Jadaliyya: Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Professor Olivier Roy, Head of the Mediterranean Program at the European University Institute discusses the development of the concept of laicite in France, from its emergence as a tool for the management of diversity, to its rebranding as an ideology of exclusion. In this interview, he questions the notion of national identity as a politicized concept and identifies a profound crisis of identity at its root. He also outlines the double-bind faced by French Muslims, called at once to hide their faith, but then speak as representatives of it during periods of crisis, thus leaving them open to accusations of communalism. Roy calls for a return to a notion of secularism which allows for the free expression of religion in the public sphere without compromising a core institutional separation between the state and religion. He also identifies the racist function of secularist rhetoric, both on the Right and among French feminists, unable to see past secular prejudice, a common struggle shared with French Muslim women. The interview took place on 9 April. It was originally conducted in French and translated into English by the interviewer.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah (MFC): In a recent interview in Le Monde, you say, “Laicite has become the expulsion of religion from the public sphere to the private sphere.” Is the secular Republic necessarily hostile to the practice of religion in the public sphere?
Olivier Roy (OR): You must look at the origins of laicite in France, it comes from a violent conflict between the Republic and the Catholic Church, the Republic was anti-religious, it was called “anti-clericalism”—at the same time, it affected the Catholic Church, not protestants or Jews at the time. But the law of 1905, the founding text of laicite in France, is not an anti-religious law, it is a law of compromise, the law of 1905 does not exclude religion from the public sphere, it speaks only of religious practice, it forbids itself from defining religion because the state must be neutral and separate from religion, so the law notes that people have a religious practice and organize it in the public sphere. Of course, the Republic has the last word—for ringing bells, processions, prayers in the street—you need a permit (authorization)—there are conditions, you must respect public order, but it is not forbidden at all—the law of 1905 says the representatives of the state must be neutral but not that citizens must be neutral—avoid wearing a cross, a robe, etc.—it is not a law to exclude religion from the public space or to define who the good religious person is.
However what do we note today is that there is a demand for the exclusion of religion from the public space. It starts with schools, forbidding the headscarf, here there could be an argument about minors who cannot affirm a personal choice, but we are now hearing about forbidding headscarves from universities. When I was a student there were nuns who were students who wore the catholic veil, there were priests in robes, but now we speak of excluding religious symbols from public spaces and private work spaces, such as in the Babyloup affair (a nursery worker who was fired for wearing a headscarf at a private nursery). In the last election, a man with a kippa on his head was threatened with exclusion from a voting office because he went to vote with his kippa on—this is illegal. Today we have a laicite which wants religion to only be in the private sphere—this is new and it is against the law of 1905—this is why I say laicite today is anti-religious, it is not a laicite of compromise, which allows for religious freedom it wants to exclude religion from the public sphere and it reflects a phobia of religion.
MFC: Does this logic of exclusion not apply more so to one community than to others?
OR: It started against the Muslim community with the issue of the veil in Creil in 1989, but I would say there are two forms of laicite here. One is selective and the other is universal, the former is that of the Right and Far Right—which affirms France’s Christian identity but which targets Muslim symbols, but the Left today, it is anti-religious in general, even if it all began with the Muslim sign, the left is anti-religious in general. The Rabbi of Toulouse was asked by a Communist Party member to remove his kippa when he came to vote; in Vende, the municipality was attacked by a socialist for establishing a Christian nursery. On the left, it goes far beyond Islamophobia to a more general rejection of religion, and an anti-clericalism which is profoundly anti-religious and which is increasingly vocal among activists. Beyond an Islamophobia which stretches from the Left to the Right, there are two genealogies of Islamophobia, one which is from the Right—rooted in identity politics (identitaire) and the other on the Left, which is laic (secular) and for the exclusion of religion.
MFC: Why and how does a value or a judicial principle, turn into an ideology?
OR: In the beginning, the law of 1905 was simply a judicial principle, it was not understood as a set of norms and values. Why? Because at the time, the believers and non-believers shared the same values—on family, on homosexuality, morality, modesty, etc.—there was a common set of ethics, culture. As Jules Ferry said, a laic teacher was not meant to say anything which might shock a religious head of family. What’s different today is the moral cleavage which emerged in the 1960s, that is not related to Islam but to religion in general. From the 1960s, there is a secular ethic which diverges significantly from the religious ethic – sexual freedom, gay marriage, IVF, etc.—this is why the laicite, which was a principle of neutrality turned into an ideology affirming values – under the principle of tolerance, the idea that one must accept blasphemy, homosexuality, feminism, etc., which has never been central to the Catholic Church. There is a disconnect between the dominant culture and religion, which means that communities of faith feel themselves minorities in the contemporary western world and that’s why they ask to be protected from the majority—there are two tendencies among people of faith. The first is “reconquer,” demanding that the state take into account Christian values, such as forbidding abortion, or if deemed impossible, requesting an exemption, such as a believer not being made to perform a gay marriage, undertake abortion, etc.—today there is a clear disassociation between secularized culture and religions, and when I say laicite has become an ideology, rather than accept this diversity, laicite is demanding that the believer share in these secular values—this is the tension. For example, take the Charlie Hebdo affair. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” can have two meanings: one of solidarity, opposing the attacks and terrorism, but the second meaning refers to an approval of Charlie—and many believers cannot say that they approve Charlie. They condemn the killings but cannot necessarily approve of Charlie’s images—it is what the Pope said, he was very clear, when he said he was against blasphemy, not that it was a question of law, but he opposed blasphemy, especially gratuitously. There was a very strong reaction in France among secularists who thought it scandalous that the Pope speak in this fashion. Today there is a laic intolerance. From the principle of the separation of state and religion, we have moved to the idea that everyone must share the ideals of the Republic but which are in fact very recent values and which are a consequence of profound social changes since the 1960s. Laicite no longer accepts diversity.
MFC: We often say “the Republic says” or “laicite says” but terms do not speak, people do. Is there not an issue of the lack of representation of the individuals in question within the institutions devising the terms, which is at the heart of the matter here?
OR: Yes, certainly, we have moved from the principle of secular Republican political integration where everyone can be a citizen, to a principle of cultural assimilation, which means everyone must share the same values, and this is new, because the law of 1905 by definition recognized that the believer is different to the non-believer, it recognizes the specificity of religion, but it treats everyone in the same way, the believer and the non-believer, everyone is a citizen, but today, we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen, that his/her belief not be known, a demand of cultural, normative, ethical homogenization by the state—that is why I call it an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered not just as the dominant system of values, but normative—and which is official. And here, we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system on people. On all believers, Muslim or other. The problem is that the Republic defines itself according to a culture, but culture is much more complicated than to be reduced to a certain number of principles or basic norms—eating pork is not part of French culture—there is pork in French cooking but it is not normative in French culture. Here there is an abuse of language by the proponents of an uncompromising laicite (pure et dure).
MFC: Where did this transformation come from?
