibility. New Zealand’s Christchurch mosque massacre in March was motivated in part by arch-nationalists in the Balkans, whose own anti-Muslim bigotry had led to the Bosnian genocide. But Farid Ahmed, a survivor of the mosque massacre in which a white nationalist gunned down worshippers, including Ahmed’s wife, declared in the aftermath that he had forgiven the murderer. He also had a stark warning: “The lesson is that if the evil could take place in the city of love, compassion and spirituality, then it can happen anywhere and to anyone.”
No one thought that such a massacre could take place in tolerant New Zealand, but it did. And in the U.K., the security services have already warned the public that the far-right has attempted—and thankfully failed—to carry out its own massacres, going so far as amassing and stockpiling equipment to bomb a mosque. A third of terrorist plots in the U.K. since March 2017 have come from the far-right, according to the British security services, and far-right extremists are arguably more energized by anti-Muslim bigotry than anything else. Before Britain has its own Christchurch massacre, Johnson is going to have to do much more to address the hate polluting British politics.
H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Among other books, he is the author of Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans. Twitter: @hahellyer