Contribution to debate on Religious Intolerance and Hatred, House of Lords, 17 October 2018
My Lords, I am sure all Members present would wish to endorse the Minister’s final calls at the end of his wide-ranging speech.
We have grown used to pogroms against minorities at various stages in our history as a country: against Jews intermittently and sometimes continuously over the millennia; against the Irish in the nineteenth century; against Jews again in the 1930s; against black and Asian Britons from the late 1950s until today; and against Muslims in the first two decades of this century. But what is entirely novel today is a toxic convergence of attacks on Jewish, black and Muslim British citizens all at the same time. I am not aware of any period in our history when this has occurred before. It is deadly serious, with many of our citizens living in fear or terror simply because of their religion, race or skin colour. This is not just scandalous, it is criminal.
Let us touch on the sheer scale of the problem, turning first to attacks on Jews and synagogues. The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain reached the highest level on record last year, including a 34% increase in the number of violent assaults, according to the Community Security Trust. It stated that in 2017 there were nine incidents involving the,
“desecrations of, or anti-Semitic damage to, synagogues”,
in the UK. In the previous year, there were 11 such incidents. The most recent CST report for the period from January to June 2018 states:
“There were 43 incidents of damage and desecration of Jewish property recorded by CST in the first six months of 2018 … Three of the incidents in this category in the first half of 2018 involved the desecration of Jewish gravestones, eight affected synagogue buildings and 18 happened at people’s homes. All involved some element of anti-Semitic targeting, language or imagery in order to be recorded as anti-Semitic by CST”.
There have been other attacks on Jewish citizens, including on fellow parliamentarians; notably, Luciana Berger MP has been subject to abuse, intimidation and attacks of the vilest kind, not just by fascists, but, I am ashamed to say by a tiny hard-left sect comprising members of the Labour Party backed up by the far left outside. One shouted “traitor” at me when I attended the “Stand Up to Anti-Semitism” rally in Parliament Square in the summer. These people seem to imagine they are promoting Palestinian rights by such attacks; as a robust supporter of justice for the Palestinians since the early 1970s, I can tell them flatly that they are damaging, not enhancing, that vital cause—a message that my party leader might heed as well.
Ironically, the Labour Party has long allied itself with our Jewish citizens and it is the Tory Party that has over the decades given shelter to anti-Semites. Today, as brave Conservative Peers, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, have pointed out, the Tory Party remains riddled with Islamophobia, and some Tories work with UKIP figures such as Nigel Farage and Trump supporters such as Steve Bannon, who have helped create a climate of fear for Muslims.
As European Parliament Member Claude Moraes wrote in the Guardian in June after about 15,000 supporters of Tommy Robinson, the fascist former leader of the English Defence League, had marched in London:
“Make no mistake, this is an attempt to build an ‘alt-right’, pro-Trump movement in Britain. Saturday’s demo included chants of ‘Make Britain Great Again’”.
That march was organised by a former editor-in-chief of Bannon’s Breitbart, and an ex-EDL deputy leader; it was backed by Bannon, with forces to the right of the Conservative Party in Britain from UKIP as well as ex-BNP and National Front supporters and the Football Lads Alliance.
Then there are the attacks on Muslims and mosques. The latest report of the organisation Tell MAMA—Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks—recorded a total of 1,330 reports of Islamophobic attacks in the United Kingdom in 2017, representing a 30% rise when compared to the previous reporting period. In the same year, Tell MAMA recorded 54 incidents that were,
“perpetrated against mosques, Islamic schools and Islamic cultural centres. They include Islamophobic graffiti, threatening letters, the dumping of pork products outside a building, or interpersonal attacks against people attending a mosque”.
Turning to racist activity, in 2017-18, 94,098 hate crime offences were recorded by the police in England and Wales, an increase of 17% on the previous year. Of these, the great bulk—71,251, or 76%—were race hate crimes and 8,336, or 9%, were religious hate crimes. A lot of this extremism is being orchestrated by, or follows the activity of, far-right groups, such as the racist fascist English Defence League and the Football Lads Alliance, as well as, now, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, or DFLA—a contradiction in terms, I would think—set up in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack in 2017, which has been supported by Tommy Robinson.
On 18 June 2017, Darren Osborne from Wales drove a van into a crowd of people gathered outside a north London mosque—the one referred to, I believe, by the Minister—killing one man and injuring 12 people. He had also intended to murder the leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London. He had no history of extremism but his ex-partner claimed he had been radicalised in just three weeks by devouring anti-Muslim extremist propaganda online, after which he was ready to kill innocent people. Eyewitnesses reported that he shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims!” The judge said that Osborne had been,
“rapidly radicalised over the internet by those determined to spread hatred of Muslims”.
Evidence showed that he was infatuated with Tommy Robinson and the Nazi-like Britain First organisation.
Then there is Britain’s Young Right Society, run by a Breitbart journalist who is an associate of Trump adviser Steve Bannon. HOPE not hate revealed that the group was “frequently awash with appalling racist” content, white supremacy, jokes about the Holocaust and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It was also used to organise the members for events. Because it was formed secretly, it was exposed only when one member alerted HOPE not hate to its existence.