OR: I think it comes from a profound crisis of identity, the term identity is new—today we speak of French identity, Sarkozy had launched this term as a theme of reflection—if you look at texts forty, fifty, one-hundred years ago, no one spoke of French identity. Some people spoke of French culture, of the French Republic, of many things, but not identity, the idea that a culture could be reduced to an identity, no one thought of this. Why? Because I think there was a strong link to the Republic—or to the monarchy for those who were royalists—but there was a strong connection to the state. Nobody questioned the existence of something called “France.” Today there is a serious crisis of political identification. We have two profound changes of French society that happened at the same time. The first is immigration, and the second is the European project. There is a gap between the political scene and the national scene. There are decisions taken in Brussels that are not taken by the French parliament or government. At the outset, there was a new population which arrived which had a different culture, not just a different religion, but a different culture. So there is a sense that French society is questioned from above through the weakening of the nation-state and from below through multiculturalism and this leads to fearful reactions—reactions of anxiety and fear, whereby some people try to find refuge in the invocation of identity. But we do not know what identity is. When the National front speaks of identity, it refers to a picnic with red wine, saucission (pork sausage), and folklore music—things which are completely marginal to a real culture so for me, “French identity” means nothing. French culture has a meaning but it is itself very diverse so I think this question of identity is a response to a political and social crisis which is real and which exists.
MFC: What is a “moderate Muslim” in the French context, since the definition differs in different societies?
OR: In the French context, something which is very explicit among politicians, journalists, etc., is that political radicalization—jihad, terrorism is a consequence of religious extremism—the idea that the more people become religious, the more they become politically radical—this is the assumption, the premise of the reasoning which leads the authorities to say that to resolve the problem there is a need to develop an Islam which is theologically “moderate.” And as you know, in the police files, concerning Muslims who wish to get a security clearance to work at an airport, etc., their religious practice is noted. This is not new—in 1905, the French ministry of defense, which was under the control of radical secularists, had files on French officers noting their degree of religious practice—did they go to church every week, with a prayer book, etc., so it is not just Islamophobia. It is linked to this phobia of religion and the view that religion ultimately leads to fanaticism, which is a secular idea by definition.
It is not understood in French society how someone can be religiously radical while being totally politically moderate–while of course it exists. Take even a priest (moines)—his is a religiously radical decision since he has decided to dedicate his life to religion exclusively, but he is someone very pacifist and moderate. But because we no longer see priests in public spaces, we have forgotten this and we do the same thing with Muslims. So a Muslim who prays five times a day is considered a potential radical. This will be found in police files and in the view of many people. Hence the idea which was launched by an adviser to the government that the state should train laic imams, in other words, moderate imams—there is a need to reform Islam, theologically, that women are the equals of men etc. for example, but the problem is that the state—the secular state—must not interfere in a theological debate, otherwise it is no longer secular. There is meant to be a separation between the state and religion, and secondly, if one is consistent, it should be done with all religions, but no one is asking the Catholic Church to ordain female priests. There were reforms on this. The law of 1905 refused to recognize Catholic hierarchies. That the pope had authority over bishops, this was only recognized in 1924. There is an old French Republican tradition that demands churches reform in line with the demands of the Republic—it is not only Islam.
I think Muslims often, when they do not know French history well, put everything on the back of racism, but it is deeper than that. My response is simple, the secular state should not delve into theology—and secondly, what is a religious reform? Martin Luther was a reformist, Calvin was a reformer, but they were not moderates—you need only look at American evangelicals, they are not moderates. There is not “moderate” religion and the question should only be asked in political terms. Hence a moderate Muslim is one who condemns violence and jihadism—OK—there is no need to ask what he thinks of the Quran, of prayer—this is the separation between church and state—it must not be a political question.
MFC: You seem to see a contradiction between the need to hide one’s faith, as a “moderate Muslim” and the need to publicly denounce attacks on the other hand. Are French Muslims in a lose-lose scenario?
OR: Exactly, it is a double bind. On one hand they are criticized for being communitarian (communautarise)–-and on the other hand because we perceive them as communitarian, we demand of them that they respond as a community to condemn terrorism. But because there is no “Muslim community,” nobody can speak on behalf of it to condemn terrorism, [but then] they are told they do not condemn terrorism. It is a trap Muslims are placed in. The answer is to speak in different voices. This is what happened after Charlie Hebdo, unlike after the Rushdie affair twenty-five years ago when the Muslim community had no representatives. Today I wouldn’t say the Muslim community has representatives, I would say the Muslim community has Muslim elites, intellectuals, cinematographers, lawyers, artists, religious figures, organizations like the UOIF who can speak, compared to twenty-five years ago when there was this injunction on a community which didn’t exist. Thousands of Muslims spoke up—this is also where social networks play a part—when something like this happens, you automatically get thousands of tweets. This didn’t exist twenty-five years ago, so speech is freed up. There is not one Muslim speech, but many Muslims speaking out, with nuances and divergences among themselves, on issues or allegations against the Muslims community—so I’d say there has been progress. Very clearly. Stop talking about the “Muslim community.” It does not exist. That message is starting to be heard.
MFC: Some thinkers argue that the French Republic forged its very identity in opposition to its colonies. Can it ever adapt to integrate Islam as part of national identity?
OR: I think we put too much emphasis on the colonial past, it is an intellectual construction and concretely, this is no longer really the issue. The colonial Republic was secular (of course it supported religious orders, the great paradox of the law against congregations in 1904, which excluded Catholic congregations from education in France, was that it allowed them abroad—the priests were useful abroad, but the enemy in France), but French colonization didn’t build itself as Christian. That there is a sense of superiority compared to indigenous people, that there is this civilizational mission—yes, but the colonial institutions were more complex.
Let me give you one example. A French institution that gives its full place to Islam is the army. The French army has created a Muslim chaplaincy, which is on the same plain as the Jewish and Protestant chaplaincies, not quite the same plain as the Catholic chaplaincy. The Muslim chaplains organize the pilgrimage to Mecca in uniform, just as there is a Christian pilgrimage to Lourdes, in uniform. Why has it been easier for the army to integrate Islam? Precisely because the army has a colonial past. There were Muslim troops, the issue of halal came up, as did chaplains etc. The colonial heritage is more ambiguous than what we might think. The grand mosque of Paris is also a consequence of the colonial past—France was very ambiguous because on one hand it wanted to be a Muslim power, through its colonial dimension, but on the other hand, it never treated Islam the way it treated Catholicism—the 1905 law wasn’t applied in Algeria. I do not agree with the stance of those such as the French movement of the Indigenes de la Republic (a former political party) who believe we simply have a progression of the colonial relationship–-I think today we are more so in a state of hyper-laicite than in an extension of the colonial set-up. This hyper-laicite affects all religions, but more so Islam. It is more a refusal to take into consideration religion in the public space—it is a religion-phobia.
MFC: If the fact of not displaying one’s religion is the definition of a moderate Muslim, but yet many Muslims may not consider it possible not to “display” aspects of their religious identity—whether through a headscarf, the need to pray five times a day, fasting, etc.. Is it possible for Muslims in France today to be fully Muslim and fully French?
OR: That depends on the niche you occupy. Where one lives, where one works. It is a question for all religions—the issue of compromise. It is not proper for a religion to arrive with a list of non-negotiables, which the Catholic church has done. It has for example said that gay marriage is non-negotiable, which causes huge problems because it leads to an impasse. Now it is time to rethink the relationship between religion and Republic. By leaning on religious freedom laicite has gone too far in transforming into an ideology and needs to return to a rule of cohabitation and not an exclusion of religion. Now, the forms of cohabitation must be negotiated. We see it already in the workplaces; companies negotiate their religious workforce. It is obvious that a checkout person who refuses to ring up alcohol cannot be a cashier. We cannot expect him not to take into account the purchase of alcohol, he needs to do another job – but there are plenty of other jobs. Similarly, there are jobs where the practice of Ramadan and prayers are also problematic—but all of this is negotiable—we need to consider it not in a multicultural perspective but from the basis of religious freedom whereby religious communities come together to renegotiate the contract, because the problems facing Muslims are also those facing Orthodox Jews. The Catholic Church is struggling with the growing gap between its values and the dominant culture and the Protestants have always been the most integrated to the Republic, but with the growth of evangelicals, we have a Protestant movement which is much more assertive in demanding its rights, much more critical of laicite and modernity, such as on abortion. So I think there needs to be a coalition of religions to ask the Republic to apply the principle of religious freedom rather than the principle of uniformity through laicite.
