Posts Tagged ‘islamophobia’
You can read this on my Huff Post blog here
When news broke that Lord Ahmed had allegedly blamed Jews for his 12-week stint behind bars for killing a man through reckless driving, I tweeted my disgust with his blatant expression of prejudice. Many Muslims echoed my sentiments.
That’s why Mehdi Hasan latest blog “The sorry truth is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected the British Muslim community” has left me feeling uncomfortable.
A critical factor in Lord Ahmed’s statement was his audience. Speaking in Pakistan where radical groups regularly peddle anti-semitic libel, he thought his words would find resonance. Do I think he would have made that same statement to a British Muslim audience , even if he thought the cameras weren’t watching? No I don’t. Because regardless of the anti-Semitism of certain elements among British Muslims, anti-Semitic discourse is not considered acceptable and does not routinely go unchallenged.
On one hand, Mehdi is absolutely right to point out that anti-Semitic attitudes are not uncommon in Muslim circles and have become somewhat normalised, concealing the ugly face of hate behind objections to Israeli policies and spurious claims of Jewish conspiracies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the stumbling block in much Jewish-Muslim dialogue. As one interfaith activist told me, “we’re fine as long as we steer away from Middle East politics.” The single biggest issue which fosters animosity towards Jews, whom some erroneously fail to distinguish from expansionist Israelis, is the Israel Palestine conflict. This doesn’t make the intolerance any less inexcusable of course. The other significant factor fostering anti-Semitism is conspiracy theories, an unfortunate import from many Muslim majority countries, where opaque and autocratic governing structures lend themselves to an unhealthy fixation with the machinations of “dark forces”. Both tensions over the Middle East conflict, as well as conspiracy theories go some way towards explaining the existence of anti-Semitic attitudes. They certainly don’t excuse them.
On the other hand, I do not see such views as being tolerated, considered acceptable or even being ignored – on the few occasions I have witnessed anti-Jewish sentiment, I have seen it robustly challenged usually by the “mild-mannered and well-integrated British Muslims” Mehdi refers to. That said, I’ve also witnessed an elderly Muslim man remonstrating an over-zealous youth by reminding him that our forefather Prophet Abraham, whom we praise alongside Prophet Mohamed in all five of our daily prayers, was the Patriarch of the Jewish people. So while I support Mehdi for taking a stand against anti-semitism and urging Muslims to be as diligent in denouncing it as they are islamophobia, I reject the presumed community complicity implied by his reference to ”our dirty little secret”.
It’s disheartening to hear Mehdi’s been witness to so much anti-semitism, but it is important to recognise that his, like mine, is just one experience amongst many. More reliable indicators of Muslim-Jewish relations are the sheer number of cooperative initiatives and evidence of mutual solidarity. In 2009, following the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, British Muslims rallied together to denounce anti-Semitic attacks amid fears of a backlash against Jewish communities in Britain. In March last year when Mohamed Merah opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing seven, Jews and Muslims marched together in a show of solidarity against hate. The Gathering of European Muslim and Jewish Leaders regularly brings together over 70 religious leaders as part of an effort to develop good Muslim-Jewish relations across Europe. Such displays of camaraderie are not anomalous.
Mehdi’s presumption of group guilt undermines the valuable work being done by many interfaith groups – the MUJU Comedy Crew, the Joseph Interfaith Foundation and the Three Faiths Foundation, among others – in recognition of our shared heritage. It also unfairly tares the vast majority of Muslims who do in fact reject anti-Semitism and who risk henceforth being viewed with suspicion.
Commenting on a Gallup poll which showed that in the US, the single most powerful predictor of “a great deal” of prejudice toward Muslims is equivalent negative bias toward Jews, James Carroll wrote: “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are halves of the same walnut. That is surprising because Jews and Muslims are widely perceived–and often perceive themselves–as antagonists occupying opposite poles in the great contemporary clash of cultures.” The reality is that Jews and Muslims share the same struggle against intolerance and prejudice and many are united in opposing regressive legislation which affects the practice of rituals central to both faiths.
When Baroness Warsi stated that islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain, she referred to the way in which anti-Muslim sentiment is increasingly perceived as normal. It is a misnomer to argue that anti-Semitism has passed the same threshold in the British Muslim community. Any intolerance is too much intolerance and so I applaud Mehdi for highlighting the critical importance of standing against bigotry in all its forms. I just hope his somewhat rash generalisations won’t be used to validate anti-Muslim prejudice, and we can all move beyond notions of ‘the other’, in order to find ways to work towards the common good.
Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah. In fact, at the heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and bolstered dictatorships and the expected instability to be found in post-revolutionary states.
Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much broader – a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA’s historically fraught relationship to the region.
This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against Western targets in any of the countries at hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised because of the spin placed on the story, represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of the fundamental intolerance of Islam.
For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of the rebels against Gadhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have helped get rid of Gadhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya , details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship. To think the elections which happened just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region is ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.
Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all else has been desecrated.
It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have believed the US government could act to restrict the film’s diffusion, censorship being altogether common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols – embassies, American schools – even KFC – suggests the roots of popular anger is not hurt religious pride. These symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the US’s role in the region.
The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated bales which made the straw so hard to carry.
This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you have left.
The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic network” – all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.
Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a region where they remain unsettled.
In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for what they are – predominantly political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to recognise the basic humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to diminish to decades of oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, often with US complicity.
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt humiliated over decades. Humiliation doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly helps explain it.
Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.
Update: this piece was written in the very early days of the protests and consequently, I would want to nuance some of the points I’ve made here in light of more recent developments.
Firstly, popular anger in many countries might well have as much to do with the instability of a post-revolutionary context as it does with anti-US feelings. In Tunisia, in Libya, these protests might also be seen as occasions to vent anguish at more localised concerns.
Secondly, the protests were clearly instrumentalised very quickly by ‘islamist’ groups to bolster popularity by waiving the ever unifying banner of anti-US feeling. This suggest they took on a local, political dimension very rapdily.
Thirdly, in some countries, such as Libya, local people even took to the streets in following days to oppose extremist elements and express solidarity with the murdered embassy staff. This doesnt discount mistrust or anger with previous US policies in the region but it certainly suggests a more complex relationship wit the US following the NATO support to rebels.
Fourthly, only a very very small proportion of people protested and an even smaller number engaged in violence. In many stable countries, such as Malaysia or Turkey, protests remained peaceful. Those countries which saw the most violence were often the most unstable and local factors – disaffection, unemployement, anger at government, poverty – are all essential components having contributed to people’s behaviour during the protests.
Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, “PR jargon”, designed to shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject the term on grounds of the ‘freedom to criticise’ Islam. This particular argument is disconcerting in that Islam is regularly subjected to the sort of scrutiny rarely if ever, afforded to other faiths, and many of those who seek to counter islamophobia, myself included, have been equally committed to defending free speech. The term ‘islamophobia’ is many things, but it is not an attempt at muzzling critical inquiry.
Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. Chief amongst these, the late Italian writer and left-wing journalist Oriana Fallaci insisted that Islam is a violent and totalitarian creed; British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties as a form of collective punishment and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well – Gospel. Paul Hockenos argues that “the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way.”
There have been many attempts at defining islamophobia and debates rage over its Orientalist or Post-9/11 emergence and the appropriate response to it (legislation vs. education). However, despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.
A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran ‘says’ – Islam doesn’t speak – people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. Islamophobia is when influential figures like Tonybee or others define Islam in a public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. The reification of faith by public figures with prominent platforms, assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can’t. To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in a depraved hate cult.
What’s more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized minorities – South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail’s choice to use the term “muslim gang” to refer to rapists who plied young girls with alcohol and raped them, is one such example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion. While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed “imported cultural baggage”, commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly interpreted that to mean Islam. Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behaviour of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism.
The close imbrication of religion, race and culture in almost every part of the world makes disassociating them a complex affair. Take the case of Nouredine Rachedi, a young Frenchman who was returning home late one evening in Paris when two men approached him and asked him if he was Muslim. They then proceed to beat him so savagely, he was incapacited for three weeks with severe head injuries. Nouredine is clean shaven and was dressed inconspicuously. His aggressors singled him out on the basis of his ethnic profile, before determining his religious identity based on his verbal confirmation.
Islamphobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands for based on their being identified as Muslim. This represents the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, described by critical race theory. New forms of discrimination are complex and subtle, they largely avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.
The assumptions is, there are some cultures that are more backward than our highly evolved selves and that honour killings, forced marriages and blood feuds are reflections of an ‘islamic’ culture, which through the presence of Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Such pernicious assumptions are then reflected in people’s attitudes and behaviour towards Muslims. One recent study showed 58 percent of Germans in favour of restricting religious freedom for Muslims. According to recent findings by Faith matters, Muslim women face increasing harassment by EDL sympathisers.
The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam – assumed to be a hegemonic influence on people’s behaviour- is responsible for virtually all social ills from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all religions have plural expressions, with as many implications for freedom of expression, women, democracy or the use of violence for political ends.
The concern is that the racist essentializing of “Muslimhood” is ignored on the grounds that the term ‘islamophobia’ isn’t clear enough. I would wager the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end – such as when Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a “moderate cockroach” whose Islamic faith was “no different from the Islam of Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anjem Choudary”. Or when the American writer Laila Lalami ‘s husband was asked by an immigration officer “So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?”
Islamophobia is only unclear to those who see to obfuscate its meaning. It is the tendency to reify Islam - that is to assume the behaviour of given individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the theoretical underpinnings of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of that essentialised identity.
The struggle against Islamophobia is in fact the struggle for more accurate and less lazy explanations of phenomena, getting to the root of the issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on a theoretical body of ideas. There is no more one ‘Islam’ to blame for people’s behaviour, than there is one ‘Christianity’. That might seem like a truism, but whilst it would be comical to speak of the US nuclear arsenal as the ‘Judaeo-Christian bomb’, it has become all too common to speak of the weapons of, say, Pakistan, Iran or Libya as the ‘Islamic bomb’. Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we claim the muslimness of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular culture from blame when the men themselves refer to the young women using the sadly popular playground put down “slags”. We regularly see ‘Islam’ used as a catch-all phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues at hand.
Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting and insipid stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily Mirror, that Zain Malik of boyband One Direction, was “pimping Islam” on young girls through “boyband jihad”. Or the use of imagery to fan the flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday, did by superimposing the image of a woman in a burka against a caustic article entitled “Foreign-born population in the UK” of which ironically India, a Hindu majority country topped the list. Or the ease with which columnist and writers can refer to Muslim women as “shroud-swishing zombies” or “silly little misguided Muslim girls” (Julie Burchill; The Sun June 24th, 2009) dressed like “a Dalek in a full veil’ (John Gaunt;The Sun June 20th, 2008) or Dame Ann Leslie’s reference to Muslim women as ‘dressed in bin bags’ on last Sunday Morning Live.
Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising the danger this discourse poses in legitimising the Far-right, a growing trend across Europe where the National Front recently won two seats in the French parliament. In light of the Breivik massacre, it is acknowledging that far from being a lone sociopath, his actions were grounded, according to his manifesto, in an all too common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column within Europe and a threat to Western values. In fact, a report by the Cardiff school of journalism found that from 2008, stories in the media on Islam’s alleged incompatibility with dominant British values outnumbered those relating to Islam and terrorism. A consequence of this ‘theoretical’ islamophobia, the intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions.
According to a report from Amnesty International, “European Muslims are regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination against them.” Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief warns of the “existing notions of a collective mentality that is stereotypically, and often negatively, ascribed to all followers of various religions or beliefs. In extreme cases, such ascription of a collective mentality may amount to ‘de-personalised’ perceptions of human beings, possibly with devastating dehumanizing repercussions.”
Just as minarets or headscarves or face veils or beards have become visible markers of Islam and have become imbued with a significance beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in a way people don’t choose their ethnicity. The truth is we don’t choose the significance people attribute to our symbols – especially when we have so little access to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have choice in those concerning the symbols which people interpret naively or willingly according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural incompatibility.
John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has argued that “opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.” It is time the Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about religion in general and Islam in particular.
The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to ‘Islam’ and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.
This article is published on the Huffington Post, here
The riots of 2011 were a defining moment in modern British history. A recent study undertaken by the Guardian with the London School of Economics showed that despite claims of ‘feral’ gangs, the cause most often cited for the riots by rioters themselves, was poverty (86%), unemployment (79%) and inequality (70%), all of which disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. The research also pointed to a profound dissatisfaction with policing, including a “deep-seated and sometimes visceral antipathy towards police,” with widespread experiences of police harassment and brutality. Journalist Gary Young notes that “almost three-quarters of interviewees said they had been stopped and searched by the police in the last year; 85% said “policing” was an important or very important cause of the riots. Just 7% believed the police do a good job in their area.” At the heart of the rioters’ complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice.
For Fahim Alam, an Oxford and LSE graduate, that sense of injustice has deep resonance. At the height of the riots, Fahim was arrested and falsely accused of ‘violent disorder’. He spent six weeks in jail before being acquitted in under half an hour.
Reflecting on the experience which has left him profoundly scarred, he states: “When you leave prison, a part of you remains. It takes away a part of your soul.” His lawyer, Imran Khan, of the Steven Lawrence inquiry, is lodging a formal complaint against police and CPS, and considering civil proceedings for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.
Fahim’s experience of the criminal justice system reveals systematic failures and endemic racism which are all the more worrying considering recent allegations of MET racism.
