Azeem Rafiq is not having a good week. In addition to having to issue a grovelling apology for antisemitic messages, this morning it was reported
in the Yorkshire Post that a mobile number belonging to him allegedly sent creepy sexual messages to a teenage girl, declaring a desire to ‘grab you push u up against wall and kiss you.’
In short, the former Yorkshire and England star has bizarrely managed to find himself at the centre a racism storm, an antisemitism storm and a sex storm all at once – as a victim in the first case and a perpetrator in the second.
So far, Mr Rafiq hasn’t commented on the young woman’s allegations and his spokesman told the paper it was being investigated. He did, however, more fully address the antisemitism furore with me in a second conversation over video link yesterday, as further storm clouds brewed unnoticed overhead.
When we spoke
on the phone on the day that his antisemitic messages had been revealed by the Times, he offered his unreserved apology to the Jewish community (whom he had offended by making jokes at the age of 19 about a friend having the ‘Jewish’ characteristics of money-grubbing stinginess).
He had seemed very strung out and distressed, and confided that he had been having trouble sleeping. He didn’t want to pose for a photograph for the Jewish Chronicle, he said, to accompany the interview. He was in too much of a state.
The next day, however, we spoke on video link and I was able to ask some more probing questions about what exactly had happened, how it could have happened, and what it meant for the legitimacy of his campaign to rid cricket of racism. The conversation was fascinating; it amounted to the fullest and frankest explanation that Mr Rafiq has given so far.
My first question was simple: are you antisemitic? He replied that he wasn’t any more, but accepted that he did harbour antisemitic attitudes back then, when he was 19. Partly, he said, it was because he didn’t know any Jews, so he didn’t have a sense of the sensitivities surrounding antisemitic tropes. But that, he said, was not meant by way of excuse.
‘I’m not trying to play down what I did in any way,’ he said, speaking from the back of a car in a black baseball cap and T-shirt, looking tired but composed. ‘My actions caused a lot of hurt to people and I just want to say that I’m ashamed and deeply sorry.’
Which brought me to my next question: were his comments just banter? He shook his head. (After all, he could hardly lay claim to the very explanation that he had so vociferously denied those who had abused him.) ‘It wasn’t banter. Racist comments are never banter, they are racism,’ he said. ‘My comments were antisemitic and I take responsibility for that. No excuses.’
The cricketer was playing a pitch-perfect game, not seeking to swerve in any way the opprobrium of the Jewish community and apparently speaking with humility and grace. It was time for the next difficult question.
Last May, as Israel defended itself from a thousand Hamas rockets daily that rained down on its population centres, Mr Rafiq had tweeted in support of the Palestinians, using the hashtags #StandwithPalestine and #FreeGaza. Given that Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005, I asked, who exactly did Mr Rafiq seek to free it from? It was notable that he had been open in his support for Hamas-run
Gaza, but had expressed no public concern or support for Israel.
‘I don’t really know much about the conflict, to be honest,’ he responded. ‘I probably shouldn’t have tweeted about it without knowing more about it.’
Did he believe in Israel’s right to exist, and its right to defend itself? ‘Yes’, he replied. ‘I believe in the two-state solution.’
I wondered whether Mr Rafiq saw any differences between the racism he suffered and the antisemitism he articulated. After all, one could hardly compare a few offensive remarks to a targeted campaign of bullying that culminated in having red wine poured down his throat. Right?
‘It’s not exactly the same, as I wasn’t making my comments to a Jewish person,’ he pointed out. ‘And these were senior members of my team who were treating me like that.’ Things were getting interesting. Then he added, quickly: ‘But I’m not downplaying what I did. It was a different situation but what I did was wrong and I’ve hurt people and I just want to say sorry.’
Did he think that there were any difference between anti-Asian racism and antisemitism? ‘No’, he said, quickly. ‘Racism is racism and we need to stamp it out wherever we find it.’ Including, presumably, in his own mind. ‘Yes’, he said.
To me, it is important to acknowledge that there are key differences between antisemitism and other types of racism. The main distinction is that antisemitism rests on a belief that you are ‘punching up’ against an all-powerful Jewish cabal who mysteriously pull the strings of the international banking system, politics and media.
This, perhaps, may be one of the reasons why liberal newspapers and commentators instinctively gave Mr Rafiq’s antisemitism the benefit of the doubt, while rushing to slam those who had racially abused him, even before the evidence had come to light (as I argued
in these pages yesterday).
Was Mr Rafiq seeking a forgiveness and understanding that he had failed to offer those who had targeted him? ‘I’ve always said I’m willing to forgive people,’ he told me. ‘All I’m looking for is an apology. What I did was wrong, but I’ve apologised. I’m still waiting for an apology from some of the people at the club.’
I asked what he would say to those who accused him of hypocrisy. He replied with further expressions of apology.
The final piece of the puzzle concerned what happens next. Mr Rafiq told me that he was in touch with various communal charities and organisations, and had plans to visit a Jewish school. Did he feel that he had something special to offer to antisemites in the British Muslim community and more widely, I asked, given that he had apparently cured himself of the virus?
His answer was as expected. He wanted to use his influence to help others to understand that being nasty to any minority was wrong. He’d never let up in his battle against antisemitism and all other forms of racism.
And that was how it ended. Do we believe him? Certainly he didn’t put a foot wrong. His apology was consistent and seemed heartfelt; he made no excuses; he neither expected forgiveness nor asked for it, but committed himself to winning back the trust of the Jewish community through his actions.
Of course, we don’t know – and may never know – whether Mr Rafiq’s expressions of Jew-hatred were a one-off, or part of a more deep-seated bigotry. He told me that he ‘didn’t think’ he had indulged in any further antisemitism in the past, though he acknowledged that he may have made ‘other mistakes’. Perhaps one of them was sending salacious texts to a teenage girl. Maybe there are others. You make up your own mind.