MFC: You refer in your book to the crisis of culture as a consequence of globalization and new modes of communication, a dynamic which isolates religion according to you. Is this a process of secularization on a global scale in your view?
OR: Its international. Take fundamentalist preachers—Salafis or American evangelicals, they all say the same thing—that dominant culture is no longer religious, that the culture is “Western,” “secular,” “atheist,” “pagan,” whatever, they each have their terminology. But the gap between religious cultures and dominant cultures is observable everywhere. Even in the United States where the majority identify as religious, religious authorities complain that culture is not a religious culture—see the laws on gay marriage that recently passed even when a majority of society identifies as believing. I think there is a growing divorce between dominant culture and religion, but people remain believers. For me secularization is not measured by the number of people who cease to believe, it is when dominant cultures no longer identify as religious.
MFC: Is the French model of laicite a good model for the management of diversity for other societies?
OR: It is a model which is essentially French, because even in countries which have adopted it officially, such as Mexico or Turkey. In Turkey although everyone speaks of laicite, the constitution is not secular because religion is organized by the department for religious affairs. Kemalist Turkey preserved the Department of Religious Affairs to control religion, specifically Islam—it is not laicite. Similarly in Mexico, there is a “French style” laicite, but it is clear that religion, especially Catholicism, plays a much bigger part in society than it can in France, so in all countries there is a national dimension, a historical dimension, there is a national question over the issue of religion and the state. If you take a country like Denmark where less than ten percent of people practice a religion, Danes will tell you they are Lutherans because it is the religion of the state—but they do not practice, they do not care at all. So it is an extremely secular country although officially there is no separation between state and society so each country in my view invents its compromise to manage the relations between the church, state, and society. I do not think in particular that laicite in its current version, as an ideology, can be positive for any country, I think it has gone too far–but we can conceive of a secular constitution, in the sense of distinguishing religion and politics, which works well in a religious society. Take the example of the United States. There you have a total separation, but no president can be elected if he does not believe in God. Look at Bosnia, created specifically to be a Muslim state for the Muslims of Yugoslavia, is totally secular—which does not mean that there is a Muslim community which functions very well in laicite, which is blossoming in a secular framework. The issue is not the laicite as a constitutional principle of separation, I think this can function very well, the problem is when laicite constructs itself as an anti-religious ideology.
MFC: The sociologist Pierre Merle considers that laicite as it is understood today, which prohibits religious displays rather than respecting them, leads to marginalization, rather than fostering a sense of living together—what is your view?
OR: Of course, any society which is diverse… I reject a multicultural approach for a very simple reason: it is not an issue of accepting the culture of immigrants. We are now into the third generation. We are no longer dealing with an issue of immigration—immigration is over —those of the third generation do not want to assert a culture, but a religion. I think the issue at its root is not one of multiculturalism, it is an error to speak of this, it is an issue of freedom, of democracy. Religious freedom is not a demand for recognition by minorities, it is written in the constitution, it exists within Republican ideals and it must be applied. So for me, this is the question, religious freedom presupposes there are believers in society, and that believers have a right to be believers in the public sphere. They should not be asked to hide their beliefs in the public sphere—it is totally absurd in a diverse society to ask everyone to pretend to be the same.
MFC: In your view does the term laicite in France today serve a racist function?
OR: On the Right, yes—on the Right and Far Right, certainly, but on the Left it is more complicated. The blurring in fact comes now through converts and the gap between religion and ethnic identity. In the French imaginary, and the European imaginary more broadly, a Muslim is an Arab or a Turk or a Pakistani—thankfully things are changing. Slowly we see people who are of Muslim origin who are ultra-seculars. In France those who criticize the veil most vociferously are often of Arab background, in particular of Algerian background. The lesson-givers are ex-Muslims who criticize Islam, whereas there are converts who reveal themselves to be much more extreme than Muslims from birth—it is quite common. When you look at Daesh (ISIS), they recruit many converts. It is no longer a question of ethnic origins, so yes, there is a racism behind Islamophobia, but I think there is also a challenge to this because religious identity is no longer determined by ethnic identity.
MFC: Since the law of 2004 forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” in schools, the field of prohibitions seems to growing ever wider. It is no longer simply headscarves—or headgear such as bandanas or hats, which are prohibited in schools—but now also long skirts, dark or loose clothing are also suspected of being “religious symbols”. Lila Charef from the Committee Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has said, “we’ve moved to another level of surveillance concerning women’s appearance.” Why in your view are Muslims women subject to such levels of control of their bodies by the state and its institutions?
OR: Because women are perceived as being at the heart of culture. This is an old story—when the Soviets wanted to Sovietize Central Asia in the 1930s, their campaign targeted primarily women—unveiling, mandatory education. The French did the same in Algeria. It is not an issue of laicite versus Islam. It is a more general question. For example, when I was at school in the 1960s, there was a regulation of women’s dress and not of men’s dress. At the time, it was also about the length of skirts, they had to be below the knee. Now they are required to be over it. It goes up or down, but that’s where it is always measured. The skirt remains the measure of the control of women. There is a very macho patriarchal dimension here—social control happens through the control of women’s bodies, but under the pretext that this control serves to free the alienated Muslim women. It is not perceived as a part of the continuity of the control of women’s bodies in order to ensure social control. The Catholic Church was very big on this—control of hair. My grandmother would never have left the house without a hat. Women who went out without hats were women of poor repute—this has always existed, but it is now in the name of women’s liberation when in fact it is still about control.
MFC: Why have French feminists, predominantly, been unable to perceive the regulation of Muslim women’s bodies as an extension of patriarchal control of women’s bodies?
OR: It is surprising. I think the French specificity is the inability of French elites, intellectuals, to understand religion. French elites are profoundly secular. In Germany, in the United States, there is a much more flexible understanding. I am thinking of Judith Butler, who is a feminist for example. Because Americans, even when they are atheist, do not have a phobia of religion. Feminists in France share a phobia of religion, which is a marker of the French intelligentsia. The second thing is their theory of emancipation—the veil as oppression—they cannot see beyond this. This is partly why the educational sector is so hostile to the veil. I see many of my colleagues who say they cannot stand to have a woman in a headscarf in front of them in lessons or lecture halls. We have seen how the Stasi Commission basically refused to listen to women who wear headscarves. The comparison is possibly a little risqué, but it is the same issue with prostitutes: we do not listen to prostitutes because a woman who is oppressed is a woman who is not meant to have a voice, not to have anything to say; that someone else must always speak for her and so people speak only to those who resemble them. This is very clear, there is a mirror effect between French feminism and women of Muslim origin who are anti-veil, they speak only among themselves.
