Best frenemies

Beware of men who publicly spar and argue with famously hostile opponents — rousing passions on all sides — who in private are the best of friends. You might be surprised, but there are many like this. Men who seem to be the foremost vanguards against the rising tide of Islamophobia, adopting the most veracious stance against proponents of hatred, who, it turns out, laugh and joke with the very same folk when the cameras are off and the microphones have stopped recording.

Every now and then, men like this get caught out, stabbed in the back by men just as duplicitous as them, but with attentions spans as short as ours we quickly move on, believing in the next saviour to come our way, who we futilely believe is destined to deliver us from the evil of others. Amongst them are men who rail against the state, the security services and the system, who it turns out work with or for the very organisations they demonise. Amongst them, men who rail against the racist press, who it turns out take fees for their stories. Amongst them men who fight on television screens and before vast audiences in public debates with household names in the Islamophobia industry, who behind the scenes are all smiles and well-wishes, offering platitudes of mutual admiration.

One Friday lunchtime whilst running late for Jummah prayer, nearly fifteen years ago when I lived and worked in London, I passed a journalist waiting outside Regent’s Park mosque. As I hurried past him, about to miss the prayer, I heard him say to the person on the other end of his mobile phone, “They’re not here yet, but I’ll make sure I get good pictures.” Sure, he could have been talking about late-running photographers, but I have always believed he was talking about the rabble who miraculously appeared at the mosque gates to preach hatred as thousands of people spilled out at the end of prayer about ten minutes later. When the photos hit the streets in the evening press, it was a story of the mad mullah preaching to thronging, approving masses, though it was nothing of the kind; it was rather the story of an invented bogeyman manipulating unsuspecting worshipers making their way back to work after the Friday prayer.

Over the years, there have been many men like this. One particularly unpleasant chap — yet another of today’s many agitators I have had the misfortune to personally encounter during my humdrum life — allegedly attempted to co-opt a far-right, anti-Muslim organisation to support his bid to be elected to parliament (allegedly, because he claims he was the victim of a sting, and that there was context to the words we heard him say). In his grand masterplan, the anti-Muslim organisation was supposed to call a demonstration against the construction of a massive mosque, stoking communal tensions all round, which would allow him to step in, diffuse the situation and claim all the credit as hero of the large but much maligned local Muslim population. Unfortunately for him, the anti-Muslim bigot at its heart turned out to be the more principled of the pair, revealing the plot to the press and forcing the parliamentary candidate’s resignation.

Others get caught out in more subtle ways, when their convivial relationships with haters accidentally become public knowledge. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with being beneficent towards your enemy or to maintaining good relationships even with those that hate you. It is just rather unsightly if those niceties are restricted to the private realm, while in public you spit hatred, abuse one another, duel as if boxers fighting, creating tensions between communities, sowing seeds of discord. If you are true, it is in the public sphere that you should be most civil, building bridges with your opponent rather than putting up walls. Instead, we witness the opposite, I suppose because we must keep up appearances in order to manicure our audiences, employing the theatrics that populism demands.

I don’t dare judge the intentions of others, but nevertheless I say, be cautious. Be wary of those playing games with their frenemies and, as ever, don’t let yourself be taken for a ride. The public realm is filled with folk playing games for personal gain.

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