British media has, of late, been ablaze with a controversy that has little to do with Brexit, for a change. The philosopher and author Roger Scruton was interviewed by the New Statesman magazine on a variety of topics, among them immigration in Hungary, China, Islam and George Soros. After select quotes were published as part of the ensuing article, Scruton's statements outraged so many that he was dismissed from an unpaid, advisory position in the British government.
Weeks later, the controversy rages on, with demands that he be reinstated, on the basis that he was misrepresented by the magazine. The full transcript of the interview was released recently and a defence of Scruton, particularly from the British right wing, intensified, as though it somehow vindicated him. But did it? Or does this episode teach us something about the attitudes considered to be acceptable in contemporary British society, particularly when it comes to Islam and Muslims?
From the outset, it is important to assess what those comments around Islam and Muslims were. Scruton's defenders insist that he isn't bigoted, noting that he has said a range of things in praise of certain aspects of both Islam and Muslims. That doesn't absolve him. Bigots have often praised certain things about groups they view as inferior – because, taken as a whole, they still view them as undeserving of the same dignity that their own group warrants.
Scruton, for example, characterises Islamophobia as a “propaganda word”, at a time when the UK is battling anti-Muslim bigotry from a variety of quarters. This applies to the Conservative party in particular. Various prominent media institutions have called for a transparent internal inquiry on Islamophobia within its ranks. Public figures such as the former chairperson of the party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, have been persistent on this point, assisted by a few from within the party, and many outside it.
When interviewed, Scruton said the term Islamophobia was "invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue which we are all worried about". Against the backdrop of rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the UK and beyond, this would seem to be a particularly controversial thing to claim. The most recent example of weaponised anti-Muslim hatred in the New Zealand attacks would be ample evidence on its own, but there are many other instances.
In these pages, I have previously expressed reservations about the term Islamophobia, for a variety of reasons relating to precision. But the substance of the term is entirely valid, and there is no evidence at all to suggest it was formulated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Scruton's mentioning of that group can only be explained by an intention to disrupt discussion around anti-Muslim bigotry in the UK.
So what is this “major issue which we are all worried about”? According to Scruton, it is "the extent to which Islam condones or does not condone the violence committed in its name". In this framing, Islamophobia cannot be discussed, except in relation to extremism by Muslims. Irrespective of how one feels about the Muslim Brotherhood – and I have critiqued that group many times – deploying it as a scarecrow would seem to be a way to “stop discussion of a major issue” that we should all be worried about: anti-Muslim sentiment on a wide scale.
In the same interview in the New Statesman, Scruton described Muslim refugees to Europe as a "sudden invasion of huge tribes" – again, language that is aimed at stigmatising Muslims, strengthening the hand of the far right, which seeks to do the same. Elsewhere, Scruton has previously argued that "the proposition that pious Muslims from the hinterlands of Asia would produce children loyal to a secular European state" is an "impossible" one. Such sentiments are hardly congruent with the notion that he is a "friend" to Muslims, as one opinion piece in the right-wing Spectator magazine has argued.
Who does Scruton reference as authorities on Islam in his works and in that interview? Rather than notable experts on Islam, he draws our attention to the likes of the author and Spectator journalist Douglas Murray and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Mr Murray, long a favourite of the conservative right in the UK, once had relations with the Conservative party broken off because of his anti-Muslim comments. That the Conservative party would take such a step is damning evidence indeed. As for Ms Hirsi Ali, The Economist notes that she calls Islam "the new fascism" and "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death". How can either – neither of whom are noted as having even elementary academic expertise in Islamic studies – be described as authorities on Islam?
Too many try to argue that Scruton showing some positive interest in what some Muslims in the past and present have said somehow exonerates him – but without critiquing the problematic statements he has made about Muslims and Islam.
It seems that there is a segment of society that does find such statements acceptable, and as such, wishes to explain them away or simply ignore them. We would do well to pay attention to the words of King's College London professor Jonathan Portes, who notes Scruton’s apologia about the racist politician Enoch Powell: “Sadly, intellectual, political and street-level bigotry are inseparable, both in theory and practice”. Scruton’s discourse is an example of intellectual bigotry that makes political and street-level bigotry far more acceptable. His defenders back him because they see him as an ally in a culture war. We should confront that bigotry, and give it no quarter.
Dr HA Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council