MFC: Do you recognize a link between the marginalization that flows from the increasing social and legal restrictions being placed on French Muslims and the openness of some French Muslims to the rejectionist message of Daesh (ISIS)?
OR: Not directly, no, because those who are joining Daesh are not in the categories most targeted. Paradoxically, those most targeted are not the young and marginalized. Young marginals are not at university, at school, they do not eat in cafeterias, so they do not really care about repression. It is more the rising elites who are the victims of hostility to Islam, it is young women at university, girls at schools, young people who eat in cafeterias, but this is not where the Daesh is recruiting. I do not see a mechanical effect whereby a sense of exclusion leads to radicalization. However, there is an indirect relationship. Given the difficulty in recognizing an Islam within the public sphere, young people have no positive models of Muslim citizens, no image of someone who can say, “I’m a contented Muslim citizen,” so they live their exclusion vicariously. They are excluded, not necessarily because they are Muslim, but because they have no positive images. The only positive image they have is the jihadi, so greater flexibility towards religion in the public space would contribute to circulating different images of integrated Islam, Republican Islam, which would allow them to say you can be French and Muslim.
You can read the piece on the Jadaliyya website here
“As a party they’ve got a problem with race,” declared Labour’s Chuka Umunna, making reference to the latest racist controversy involving Ukip. “And I don’t think you can kick out racism from their party unless you have got a leadership which understands it and understands race in modern Britain.”
Umunna was referring to the growing array of racist comments made by Ukip figures – from one councillor saying she has a “problem with people with negroid features” to another who posted on Facebook “Muslim women: Hang ’um all first then ask questions later”. Ukip’s sinister side is increasingly well documented, but in many ways, its pantomime-esque displays of prejudice serve a useful function for broader society, cordoning off racism as something that happens out there, on the fringes, and thus comparatively absolving everyone else. As if somehow Ukip’s comments happen in a vacuum, as if there isn’t a broader climate of intolerance from which this is just the embarrassing stain that seeps through.
Implicit in Umunna’s statement of course was the idea that Labour – or the “mainstream” – unlike Ukip, does understand issues of race in modern Britain. But is the fact broader society knows not to – publicly at least – make references to “Bongo Bongo land” or compare Muslims to dogs, a real indication that issues of race are understood in modern Britain?
In a recent programme on Channel 4 the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips said that Britain has a problem talking about race. The problem Phillips seemed to identify was an almost overbearing anti-racism campaign, which has left white people feeling like they might all be racists. Phillips’ reassessment reflects a shift in the dominant consensus concerning race, from a view of racism as endemic in government and broader society, to an increasingly popular perception that Britain is broadly post-racial and that it is communities themselves that cultivate divisions, sowing seeds of “legitimate” resentment.
Few would disagree that the nature of racism has shifted significantly since the Eighties when “Paki bashing” was a regular occurrence and black footballers could expect to be met with banana peels on the pitch (this does still happen!). The type of open violence associated with racism has been greatly reduced, but this is often taken to mean that racism itself has disappeared. Consequently, when minorities have sought to decry incidents of racism – typically more subtle – their voices have been diminished by a sense that they are no longer ‘buttressed’ by dead bodies. Post- Stephen Lawrence, there is almost a sense that the UK has “dealt” with the issue of racism and that racism can now only be found in the darkest recesses of the white working class.
The assumption that Britain is today a “post-racial” society masks flagrant issues of race-related inequality – from the fact Britain imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than the US, through to Muslim women being 71 per cent less likely to find employment – through to a simple observation of the white elite running the country. There is significant resistance to acknowledging that the historic and present reality of racism has a profound impact on who is poor in this country and who is not.
Although Umunna singled out Ukip as particularly bad, the fact race is the unwelcome guest at the inequality discussion table suggests the issue is not strictly peripheral. To quote Phillips, we do indeed need to talk about race – and racism specifically – but not so much as Phillips’ suggests, by empowering individual bigots to express their “feelings”, but perhaps by starting an honest conversation about structures of racist discrimination. We need a conversation about “whiteness”.
Falguni A Sheth, associate professor and author of Toward a Political Philosophy of Race, defines “whiteness” as a category of power based on “a general, but not universal, correlation between those in power and general racial identity…” Talking about “whiteness” means recognising the complex history of social, economic and political realities according to which ethnic minorities have been considered as innately inferior, and their enduring impact on ways of thinking and current inequalities.
Many conversations about race get bogged down in immediate denials of individual proclivities for a hatred of minorities, an unhelpful distraction from the substance of racism, of which individual bigotry is just one manifestation. In this way, racism can be neatly sectioned off – the naughty renegades at Ukip versus the “good” guys everywhere else. As the American Academic Robin DiAngelo and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, acknowledges: “From the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message.” We need to move past the binary that someone is either a racist thug or they’re Benetton – to a large extent we are all enmeshed in racist structures.
DiAngelo’s research suggest a real reticence among white people to discussing issues of racism, something she dubs “white fragility”. She notes that one of the predictable patterns in discussions about race with white people, is an inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to white racial reality: “For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist (…). This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time.”
Such resistance was perfectly illustrated by BBC director general Tony Hall when he responded to accusations by leading ethnic minority voices that the network needs to improve on diversity issues with a call for the channel to be “colour blind”. One of the first things a critical reflection on whiteness might involve would be acknowledging that “colour blindness” often functions as a type of racism – not least in this case by denying the negative racial experiences of minorities. As the Canadian journalist Desmond Cole poignantly wrote: “White people often go out of their way to say they don’t see colour when they look at me – in those moments, I’m tempted to recommend an optometrist. I know they’re just expressing a desire for equality, but I don’t want to be erased in the process.” Part of talking honestly about racism starts with awareness, and specifically, awareness of the myriad forms of iniquitous power associated with “whiteness”.
What’s more, we need to address the increasingly widespread trope, expressed by the journalist Allison Pearson in response to Phillips’ polemic, that it is actually white people now getting the raw deal. Britain, this argument goes, is so post-racial, it is actually white people today experiencing the brunt of “prejudice”. Pearson writes: “…British people, who dared to express any concern about the rapidly changing face of their country, were shouted down as racist or a bigot.” Minorities are to blame for not “integrating”, with no recognition of barriers which might obstruct a sense of belonging within a negotiated sense of the common “us”.
There is increasingly a sense of a disaffected white majority that blames minority “cultures” for various failings, and in the process, absolves white structures of responsibility. The failure to take seriously vulnerable young girls being exploited by criminal gangs, by both the police and the social services – white structures – becomes an issue of “Muslim Asian sex gangs” – minority culture. Culture has replaced ethnicity for the acceptable vocalisation of prejudice, despite the fact no culture is genuinely hermetic and the same minorities typically remain the target.
What’s more, the notion that criticising someone’s culture, unlike attacking their ethnicity, doesn’t play into racist stereotypes, belies the reality that racism has always had a cultural dimension, critical to the construction of racial hierarchies. Sweeping generalisations concerning the cultures of diverse, subaltern peoples, not least in the heralding of the worst examples from a given group as representative of its entirety, has always been a feature of racist rhetoric.
The growing focus on “culture” as a legitimate basis for prejudice has been bolstered by the tide of anti-immigrant discourse, which emphasises the notion of “native” Britons – read white – versus “outsiders”. Umunna was right to link racism to anti-immigrant sentiment in his response to Ukip. Culture is the new acceptable conduit for racism, a disingenuous reformulation adapted to the normative framework of ethnic “diversity”. A diversity of façade, which masks a call for a uniformity of thought, defined according to white culture.
