Nafeez Ahmed explores the connections between the British media and far-right extremism

When fascism returns to Europe, you won’t hear the march of jackboots, but the complacent chuckling of white media pundits after brown and black people call them out for cosying up to far-right extremists.

Which is basically what happened when Times columnists Melanie Phillips and Daniel Finkelstein were nominated for the 2018 UK Comments Awards—respectively shortlisted under the Society & Diversity and Brexit categories.

Both Phillips and Finkelstein have openly affiliated with dangerous, fringe far-right hate groups which have brazenly used the spectre of a migrant, Muslim invasion of the ‘free world’ to advance an apocalyptic vision that is racist at its core, and rooted in far-right anti-Semitism.

Comment is colonised

When Nesrine Malik and Gary Younge, nominees for the award, asked for their names to be withdrawn due to being shortlisted alongside Melanie Phillips, the organisers refused to remove their names from the shortlist. Malik and Younge were forced to publicly declare their withdrawal.

In turn, The Comment Awards issued a statement essentially saying that Malik’s and Younge’s concerns were irrelevant—because the judging process is democratic and focuses on writing done that year, not someone’s “body of writing” or “personality” (namely, the documented evidence of a person’s track record of promoting racism and bigotry against BAME people). The Awards, in other words, are operated from a position of white privilege which, by its inherent design, systematically excludes evidence of bigotry.

Fig 1: Instagram screenshot of Samantha Asumadu’s tweet

When I and Samantha Asumadu, a former Comment Awards judge in 2016, raised the issue on social media, we too were met with scorn. The Comment Awards re-posted Asumadu’s tweet expressing concern that the shortlisting of Phillips and Finkelstein “is mainstreaming far-right ideology”, adding the following light-hearted hashtags: #factssacreetoo [sic] #everyoneentitledtoanopinion #shortlisttwitterfrenzy.

The founder of the Awards herself, Julia Hobsbawm, posted underneath, “Someone hates the shortlist each and every year #democracyisflawedbutilikeit”

Hobsbawm proceeded to block Asumadu on Twitter in an act of silencing that belies the claim to be concerned about free speech.

Fig 2: comments under Comment Awards instagram post

This is how white supremacism works—a structure and a set of institutions, encompassing norms and values which marginalise BAME people, not by way of being brown-shirted fascists, but through being sticklers for the supposedly neutral bureaucratic ‘processes’ that protect white privilege.

Melanie Phillips’ jihad against the ‘Muslim Other’

These are the same processes that have allowed Melanie Phillips to develop a body of work systematically targeting and demonising migrants and Muslims in particular. Her work focuses on a simple idea—Western civilisation is under attack from an onslaught of foreigners (who happen to be increasingly Muslim) migrating to our shores who do not share ‘our’ Western values, and whose presence threatens the very survival of the West as we know it.

“Muslims not only despise Western secular values as decadent, materialistic, corrupt and immoral. They do not accept the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, the division which in Christian societies confines religion to the margins of everyday life,” Phillips once wrote in The Spectator:

“… This means that they feel a duty to Islamicise the values of the surrounding culture. Since most of the mass immigration now convulsing Europe is composed of Muslims, it is therefore hardly surprising that anti-immigrant feeling is largely anti-Muslim feeling. The sheer weight of numbers plus the refusal to assimilate to western values makes this an unprecedented crisis for western liberalism. The crisis is forcing it to confront the fundamental questions of what constitutes a country, national identity and the very nature of a liberal society.”

Phillips’ dog-whistling lunacy has extended from embracing far-right birther conspiracy theories about then President Barack Obama; to generalising about “the moral depravity of the Arabs” as “such savages.”

This year, she appeared on BBC Daily Politics denying the very existence of Islamophobia, which she described as a way for Muslims to shut down “legitimate criticism of the Muslim community”— that is, simply, Muslims.

Less well-known is that Phillips’ worldview draws on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She is an avid proponent of the conspiracy theory of ‘cultural Marxism’, which originated from the Nazis who first used the term ‘cultural Bolshevism’, and whose validity has been thoroughly debunked by historians. As Jason Wilson points out in the Guardian, the theory is “blatantly antisemitic, drawing on the idea of Jews as a fifth column bringing down western civilisation from within, a racist trope that has a longer history than Marxism. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theory was fabricated to order, for a special purpose: the institution and perpetuation of culture war.”

But perhaps most alarming is Phillips’ alignment with the so-called ‘International Free Press Society’ (IFPS), an anti-Muslim campaign group based in Denmark, closely tied to the Belgian Vlaams Belang (VB), a neo-Nazi political party founded by Flemish ultra-nationalists who collaborated with Nazis during the Second World War.

In 2009, Phillips received an award from the IFPS for her journalism, which she gratefully received in person, giving an inflammatory speech at the award ceremony. The group’s chairman, Lars Hedegaard, regularly makes inflammatory remarks about Muslims, such as saying that they “rape their own children. It is heard of all the time. Girls in Muslim families are raped by their uncles, their cousins or their fathers.” He also said: “Whenever it is prudent for a Muslim to hide his true intentions by lying or making a false oath in his own or in Islam’s service, then it is ok to do it.” After Hedegaard was charged for racism and hate speech for such pronouncements (he was eventually acquitted), Phillips mounted a spirited defence of him in the Mail.

Free speech, innit.

Phillips’ writings are not substantively distinct from the linguistic shift of some of the worst racist organisations, such as the BNP, to now focus on ‘non-racial’ categories of threat, namely culture, ideology and values.

But the effect is exactly the same—to manufacture, to project large groups of black, brown, accented, differently-clothed people as ‘Others’ functioning as homogenous entities with fixed general characteristics.