Prior to his arrest, Fahim had been heralded as the poster boy of inner city success. Born to immigrant Bangladeshi parents on the troubled Pembury estate in Hackney, his youth was marred in racist violence which culminated in the council having to relocate the family. An academically gifted child, Fahim excelled at his local comprehensive and earned a place at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities: “I was driven, I believed education was something which would give me power in the world.” Fahim studied law, but Oxford was a culture shock. He describes becoming a minority for the first time at the predominantly white university, the palpable disdain he felt from some of his peers and the realisation that with the benefits of his education came a responsibility to use it to serve the disenfranchised: ” It was a formative period -over the holidays, I would drive from the spires of Oxford to grey, urban tower blocks – I could physically see the transition on that journey and it was powerful to me, reminded me of where I was coming from, why I was doing this and what I eventually wanted to achieve.” A gap year deepened an interest in history which he formalised through a post-graduate degree at the LSE in race and post-colonial studies, before he began work at the London Civic Forum, strengthening citizen rights.
On August the 8th, he was to discover just how fragile those rights truly are.
Aware that riots had occurred in North London but oblivious that they had spread, Fahim left his office in Bethnal Green and headed towards his grandmother’s home in Hackney. His route took him through Mare street, an epicentre of the riots, where he came across a crowd which had gathered as a local garage was being looted. Rapidly, the mood changed. A car was set on fire and the thick smoke pushed people further down the street, where several lines of police officers were slowly edging in. Minutes later, the police charged, batons raised and shouting, cornering the crowd on St. Thomas Square, where a violent confrontation ensued. Mesmerised by the scene unfolding, Fahim describes a sight of utter chaos in which the police were pelted with rocks and bricks, fireworks were launched and a raging pit-bull let loose.
As people dispersed into nearby estates, a few bystanders were left on the suddenly empty square, most of them visibly residents – an elderly lady, a few kids. The police began to focus their attention on the young Asian male dressed in black jeans and a black cardigan, with a checked scarf around his neck: “In the eyes of the police, I looked like a rioter.”
Suddenly, several officers charged towards him. Fahim’s decision to run at this stage was one subsequently questioned by the prosecution: “As a young brown male, if you see the police charging you, wearing urban military gear and there is a riot going on – I think if you asked many people of my demographic, they would say it’s instinctive to run.” Had they approached him differently, he told the prosecution, maybe he could have helped.
Despite pleading his innocence, he was bundled into the back of a van, held in custody for 48 hours, before being taken to court where he was denied bail on grounds that his ‘story’ of visiting his grandmother seemed implausible. It was then that the realisation that he might be going to jail hit him: “Up to that point, I thought they’d realise there was a mistake – I was in shock, there was a sense of disbelief that this was happening to me – it was so surreal”. He was to spend the next six weeks in some of Britain’s most notorious jails.
Fahim compares his arrival in prison to ‘being trapped in a dungeon’. Having studied law for his degree, he began to experience the theory for himself: “What I had learnt was playing out in real life – everything I know to be violent about the police as an institution, about the criminal justice system, the courts and containing, caging people, knowing about that violence and brutality and then feeling it, was in a sense enlightening. At the same time, it concretised the feeling of injustice I already had towards these systems.”
His description of his arrival ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ is telling: “Above the entrance to the prison, there was an emblem, a symbol of empire-that symbolism for me summed up what was going on-the fact I was being summoned to prison by her Majesty, so called, really spelt out to me the power relationship – I am effectively a colonial subject, as my parents were, as their parents were – I am diaspora, a brown male and I have limited power.”
Prison was a ‘profoundly dehumanizing’ experience and one which had a profound impact on his self-confidence and personality. From an outgoing and confident young man, he became nervous and withdrawn. Amongst the pivotal moments in his ordeal was the receipt of his prisoner number “I felt really degraded, I’d become a cog in a wider system of oppression, it was very symbolic for me – the epitome of objectification is assigning numbers – it’s done to animals and to objects – when it is done to humans, it has a resonance of slavery, of genocide.”
Throughout his time in prison, he experienced insecurity and violence. He was prone to daily and vivid nightmares and degrading procedures he describes as tantamount to legalised sexual assault: “To me, strip search is a form of rape, it is a matter of routine in police custody for many fellow members of our communities- poor people, diasporic people, people with brown skin, men – there are certain people targeted in this way.” His mood is somber and sullen, though the glimmers of a happier persona can occasionally be glimpsed when we discuss family and friends. He says the impact on them was hardest to cope with. What’s clear is that he struggles with the deep psychological impact of having stood accused of such a socially stigmatising crime.
Throughout his ordeal, Fahim recounts incidents of racial and cultural slurs. A former military man turned police officer who testified against him alleged he was wearing a “shemagh”, a “military style Arabic scarf” which marked him out as ‘trouble’ in his eyes. In fact, he was describing Fahim’s purple and brown checked scarf, purchased in Puerto Rico. Upon his arrival at Wormwood scrubs prison, Fahim’s Bangladeshi cell mate was told by a guard: “you’re training for Afghanistan.” White guards favoured white prisoners and the jail itself was divided along ethnic lines: “In jail, the way you’re spoken to, what you get or don’t get, is very much determined on race lines.”
The feeling of entrenched racism he describes is not entirely unfounded. A leaked report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission says that prejudice among police officers is a reason why ethnic minorities are disproportionately targeted by stop and search. But stop and search is just the tip of the iceberg. A widespread lack of confidence, fear of racism and violence, suggest a far deeper break down in community trust in the police. Indeed, research into the riots suggest police brutality was a central grievance amongst many: “It wasn’t too shocking to me that I was going through these experiences” Fahim notes sardonically, “statistically, when I was born, I am more like than you, a white female, to end up in a prison, to be stopped and searched, to suffer violence from a police officer.” He’s not alone in feeling disproportionately targeted by the police. British Asian actor Riz Ahmed recently stated on twitter: “I have had zero positive interactions with the police. Age 15-racist comment for “loitering”. Age 23- assaulted and threatened at airport – age 21 – head smashed against a brick wall during an arrest where I was not resisting. Age 29-told racist hate mail wont be investigated.” And just this month, Mauro Demetrio a 21 black man from east London recorded a police officer telling him that “the problem with you is you will always be a nigger”. Just hours later, a policeman was captured on tape allegedly assaulting a 15 year old black teenager. What’s more, the IPCC is currently investigating three new cases of alleged racist comments by Met police officers, all of them in the East London borough of Newham.
Fahim’s experience reflects serious problems in police-community relations. According to a recent IPCC report, young people and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have the least confidence both in the police and the police complaints system: “I didn’t have utmost faith in the criminal justice system prior to my direct experiences and my experiences just confirmed that to me,” Fahim states.
Since his release, Fahim has been working on a documentary to highlight the injustices he bore witness to within the criminal justice system and to raise awareness of the humanity of those whom he feels society has written off: “when I was in prison I thought, they’ve discovered so many ways of containing people, systems of suppression, technologies of violence, psychologies of oppression- but not ways to free people or to give them love, to make them happy.” Though the experience has changed him irrevocably, Fahim is philosophical about the lessons he’s gleaned: “I was privileged to bear witness to that form of oppression -it allows one to develop a rigour against injustice and a deeper sense of solidarity with oppressed people.”
