Sometime during the late 20th century, the Irish Republican movement decided to align itself with the Palestinian cause in an attempt to build — as they saw it — a kind of global anti-colonial alliance. In response, the Loyalist movement started to fly Israeli flags over Belfast’s Lower Shankill and, in recent months, have been quick to draw parallels between Hamas and the IRA.

During highly sectarian Celtic-Rangers football matches, Palestinian and Israeli flags are regularly seen in the stands. I would wager very few of these people have been to either Ramallah or Tel Aviv. I bet they know next to nothing about Islam or Judaism or care about them very much; they just want to co-opt someone else’s conflict and make it a part of their own. And viewing the politics of the Middle East through the lens of The Troubles is a recipe for confusion. As if the politics of Northern Ireland weren’t difficult enough, to see it refracted through another fiercely complicated rivalry thousands of miles away is just crazy. You hijack all the emotion and contribute nothing towards understanding.

The current unrelenting back and forth about Islamophobia between the Labour and Conservative parties represents something depressingly similar. The Tories know that the Left has a structural weakness when it comes to antisemitism. Jeremy Corbyn’s friendship with Hamas and all the “from the river to the sea” raging on the streets mark a horrendous blind spot, where those who pride themselves as anti-racists also align themselves with one of the most racist ideologies in history. The Left fires back, tit for tat, accusing the Tories of Islamophobia, but also rightly pointing out that much of the Right’s anxiety about immigration is cast as a suspicion of Islam and of being replaced by some threatening Other. If you squint, this is what you see: the Tories as Team Israel, and Labour as Team Palestine. It’s about as insightful as an Old Firm derby. A plague on both their houses.

“It’s about as insightful as an Old Firm derby.”

Part of the problem is that modern secular politics wants to reframe all religious and historical differences as divisions over race. Thus, anxieties over the presence of Islamic fundamentalists on our streets are too often cast as a form of racism. Of course, there may well be racism at play in how some people describe Muslims of Middle Eastern origin — but, in and of itself, pushing back against those who wish to promote a radical form of Islam, sometimes intimidating those who think differently, is not a question of race but of ideology, or indeed theology. Race is not always the foundational moral category.

Consider the recent case of Lee Anderson. The MP for Ashfield has been suspended by the Tories for saying that “Islamists” had “got control” of London and its Mayor, Sadiq Khan. The script in response, carefully written by Tory spin doctors, is not to answer questions about whether this was Islamophobic but simply to admit that it was wrong. “We agree it was wrong,” said Nick Ferrari, interviewing minister Michael Tomlinson yesterday morning. “But why was it wrong?” The following exchange was highly instructive. “Nick, it was wrong,” replied Tomlinson. Ferrari quickly interjected: “Why was it wrong?” Tomlinson wouldn’t answer; he just repeated himself. In the end, after several attempts to ask the same question, Ferrari cut him off. All seemed to agree it was wrong — but why?

Khan himself tried to explain. It was a trope, he said. Now, we all know the trope about Jews controlling the world and being puppet-masters — that is an old and familiar one. But I must admit I hadn’t come across that same trope about Islamists, or even Muslims, controlling the world. So I had a little rummage around the internet, but couldn’t actually find anything. The familiar tropes are that Muslims are inherently violent, oppressive to women, intolerant, medieval and so on. Perhaps “Muslims are taking over” is a kind of trope, but nonetheless, I couldn’t help thinking that Kahn was himself just borrowing a trope well known to Jews and just applying it to Muslims. So, back to Ferrari’s question: what was wrong with it?

Perhaps it has something to do with Anderson stirring up a fear of the Other? There was little sensitivity or nuance in his comments. And yet, the fear seems to be real. After all, wasn’t that precisely the reason the Speaker of the House of Commons gave for accepting the Labour Party’s amendment during the recent Gaza debate — that Labour MPs feared intimidation if they did not back the call for an immediate ceasefire? And those of us who have Jewish relatives are all too familiar with their very real fear of going into town and travelling on the Tube when there are pro-Palestine demonstrations in central London.

But I also suspect the inability of some to say exactly what we find so problematic about Anderson’s comments does not stem from the desire to conceal something, but instead is a result of the intrinsic and often unacknowledged complexity of moral categories that have been continually refracted through very different political concerns — like in Northern Ireland. Our categories have become muddled. Moreover, surely the tenor of the current debate surrounding Islamophobia says a great deal more about the fact that there is a general election coming, and that the different parties are looking for ways to make the other side look bad.

But concern about radical Islam is real and we have to find a decent and intelligent way of speaking about it. Our mainstream political parties are supposed to offer moral leadership. And that means helping to create a space in which we can discuss some of the most difficult issues of our day without dripping poison into the wound. But for many of our elected representatives, the temptation to take an easy swipe is just too hard to resist. And the more they do, the less we understand.

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