So, Brexit was side-lined this week in the UK national debate. Instead, very heated debates about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia engulfed and divided British politics.
The two stars in the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism debates were former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, both potential rivals to the much-weakened Prime Minister Theresa May.
Johnson, who returned to his old trade, as a columnist in The Daily Telegraph, flamed a debate about Islamophobia when he wrote last week an article criticising Denmark, which banned the burka, emphasising that the burka is oppressive and ridiculous, but that’s still no reason to ban it, he argued.
If he stopped at that there might not have been a row. But then he went on to compare Muslim women in burqas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”.
The article led to widespread ire and condemnations.
For many it was ugly and naked Islamophobia, targeting the most vulnerable and defenceless category: women and young girls wearing — either voluntarily or under duress — what some see as traditional Islamic dress code.
Following complaints about Johnson’s remarks and choice of words, the Conservative Party is due to decide whether to launch a formal investigation in accordance with its procedures.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) warned May against “whitewashing” any Tory investigation into Johnson’s remarks.
In a letter to the prime minister, the organisation said that no one should be allowed to “victimise minorities”.
“Tell Mama” project, which monitors and reports hate crimes and anti-Muslim violence, has reported an increase in incidents of abuse aimed at women wearing the niqab or hijab over the past week.
The organisation thinks there is a direct link between the former foreign minister’s comments and an uptick in incidents targeting women who adopt Islamic dress codes.
Supporters of Johnson, on the other hand, argued that religious freedom is not more important than freedom of speech and expression. They emphasised that Johnson was entirely within his rights to criticise and disapprove of the burka as a tool of subjugation of Muslim women.
They also argued that the burka is not a religious dress, but merely a social and cultural tradition aiming at the subjugation of women in a patriarchal system.
Others were on the fence. For them, Johnson missed an opportunity to open a healthy debate about the burka, tolerance, freedom of choice and freedom of speech.
It is certainly a debate worth having in Europe today.
For them the problem was not the substance of Johnson’s article, but its cynical aim and timing as the article came amidst a rise in right wing populist politics in the UK because of the Brexit stalemate.
It is worth noting that this is not your traditional “British Right”, which is less extreme than similar parties in Europe such as the French National Front, or Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party of Freedom, or the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD).
The new British right-wing populism has a wider agenda than Brexit. It is more nationalistic, Islamophobic and xenophobic.
Recent opinion polls have showed an increasing tendency to support a more far right agenda and the rejection of May’s Brexit plan. Some are turning to Boris Johnson as an alternative to May.
May’s political vulnerability was exposed by a survey that was conducted by YouGov for The Sunday Times newspaper where only 16 per cent of voters said May is handling the Brexit negotiations well, compared with 34 per cent who said Johnson would do a better job.
According to the poll, only one in 10 voters would support the government’s proposed Brexit plans if there were a second referendum, while almost half think they would be bad for Britain.
The Sunday Times poll found voters were increasingly polarised, with growing numbers alienated from the two main political parties, the Conservatives and Labour.
Thirty-eight per cent of people would vote for a new right-wing party that is committed to Brexit, while almost a quarter would support an explicitly far-right anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party, the poll found.
Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage and US President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon are in discussions about forming a new right-wing organisation called “The Movement” aiming to strength far-right parties in Europe.
After the burka article row, Sky News conducted a survey in which the majority of Brits said they think describing women in burkas as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” is not racist, while 33 per cent think it is.
However, people are split as to whether the former foreign secretary should apologise for his remarks: 45 per cent think he should do so, while 48 per cent think he should not.
Almost 60 per cent of participants would support enacting such a ban in the UK, with 26 per cent opposed.
So, Johnson’s article did not damage his chances if he were to decide in October to challenge the leadership of May.
For the supporters of May, Johnson’s degrading description was not a gaffe or blunder, but was a cynical political calculation aimed at attracting the right-wing within the Conservative Party and UKIP supporters.
And according to opinion polls he succeeded.
A Poorly Drafted Definition
The storm about Johnson’s article was not the only political storm in town. Corbyn has one of his own. But while the row about the burka could potentially benefit Johnson, the row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is very damaging.
There is intense pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to rethink Labour’s code of conduct on anti-Semitism.
The leader of a major trade union, the backbone of Labour’s support base, called on Labour to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which Corbyn refused to do out of fear that this definition would stifle freedom of speech and expression when it comes to criticising Israeli government policies in occupied Palestine.
Corbyn’s aides said that the IHRA definition is not the problem. But examples of anti-Semitism in the declaration are problematic.
They include: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” They also include: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
They point to the purpose of the text: to neutralise serious criticism of Israel by stigmatising it as a form of anti-Semitism.
According to Geoffrey Bindman, visiting professor of law at University College London and London South Bank University, in an article in The Guardian newspaper, “the definition and the examples are poorly drafted, misleading, and in practise have led to the suppression of legitimate debate and freedom of expression.”
“The 11 examples are another matter. Seven of them refer to the State of Israel. This is where the problem arises. Some of them at least are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Whether they are or not depends on the context and on additional evidence of anti-Semitic intent. Clearly, hostility to Jews could be the motivation for criticism of Israel and the fact that Israel identifies itself as a Jewish state no doubt encourages anti-Semites to attack Jews through their association with Israel. It is equally clear, however, that the policies and practices of Israel, a sovereign state, must be open to criticism and debate.”
A criticism shared by Jacqueline Rose, co-director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, who wrote: “No definition is, or should be, sacred. Still less the examples attached to it. In the case of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, the examples were presented as ‘illustrations’.
Yet it is the exclusion of these examples from Labour’s code that has unleashed anger against the party. Take the idea that it is anti-Semitic to deny ‘the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example by claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavour’ as one of these examples. It requires, at the very least, the most scrutiny.
The Israeli Knesset recently passed a law making self-determination the sole prerogative of the Jewish people in Israel, and downgrading Arabic from its status as an official language, thereby making a fifth of its population second-class citizens.”
Some people view the row around anti-Semitism and the Labour Party as an attempt to weaken Corbyn as a potential replacement to May.
Brexit cannot be separated from the two bitter debates over anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
It is a sad state of affairs, as Britain needs open and objective debates over these issues.
The problem with defining anti-Semitism
ON 26 MAY 2016, the 31 member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) issued the Stockholm Declaration, adopting a definition of anti-Semitism.
According to the declaration, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.
Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Working definitions were added to illustrate modern anti-Semitism. Many of these examples have proven controversial.
These examples include:
-Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (eg gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
-Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
-Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
-Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
-Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
-Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
-Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism divide British politics