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“There aint no crescent in the Union Jack”

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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.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 2, 2011 at 23:13

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