From an “Oxford success story”, his face paraded in an article on education and social mobility, Fahim Alam was turned overnight into a public pariah. The same picture which had previously been used to illustrate the quiet confidence of an Oxford graduate from tough beginnings, was reprinted to tell a different story, the air of gravity re-interpreted as a sign of defiance and revolt, to support allegations of criminal involvement. The experience has had a lasting effect on him, strengthening his resolve to combat inequality: “In everything I do, I remember people I’ve seen, caged, boxed, with no hope, who’ve been rejected by society – in slang terms, when we talk about prison we say “bin” – society has disposed of you – but society needs to do more recycling than disposing of its people.”
Despite talk of Britain being a post-racial society, Fahim’s story fits into broader patterns of institutionalised racism and systematic inequality, which belie such a claim and suggest we have a long way to go toward our ideal of equality and fairness for all. Reflecting on these enduring inequalities, Fahim adds: “I am relatively privileged compared to the average brown male but this isn’t about me and the fact I may have achieved something – its about why am I an exception, and why can’t everyone have those opportunities?”
This piece can be found here on the New Statesman blog
So Lowe’s, the US-based chain of retail home improvement and appliance stores, has decided to pull its advertising from the reality TV show All-American Muslim. Most of us aren’t stupefied with shock. Its not like we don’t know anti-Muslim bigotry is now acceptable beyond the ranks of Tea Party conventions, but for it to be just so blatant still has a sting to it. Who could have predicted that a TV show portraying the lives of five ordinary Muslim families could produce this tornado in a tea cup. For many Muslims, it confirmed what we’d all secretly been hoping was just acute paranoia: that just being Muslim these days is a political issue.
Following pressure from the stormy Florida Family Association, which referred to the TLC (The Learning Channel) show as “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” Lowe’s decided it was not commercially viable to be associated with anything related to Muslims. Even pretty normal ones, apparently.
But it was their seemingly innocuous statement which got my knickers in a twist:
Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views.
(sound of screeching record)
“This topic” is, in fact, the lives of regular Muslims. You know the ones — the guy who drives your bus, the woman who treated your sick child, your neighbour, your colleague at work. People have strong “political and societal views” about these folk? On what basis exactly might that be?
For those who haven’t caught the series — and you’re missing out if you have — the genius of the show is its decision to showcase the true range of what it means to be a Muslim, even within this small snap-shot of the Muslim community, in the form of its Arab-American variant. From sassy hijab wearing Nawal, to peroxide blonde aspiring nightclub owner Bazzy, via Mike Jaffar, the deputy chief sheriff, through to the all-American high school football coach Fouad, the show is the first honest representation of what regular Muslims are like. Which is just like the rest of us, it would seem. Or to quote Debbie Almontaser: All-American muslim is as American “as apple galette: different crust on the outside, same gooey filling”.
So the suggestion that Nawal’s preparation for her baby’s birth, or Fouad’s management of his team’s fasting during Ramadan, or scenes of Shadia hanging out at a country music concert because she’s a muslim and she likes country music — is somehow something people have “strong political views” about, needs to be outed for the downright bigotry it is.
Recent research at Cambridge University looking at the overarchingly negative portrayal of Muslims in the media concludes that “Muslims deserve a better press than they have been given in the past decade”. The problems is that when Muslims do get a fair portrayal, even that is apparently political.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. At least the US media actually has a show portraying the lives of regular Muslims.
In the UK, the most recent portrayals include the most cringe-worthy and facile plots, from secret gay lovers (one imaginatively called “Christian”!) on Eastenders, to the tyrannical Pakistani father who beats his English wife in West is West. The writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown rightly asks:
Where is the soulful, female Muslim singer, the wily, kebab-millionaire, the two-timing Pakistani cricketer, the Arab heartthrob? They do all exist, but these roles are not written into scripts.
Oh sure, if you’re nutty, fanatical and cantankerous, the channels will be more than happy to feature your disjointed rant — but the reality is regular Muslims are plain absent from British screens. I have yet to see a woman in a headscarf on any mainstream film or programme where her identity was not reduced to a caricatured plot about Islam being dangerous/oppressive/threatening. In fact, the bulk of daytime TV seems to be spin offs of 24 all set in Iraqistan where a veiled Muslim women is being beaten, forced into something, or somehow degraded by a freakishly long-bearded generic Arab shouting “Allahu akbar”.
Here’s a revolutionary concept: how about she just happens to be a Muslim and the plot revolves around, say, her job within a busy hospital A&E? It worked for ER! Despite Muslims being statistically overrepresented in the medical profession, it took until 2011 for Casualty to introduce us to the peripheral character of Omar Nasri — not a doctor, but a paramedic.
Muslim actor friends of mine often joke that they seem to have had a lot more employment after 9/11 — the question is, playing who, or what? Most of them have gained notoriety playing terrorists from the North of England. They cringe as they tell me these are the only parts on offer. A Somali actor friend recently made the difficult decision to turn down the part of a Somali pirate in a Tom Hanks feature film, on the grounds that he didn’t want to add to the negative portrayal of Somalis.
And I did say actors — not actresses — as the parts which feature Muslim women rarely tend to be played by Muslim women. This is partly to do with the fact that few Muslim women are to be found in the acting industry, or the media more broadly. The struggle any budding Muslim actress might face reminded me of a statement by Asian American broadcaster, Jan Yanihero, featured in the documentary Miss-Representation. Recounting growing up in America, she stated that she never saw anyone on TV who looked like her and so never imagined it possible that she could work in the media. Preceding her testimonial were the profound words of Marie Wilson, the founding president of the White House Project: “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
While the issue of female visibility in the media has thankfully got some attention (apparently saturation point is around 33 per cent visibility), I often note how rarely Muslim women are called upon to contribute to mainstream discussions; even when, as in the Arab revolutions, they are frontline activists in the struggle for change. In a recent Guardian article, Chitra Nagarajan is quoted as saying, on the topic of the absence of women — particularly black and ethnic-minority women — from current affairs programmes:
When I was doing my count, it was the early months of the year, when revolutions were happening in the Middle East and north Africa, but very rarely did you actually see a woman from any of those countries speak.
You occasionally saw the men speak, but never the women, which I think ties into the whole idea of black women’s vulnerability and invisibility. So black women never speak for themselves – other people speak for them, and over their heads – when it comes to their rights. And the image you see of them is as weak, vulnerable and not being really important agents for change.
Muslim women so very seldom speak for themselves; I don’t recall the last British Muslim woman I saw on Newsnight or BBC Question Time. Deliberate policy or not (and I’ll venture it is a not), young Muslim women often ask me whether it is even feasible for them to seek a career in the media. It is difficult to be optimistic when I have no concrete examples to show them.
All the more so when, as the Cambridge study confirms, so-called “moderate Muslims” — those who might get air-time — often are praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren’t fully Muslim. So how can young Muslims aspire to be engaged in an industry which reflects back to them the idea that to be accepted, you must compromise your identity?
Muslims who just get on with their lives aren’t seen as newsworthy, and when the focus is on a violent subset of the Muslim community, there is the danger that the majority suffer guilt by association. The proof is in the pudding. What’s actually politically contentious in All-American Muslim is its potential to dispel some of the hysteria built up around the Muslim community and show us up, warts and all — as regular people, with regular problems.
