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The toxification of politics threatens us all

Language that divides our society weakens its cohesion. History shows that countries can lose their liberal values and freedoms very quickly.


Posted 15 August 2018. Updated 26 October 2018 with TalkRADIO tweet.

In the United Kingdom, the political news last week was dominated by one story. That was the column in the Telegraph by Boris Johnson MP: “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that's still no reason to ban it.”

This column led to an outcry in the media with many people, including myself, complaining about the derogatory language used by Mr Johnson when describing Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa. My first ever appearance on the BBC2 programme “Newsnight” can be watched below.

I was also interviewed on a number of other programmes. Below is an embedded tweet containing a 1-min 26-second appearance on TalkRADIO.

#RT @talkRADIO: Conservative Muslim Board: "Boris Johnson's comments will whip up anti-Muslim hatred in this country." Watch again ▼@WhichPennySmith | @Mohammed_Amin | @ConservativeMF

— Dennie Morris (@DennieMorris) August 6, 2018

My key point in the media was that Mr Johnson in his article was trying to have it both ways. Part of the article put forward a liberal perspective that the UK should not ban the wearing of niqab or burqa. However, Mr Johnson then spent the other half of the article denigrating Muslim women who choose to wear it, in language that plays to a far-right narrative that Muslims are alien and do not belong in Britain. The article came only a few weeks after Mr Johnson met in London with Steve Bannon, formerly strategic adviser to Donald Trump, and a man who has used immensely divisive language when discussing issues of race.

Accordingly, I considered that the article would be very damaging to the Conservative Party. As well as alienating Muslim voters, who are a small but increasingly important demographic, it would alienate younger metropolitan liberals who appreciate the diverse society that Britain has become.

In my interviews, I stressed that Mr Johnson was a master of the English language and that he understood exactly the effect that his words would have. He had chosen to spend almost half the article attacking niqab and burqa wearing Muslim women.

While composing this page, I have gone back to Mr Johnson’s article classifying his text into three categories:

  1. Neutral language – for example language describing Danish liberalism generally.
  2. Liberal language – where Mr Johnson opposes a legal niqab or burqa ban.
  3. Derogatory language – where Mr Johnson denigrates women who choose to wear it.

The classifications are of course slightly arbitrary, but I counted 311 words in category (2) and 241 words in category (3). I consider this justifies my rough and ready assessment that there was about the same quantity of liberal and derogatory language. Unfortunately, copyright constraints preclude me from publishing the full text of the article with the above mark-up.

The wider issue

Last week I attended a meeting with a senior Anglican cleric regarding a different subject. After the meeting, we started talking about Mr Johnson’s article. The cleric pointed out that genocides normally begin with language which classifies the eventual target group as the “other” which does not belong in the country, as a prelude to arguing for that group’s elimination. He mentioned a writer who had sought to categorise the stages of genocide, but he could not immediately recall the writer’s name.

I have been aware myself over the last few years of the way that the language of politics used in many countries has degenerated. To give just one example, until Donald Trump started using the campaign rally slogan “Lock her up” to refer to Hillary Clinton, it was inconceivable that the candidate of one of the two major political parties would ever talk about his or her opponent in such ways.

Accordingly, reflecting upon my conversation with the senior Anglican cleric, I wrote a piece for the website Conservative Home “The toxification of politics threatens us all.” You can read it below.

Mohammed Amin: The toxification of politics threatens us all

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Ever since the rise of the modern nation state, demagogues have used a standard play-book:

Perhaps Napoleon was the first exemplar, but we have seen this time and again. In Italy, it gave us Mussolini. Germany went from the pathetic “Beer Hall putsch” to the Holocaust in less than 20 years. In Yugoslavia it took about five years from the first republic seceding to the Srebrenica genocide.

Today, we see the same play-book being followed in countries such as Hungary and Turkey. Sadly, even the great democracy of the United States is not immune from this virus, but I am relatively confident that the structures of the US Constitution will prevail over the demagogue currently in the White House.

The authors of the Federalist Papers thought long and hard about the balance between popular voting and those who govern. Consequently the US Constitution enshrined many mechanisms to ensure that the people could elect and remove those who govern them, but in a manner that kept the passions of the mob at a distance from the legislators.