This emerging trend locates societal woes squarely on the shoulders of minorities who’ve allegedly been unduly “ring-fenced from criticism”. Phillips popularised this argument by asserting that political correctness is to blame for stifling free conversation about race and thus driving support for nationalist movements across Europe.
Yet “PC gone mad” Britain hardly has the most virulent nativist parties in Europe, compared with countries like Belgium or France, where the expression of racist views – be it a politician parading in black face or depicting the country’s justice minister as a monkey – are much more open. In fact, the reverse is true. Multiculturalism – the real target of the anti “PC” brigade – has helped protect minorities. In France, where the normalisation of the far right has led to frequent dehumanising language being used against minorities, racism now requires a £70m campaign to tackle it.
The writer Sathnam Sanghera is right to point out that “the single thing that has done most to suffocate discussion about race is the poisonous connection made between anti-racism and “political correctness… those who use the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ in relation to any mention of race aim to do exactly what they accuse proponents of political correctness of doing: they want to shut down all conversation.”
The real resistance to discussing racism frankly actually comes from that white society that believes itself beyond issues of racism. As a consequence of this, any difficulty experienced by minorities are viewed as at best their own problems, or at worst, an ungracious refusal to recognise white society’s largess.
We need a discussion about race that involves less finger pointing and more introspection. We need a recognition of the continuities between historical and current inequities globally, and current inequalities in society. We need to examine the systematic privileges accrued by white people as a mere consequence of “whiteness” and listen to – and take seriously – the claims of those excluded by it.
We need a conversation about race – let’s start with the problem of “whiteness”.
You can read the original piece on the New Statesman website, here
ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): “Face Veils and Miniskirts: Whose Interests are Served in France’s Republic of Men?”
When France enacted its 2010 ban on face veils, rare were the voices that questioned whether criminalising alleged victims of “misogynistic pressures” – as pundits dubbed the women – would actually be helping them.
One of a handful of experts who actually interviewed women who wear the face veil, suggests the law has had the contrary effect, in actually hampering women’s sense of autonomy.
What is more, contrary to the cliche of oppressed illiterate immigrants, sociologist Agnes De Feo found that a majority of women who wear the face veil are born in France, educated and declare doing so voluntarily.
Yet despite ideological imperatives being allowed to trump facts in the discussion over the face veil, the same paternalistic impulse has emerged in a debate currently dividing the French political stage – this time involving prostitutes.
In March this year, France’s socialist government sought to reform a ruling which came into force in 2003 under former president Nicholas Sarkozy, criminalising “passive soliciting” of sex. The law placed the onus for stopping an industry predominantly run by men for the financial and sexual benefit of men, on typically vulnerable women, something the proposed amendments aimed at rectifying.
But instead of overturning the law, the French Senate – dominated by the Right – has rejected the penalisation of “clients” and instead could outlaw “the act of publicly soliciting another person for paid sex, by any means, including passive behaviour.” In a nod to the Republic’s overbearing logic, police officers in France could soon be required to monitor women’s hems at both ends of the spectrum – face veils and miniskirts.
Marisol Touraine, the French minister for Social Affairs, described the move as “unbelievable and regressive” and bemoaned the criminalisation of prostitutes, rather than seeing them as victims. Critics of the proposal argue it could lead to the targeting of prostitutes in order to meet policing figures, distract officers from more pressing concerns and is ultimately more about “cleaning up” the image of certain districts, rather than concern for women.
Debates on prostitution in France are divided between “abolitionists” and those who prefer to see less criminalisation of prostitution, such as the STRASS, the French sex worker’s trade union. STRASS argues that the penalisation of clients exacerbates a climate of criminality around prostitution – ultimately harmful to women working within it – but both groups support decriminalising “soliciting,” viewed as punishing already vulnerable women through fines and possible jail time.
But just as the debate in France chose to ignore the voice of women who wear the face veil, in favour of ideological debates over the meaning of laicite and integration, the current stance among French conservatives is led by a moralising discourse concerning the moral abhorrence of prostitution. Criminalising soliciting sex, it is claimed, helps the police identify prostitutes and maintain a sense of the gravity of the crime, an essential aspect to countering it.
However, evidence from studies underpinning the Swedish approach, which since 1999 has seen the criminalisation of clients, not sex workers, suggests otherwise. Based on grass-roots discussions with women working in prostitution, the Swedish model has led to a decrease in street prostitution and prostitution networks have come to view the country as a “dead market.”
The hypocrisy of the sanctimonious line towed by French conservatives is all the more glaring when one considers the emergence of several controversies highlighting the widespread use of prostitution by the French elite. In 2013, a coalition of French intellectuals, authors and philosophers came together to put forward a petition entitled “Hands off our prostitutes” outlining their belief in their right to access prostitution. The title was all the more egregious in that it played off a historic petition launched by women in the 1970s demanding the legalisation of abortion, and echoed an anti-racism slogan Touche pas a mon pote (“Don’t touch my friend”). Apparently for a certain class of French men – typically quiet on actual issues of discrimination – campaigning for the right to sexually exploit women is the new anti-racism.
Not to mention the case of former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who along with 13 others, was charged in February this year, with aiding and assisting prostitution. Much has been made of DSK’s lascivious “elite sex parties” involving prostitutes and multiple accusations of sexual assault, ruining his political career. Much less has been written about DSK’s alleged victims – “Mounia” the prostitute, Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid – Arab and black women subjected to the violent whims of a powerful French politician. The parallel is a fitting one for a system in which the full humanity of a sub-class of women fails to register and where racist overtones bleed most evidently into the treatment of minorities on the fringes.
Gregoire Thery, secretary general of Mouvement du Nid, which campaigns against prostitution, points out that in the special commission established to investigate the issues at hand, 75% of senators who voted against the penalisation of clients were men, while an overwhelming majority of women voted for the law. The Senate – overwhelmingly in favour of criminalising prostitutes – is 76% male.
The Conservative UMP’s stance of condemning prostitution affords a facade of moral righteousness to an argument for the criminalisation of women, by the very men recent scandals suggest regularly exploit them. Whether when talking about women in face veils or women working in prostitution, concern appears less about women’s needs, and all about men’s sense of entitled access to female bodies.
For professor of French politics at the University College London (UCL), Philippe Marliere, the issue stems from the very conception of the French Republican ideal: “the so-called ‘republican’ stand (UMP or PS) is hypocritical and relies on pseudo-universal morals.” For Marliere, these policies – whether in relation to prostitution or Muslim women’s dress – “are not meant to be fair and effective, but to criminalise and to discriminate against minorities in France.”
In the case of women in face veils, the law has hardened an already tense climate in which Muslim women are increasingly the object of vigilante-style attacks and day to day discrimination. Criminalising already vulnerable women – by virtue of their profession or otherwise marginal status in society – only entrenches prejudice. This is all the more worrying when one considers that 90% of women working in prostitution in France are foreign nationals, at a time of steepening racism and Far-Right led anti-immigrant rhetoric.
While restrictions on Muslim women’s dress have often been justified on the grounds of the “uniquely problematic” integration of Muslims, current debates highlight the exclusionary function of the Republic’s universalist claims. Those who do not conform to a narrow and reified conception of French values are ostracised and policed by an entitled elite which views women’s bodies – particularly those of black and Arab women – as property of the Republic, and chattel for some of its representatives.