Let us take just a few recent examples of the effect in our communities of these groups’ extremist activities of religious persecution. A mosque and a Sikh gurdwara in Leeds were attacked in the early hours of a Tuesday morning in early June in what police treated as hate crimes. The assaults followed a march in Leeds the previous Friday in defence of jailed fascist and anti-Muslim extremist Tommy Robinson, who has a long record of far-right activity, criminality and violence. Police said the main door at Jamia Masjid Abu Huraira Mosque in Beeston, Leeds, was deliberately set on fire at around 3.30 am. Police were called to the nearby gurdwara in Beeston, at around 4.20 am, after someone had set the door on fire. Councillor Gohar Almas, a local Labour councillor was reported as saying:
“Somebody tried to set the mosque and the gurdwara alight. The mosque is bang opposite a primary school. What kind of message is this sending to the children?”
One person at the gurdwara spoke of a “sentiment of fear” among people following the attacks, especially the half dozen who live in the gurdwara, including two elderly couples. A volunteer at the gurdwara told “Leeds Live”:
“It is a big concern. I have got sadness with me. This is something which should never have happened”.
Rafaqat Ali from the mosque told local media that he was “upset and shocked”. Another mosque member added, “My kids go there and are scared now, because of this attack”.
The timing was significant—this is a point I want to emphasise—because these attacks followed Tommy Robinson’s supporters demonstrating in Leeds after he was jailed for breaching a court order. Various fascists had organised protests to defend his so-called free speech. However, as local councillor Gohar Almas said, allowing Nazis free speech is dangerous. He said that the only thing that should not be tolerated is intolerance; spreading hate speech, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia should not be tolerated. He added that the march by Tommy Robinson supporters had “absolutely” given racists more confidence. Gohar said, “We have fought this before. We are a united and resilient community—a community of communities. We are here to unite people, not divide people, and we will not let people divide us”. Let us send a message of solidarity to him and his mosque, and to other local religious institutions.
Only the other Saturday, fascist thugs blocked a bus on one of the roads next to Trafalgar Square because the driver was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Video footage of the incident showed one of these thugs appearing to give the “Sieg Heil” salute toward the bus. A photo shows a topless man holding two fingers up to the bus driver through the glass. Others on this fascist mobilisation banged on the bus windows with “Free Tommy” placards or brandished ones reading “Britain Loves Trump”.
The point I wish to stress is this: violent attacks against our Muslim, Jewish and black citizens flow from far-right mobilisations and far-right activism as night follows day. There is an umbilical link between activity by racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic extremists and these sorts of vile attacks. Over the past year or so, the sheer scale of these far-right protests, and the numbers in attendance, is unprecedented.
In Manchester last year, 3,000 Tommy Robinson supporters were mobilised. On 24 June 2017, in London, the Football Lads Alliance mobilised nearly 5,000. On 7 October last year, the Football Lads Alliance mobilised 10,000, maybe more. On 18 March this year, at Speakers’ Corner in London, Tommy Robinson supporters numbered 500. On 24 March, in Birmingham, the Football Lads Alliance and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance mobilised up to 5,000 in total. On 5 May this year—“Tommy Robinson Day”, they called it—5,000 supporters marched in his honour. On 19 May, in Manchester, the Football Lads Alliance mobilised 300 people. On 26 May, in London, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters mobilised 400. In Leeds, on 30 May, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters mobilised 400. On 2 June 2018, in Manchester, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance supporters numbered around 1,800. On 9 June, in London, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters numbered 15,000. On 23 June, in London, UK freedom marchers, made up of various far-right groups including some UKIP members, numbered 2,500. On 14 July, in London, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters numbered up to 10,000. These are big numbers—far bigger than anything I have seen in modern decades. That is why we need actively to support anti-racist groups such as Unite Against Fascism, Stand Up to Racism, HOPE not hate, Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out.
When I helped launch the Anti-Nazi League in September 1977, it was to meet a growing threat, both on the streets and in elections, from the Nazi National Front. Working with Rock Against Racism to organise national carnivals and local gigs, but also by confronting the National Front whenever and wherever its members tried to march or rally, we eventually managed defeat it. Then, over 20 years later, the British National Party took its place, and again we had to mobilise to defeat it. However, the threat today of religious and racial persecution is far more insidious and dangerous.
Today’s threat is occurring right across Europe, against a backdrop of despair at neoliberal economic policies which generate massive job insecurity and hopelessness—the habitual fertile breeding ground for racism, fascism and anti-Semitism. From Germany to Greece, from Sweden to Switzerland, from Britain to Belgium, the far right is growing and succeeding, targeting immigrants and religious minorities—familiar scapegoats for collective government economic failure. It must not be allowed to succeed. We need a modern Keynesian alterative to rescue our communities from the austerity and misery of neoliberalism. As we saw so fatally in the 1930s, if that does not occur, persecution of religious and other minorities by racists, fascists, anti-Semites and Nazis will gain increasing traction.