IF one were to skim cursorily through news shows and debates around what happened in last Wednesday’s House of Commons vote on Gaza, it would be easy to walk away thinking that British democracy is under threat by Islamist extremists.

This is the dangerous narrative that both prominent politicians and journalists in the United Kingdom framed in the aftermath of last week’s drama in the UK Parliament surrounding a Labour motion on Gaza. The chaos began when Speaker Lindsay Hoyle made the controversial decision to allow a Labour amendment to the SNP’s motion supporting a ceasefire in Gaza.

This decision was met with outrage from the SNP and the Conservatives, who accused Hoyle of undermining parliamentary convention and caving to Labour pressure. Hoyle defended his decision by expressing concern for the safety of MPs, citing threats they had received over the Gaza conflict.

“I never want to go through a situation where I find a friend from any side has been murdered,” Hoyle said after the episode. “I also don’t want another attack on this House.” The speaker said he had seen evidence of “absolutely frightening” threats made to MPs because of their stance on the war in Gaza.

Soon after, a narrative began to emerge, that British democracy was under threat from dangerous Islamists — based entirely on claims of intimidation and threats from pro-Palestinian protesters, particularly Muslims, peddled by Tory MPs.

After Gaza vote, UK parliament debate fuels anti-Muslim sentiment, putting a question mark over Labour leader Keir Starmer’s weak leadership

This comes months after prominent Tory politicians, such as former home secretary Suella Braverman, dubbed pro-Palestinian marches “hate marches”.

The Islamophobic onslaught from Tory MPs was quick. Former cabinet minister, Robert Jenrick, said in the Commons that Britain has “allowed our streets to be dominated by Islamist extremists”. Jenrick spoke about “a pattern of Islamist extremists intimidating those they disagree with, backed by the prospect of violence”. Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, responded saying “could not agree more”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak added fuel to the fire when he later said, “We should never let extremists intimidate us into changing the way in which parliament works.”

Braverman wrote days after the vote that “the Islamists, the extremists, and the anti-semites are in charge now”. It prompted former Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson to attack Sadiq Khan and say that Islamists had “got control” of London and its mayor.

Journalists too, fanned the flames. Alicia Fitzgerald, a political reporter, amplified the sense of panic when she said on TV she’d been talking to Labour MPs, particularly women, who were “absolutely terrified” of leaving the Commons in the face of a pro-Palestinian “mob” outside.

But the roots of chaos last Wednesday laid bare how quickly public anger can be unleashed on Muslims — and how ultimately better leadership from Keir Starmer could have avoided this disaster.

A test for future PM

Commentator Owen Jones highlighted the role in all this of Labour party leader Keir Starmer. “Keir Starmer and his allies, clutching a can of petrol in one hand and a box of matches in the other, tutting loudly at the flames,” he tweeted.

Many felt that the chaos on Wednesday was the result of Sir Keir pressuring Hoyle into breaking protocol. Typically, an opposition party would not get to table an amendment to another opposition party’s motion.

A shadow minister told Sky News that Labour whips told Sir Lindsay they wouldn’t back him to carry on as the Commons Speaker after the next election if he didn’t pick their party’s amendment — an allegation categorically denied by Starmer who said he did not threaten the speaker but urged him to have the broadest possible debate.

Journalist Michael Walker said, “Labour will be pleased because it avoided a vote they would have found awkward. But this vote in Parliament mattered. Keir Starmer is likely to be the next prime minister and this was really a test of him. The SNP put out a clear motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and said that Israel is carrying out the collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

“To me, it would be important to see whether or not Keir Starmer is willing to stand behind an important position such as that. Obviously he wasn’t, but he was going to face a rebellion from his MPs against it by those who will likely be MPs in government soon. It would have been important for that SNP motion to be heard and voted on.”

‘Hierarchy of racism’

The comments against Sadiq Khan and pro-Palestinian marchers, especially Muslims, by members of the Conservative party have been widely criticised.

“We cannot have a hierarchy of racism within political parties — we don’t tolerate antisemitism or homophobia and we shouldn’t tolerate anti-Muslim racism,” Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi said.

“The attack on @SadiqKhan is very deliberate, it’s an attempt to stigmatise, stereotype and silence British Muslims and stop younger generations of British Muslims from entering public life. The standards we hold Labour to on racism are the standards we should hold ourselves to on racism, to do anything else makes us hypocrites,” she tweeted, tagging the Conservative party. She also expressed fears that her ‘colleagues want to toxify and destroy the Tory Party’ with their ‘deep-rooted hypocrisy’.

Peter Oborne writing for the Middle East Eye cautioned against making sweeping statements against Muslims without evidence. “If it is indeed the case that “radical Islamists” (or any other group) are threatening the lives of MPs and others, then drastic action is needed. But I issue one word of warning. No evidence has been provided. No evidence from the Speaker, who set the media storm in motion. Nothing from Starmer, who briefed him,” Oborne wrote.

He also noted, “When he [Hoyle] told MPs of his concerns about their safety, the narrative changed at once. The story was no longer about a weak Speaker bowing to intimidation from the Labour leader. It became an Islamist threat to parliamentary democracy — A story that has been swallowed without inspection, or a sight of a shred of evidence by Britain’s Islamophobic media.”

In a poignant thread unpacking threats to MPs, Labour’s Zahrah Sultana said efforts were being made to demonise the Palestine solidarity movement.

“Threats to safety and unacceptable abuse shouldn’t be tolerated. But we must resist conflating that with robust criticism and accountability.”

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2024

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