Current tumult over bans and restrictions on religious symbols are largely a smokescreen for the real issues which plague our society and the rest of Europe. As the economy shows little sign of recovery, the rise of the far-right in Europe poses a fundamental challenge to longstanding European values. Standing against a ban on religious symbols is the current frontline for combating a corrosive and exclusionary ideology which is chipping away at the ideals of a free and fair society. People of religion may be on the frontline, but it is the fundamental and guiding principles of our nations which are truly at stake.
Undeniably, Europe has in recent years become a progressively worse place to be a person of faith. According to a recent Pew Poll (2010), Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. In an earlier poll, the Pew Survey of Global Attitudes found that hostile attitudes to Jews were rising all across continental Europe and that suspicion of Muslims in Europe was considerably higher than hostility to Jews, though the increase in anti-Semitism had taken place much more rapidly. Whilst Americans and Britons displayed the lowest levels of anti-Semitism, one in four in both countries were hostile to Muslims
This increased hostility aimed at religious communities is largely linked to the rise of divisive, xenophobic and racist ideas and groups across Europe, whose growth has been fuelled by the economic depression. It is an all too familiar and recent pattern in European history, that when the chips are down, the usual suspects – public services and migrants, become prime targets for hate and government policies (sometimes indistinguishable). After the economic devastation of WWI, German cartoons of the time depicted people with wheelbarrows full of money who could not buy a loaf of bread. It was in this climate, that Hitler’s vitriolic discourse found an eager audience as he blamed Jews for the country’s woes. And the pattern is not limited to Europe. In America, illegal immigrants from Mexico are often used as scapegoats during periods of economic hardships.
The real issue, namely addressing a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector driven by speculation rather than productive investment, is not so easily or willingly addressed. Nor is the growing gap between rich and poor, our spiralling living costs, or the deterioration of our public services.
Life has become increasingly hard for Britons and is set to get much harder as inflation is predicted to hit a three year high. FareShare, a food supply organisation for the vulnerable and needy, have seen a drastic increase in the number of people unable to feed themselves at a most basic level. After bailing out the banks, nine out of ten Brits are now poorer than this time last year, NHS waiting time is up drastically and the cost of living has gone through the roof. Meanwhile our politicians have proposed a bill which will end the NHS as a comprehensive service equally available to all, while spending £750million on nuclear weapons. People are understandably angry and in such times of desperation, populist discourse finds an avid audience.
The economic squeeze has led many to support nationalist parties who promise to favour the ‘native’ population and largely expel immigrants (or those who look like immigrants) to relieve the economic strain. In 2010 Sweden became the third EU member state to find itself without a governing majority after elections marked by the rise of far-right and anti-immigration parties. The Netherlands and Belgium are in the same position. Far-right parties are currently in government in Italy and also sit in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia, as well as in the European Parliament.
In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party – whose name means “movement for a better Hungary” – has its own uniformed street militia, the Hungarian Guard, who target the country’s Roma population. Critics say the militia bears a disturbing resemblance to the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Second World War fascist militiamen, who collaborated with the Nazis in killing tens of thousands of Hungary’s other prominent minority, the Jews. In a speech which could be attributed to a number of mainstream European parties today, the Jobbik party spoke about stopping Roma, the country’s biggest ethnic minority, from ‘sponging off the state’ – forcing anyone claiming benefits to perform public service in return and promising to “give back Hungary’s national pride and identity”. The party achieved 17 per cent of the vote in general elections.
Even in traditionally liberal countries, the far-right have made significant gains. In Sweden, the stridently anti-immigration platform of the Sweden Democrats secured the party 5.7 per cent of the vote and 20 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, enough to deny the governing centre-right coalition a majority.
In the Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party came third in June elections after its poster boy, Geert Wilders described Islam as a “fascist ideology”, comparing the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Here in the UK, UKIP has sought to unite conservatives and fascists on areas of apparently overlapping concern by proposing a burka ban. Not to be outdone, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone proposed such a bill in parliament this summer. And in 2008, two British National Party MEPs were elected, followed in 2009 by the creation of the English Defence League, which according to Dr Matthew Feldman, who runs the UK’s only research unit on new media and domestic extremism, has links to the Aryan Strike Force (ASF).
But the most worrying developments have to be in former fascist states. In France, the National Front, performed strongly in March’s regional elections with 15% of the vote, with its talk of expulsing illegal Roma immigrants and comparing the presence of French Arabs to the Nazi invasion. Two polls published in March this year suggest that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, would beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of a presidential election.
In Vienna, the Mayor’s Freedom party almost doubled its vote in recent elections, running strongly on banning minarets (as in neighbouring Switzerland), despite there being only one minaret in the Austrian capital, and advocating the ban of Islamic headgear, as was pledged in the Netherlands, in its efforts to “to keep the city’s blood Viennese”.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, to note that the Austrian government recorded a 28% increase in xenophobic, far-right, racist, islamophobic and anti-semitic crimes since last year.
In Germany, referring to its Turkish population, which lest we remind ourselves was invited to Germany after WWII to help do the hard labour of reconstructing the country, Interior Minister Hans Peter-Friedrich, said Islam “does not belong in Germany”. Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany is doing away with itself, is currently in its 14th edition and is Germany’s best-selling book since WWII. It claims that Turks, who make up around 5% of the population, are “dumbing down” the country with their inferior gene pool. A poll published in October showed 31% of respondents agreeing that Germany is “becoming dumber” because of immigrants and 62% said Sarrazin’s comments were “justified”.
Banking on the political capital to be gained from sourcing Sarrazin’s popularity, Merkel stated that the nation’s “multi-kulti” project had been a complete failure.
This slippage of far-right discourse into the mainstream is not singular to Germany. In fact, the debates during France’s recent regional elections were largely dictated by the National Front and the banning of the Burka united the political spectrum with virtually no dissent. In Italy, proposals to ban the burka even had the support of human-rights groups. And here in the UK, British TV personality and member of a conservative think tank, Douglas Murray argued in a speech to the Dutch Parliament that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.”
It is precisely this growing acceptability of far-right themes and ideas in the mainstream, which is so deeply concerning. It is worth recalling that in 1928, the Nazis achieved less than 3% of the national vote in Germany. Today, many fascist parties have ten times that number. Their influence is therefore commensurate and cannot be ignored.
In different countries, the Far-right takes different forms and has differing focuses but common themes are evident: Anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, islampohobic and promoting long standing myths of national purity and exclusionism. These groups offer convenient scapegoat solutions to less tangible or accessible problems.
During the Burka debate in France, UMP politician Frederic Lefebvre summed up the current climate when he stated that women who wear the face veil should be “deprived of their rights”. It is precisely the type of climate in which an elected representative can speak of depriving a fellow citizen of her rights that must absolutely be challenged. As regressive policies become increasingly common, from Theresa May suggesting the UK’s Human Rights Act be scrapped, to being urged to spy on and denounce one’s neighbours, it is essential we stand against this nihilistic tide, for an affirmation of our core values as Europeans. These are values fought for by our forefathers and often enshrined in founding documents. The themes are universal and universalist. Human rights. Equality. Justice. Pluralism. Solidarity. Human rights. Freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear and persecution. Real and meaningful freedom, with no caveats or exceptions.