This hollow republicanism and its politicised principles, from laicite to women’s rights, functions less to serve the interests of women and more to cement the sexist and racist logic of a prevailing class of men.
You can read the original piece on the abc.net.au website, here
When the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre opened its doors in November 2001, it was billed as an extension of an airport waiting lounge, but for some of those who have passed through its barbed wire fences, it feels more akin to a prison. And a secretive prison at that. Just last year, the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was denied entry. Cameras are prohibited within the facility.
Rather than a short “transit”, some detainees will spend months and even years in detention. And despite the hotel-like description on its website (“All bedrooms have en-suite wet room and toilet and are tastefully decorated with floral curtains”), two former detainees I spoke to, a husband and his pregnant wife, described their experience as “worse than in the third world – the UK says it has the best human rights, but as someone who’s been through the system, I didn’t experience this”.
Yarl’s Wood has become notorious for a number of controversies since its opening, including the detention of children until as recently as 2010. Over the years, campaigners have pointed to consistent allegations of abuse within its walls, including racist taunts and “improper sexual contact” with female detainees. And in 2011, the treatment of pregnant women at the centre hit the headlines when it was revealed one pregnant detainee collapsed after enduring a four-day journey from Belfast to Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire via Scotland and Manchester. In a recent case, a pregnant detainee miscarried after collapsing at the facility.
New evidence from the charity Medical Justice now shows that some pregnant women in detention are receiving sub-standard medical care, putting the life of both mother and child at risk.
A Home Office investigation is currently pending into claims against Serco, the private company contracted to run the centre, made by the couple I spoke to. The allegations include the manhandling of an expectant woman, despite it being unlawful to use force on pregnant women to achieve removal, and accusations medical staff ignored serious symptoms including abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. The woman, who is currently five months pregnant, complained: “I kept being told everything was normal, but I knew something was wrong.” Upon release, she was treated for an infection that can cause miscarriages and stillbirth.
A recent investigation by Channel 4 News highlighted the abuse and harassment of women within the centre and the devastating consequences for their mental and physical wellbeing, particularly when many have been victims of sexual assault, trafficking, and various forms of violence in their countries of origin. The consequence of this abuse is even more precarious for pregnant women who – according to the government’s own guidelines – should only ever be held in exceptional circumstances. In damning evidence to an inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and the all-party parliamentary group on migration into the detention of pregnant women, team inspector at HM Prisons Inspectorate Hindpal Singh Bhui stated: “…we haven’t found those exceptional circumstances in the paperwork to justify their detention in the first place.”
Serco claims it provides “a comprehensive primary care service for all of our residents” but Medical Justice, a charity whose volunteer clinicians visit and assess detainees, has observed that the standard of care within the centre often falls short of NICE Guidelines and comparable recommendations. One volunteer midwife said:
I’ve seen women who need urgent medical and obstetric care, who I would have admitted immediately to hospital if I’d seen them in my normal practice, be denied access to hospital, one had an ambulance they called turned away at the gates and many have been denied pain relief and other symptomatic treatment. The delay in getting them to an obstetrician was sometimes over a week. Some of these women had risk factors for life-threatening conditions.”
The UK Border Agency claims not to know the exact number of pregnant women detained, but over a ten-month period beginning in March 2013, Medical Justice saw 21 detained pregnant women, one of whom was held for 122 days. Their case review showed that the detained pregnant women were around 7 times more likely to experience complications in pregnancy and for Phoebe Pallotti RM, a registered midwife and academic who volunteers with Medical Justice, the reasons are all too clear: “I’ve seen women with serious complications of pregnancy been forced to miss vital appointments because of their detention and recommendations from previous treating doctors and advice given by myself be routinely not acted upon and urgent care seriously delayed.”
For Pallotti, stories of pregnant women’s concerns about their and their child’s health being ignored by medical staff at Yarl’s Wood are all too common. In the majority of the cases she documented, medical staff seemed to flout standards of care applied in the wider community, including basic procedures such as informing patients about the medications they were being given and their potential side effects: “I’ve seen very vulnerable pregnant women with documented histories of depression or presenting with symptoms of depression and PTSD been given medication for preventing malaria (so that they could be removed) which we never use in the NHS for anyone with mental health problems because it can and does cause psychosis and suicidal ideation. In some cases their mental health seriously deteriorated.”
One former detainee charged midwifery staff from a local trust with falsifying information in her pregnancy records – she says she was denied routine consultations, including the standard testing for down-syndrome. She also accused the nurses at Yarl’s Wood of being complicit in the abuse she says she suffered: “They [the guards] were pulling me by my (pregnant) stomach and the nurses were just watching on even though I was calling for help.”
The primary purpose of detention is removal, but according to the most recent review by Medical Justice, of the 21 pregnant women they visited, none were actually removed and all but one were released back into the community. One woman left the UK voluntarily.
In response to the allegations made by Medical Justice, a Home Office spokesperson said:
Home Office detention policy is that pregnant women should not normally be detained. However, pregnant women may be detained when their removal is imminent and medical advice does not suggest the baby is due before the woman’s expected removal date. Women who are less than 24 weeks’ pregnant may also be detained under the fast track asylum process.
All detainees have access to healthcare facilities and medical advice at all times. There is a complaints system for anyone who feels they have not been treated in accordance with our standards and all complaints are investigated thoroughly.
The former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, is undertaking an independent review of detainee welfare and will pay particular attention to detainees who may be especially vulnerable, including pregnant women.”
As debates on immigration heat up close to the elections, the cost of detention to the tax payer is a hot topic. But the charity points out that detaining someone is around £30,000 more expensive annually than supporting them in the community and that contrary to popular belief, not only do pregnant women rarely abscond, but where deemed necessary, they can be removed from the country after the child’s birth. For Pallotti, this just confirms her view that the policy of detaining pregnant women needs reviewing. “Regardless of one’s views on immigration,” she noted, “the detention of pregnant women may not often be successful at achieving deportation, costs a lot of unnecessary money, and can be very damaging to the pregnant mother.”
You can read the original article here
Aamer Rahman is a comedian who doesn’t mince his words. Watching him perform his widely acclaimed “Truth Hurts” show in London, I’m struck by the ease with which he tackles the thorniest of topics and his willingness to tread where angels daren’t. In one skit, he imitates his friends’ disparaging tone as they mock him for questioning whether Bin Laden wasn’t merely a green screen creation – “I believed the Tiger in Life of Pi was real for two hours” he quips. In another he jokes that one follower on twitter accused him of wanting to kill all white people, so he calls for a mass uprising against whites – straight white males though, he clarifies mischievously.
Rahman’s comedy is influenced by both his personal experiences of racism – growing up as a member of a minority in Australia – and his clear identification with a movement that believes historic global injustices continue to translate into systemic inequities and outright racism.
In one illustration of his own experience of racism in Australia – a frequent focus of his ire – Rahman describes having unwittingly attended a massive heavy metal concert in Melbourne in his youth, accompanied by a cousin who was visiting from Bangladesh, only to discover in a half-comical, half-horrifying twist that it was in fact a heavy metal Nazi rally. Is the ‘mosh pit head-banging with Nazis’ story actually true? I put to him slightly incredulously. “Absolutely – I never make up stories, all my stories are true – I always think it’s very obvious when I watch comedians when they’ve made up a wacky story, so I write based on experience.”