Conversely, the UK has historically been immune. This is not an accident but a feature of many aspects of our society. In the nineteenth century, the role of the landed gentry in our politics was a stabiliser. The purchase of military commissions ensured that the armed forces were led by people with a stake in our society rather than those who might benefit from overthrowing it. We designed a strong, independent, non-political civil service. The way that our political parties have operated historically insulated them from capture by demagogues. Unlike the USA, the UK has no designed constitution, but by good fortune has historically achieved the same goals, not least because the franchise was extended in stages from the top downwards.

Today however, we are in a sad place. Our representative democracy requires that there be at least two credible parties of government, so that the electorate has a meaningful choice. Unfortunately, the Labour Party modified its internal rules in a manner that enabled it to be captured from the grass roots by the extreme left. Today, it is bedevilled by antisemitism, with MPs being accused of receiving funding from “Jewish money” and Jewish members of the Labour Party being accused of being loyal to Israel rather than to the UK.

Worse still, this disease has started to infect our own party. When a newspaper that aspires to respectability carries a headline condemning the judges of our Supreme Court as “Enemies of the People” and a large portion of our party sympathises with the newspaper, rather than criticising it, something has gone seriously wrong.

Last week, we saw Boris Johnson, not just an MP but someone who aspires to lead our party, denigrating Muslim women for their religious choices in rude and abusive language. Worse still, other MPs defend him on the free speech grounds, completely ignoring the distinction between the threshold of what is criminal, and the threshold of what is acceptable speech from a senior politician. I discussed the distinction in my recent Conservative Home article “When does criticising Islam morph into inciting hatred of Muslims?

It gets even worse. When our Party Chairman, having received what I understand to be many formal complaints that Johnson has breached the Conservative Party’s Code of Conduct, acts upon the rules by referring the matter for investigation, he is immediately accused of bad faith and engaging in internal Conservative Party manoeuvring.

A few days ago, a senior Anglican cleric shared his concerns with me. The situation had reminded him of the Ten Stages of Genocide as classified by Gregory H. Stanton. He was genuinely concerned that the UK might in the early stages, and he reminded me about how rapidly things have previously deteriorated in other countries.

The most important thing we can do to fix this is to insist on rules of proper behaviour. The language expected of politicians within the Commons may appear restrictive, but those rules exist for a reason. They should be followed by MPs outside the chamber, as well as inside. No MP should ever describe any British citizens in the language used by Johnson.

Furthermore, discipline needs to be applied from the top. The Labour Party’s problem is particularly hard to resolve because it is the good judgement of their leader which is in question. Johnson’s disciplinary situation should not be prejudged, but the one thing that no Conservative should do is attempt to delegitimise the process by using the lens of Brexit to impugn the motives of our Party Chairman or our Leader.

Readers comments and my responses

The article led to a remarkable number of comments being posted below the article. There were 533 by the date this page was posted. While Conservative Home periodically tidies up their site by deleting comments, until then they can be read below the original article.

It was not feasible for me to respond to the comments individually, and many merited no response. However at a stage when there were 359 comments, I read through all of the comments and posted some consolidated responses which I have reproduced below.

Introduction to my responses

I read through all of the comments (including responses etc.) when they extended partway down page 3. Before writing this response, I have read all of the new comments (including responses to the new comments) up to partway down page 4 when the computerised comment total stood at 359. However, I have not looked for additional responses to the comments on pages 1-3.

It is obviously impractical for me to respond to everyone. Instead, I am writing some responses to some broad categories of comments:

  1. Comments asserting that immigrants generally or Muslims in particular have no place in the UK and should disappear.
  2. Comments questioning my integration into UK society, my liberalism, or indeed my ability to read.
  3. Comments assuming that women who wear niqab and burqa are coerced into it by their menfolk.
  4. Comments about the theological aspects of wearing niqab or burqa.
  5. Comments defending Boris Johnson’s freedom to mock people in general and niqab wearers in particular.
  6. Comments asserting that the criticism of Boris Johnson is a Remainer plot.