(This article can also be found here)
Public reaction to Bin Laden’s bloody demise offers an incisive window into our relationship to violence. In response to the news that celebrations had erupted in New York and Washington, the Vatican issued a sobering statement, which ought to have universal resonance: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.” The message of introspection, responsibility and reflection in order to avoid the perpetuation of hate is a crucial one and should lead us to assess how the very violent end of a very violent man, can be the seeming cause of celebration. It would suggest, there are indeed, certain types of violence which are acceptable, justifiable, worthy of gaiety even?
Clearly, the modern sensibility is not horrified by all types of pervasive violence – some are considered justified, carpet bombing Germany and Japan during the second world war, drone missiles causing “collateral” damage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Israeli air raids on the most densely populated strip in the world, Nato’s bombing of Mizrata, despite the casualty implications, can all be explained away as rational violence, the violence which characterises modernity. What irks the modern sensibility is violence which is deemed senseless, in other words, violence which cannot be explained by notions of progress. This later type of violence is discussed, Mahmood Mamdani tells us, in two basic ways, in cultural terms for pre-modern society, and theological terms for modern society. Examples of the cultural explanations can be found in a plethora of articles discussing anything from the Sudanese conflict to the Rwandan genocide – it is “ethnic” conflict, the roots of which are located in the DNA of those involved, something in the very essence of the Hutus, which made them massacre the Tutsis – nothing to do with power or control, but something tribal, something primal.
Political violence which doesn’t fit the narrative of progress is discussed in theological terms to avoid having to take stock of the real factors within our modern society, which may be implicated in the crime at hand. That’s why rather than assessing Hitler as a product of a neo-Darwinian, post-colonial climate, his actions are merely dubbed “evil”, their cosmic basis beyond rational assessment, the holocaust assessed ahistorically, outside the context of imperialism, colonial genocide and racial theories which not only characterised the era, but were applied to the decimation of native populations across the world, the Native Americans, the Maoris, the Hereros… “The Holocaust”, Mamdani tells us, “was born at the meeting point of two traditions that marked modern Western civilization: “the anti-Semitic tradition and the tradition of genocide of colonized peoples.” For Mamdani and others, moving beyond the essentialization or reductivism involved in explaining away non-“progressive” forms of violence, is the only real way to guarantee these types of violence are not replicated. In essence, it is only when we truly assess the root causes, the factors and influences within ourselves and our society which have led to the emergence of any given evil, that we can truly claim to be seeking to eradicate it.
What is striking about the death of Bin Laden is that the rapturous applause and spontaneous celebrations point to the fact that Bin Laden has come to be viewed as the human embodiment of evil in our time, bin Laden was no longer merely a man, he had become a symbol both for his supporters and his detractors, elevating his importance far beyond the almost marginal role he had come to play within the loose network that is al Qaida, and conferring upon him an almost mythical status, which has seen attributed to him, more atrocities than even he could have dreamt of committing. But this larger than life depiction of Bin Laden has proven a serious impediment to assessing what exactly he does represent. Just like the best of humankind do not appear in a vacuum, but are the product of a multiplicity of influences which have forged their outlook and path, the worst of mankind are also a product of ideas, philosophies and events which helped forge them. To essentialise our understanding of Bin Laden’s actions as merely “evil”, is to overlook the important factors which helped nurture him. If we are to avoid a thousand Bin Laden’s in his wake, we need to look deeper than the idea of “senseless” violence rooted in some sort of cosmic evil, to the context which shaped the Bin Laden phenomena.
How does for example, Al Qaida fit in with the Middle East’s history of colonialism, dictatorships and modern day imperialism? How do the violent tactics advocated by Bin Laden fit with the flip side of colonialism, after the settler’s violence against the native, the native’s violence against the settler, in other words, to use the phraseology of Revolutionary theorist Franz Fanon himself, with the idea that “the colonized man liberates himself in and through violence.” For Mamdani, anti-colonial violence is not irrational, but belongs to the very script of modernity the settler had come to propagate, in this sense, the violence itself becomes a “midwife of history”. The native’s violence, the violence of the former victim, was according to Fanon, the violence of those who’d chosen to become masters of their destiny, not victims of other people’s. In many ways, it was a learnt tactic, which when applied, would shift power relations and place the former colonised on an equal footing with the former coloniser. Roy Arendathi sums up the relationship between the two types of violence when she discusses the link between the concepts of war and terrorism, both words used to refer to types of, at times, indiscriminate violence: “Terrorism is vicious, ugly and dehumanizing for its perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” Arendathi doesn’t argue that there is no alternative to terrorism of course, the alternative she states, is Justice. But establishing this laudable ideal is somewhat more complex and requires some serious soul-searching as a nation.
According to Mamdani, there “is huge resistance, both moral and political, to exploring the historical causes of the Nazi genocide”, largely due to the implications such conclusions could have for the philosophies and ideas which continue to guide our lives and which, having been ignored through the essentialization of the Holocaust as strictly “evil”, have failed to be adequately scrutinized. The continued presence of anti-Semitism, joined in recent years by rising islamophobia should be an indication enough that the historical and theoretical demons which underpinned Nazi ideology should never have been laid to rest, but unpicked, deconstructed, demolished. Similarly, in the wake of Bin Laden’s death, we should move beyond the temptation of essentialising the figure and in so doing, reifying the factors which led to his birth, not as the 54th son of a billionaire Saudi family, but as the symbol of modern day violent resistance to perceived Western imperialism.
The story of Bin Laden began long before his birth, his roots stretch from the shores of pre-partition Palestine to the bloody borders of Iraq to the mountains of Algeria. His ideas are as much indebted to a skewed reading of the Quran as they are to the strategies of the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla tactics of South America and the American concept of collateral damage. Bin Laden was a global figure, not only in the limited but real appeal he held for the disillusioned, but in the factors which helped create the myth beyond the man. When we fail to assess what aspects of modern culture are complicit in forging the man who’s come to represent our modern Mephistopheles, we fail to stop his potential for perpetual renewal.
In 1987, Paul Gilroy penned his now seminal book “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”, in which he unpicked the usual explanation of racism as a peculiar evil on the margins of British society, and highlighted instead how the history of British racism is bound up with an imaginary English ‘national culture’ which is supposedly homogenous in its whiteness and Christianity. Cut to 2011, where Far-Right discourse has shifted from an anti-black focus to an anti-Muslim focus (although how cynical this ploy is, is anybody’s guess), and it is clear that Gilroy’s ideas continue to have huge relevance. While the focus of the Far-right’s vitriol has shifted from race to culture, the new target has been afforded widespread legitimacy by mainstream arguments asserting that ideas, unlike race, are a legitimate target for criticism and ridicule. There is no denying that all ideas must be open to critique and therefore potentially derision, but this convenient argument ignores the reality that arguments critical of Islam have been used to tar, stigmatise and even at times legitimise violence against individual Muslims. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi put the problem succinctly in a recent interview with emel magazine, in which she stated: “Islam is a religion and everyone has a right to question, criticise, disagree with, and object to other people’s religions… but where you have an approach of hatred towards a community because of the religion they belong to… that’s what I am saying is wrong.”
