Tolerance in UK at an all-time low — and not only because of Gaza

Tolerance in UK at an all-time low — and not only because of Gaza

Tolerance in UK at an all-time low — and not only because of Gaza
A military vehicle maneuvers near the Israel-Gaza border, in Israel, February 28, 2024. (Reuters)
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Some in the UK believe the war in Gaza has rocked the country’s political system, revealing a further gulf between politicians and their people.
Many are of the opinion that the conflict has whipped up sentiment across the board that has metamorphosed into growing levels of Islamophobia and antisemitism, endangering social cohesion in the country. Others believe the chaos in the British Parliament last week ahead of several votes on support for a ceasefire in Gaza was of a kind never before witnessed in Westminster.
The war in Gaza might be the most direct cause for all of the above right now, but one must not be so hasty to blame it alone for the rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism, or for the many parliamentary sessions and votes that have descended into chaos.
In the past few years especially, we have seen extreme sentiments expressed both inside and outside of Parliament; for example, between pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners or during the many sessions that aimed to hold former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to account after he lied to Parliament about parties held at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic, in contravention of his government’s own COVID-19 restrictions.
Two events last week fueled further anger among politicians from various parties and increased the polarization between them and the people they govern. The first was the tension over whether or not Parliament should officially call for a ceasefire in Gaza and the exact language to use. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle broke with the usual parliamentary procedures because of what he described as “absolutely frightening” threats made against lawmakers.
The second event was also related to Gaza. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suspended an MP and former vice chairman of the party, Lee Anderson, after he refused to apologize for saying that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, a member of the opposition Labour Party, was under the control of Islamists.
Anderson cited as evidence of this Khan’s alleged leniency in relation to the policing of pro-Palestinian marches that have taken place in London week after week during the conflict in Gaza, and especially after participants last Wednesday projected slogans onto Elizabeth Tower at Westminster, the structure that houses Big Ben. They included the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which critics often wrongly interpret as a call for the elimination of the state of Israel.
Without using the word “Islamophobic,” Sunak repeatedly condemned Anderson’s comments as unacceptable and wrong, and confirmed that he had been suspended from the Conservative Party. However, the prime minister also said there was an emerging pattern of incidents that “should not be tolerated.” These, he said, included legitimate protests hijacked by extremists to promote and glorify terrorism, and violent verbal and physical threats to elected representatives.
In Sunak’s words “this explosion in prejudice and antisemitism since the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7 are as unacceptable as they are un-British.” 

Islamophobia, antisemitism, toxic race relations and issues and tensions related to the UK’s national identity predate the war in Gaza.

Mohamed Chebaro

One could not agree more with him on that. But whether he likes it or not, many believe that his government’s policies since Oct. 7 have not only failed to calm matters but have exacerbated them. Some official comments and statements have fueled communal tensions, further stoking Islamophobic and antisemitic attitudes in the country. This is a direct result of a failure to apply an even-handed and sober approach, in favor of divisive political maneuvering and electioneering that has only played into the hands of extreme voices on all sides.
A recent report by a monitoring group said that incidents of anti-Muslim hate in the UK have more than tripled since Oct. 7. The organization, Tell MAMA, recorded 2,010 such incidents in the four months following the attacks by Hamas on Israel that sparked the Israeli war on Gaza.
These figures include reported incidents of abusive behavior, threats, assaults, vandalism, discrimination, hate speech and anti-Muslim literature. Women were the targets in 65 percent of the cases. Many Islamophobic incidents go unreported, but the figures nonetheless show that such incidents increased from 600 during the same period a year earlier to more than 2,000.
Similarly, a Jewish charity this month reported that antisemitic incidents in Britain hit record levels last year and surged following Oct. 7. The Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism in the UK, recorded 4,103 “anti-Jewish hate incidents” in 2023, the highest annual tally since it began to keep records in 1984. This represented a 147 percent increase on the 1,662 incidents recorded in 2022.
This unwelcome increase in Islamophobia and antisemitism is indeed related to the situation in Gaza and it reveals that a segment of British society has been influenced by the conflict and mobilized against its adopted nation’s foreign policy stance (but that is a topic for another discussion).
However, it is safe to say that Islamophobia, antisemitism, toxic race relations and issues and tensions related to the UK’s national identity predate the war in Gaza and other conflicts. British governments have long grappled with how to cure Britain of such ills when they have emerged at various times in a society that, in general, prides itself on its ethnic and religious mix, under the umbrella of multiculturalism, upholds personal freedoms above all and encourages the peaceful expression of differing opinions. In other words, the kind of values that many believe are the source of the British success story.
The question we have to ask now is whether tolerance is in retreat in Britain. The short answer is, sadly, yes. This is especially true when it seems that a majority of those at the forefront of public life in the UK, such as politicians and other figures, hold views that border on toxicity.
Anderson is not alone on his headline-grabbing journey. For a long time, the ruling Conservative Party and its leaders have been in denial about anti-Muslim hate in the country. The fact they are still in denial about the current manifestations of the problem only points to the situation getting worse.
Some years ago, Johnson wrote that Muslim women who wear a veil look “ridiculous,” like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers.” A former interior minister in a Conservative government claimed that the entire country was under Islamist rule and implied that British Muslims who protest against the war in Gaza are antisemitic. The list could go on.
What is certain, sadly, is that Islamophobia, like antisemitism, has continued to simmer beneath the surface in British society, only to emerge forcefully whenever divisive trends take control of the national discourse.
In the UK, a nation of many diverse communities and minority groups, this could easily become an incendiary situation. It must be carefully handled by everyone, on all sides, for the sake of the common good, social cohesion and the stability of the country.

Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view