Across Europe and America, populist movements have flourished by exploiting people’s fears over the assimilation of Muslims and the rise of Islamist extremism. It has poisoned an already emotive and sensitive debate, but a valuable and intelligent contribution has been made by Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.
Murray launches a scathing attack on Europe’s mainstream politicians and accuses them of allowing mass migration, particularly from Islamic countries, to change the cultural fabric of Europe, including Britain, without consulting their electorates. This has left Europe, he argues, with “an existential tiredness and a feeling that perhaps for Europe the story has run out and a new story must be allowed to begin.” The result has been a failure to address people’s concerns regarding the consequences of mass migration.
One of the most appalling examples Murray picks to illustrate his argument is the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal where a gang of men, largely of Pakistani origin, groomed and trafficked at least 1,400 children, mostly white working-class girls, over two decades. For years, the police suppressed stories about the gang for fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia. There have been similar cases in 11 other areas. Stories such as this have left people disillusioned with the state and its ability to protect the public.
When Sarah Champion attempted to highlight this problem, albeit in clumsy language, she faced a maelstrom of abuse from her fellow Labour members and was forced to resign from the Shadow Cabinet. After defending Champion’s comments on Newsnight, Amina Lone was deselected as a local Labour candidate on spurious grounds. When mainstream politicians shut down debates on these issues, it leaves them open to manipulation by populists.
The three terror attacks committed by home-grown Islamists in Britain earlier this year have increased the relevancy of Murray’s work. Why have people who were born and bred in Britain chosen to murder their fellow citizens, and what can the state do to stop this from happening again? Theresa May has focused on pursuing new anti-terror measures, including a ban on encrypted data, and eliminating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But this has not be enough to satisfy public anger with the state’s failure to prevent these attacks.
Jeremy Corbyn used this to his advantage during the election. In a speech following the Manchester Bombing, Corbyn chose to make a connection between “wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.” To the media, it was shocking that Corbyn was blaming British foreign policy for acts of terrorists. But for voters who are still angry with the Iraq War and other foreign interventions, this sounded like common sense. In spite of his relations with Hamas and Hezbollah, Corbyn managed to shift people’s anger exclusively towards the Government, and away from the rise of Islamist extremism identified by Murray.
But the changing nature of UKIP might bring British politics closer to the anti-Islam populism of Geert Wilders in Holland and Marine Le Pen in France. In an attempt to shore up its support during the election, UKIP unveiled a manifesto tilted towards various anti-Islam measures. Lisa Duffy, one of last year’s leadership candidates, called for a “total ban” on Muslim schools. This year’s leadership race includes Anne Marie Waters, a far right anti-Islam candidate with connections to Tommy Robinson and the EDL. More and more, UKIP appears to be moving away from its eurosceptic and libertarian roots.
Conservatives should fight back against populists with extreme anti-Islam agendas. Bigotry has no place in the Conservative heart. But the problems related to mass migration cannot be allowed to continue. This does not just mean reducing immigration numbers to a sustainable level. It is also about conserving a strong British identity rooted in liberal values and historic traditions which can give everyone a sense of belonging, regardless of their race or religion. Conservatives can achieve this through a “muscular liberalism” which charts a middle way between the extremes.