Examples of critical derision instrumentalised to justify hate campaigns trickle down from pseudo intellectual articles in the usual suspects, arguing Islam’s alleged inherent misogyny, to groups like the EDL, who like to proclaim their questionable feminist credentials as being part of their opposition to Islam. The language slips frequently and fluidly from Islamism, or Islamic extremists to Islam, condemning not only the violent minority, but criminalising the entire community.
Even the politically correct caveats have now been omitted so that Islam is now described as an ideology, not a religion or spiritual tradition, but a human contruction, considered like other ideologies, as inherently power hungry, oppressive and machiavellian, not an ethical body of ideals which nourishes the framework of values of societies as diverse as Indonesia, Senegal or Bosnia.
It is Islam, not its interpretations which are now described as barbaric, violent or backwards, a simplistic refusal to recognise the reality that texts don’t speak for themselves, humans, as a product of their social, cultural and political context – make the text speak, as their filter the words and their significance. To anyone familiar with the diversity within religious interpretations, this comes as no surprise. It is basic hermeneutics. But the talking heads, many of whom have now made a career in Islam-bashing, are not interested in nuances. And their irresponsible commitment to perpetuating a clichéd and narrow conception of Islam and the Muslim community, is not merely an insult to the real theology experts, but actually affects the lives of Muslim citizens.
The reality is that the pervasive hostility towards Islam, fed and well watered in the public sphere, has a very real impact on the private sphere of individual Muslims. Personal anecdotes abound, my friend Abdul being called into a management meeting to ask if he might consider changing his name to something which might be less likely to ‘offend’ the customers. Kareema being verbally abused on the bus. In Paris a few years ago I was told my “headgear” was not permitted in a bowling alley… In France, the 5% overall unemployment for university graduates contrasts with 26.5% unemployment for “North African” university graduates. Here in the UK, my research with the European Muslim Research Center (EMRC) highlighted just how widespread and how serious incidents of islamophobia have become from discrimination in the workplace to arson and even murder. More worrying still however is the continuing unwillingness to acknowledge its existence, be it through the incessant debates over the semantics of the word or the insidious suggestion Muslims are always portraying themselves as victims, implying it would seem, that we should put up or shut up. The grievances of citizens discounted by virtue of their religious identity. To be Muslim is to be less worthy of sympathy when attacked, less entitled to complain when slighted, to be fair game for public ridicule and derision. To be Muslim today is to owe the world an explanation for your very being.
And yet so little thoughtful analysis has been dedicated to assessing the similarities between the race bating of the 1980s and current Muslim bating. Racist arguments often contained a cultural dimension, that the black community was inherently more violent or criminal, just as caricatured media stories today which derive their alleged legitimacy from a focus on ‘Islam’, actually contain clear racial slurs.
Just as black men were portrayed as sexual predators biologically predisposed to sex attacks, Jack Straw’s recent comments that Muslim men were targeting “white” girls for sex attacks represented, he claimed, a “specific problem” for Pakistani men “fizzing and popping with testosterone “. Phantasmagorical predictions presented through the lens of the alleged clash of civilizations, that Muslims will soon be outnumbering the so-called “native” population (presumably white, Christian), mirror claims made in Powell’s insidious speech, in which he predicted race-wars, affirming that the black man would gain “the whip hand over the white”.
For Gilroy, the history of slavery was not simply an aberration, but a key component of Western modernity and this oppressive potential within modernity is complicit in the history of slavery. In the case of diasporas, the way colonised peoples were viewed during the colonial era continues to impinge on conceptions of the descendents of immigrants today. In the midst of local elections in France in which the Far-Right party, the FN is set to achieve record votes, Marine Le Pen has largely defined the parameters of the electoral discourse. In a recent inflammatory statement, she claimed that Muslims praying in the street represent “an occupation”, recalling that of Germany in the Second World War, but also France’s presence in North Africa. The implications for how Muslims are conceived of, is clear: foreign, hostile, fascist. Conclusion? like the Nazis, they must be fought and expelled. Like the movement for national independence in Algeria, that struggle is legitimate.
For those convinced the far right remains a marginal voice in Europe, it is time to consider the facts. Germany’s best selling book since the Second world war claims that Muslims are lowering the intelligence of the nation and represent a genetic tar. Entitled, “Germany Does Away With Itself,” it claims Germany is “committing suicide by Islam”. Four days after its publication, it topped Amazon Germany’s bestseller list and Sarrazin’s “theory” has been published widely in the mass circulation Bild newspaper and discussed and debated on talkshows, with muted approbation from the country’s intellectual elite, many of whom have praised his willingness to tackle the “problem” of Islam.
During the second round of France’s cantonal elections, the Far Right has made large advances, becoming the third political force in France, behind the Socialist party and Sarkozy’s UMP. Despite being present in 402 cantons, the FN has 12 per cent of the votes and gained more than 300,000 voters between the two rounds of votes, with over 40% of votes in some areas. That France’s elections have come to be defined by issues such as “the veil”, the burka and Muslim prayers as well as the enduring debate on ‘laicite’ , speaks volumes for the state of populist politics and for the dearth of real political initiative. It also reflects the dangerous strategy employed by Sarkozy to draw far-Right voters away from the National Front (FN) with a tough line on Islam, security and immigration, confirmed by Jacques Myard’s statement that a large part of the UMP’s base had defected to the FN. Previously viewed as a renegade party on the fringes of France’s political life, a recent poll found that a majority of French for the first time consider the FN to be a party “like the others”. Its growing success, fuelled in part by the legitimacy afforded to the Far right discourse by the remainder of the political scene, who have capitalised on its rhetoric, led the FN’s poster girl and daughter of its founder, Marine Le Pen to state: “the redrawing of political life in France is under way”. In my region, Seine-et-Marne, the FN achieved 21,64% overtaking the UMP. In Marseille, traditionally one of France’s most multicultural cities, the FN has achieved over 30% in all the cantons. And this despite the fact over 10% of the French electorate is Muslim.
Infamous Geert Wilders’ Freedom party came third in the June 2010 elections in the Netherlands, following a campaign in which he compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And the Far Right parties have made important gains in the European parliamentary elections, where the BNP now hold two seats as MEPs.
The shift from race to religious identity among the far right is a newly discovered discursive ploy which emerged as a consequence of race-baiting being criminalised. But the race card itself was just a way to define the focus of the unease each generation seems to confront with the absorption of different influences and outlooks, often redefining aspects of national culture.
“We want Briton for British” one less than eloquent young EDL member shouted in a much derided interview now re-mixed on youtube. It would come as no surprise to Gilroy that music, which he regards as a prime example of a ‘counterculture’ – available to a diverse and undifferentiated audience, was used by a Muslim to mock and deride the ignorance displayed by the EDL member. Music was just one tool available for a community under attack to forge a notion of itself, defining its culture and outlook away from the restrictive and narrow reflection offered to it by a mainstream culture which rejected its place within it.
