In which August Scholl takes a look at the normalisation of Islamophobic views in political discourse in light of Cllr Franklin’s actions.
For anyone accepting public office, their words and actions matter. Whether an MP or a local councillor, elected officials have a duty to represent and be accountable to their constituents. When Conservative councillor for Luton and Wayfield, Michael Franklin, began sharing and endorsing intensely Islamophobic content on his Twitter account in 2016, he acted in a way unfitting for a local politician, as well as being in direct contravention of the Conservative Party code of conduct (‘To support equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion, and the absence of any and all inappropriate behaviour, in all aspects of the Party’s activities.’).
While this publication has already questioned why it has taken the Conservatives three years to take action over Cllr Franklin’s breech of discipline and decency, it is also necessary to ask what impact the parroting of racist ideology could have in the wider Medway community. While Brexit has intensified the debate and rhetoric around immigration, nationhood and ‘Britishness’, it has also further stoked hatred against British Muslims. Such Islamophobia is nothing news and has been a useful political tool for successive governments, from Tony Blair’s Labour of the Iraq War era, through to the current administration and Boris Johnson’s dogwhistle racism. As Tahir Abbas, Assistant Professor at the Leiden University Institute of Security and Global Affairs in The Hague, explains: ‘The authorities evoke security, terrorism, and focus on cultural relativism as a threat to the liberal secular older of Britishness’.
The use of Islamophobic language by politicians also has direct physical consequences. Boris Johnson’s comment that women wearing the hijab looked like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” was directly linked to a spike in attacks on Muslim women in the days following his speech. The toxicity of the debate over Brexit has emboldened people holding prejudices against ethnic minorities and immigrants, creating a situation where ‘the “normalisation” of bigotry by mainstream political discourse in broadcast studios and conference halls can translate into violence and intimidation on the streets.’
By endorsing racist tropes that tie Islam directly to child abuse, Cllr Franklin gave credence the views held by extremist groups such as Britain First and the (now defunct) English Defence League. Mainstream politicians regurgitating extreme rightwing ideology has created a situation where far-right figures such as Tommy Robinson are now entering mainstream politics. In the mouths of ‘respectable’ public figures, hateful and inflammatory discourse has the dual effect of both making such beliefs official and acceptable, as well as signalling to Cllr Franklin’s Muslim constituents that he considers them as inhuman and threatening.
Such behaviour on behalf of a local councillor is not only reprehensible, it also potentially endangers his own constituents. Medway already has documented problems with far-right Islamophobia, with Gillingham Mosque and its worshippers being subjected to two attacks in 2013 and 2015 and Britain First bringing chaos and violence to Rochester in 2014. With Islamopobic attacks against British Muslims on the rise, endorsing the beliefs that lead to those attacks is irresponsible in an area with nearly 400 Muslims in its population.
While Cllr Franklin cannot be held responsible for the poisoning of British political discourse on Islam, he is directly responsible for the views that he holds in public office and how he chooses to communicate them. In Britain, as in France in 2005, we live in a situation where ‘an ideological meta-narrative that is both racist and nationalist…has served as the validation and banalization of far right views’. By sharing and endorsing Islamophobic beliefs, Cllr Franklin undermined and endangered his Muslim constituents and gave tacit endorsement to anyone that would direct hatred or violence against them. We are at a dangerous stage in the normalisation of far right ideology in British politics and it is only right, if severely after the event, that Cllr Franklin is being held accountable for his actions.
August Scholl is a Medway based musician and activist.