Last week I vowed never to go on another march. Then Donald Trump went and banned Muslims and I had to break my promise because he kept his.
So on Monday evening, I found myself – a week on from the women’s march – outside Downing Street with thousands of others showing solidarity with Muslims across the world and to send a message to our Prime Minister that this xenophobic ban is not OK.
I have skin in the game (brown). I’m Muslim and, although I am very much lapsed due to my love of wine, Islamaphobia is a subject close to my heart. My family experienced the good and bad bits of being the ‘other’ but overall there was a great sense of inclusion and warmth when we grew up in Coatbridge. My brother is a now a surgeon in Paisley and I’m a beige woman writing for the Scotsman (he wins) and as the children of Muslim immigrants, we’re both proud to have been born here and to have been allowed to feel we are Scottish through and through.
It’s tough being Muslim these days due to the poison of radical extremism. This ideology is sick and should not be tolerated in any way. But this tiny minority clearly does not represent the millions of Muslims all across the world who live their lives peacefully and in a boring ordinary way – the same way that most normal folk do who are Christian, or Jewish, or Sikh, or any other religion, or those of no faith. It’s not that hard a concept to grasp, but it’s an easy lie to peddle. To prey on people’s anxieties, to sow the seeds of division, to blame a group for everything that is going wrong – especially when you have no answers and you don’t even pretend to. Racism and xenopobia are Trump’s greatest hope in his alternative fact reality.
To be honest, I’m kicking myself for even being surprised by the Muslim ban. Turns out Trump’s a man of his word. The clues were pretty clear from his inauguration speech. It was red meat rhetoric for the Rust Belt. “America first!” he brayed, his tiny wee fists punching the air as he vowed to rid the world of radical Islam. That’s a bold claim and his nonsensical ban – which doesn’t even include Saudi Arabia – will only serve to fuel the extremists’ desire to pit the West against Islam and recruitment.
He’s also been very quiet about the claims that the man who allegedly murdered Muslims in a mosque in Canada on Monday was apparently a white far-right Trump sympathiser. To be fair though, Trump is behaving exactly to type and the one thing you can’t accuse him of is hypocrisy.
But what of our Prime Minister and British government? I wanted to give Theresa May the benefit of the doubt. I hoped that that as our Prime Minister and as a prominent female leader, she would be strong and clear in her ability to stand up to the US President at the start of a critical new diplomatic and political era. To offer the hand of cooperation; to forge a future relationship which was based on mutual respect, commercial advantage and shared values. No 10 had briefed that she was going to raise women’s rights and that she wasn’t going to be a pushover. Cut to the most cringey pictures we’ve seen since Nigel Farage swooped in for a kiss with Diane James (remember her?). The general fawning and hand-holding was something else. The press conference walk on music should have been Just the Two of Us. And before anyone starts going on about ‘bathmophobia’ or fear of slopes, two points. One – I have a condition called Trumpohobia, a fear of scary, unhinged, deeply unpleasant world leaders. Two – he’s not a man famed for his sensitivity to people with disabilities. Also… if The Donald tries to grab any part of your body, run!
But forget the photographs. It was her initial failure to condemn the ban on Muslims which cast such a stain. She was asked in Turkey repeatedly and she refused to address the issue. It can be difficult to get the right ‘line’ on international affairs, but this one was clear cut. If it looks and sounds xenophobic and it’s come from Trump, it probably is. May’s silence spoke volumes. Either she agreed with the Muslim ban or she was so desperate for that post-Brexit US trade deal, she was too scared to criticise it.
It wasn’t until the wheels of the PM’s plane touched down in London and the No 10 team saw the reaction to the concerned tweets of Iraqi-born Conservative MP Nadim Zawahi that the penny dropped. Zawahi was a supporter of Brexit so is hardly a big old leftie. But it took a universal backlash to prompt No 10 into issuing a statement well after other national leaders had spoken out, from Nicola Sturgeon to Justin Trudeau, and it was too late.
Leadership is about knowing when to stand up for the right things. I don’t blame May for trying to have a strong relationship with the United States, an important ally and market. But the fact that we are cutting ourselves off from Europe does not mean we should bend the knee at any cost.
We are in uncharted political waters. We are leaving the EU. We have in Trump a leader who won off the back of xenophobic scare mongering about Muslims and Mexicans. There is a rise in hate crime and angry far-right politics. This is a moment of global fragility and despite everything, the world still looks to the UK as a powerful champion for human rights and decency. If May wants to make Britain Great again, I humbly suggest she takes back control and cancels that State Visit.
Ayesha Hazarika is a former Labour adviser who is now a political commentator, broadcaster and stand up comedian.