The hate of the 'hip' gunslinger: Julie Burchill's islamophobia is nothing new

I know this one is going to get me a lot of shit, but so be it.

It’s one of the most quoted job ads in history — “Attention hip young gunslingers…” — that was the call sent out by the NME that resulted in Julie Burchill, then 17, and her future husband Tony Parsons rocking up at King’s Reach Tower. They entered the British media with a bang and have never gone away.

I used to bundle Burchill up in the same package as Lester Bangs and Nick Kent, a big mouth saying wild things about music and life. As a teenager, I read a battered copy of The Boy Looked At Johnny and found it funny — Burchill and Parsons taking typewriter trashing potshots at punk, the very thing that had got them through the door at the NME in the first place. I stuck with the idea that Burchill was just a naughty contrarian for far too long, my awareness of her coming from a few mutual friends and enjoying her rollicking lesbian coming-of-age story Sugar Rush (again, as a teenager).

I realise now I was just being stupid; excited by the idea of being a writer who pisses everyone off without considering why that writer was pissing them off. The idea of being a shit for shit’s sake no longer appeals to me.

When Burchill left NME, still only 20, she freelanced for The Face and The Sunday Times, firing off potshots about pop, politics, fashion and anything else she fancied talking about. Though she was a film critic for two years (between 1984 and 1986), she admitted in 2008 that she made most of them up or sent her second husband Cosmo Landesman to watch the flicks for her.

Her 80s were spent praising Thatcher, her 90s on cocaine and getting crowing herself Queen of the Groucho. Somehow she found time within that snow globe to co-found the Modern Review with Landesman and Toby Young — who never misses a chance to claim that the magazine inspired a total rethink of the Sunday supplements. The project lasted 4 years until 1995 when Burchill fell out with everyone.

In 1996, she lost a libel suit brought by Steve Berkoff after she used a series of pieces in The Sunday Times to call him “hideously ugly” among other things. She bounced from the Sunday Express to Punch — then in its dying days — and finally found a berth at The Guardian. She used her column to slag off the Irish (she’d previously told Time Out, “?I hate the Irish, I think they’re appalling."), mock Tracey Emin for finding her abortions traumatising (“[Mine] had no more significance to me than having one's tonsils out, while her couple had caused her all sorts of arty trauma and led to the creation of several artefacts. Bless!”) and support the Iraq War.

Burchill left The Guardian in acrimony. She leaves most things in acrimony, actually. Acrimony by Julie Burchill could be the name of her celebrity fragrance. It would smell of lemons and spite.

Her next column was at The Times, which ponied up the piles of cash she required. Shortly after arriving there, she had to make a public apology and the paper was forced to pay around £50,000 in damages after she confused George Galloway with the former MP Ron Brown, claiming he had incited Arabs to fight British troops in Iraq.

Her column lasted a year before she was fired by The Times, coming out smelling of roses rather than Acrimony by J. Burchill as News International was obliged to pay her for the remainder of her three-year contract — £300,000 without the need to actually file any copy. In an interview with The Guardian in 2008, she described her later Times columns as “taking the piss. I didn’t spend much time on them and they were such arrant crap.”

As her interest in Judaism and Israel increased, so did her writing on those subjects. Not in My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy — published in 2008 with Chas Newkey-Burden — was dedicated to Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Oddly, in 2005, Burchill had declared that Sharon was “the enemy of the Jews” after he withdrew Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

After a period writing occasional pieces for The Guardian and the centre-right politics magazine Standpoint, Burchill got another regular column with The Independent in June 2010. Once again, it turned out to be rather irregular; she kept the slot for less than 18 months. During that Independent stint, she wrote, of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011:

“Revolutions in the region have a habit of going horribly wrong, and this may well have something to do with the fact that Islam and democracy appear to find it difficult to co-exist for long".

In 2014, Burchill had a very public row with Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue — of which she had become a Friend in 2009 — raging particularly about Sarah’s defence of Muslims and Palestinians. Burchill wrote, in response to a round-robin email from the synagogue asking for help with its 75th-anniversary celebrations, that she would not be involved, “because your rabbi respects PIG ISLAM.”

Rabbi Sarah told The Independent that she had replied to the email:

“[I said] ‘Julie, firstly this is deeply, deeply offensive. Both Jews and Muslims don’t eat pig. I don’t know what you’re doing but this is incredibly unacceptable and offensive.’”

When The Independent offered Burchill right-to-reply, she told them:

“PIGS AND APES are what some Muslims call Christians and Jews, by the way. Even in school textbooks! Google it.”

In her 2014 book, The Unchosen, which is about her love affair with Judaism, Burchill dedicates 23 pages to attacking the Rabbi, dubbing her ‘Call-Me-Elli’ in a dig about Sarah’s informal style.

It’s in this context — of repeated and extreme attacks of Muslims in print, speech and ‘private’ emails — that you should consider Burchill taking a swing at Ash Sarkar yesterday:

What inspired her to make this intervention? Well, Ash — like many others — was criticising the ever-disgusting Rod Liddle for a 2012 article, resurfaced yesterday, in which he described how he did not become a teacher because he suspected he’d try to fuck his students. That’s not me indulging in hyperbole. It’s what he actually said:

the one thing stopping me from being a teacher was that I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids. It seemed to me virtually impossible not to, and I was convinced that I’d be right in there, on day one. We’re talking secondary school level here, by the way — and even then I don’t think I’d have dabbled much below year ten, as it is now called.

The column continues in that vein for a good 800 words. The news hook was the absconding of a teacher in his thirties with a 15-year-old pupil. You can joke about anything, but should you? And why exactly does The Spectator indulge Liddle in his repeated Uncle Disgusting antics?

Still, that’s the context in which Burchill decided to careen towards Sarkar, a figure who lives rent-free in many right-wingers heads and who seemingly has to deal with undeserved racist attacks on Twitter about once a week. Remember the time she had the audacity to contribute to a historical documentary? Or the time she ate a lolly and was bizarrely accused of promoting terrorism?

There is no doubt that the history of Islam features many unsettling events but so do the histories of Judaism and Christianity. Religious texts that were written hundreds of years ago in societies that were entirely different from the ones we live in now are not a great guide to the living opinions and behaviour of people now.

Of course, the usual suspects — Julie Hartley-Brewer et al. — are throwing their hands in the air and asking what was islamophobic in Burchill asking Sarkar about Muhammad’s wife Aisha — who was between 6 and 16 when she was married to him, depending on which sources you consult — and framing it as ‘just a question’.

I’m sure the people riding to Burchill’s defence would be fine with someone with Christian or Jewish heritage being asked to defend this passage from the Book of Numbers (31:17-18 in the King James Version):

17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. 

What’s happening there is that Moses’ soldiers are being given permission to take child brides… And it’s not the only example in the Bible.

It would be bizarre and wrong to expect a Jewish or Christian person to defend the passage from Numbers — a book pulled together by priests circa 520 BCE — and it wouldn’t happen unquestioned. But it’s accepted to attack Muslims because, along with trans people, and the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller community, they are a group that the British media, in general, consider fair game.

Ash was right to find it “strange that none of [Burchill’s] colleagues or friends” in journalism have a problem with what she said/ speak out against it. I’m not Burchill’s friend but I was ‘friends’ with her on Facebook and know people who are. I refuse to be afraid to say this stuff is wrong because silence is complicity.

Burchill knows what she’s doing and the continued attacks on Ash Sarkar are both political and racist. She is attacked because she has different opinions to columnists who otherwise rattle on about ‘free speech’ but will do nothing to defend hers.

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