The article was originally published on NewStatesman here.
Reflections on conversations with a murdered MP.
Thomas Mair, a white supremacist, has been found guilty of murdering the Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency. As the co-founder of a think-tank, I had corresponded with her extensively on email on the issues of Islamophobia, Syria, and extremism. Jo fought against hate and human suffering, yet it was hate that took her life.
She was best known for her work on the Syria conflict. She led the Friends of Syria parliamentary group with Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP, and penned thoughtful opinion pieces on the conflict. Whether it was on the forced starvation of the people of Madaya, increasing delivery of humanitarian aid or passionate support for child refugees, there was no one more outspoken than her on Syria. It was for these reasons she took the principled and difficult decision to abstain on the vote for extension of airstrikes against Isis in Syria. As she put it to me, this was because only targeting Isis was too limited, with not enough focus on protecting civilians.
At Averroes, we were astonished to come across a politician of such rational and humanitarian policy ideas, who could also cut through partisan politics. In our discussions, we had suggested to Jo that UK policy in Syria, Islamophobia, Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy (and Prevent) were all interrelated and interdependent. She in turn noted how acts of terror were driving up Islamophobic sentiments and that in turn was feeding back into radicalisation. She sought our advice on engaging social media giants to do more to clamp down on hate speech. It is important Jo is not only remembered for what she achieved in such a short period in public office, but what she would have achieved, should her life not been so prematurely cut short.
Jo was especially keen on doing whatever possible to address the growth of religious hatred. Our view was that the law on incitement to religious hatred is inadequate, since it only intervenes when the speech is deemed to intentionally threaten imminent violence. Jo asked for examples, and showed us a picture she had uncovered of an advert for a car on sale in her constituency accompanied by the disclaimer that “Muslims need not call”. A lesser known fact about Jo is that she had applied for a debate on “legal protection for faith communities from hatred and prejudice”.
Now that her murderer has been found guilty, it is time for the nation to take a long and deep look at itself. We must find something positive in this tragic event. In the words of her husband: “She would have wanted…that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.” There is an ongoing debate about whether this should be deemed a terrorist attack or not, whether this the act of a single, deranged individual or one with an extremist ideology. British Muslims are very aware of the media bias when reporting these events, but I would suggest that they suspend any feeling of victimhood and focus on Jo’s work and commitment to those who have suffered.
The final judgement on Mair’s motivations can be a wake up call. Let us support the causes she pursued, and do so in the same manner she conducted herself. Jo was murdered while doing constituency work, but politicians can follow Jo’s example in considering their constituency as one extending to those who need the help most, whether they be based locally, nationally or internationally.
Let us redouble our efforts to resolve the Syria crisis, and increase our willingness and readiness to provide refuge to those fleeing unimaginable conditions, especially unaccompanied children. Let us not continue to stir up hatred against made-up bogeymen for our own personal gain. Let us say no to any kind of divisive and hate-filled politics towards any groups of people, for it will only be a matter of time before that hatred turns into murderous intent in the mind of an individual like Mair.
By Murtaza Shaikh, co-director of Averroes.