As a comedian for whom issues of racism are so central to his sketches, I ask him about the widely touted notion that the UK is now a “post-racial” society, a point often illustrated by figures such as athlete Mo Farah, who became the “pride of Britain” when he represented the UK in the Olympics. “It’s not accurate,” he tells me, “it is identical to all the rhetoric which surrounded Obama’s election – it is inconceivable that a racist nation would elect a black leader – putting out these exceptional examples of people of colour to say institutional racism has been eradicated when, if you look at the stats in America on black unemployment, black incarceration, black murder at the hands of the police, US foreign policy, none of these things have changed under the Obama administration. And, similarly, in the UK, I’m sure if you look at those stats, none of those things have changed because of Mo Farah – not to take anything away from him – but it is obviously, once again, symbolic misunderstandings of racism versus the systemic realities of racism.”
I put to him recent comments by the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, who was quoted as saying that “Campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them. But now I’m convinced we were utterly wrong.” As a comedian who regularly mocks the ease with which racism is overlooked, I ask him what he makes of the idea that people should be free to use racial stereotypes. “So basically, it is the irrational emotions of the victims of racism, who take this too hard and then oppress the racists, which creates more racism – that’s his logic,” he begins in his trade-mark style, “that if we toughened up, let people say what they felt like, they wouldn’t feel so alienated and become racists. That’s kind of what he’s saying, that you, the victim of racism is responsible.”
We discuss Phillips’s recent Channel 4 interview with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), particularly Phillips’s statement that he “got on well” with Farage, despite the latter using the conspiratorial slur of “fifth column” when referring to British Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Given Farage’s political rise, with his party currently polling at between 10% and 15%, what does Rahman make of the idea that UKIP is actually addressing very real concerns? “That is something I have seen around the world. Kind of like a corporatizing of that old National Front racism – it’s the National Front in a suit basically. In Australia, the major parties have done it – people shouldn’t be afraid to be called racist because they have concerns about asylum seekers – that kind of thing – giving people the green light to be racist – legitimising it – the main thing about these kind of fringe far right parties is that they are a convenient stooge for the major parties to then come out and do some superficial condemnation, to basically pretend like they too are not racist – and haven’t been racist for decades.”
I suggest to him that although a lot of people object to UKIP, many are sympathetic to this idea that Muslims pose a unique challenge to European societies, that somehow Muslims are a “unique integration challenge”: “It is convenient to think that, because sub-consciously it justifies foreign policy, it justifies your attitude towards people of colour in general, it justifies your attitude towards asylum seekers, creating this ‘Clash of Civilizations’ rhetoric. It justifies all of those things – you can easily condemn Farage for his choice of words, but you can easily push this line in the mainstream and what’s the difference? You have a fall guy, who puts his foot in his mouth and says a little bit too much and then you’ve got the more professional version which is actually able to push through policies based on the same, exactly the same hysteria.”
And this is part of what makes Aamer Rahman such an iconic comedian – his strident critiques expressed through his flippant style of humour tap into the frustrations of audiences globally. “Wherever I go in the world,” he tells me, “the audience is the same – it’s just the size which changes”. And it is without doubt that ability to articulate the frustrations of a global counter-cultural movement which lies at the heart of his success.
Dressed in an army print jacket and cap, there’s a sense with Rahman that his gigs are about much more than just the laughs – there’s a sense of mission about the man. “What’s the dream?”, I ask him, as we part ways, “I don’t know”, he tells me with a sheepish grin, “I was going to quit and then I put up that Reverse Racism clip up and that’s how I got these tours. The majority of stuff I have tried to make happen hasn’t worked out and the other stuff has happened by accident, so now I’m much more like ‘whatever happens is gonna happen.’” And with that typically philosophical approach, he heads off to kick off his two-month tour of the US.
Aamer Rahman is starting a two-month tour of the US. For details visit aamerrahman.tumblr.com.
You can read the original piece here
There’s something gripping about watching Aussie stand-up comedian Aamer Rahman in action. Beyond an undeniable personal charisma which has certainly contributed to his sell-out tours here in the UK, Australia and the US, the multi-award-winning comic has the ability to shock and challenge in equal measure, with sketches touching on some of the most controversial issues of the day, from the Islamic State group to Anders Breivik, skin heads to the detention of asylum seekers.
The power of Rahman’s comedy lies in a confrontational style which forces audiences to contemplate the pervasiveness of prejudice, and many people’s awkward complicity in its perpetuation. I caught up with him during his most recent UK solo tour, “The Truth Hurts” – dubbed one of The Guardian’s Top 10 Comedy Shows of 2014 – to talk politics, racism and the limits of comedy.
Until his career took off last year when his now infamous “Reverse Racism” skit went viral, Rahman had been considering giving comedy up altogether. Having split from the award-winning comedy duo “Fear of a Brown Planet” he says: “I felt comedy was at a real dead end, Australia was too small and too limited an audience.”
Despite accolades and critical acclaim – he won the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Best Newcomer Award, opening for hit US comedian Dave Chapelle, and even a TV show to his name – the struggle to turn his niche comedy into a viable career remains a challenge for the 32-year-old, who cringes at some of the proposals sent his way. He reads me out a recent pitch to his agent involving a Muslim pub landlord – to be played by Aamer himself – whose job it would be to “challenge preconceived notions of Muslims”.
“I wanted to throw my phone at a wall,” he tells me. “That is one of the most offensive things anyone has ever sent me. Muslim pub landlord – coming soon,” he jokes sardonically.
I ask him why he thinks his Reverse Racism clip – in which he imagines a scenario where the very concept of “reverse racism” could actually be viable – went viral the way it did. The video now has well over a million YouTube views. “It hit a nerve – it’s an argument that so many people have had. Whenever racism is discussed, reverse racism is discussed. I always say this is actually the point of comedy. People think comedians are very original. No, the comedian confirms what you already know. That’s why you laugh, you already bought that but they re-articulated it in an entertaining way. What I said in that clip, everyone knows, we’ve all felt that our whole lives – it confirms a deep frustration that so many people have.”
Most recently, a poll by the MCB found that 95 percent of Muslims in the UK feel loyalty toward Britain – but is questioning the loyalty of British Muslim citizens the way forward in his view? “I don’t think it changes anything” he says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t convince racists any more than when there is a terrorist attack and Muslim organisations and leaders come out and say: ‘We are British/American/Australian just like you.’ It is fundamentally premised on the idea that maybe these people are all trying to kill us. Surprisingly they’re not, here’s a good news story for the day!”
So, what does he make of the argument that linking Islamophobia and racism shuts down valid criticism of the faith? “I see Islamophobia as a flavour of racism. It is a type of racism. To restrict racism to just skin colour, or just culture – it’s not something I agree with. Racism I see as a systemic oppression, ‘otherising’, marking of a group of individuals according to race, ethnicity or culture, so you are on paper ‘white’, but you are also Muslim, which ticks you as ‘other’ – it is much more complicated than this notion that people don’t like the way you look so they start being horrible on the train.”
For Rahman, anti-Muslim sentiment is deeply political in nature. “The anti-Muslim paranoia which is generated in the West is so useful, because racism is based on imaginary things. The idea of the Muslims can trigger so many things in people’s imagination, you can use it to justify foreign policy, because we’re fighting ‘these kinds of people’. You can use it to justify reparation policies and asylum policies, because these people are coming to invade and steal your jobs. You can use it to attack poor and working people because some of them are or look Muslim. That’s the best part of Islamophobia, you don’t even need to be Muslim – they just need to fall somewhere in the net of vaguely Muslim. It is good value for money.”
