The summer of 2018 saw two contrasting blots on the landscape of British politics: crises of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Despite the incumbent Tory government being paralysed over Brexit, the opposition Labour party was unable to profit: their own narrative failed to escape – was not allowed to escape – accusations of anti-Semitism.
Limping alongside hot-takes on whether criticising Israel amounted to anti-Semitism was a crashing whimper over Muslim-bashing. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister Theresa May’s former cabinet minister and now jocular, backbench fluffball, fired the opening sortie of an unofficial leadership campaign in time-honoured fashion – by talking tough on Muslims. Using his column in The Daily Telegraph to opine on Denmark’s ban on the face veil, Johnson wrote that women who wore the niqab looked like letterboxes. Reports soon emerged of Britain’s fine youth indulging in a new pastime – pushing envelopes into the faces of veiled women, and pat condemnation duly followed – but nothing could prevent the quiet (but really not so quiet) affirmation of everyone’s favourite fluffball, as pictures of a smiling Mr Johnson serving tea to the Press in his shreddies, were widely shared.
So what did British Muslims, watching on like spectators, make of the show? For those of us of a certain age, there was nothing new to see – the players may have changed but the drama was classical (if no classic). But what of those coming of age – seeing for the first time just how much gleeful and casual invective was being dumped on their heads? And more to the point, what would happen when this bitter pill reached their bloodstream? Would they a) downplay their Muslim identification and retain simply a symbolic ethno-religious identity, b) adopt a cosmopolitan or internationalist identity, c) a dual identity, thinking of themselves as British Muslims, or even d) prioritise their Muslim identity, leaving their Britishness as something purely pragmatic, with little emotional attachment.