After this, I will call it a day on below-the-line activity.

1. Comments asserting that immigrants generally or Muslims in particular have no place in the UK and should disappear.

These comments merit no response.

2. Comments questioning my integration into UK society, my liberalism or indeed my ability to read.

My self-description at the top of the article contains a clickable link to the “About me” page of my website. I suspect those posting comments in this category have not bothered to read anything about me.

As someone who has lived in the UK since 1952, who attended a state grammar school and then Cambridge University, and he became a partner in Price Waterhouse, and who has followed politics since 1960, I consider myself integrated. My byline on the Times of Israel blogging site uses the short self-description “A Muslim European liberal.”

Blasphemy was mentioned by a few people. My position on blasphemy was set out here on Conservative Home in a piece which is copied on my website along with some additional material. See "Blasphemy should never be a crime."

Everything I have ever written in public has my name against it, and I am not taking lessons on integration or liberalism from commenters hiding behind a veil of anonymity.

3. Comments assuming that women who wear niqab and burqa are coerced into it by their menfolk.

Undoubtedly there may be some Muslim women in the UK who are coerced by their menfolk into wearing niqab or burqa. However, they will be exceptionally few, even amongst the small number of niqab or burqa wearers.

The overwhelming majority of women who wear niqab do so out of personal religious belief. In many cases, when they decide to wear niqab or burqa, they encounter opposition from their Muslim families.

4. Comments about the theological aspects of wearing niqab or burqa.

The one amusing thing about this week has been the idea of Boris Johnson as an expert on Islam. More recently, he was joined by Jacob Rees Mogg also expounding what Islam has to say.

Where religions have a formal hierarchy, you can always get an official answer. If you want to know what Roman Catholicism stands for, you can ask the Pope. However, Sunni Islam has no religious hierarchy; the position in Shia Islam is more complex, and some groups such as the Ismailis do have a formal religious head.

The position in Sunni Islam is that some Muslims believe that niqab or burqa are religiously mandatory, some believe that only hijab (headscarf which shows your face) is mandatory, and some believe that none of these are mandatory. Each Muslim has to reach their own decision for which they are answerable to God but not to their fellow human beings.

I have also been amused by the amount of media coverage given to Taj Hargey of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford. I have met Mr Hargey on a couple of occasions and seen some of his articles. Like me, he is on the “liberal end” of the Muslim spectrum, except that his liberalism does not include permitting women to dress as they wish. However, my opinion is that he would no more be regarded as a religious authority by the average British Muslim than would I.

5. Comments defending Boris Johnson’s freedom of speech to mock people in general and niqab wearers in particular.

The freedom of speech question is fundamentally a red herring. Nobody has asserted that Boris Johnson’s words were illegal, although the Metropolitan police have helpfully considered the matter, and nobody that I know has asserted that such mockery should be criminalised.

The point I made in my Conservative Home piece “When does criticising Islam morph into inciting hatred of Muslims?”is that different standards apply for different purposes.

Were Boris Johnson’s comments criminal?

They were clearly not.

Were Boris Johnson’s comments socially unacceptable?

That would depend upon the society that he keeps since what is acceptable among some people may not be acceptable amongst others.

Were Boris Johnson’s comments appropriate for a politician?

Categorically no. They are divisive and feed a far-right narrative that Muslims are alien and have no place in Britain. In doing so they harm the country. More specifically, they harm the Conservative Party. Not just by alienating Muslim voters (although with every year that goes by the need for the Conservative Party to win Muslim votes increases) but also by alienating swathes of younger liberal metropolitan voters who understand and value the diversity of our society. The Conservative Party has no future if it becomes a party just for  old white xenophobes.

6. Comments asserting that the criticism of Boris Johnson is a remainer plot.

This is precisely the kind of thinking that I was so concerned about and which led me to write my article after my meeting last week with the senior Anglican cleric who will remain nameless.

The concern about Boris Johnson is nothing to do with Brexit. Three Muslim members of the Conservative Party have been particularly outspoken this week. I am a firm Remainer. Lord Sheikh is an equally firm Leaver. I have no idea where Baroness Warsi stands on Brexit.


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