So what’s at the root of racism? Is it as simple as what we often hear – the idea of “hatred”? “The biggest mistake people make when they talk about racism is to talk about it without talking about class,” Rahman says. “So racism always has some sort of economic imperative. It isn’t just we hate people like this because their food is different and they wear funny things, and they have beards and headscarves. It is about poor working people, it is about asylum seekers, it is about foreign policy, which are all economically driven. We need to invade these places, so we need to construct the idea that these people need to be invaded – and we need to construct the idea that they don’t deserve to flee those places and come and live amongst us – and we need to construct the idea that they don’t deserve benefits and they don’t deserve housing.”
Rahman isn’t just an armchair theorist on this issue. His adopted brother runs RISE, the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, and a group within which he himself has a history of activism. In one of his skits, he describes being part of a group of activists who trek out into the Australian desert to help free detainees. Without giving away the punch line, it involves blood, a woman handing her baby to strangers through a fence and Rahman spending some time in police custody.
Discussing the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, I put to him the widely touted idea that Muslims are just too sensitive to accept criticism: “This is what came out during the whole Charlie Hebdo situation – you just can’t talk about Islam, you can’t criticise Islam, as if Islam hasn’t been under the microscope since 9/11, as if Islam hasn’t been systematically dissected and pulled apart in the media non-stop for the last decade. The idea that Muslims can’t be criticised – we’re in the middle now of the fourteenth year of a global war specifically targeting Muslims. Muslim communities have been subjected to unprecedented surveillance, monitoring, policing – these are all criticisms of Islam.”
Should some topics be off-limits in comedy then? I ask. Who gets to decide what those topics are? “I’m not for censorship,” he quickly interjects. “I think Muslims hold some things sacred in a way that it is difficult for non-religious people and maybe even religious but non-Muslim people to understand. Given where Muslims sit socially and politically, crossing those lines has quite deep implications. Because Muslims are often poor, marginalised, under-employed, etc.. Obviously any provocation is much much worse. If Muslims were rich and comfortable, I don’t think they’d be as upset about these things – they’d definitely still be upset, there’s no question, but I think that context is important. In France, when you live in a country which is more offended by your headscarf than racist pornographic cartoons that bully a minority, that’s got to be upsetting.”
As we wrap up our interview, I ask Rahman whether his flippant style of comedy can ever transcend the racist divide it speaks to – can it ever speak to the racist? “No,” he responds. “It can’t speak to the racist. It isn’t designed to speak to the racist, it is designed to validate victims of racism and what they think – one thing we’re always told growing up when we experience racism is that it isn’t there. You’re too sensitive, you’re misunderstanding, they didn’t mean it like that, it’s just a joke. It’s not – we have a sixth sense about it because we’ve experienced it our whole lives. It’s absolutely true, I’m not crazy, they shouldn’t have said that – that’s who my comedy is for.”
So when can we expect to see him back on stage in the UK next, I ask as he’s about to embark on the US leg of his tour. In his now trademark style, he smiles: “Look, if this Muslim pub idea takes off, I could franchise that and turn it into a tour show of me opening a franchise of Muslims pubs – Mubs.”
Aamer Rahman is starting a two-month tour of the US; find out more about his tours here.
You can read the original piece on the MEE website, here
Media Society-Sandford St Martin Trust religion panel – Groucho Club: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”
This article by the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade is a write up of the event mentioned above: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”. Ed Stourton chaired the panel discussion on the media’s coverage of religion, featuring Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah.
GUARDIAN: As an atheist, I didn’t expect to be engaged by a panel debate about religion. But last night’s discussion on the topic turned out to be one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended.
And that’s because the most stimulating contributions were all about the need to see beyond a professed faith in order to discern the reasons for people’s actions.
In fact, those opinions appeared to turn the title of the debate, “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”, on its head.
Roger Bolton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, certainly argued in favour of greater journalistic understanding. In modern multi-cultural Britain, he said, religious literacy is essential.
But the problem is that we are illiterate because our journalism is just not fit for purpose in terms of covering religion. The BBC has no editor of religion and there is no centre of expertise to consult at our public service broadcaster.
Bolton thinks British culture is informed by Christianity regardless of whether people go to church, describe themselves as Christian or even believe in a Christian god.
This makes it difficult for non-Christian immigrants to understand our society. Similarly, seen in reverse, the indigenous “Christian” population cannot understand the religious cultures of immigrants.
As for our journalists, they are a largely liberal secular metropolitan crew, according to Bolton, and they cannot therefore understand what motivates people of other faiths and, by extension, cannot help the public to understand.
Freelance journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who writes and broadcasts on the Middle East, and Steve Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster university, were having none of this.
They accepted that knowledge of religion, as with all knowledge, was of value. But what was of overriding importance was to grasp that there were deeper reasons for people taking outrageous actions that only appear to stem from religion.
They were, of course, referring to various deeds by those we call Muslim fundamentalists – suicide bombings, 9/11, the formation of Al-Qaida, various atrocities in Britain, the Charlie Hebdo killings and the rise of Isis.
For Francois-Cerrah, the examination of such deeds and movements through religion is overstated. Socio-economic factors were far more motivating and it was those that required closer investigation.
Religion, in her view, was a rallying point for people in order to confront power. Note, she said, that most of the autocratic regimes overthrown by Muslim groups were secular.
Note also that suicide bombings were a desperate response to territorial occupation. See beyond the veneer of religion, she said, to the real ideological reasons behind people’s apparent adherence to religious extremism. If she said it once, she said it a half dozen times: it’s all political.
Barnett agreed. There were political rather than religious reasons for what has happened across the Middle East. Self-described as “a militant atheist”, he rejected the notion that we should create a religious specialism in journalism because there were far more important and pressing journalistic concerns.
Privileging religion was unnecessary because there were too many other issues that needed greater attention. For example, he pointed out that too many British journalism students know nothing about the workings of government in their own country. They are unaware, he said, how our constitution operates.
Sure, get to know about religion if you must. But knowing how our democratic institutions work is far more important. That was also a task for the BBC.
One telling point made by Barnett was his reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Seeing it as clash between Catholics versus Protestants, he suggested, concealed a deeper economic and historic reality of poverty and power.
Ann Leslie, the former Daily Mail foreign correspondent, did not really get involved in the central tussle between Bolton on one side and Francois-Cerrah and Barnett on the other.
But she did think it important for people to know more about other people’s religions, stressing particularly the need to grasp the tenets of Islam. Her view was informed, she said, by growing up on the sub-continent as the daughter of a British colonial family.
“Religion is important to Muslims,” she said firmly. But she provoked gasps from a keenly interested audience – and wide-eyed amazement from Francois-Cerrah – by telling an anecdote about her father’s kindness in hiring Muslim servants.
Bolton didn’t back down. But I felt Francois-Cerrah carried the day. Her warning against Islamic exceptionalism is one that needs to be taken to heart if we are to come to terms with what is too easily regarded as primitive religious fundamentalism and barbarism.
*The panel debate at the Groucho Club was chaired by Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, and it was co-hosted by the Sandford St Martin Trust.