Racism has adapted, and evolved, and has thereby managed to slither its way into polite acceptability. Just make sure you use the right code words, and you will have senior white columnists jumping to your defence.

Which is what happened three years ago, when I wrote an article for Media Diversified focusing on the avid support for the Gatestone Institute by another of this year’s Comment Award nominees: Lord Daniel Finkelstein – long-time columnist and a former editor at The Times; a former Director of the right wing think-tank, Policy Exchange; a widely respected Tory peer; and an informal advisor and confidant to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Finkelstein and the fascist friends that time forgot

Fig 3: Twitter exchange with Daniel Finkelstein in March 2015

At the time, Lord Finkelstein sat on the Board of Governors of the Gatestone Institute, a notorious far-right think tank based in New York. He was entirely unrepentant about this relationship in March 2015.

Here is the unbroken text of Finkelstein’s comment to me at that time:

Fig 4: Twitter exchange with Daniel Finkelstein

“I naturally don’t (and didn’t) say that I didn’t know who it was or what it publishes or who it hosts. Of course I do. Being on the Board doesn’t mean I agree with every article or speaker, nor does it imply that I don’t. I don’t accept your characterisation of Gatestone… I think Gatestone acts as an excellent platform for some very good speeches. I think your idea that it [is] Gatestone that is fascist rather than the extremism it opposes is eccentric.”

Since the organisation’s inception, Gatestone has specialised in doing one basic thing, across pretty much every single article: promoting the idea that predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities are conspiring to wage an Islamic civilisational jihad against the West, inspired by Islam’s core teachings, through a combination of immigration, high-birth rates, political entryism, and multiculturalism—all as a cover for the creeping establishment of brutal Shariah Law.

Fig 5: Twitter exchange with Finkelstein

You will note the happy parallels with the writings of Phillips.

Archives of the Gatestone Institute’s website reveal that Finkelstein first joined Gatestone’s Board of Governors in December 2014.

This was shortly after he spoke at a Gatestone event in October 2014. In a now deleted Jewish Chronicle article (archived here via Press Reader but inexplicably disappeared from the Chronicle website), Finkelstein explained: “I was in New York addressing the Gatestone Institute and my audience, a sympathetic (to my way of thinking) right minded bunch were quizzical.”

Before and during Finkelstein’s tenure there, Gatestone authors repeated ad nauseum the debunked claim that Europe was replete with Muslim ‘no-go zones’ that were “off-limits to non-Muslims” functioning as “microstates governed by Islamic Sharia law”. I mentioned this to Finkelstein in 2015, but it didn’t faze him.

Gatestone authors repeatedly endorsed Dutch Freedom Party politician Geert Wilders’ political programme demanding a wholesale ban on the Qur’an, a shutdown of all mosques, and the end of all Muslim immigration to Europe.

I had also put this to Finkelstein, along with Gatestone’s support of Wilders’ racist call for “fewer, fewer” ethnic Moroccans in the Netherlands. Finkelstein was nonplussed, insisting that Wilders deserved a platform to air such views, and refusing to condemn them.

He was so nonplussed that he was proud to speak at a Gatestone event in January 2016.

In 2017, Gatestone published an article claiming that “the native population… the white population—of Europe faces extinction” due to the astronomical “birthrate” and “massive influx of Muslim migrants”. Meanwhile, the article claimed, the white population was “very efficiently wiping itself out of existence” through abortions.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and Finkelstein’s four-year affiliation with Gatestone was blasted into public consciousness when journalist Abigail Wilkinson confronted him about it on Twitter.

Fig 6: Twitter exchange between Khadim Shubber and Daniel Finkelstein

Finkelstein’s response was an extremely revealing exercise in dissimulation. The most egregious of these was to her husband, Financial Times journalist Khadim Shubber.

So Finkelstein now claims he never “had any role” and his only mistake was laziness: “once I do know, just left it.”

Finkelstein added that he “believed” he decided to resign in February 2018, and that he simply hadn’t been “paying attention” to Gatestone’s activities.

Fig 7: Tweet from Finkelstein

Yet according to the parliamentary register of interests, Finkelstein was so studious in not paying any attention to Gatestone that he conducted a “speaking engagement” for them in the very month that he resigned. The now deleted events page at Gatestone confirms that Finkelstein hosted Gatestone at the House of Lords on 21st February.

White supremacism as a structure that colonises minds

Taking issue with the shortlisting of Phillips and Finkelstein for a prestigious British journalism award is not about them, but about the racist harm that they have done; the legitimisation of that harm through their recognition by an award process such as this; and the condescending silencing of BAME concerns about this harm.

The cursory dismissive response of The Comment Awards to these concerns illustrates the functioning of white supremacism as a structure. The organisers merely reiterate the relentlessness of the outcome in hindsight, and aver any responsibility for it, by blaming ‘neutral’ ‘democratic’ processes that the award has utilised since inception. The goal of The Comment Awards’ statement appears to be singular: nothing to see here, move along; don’t ruin the party—the self-assuaging of white guilt.

The 2018 Comment Awards manifest and legitimise a baseline inequality in power where privileged white opinion formers have utter impunity to promote lazy, derogatory and harmful generalisations about religious and ethnic minorities. And no one blinks an eyelid, except a few upstart brown and black journalists who really should know better (and their place).

Yes, comment is free. At least when you’re white, anyway.

This article is abridged, find more detail in the long-read here on INSURGE.

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Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of INSURGE intelligence. Nafeez is a 17-year investigative journalist, formerly of The Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social, economic and environmental crises. Nafeez reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard, and on regional geopolitics for Middle East Eye. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic applying complex systems analysis to ecological and political violence. He is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute.

Main image: Lord Daniel Finkelstein

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