Gilroy’s title, ‘There aint no black in the Union Jack’ served to highlight the inability of the black community in the 1980s to recognise itself in mainstream culture’s definition of Britishness. Today, it is equally true of the Muslim community that many feel “there aint no crescent in the Union jack”, that despite their longstanding presence and undeniable contribution to the construction of our society, mainstream culture is hostile to Muslims and to “Muslim culture(s)”, erecting Islam as the latest bogeyman against which to define britishness, all the while ignoring those very concrete examples of individuals who already represent the hybrid of ‘British Muslim’ identity.
In 2008, Gilroy penned an article for the guardian in which he criticised the canonisation of Enoch Powell, whom he wryly describes as “a talisman of authentic English nationalism” and his association with an increasingly popular notion of culture that only makes sense in exclusionary terms. Gilroy’s momentous contribution to the field of race relations was, amongst other things, to demonstrate effectively that cultural traditions are not static, but develop, grow and indeed mutate, as they influence and are influenced by the other shifting traditions around them. Of equal relevance to contemporary debates was his notion of “Double Consciousness” in the black community, which he described as the striving to be both European and Black through a relationship to the land of their birth and their ethnic political constituency, a notion which challenges the restrictive view that Muslims must somehow choose between their religious or spiritual orientation and their national citizenship.
Gilroy noted the importance of culture as expressed in the life of the community and suggested one route of revolt against a society which refused to recognise its place within it, was through cultural assertion, including through notions of a transatlantic diaspora community, the ‘Black Atlantic’ for the black community… the Umma for the Muslim community..?
As the Far-Right continues to make headway across Europe, it is time to re-examine our history and the ideas that challenged the narrow conception of national culture in previous eras and evaluate the possible contribution of such ideas to current debates. Gilroy and his peers shook the debate on racism in the 1980s, but his ideas continue to hold clear relevance for the challenge of one of the particular forms of hatred we face today.
In yet further evidence substantiating the view that France’s obsession with the imposition of a very narrow and ahistorical conception of laicite (ahistorical because the secular movement in French history was about creating a neutral space away from the encroachment of the Catholic Church, not erasing signs of religion*) is in fact a political veneer for discrimination against French Muslim citizens, a school in the Paris suburbs has taken the step of threatening girls with exclusion, for the shocking misdemeanour of wearing “long dresses”.
For some girls, the move comes just two months before their Baccalaureate exam (A-Level equivalent), and this despite the fact they’ve not changed their mode of dress or encountered problems previously due to it.
The girls, who wear headscarves outside of school, had previously also been forbidden from wearing headbands deemed “too wide”, despite other non-Muslim pupils being allowed to wear them. The girls report that the school authorities compiled a list of girls who wore headscarves outside of school and challenged them on their wearing of “long dresses” in school, stating these represented an “ostentatious” sign, contravening school regulations.
The girls are now protesting the exclusion on the grounds that the long dresses are not a religious sign and that other non-Muslim pupils, including a male gothic student, are permitted to wear long garments without harassment. They also report the significant and disruptive impact this measure is having on their ability to study and their feeling of ostracization in school and society more broadly.
This is just the latest example of the differential treatment and singling out, afforded to French Muslims in France today and comes as no surprise to those aware of the contrived justification for the ban on headscarves in French state-run institutions.
Adding ignorant insult to outrageous injury, a school official stated: “Et pourquoi ne vous habillez-vous pas comme tout le monde ?! Et pourquoi ne mettez-vous pas un teeshirt et un pantalon comme tout le monde ?! Et qu’est-ce que vous portez en-dessous de votre robe ?! ”
Translation: “Why can’t you dress like everybody else? Why won’t you put on a t-shirt or trousers like everybody else? And what are you wearing underneath that dress?!”
You can listen to the girls’ testimonies here (in French):
*For more on the origins of laicite in France, I recommend looking at the founding texts:
• loi de 1905
• l’arrêt du Conseil d’État de 1989
“Sans référence explicite à la laïcité, la loi de 1905 en fixe le cadre, fondé sur deux grands principes : la liberté de conscience et le principe de séparation. La République “ne reconnaît, ne salarie, ni ne subventionne aucun culte”, mais, ce faisant, n’en ignore aucun. La loi de 1905 a supprimé le service public des cultes, mais la religion n’est pas une affaire purement privée, et l’exercice des cultes peut être public.”
Translation: “Without explicit reference to laicite, the law of 1905 fixes its parameters, founded on two central principles: freedom of conscience and the principle of separation. The Republic ‘does not recognise, provide salaries nor fund any religion’, but this said, it ignores none. The law of 1905 eliminated the public service of religions, but religion is not a strictly personal matter and the exercise of religions can be public.”
The question now is, in what way do schoolgirls in headscarves, bandanas or long dresses, really pose an affront to the core values of laicite….the answer is, they don’t. But anything related to Muslims and issues of national identity makes great political fodder…
Note: The piece was not quite what I expected- I only mentioned the incidents of islamophobia to give a context to this issue, in reality , I had a lot more to say on multiculturalism, the actual topic, but this was edited out of the final cut sadly.
My main points were:
- culture is not static, but continuously evolving and changing. Its dynamic and changing nature means all portions of society have a part to play in forging its evolving meaning, definitions and mores – you cannot ‘impose’ a pre-conceived notion on people, otherwise they wont feel they have a stake in the society, or that it is truly “theirs”
- “muscular liberalism” to me sounds a lot like the muscular, bald headed man who threatened me in the tube the other day
- “less passive tolerance”, as Cameron had requested, suggests more ‘pro-active intolerance’?? Sub-cultures have always been in many ways subversive and counter-societal in their challenge to dominant norms – black culture was viewed in this way until not that long ago -check out the seminal book “Aint no black in the Union Jack” – this is accepted and understood for other sub-groups, why not for “some” muslims.
-as a convert myself, I have never viewed my conversion as a rejection or reaction against my society or culture – rather, I view Europe as very ‘islamic’ in that the vast majority of laws and rules are totally in sync with my understanding of the sharia. In that sense, I see European values and their relationship to Islam in much the same way Mohamed Abduh did when he said: “Europe is Islam, without Islam, you are Muslims without Islam”, by which he meant the values of Europe are very much islamic, in other words, Divine, Universal values. Incidentally, he also said: “I went to the West and I saw Islam, but no muslims; I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam…”!
The answer is both are already adapting to one another, but the dichotomy is a false one – Muslims are Britons, Islam is now a British religion, so of course as a culture it is therefore very naturally evolving through incorporating new ideas and practises -similarly, when muslims begin developing traditional english folk music to islamic themes, or lifestyle magazines reflecting British muslim culture, or art incorporating calligraphy and European influences – these all represent a symbiotic and interactive evolution between European culture and islam.
Where Islam goes, it doesnt or shouldn’t divorce people from their cultures or traditions, but rather it purifies them and helps them discover their own inherent genius, fostering the ideal conditions for societal flourishing…