myriamfrancoiscerrah

Just another WordPress.com site

Posts Tagged ‘far-right

New Statesman: Jean-Marie Le Pen may have been banished. But his ideas endure

leave a comment »

The expulsion of the former National Front leader does not mean a shift away from his racist views.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity goes the old adage and in the ongoing saga which currently pits the Le Pen dynasty against one another, it seems that may well be true.

Of course, family feuds and internal fighting within a party are never good for business, but when your business is staying in the news, and most significantly, affirming a distance from a toxic fascist legacy, the National Front could do worse than a summer “coup” to oust the notoriously racist party co-founder,Jean-Marie Le Pen. He in turn has accused his daughter Marine – the party’s leader of ordering his “political execution”, despite her decision not to be present during the deliberations by the FN’s executive office.

The French press has been dominated by the ousting which cements an increasingly public divide within the FN between JM Le Pen’s openly far-right ideas and Marine Le Pen’s attempts to mainstream the FN, by downplaying its racist roots and focusing instead on anti-EU, anti-austerity rhetoric, and emphasising a cultural exclusivism, with wide traction on the left and the right in France. The extent to which the conception of an “Islamicisation of France”, an idea with roots on the far-right, as well as anti-immigrant discourse, have wide traction in current media and political discourse in France today, is testimony to the efficacy of her strategy. But central to this mainstreaming has been the need to resituate her father within the party’s hierarchy, while seeking not to alienate his supporters and risk dividing the party, a move which could see JM Le Pen leave with a non-negligible percentage of the party’s loyal supporters. For all the party’s appeal to a more palatable image, it still draws committed support from the fringes. And the last split within the FN, in 1999, when a disgruntled Bruno Mégret set up a parallel party, the National Republican Movement (MNR), led to the FN’s worst showing in elections since the 1980s, with less than 6 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen is very conscious of avoiding any such outcome.

The FN’s leader has the 2017 presidentials firmly in her sight and key to her strategy has been asserting her leadership of the party, despite the hold of her charismatic father, and navigating the delicate task of retaining his core base of support, while distancing the party from some of his more openly racist views. It is no surprise that JM Le Pen’s most vocal opponent within the party has been Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s strategic director for her presidential campaign and the man in charge of the party’s communications, who described the move as “logical” despite the shock expressed by other members.

In May, JM Le Pen was suspended by the party after repeated instances in which he made racist remarks, including his description of the Nazi gas chambers asa detail of history. In an attempt at damage control, the party announced a vote on a proposal to strip Mr. Le Pen of his honorary title of party president at its upcoming congress. It was during this congress that the patriarch was dismissed from the party, although thanks to a bureaucratic loophole, he does in fact remain the party’s honorary president.

Although the move had angered JM Le Pen and many of his supporters, it means that the firebrand MP – who won 33 per cent of the votes in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the recent European elections– retains a formal association with the party, avoiding the real danger of a party split – for now.What’s more, he’s unlikely to disappear any time before 2019 given his role as an elected member of the European Parliament.

No one can say for certain to what extent the divide between Le Pen senior and his daughter is tactical or ideological. JM Le Pen’s closeness to his great niece, FN golden girl and France’s youngest MP, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, suggests that although it is possible the appeal of his founding views have skipped a generation, there may still be far more unity within the party’s ideals than is publicly revealed and indeed, a significant stake for Marine in presenting the divide as starker than it actually is.

In response to his exclusion, Jean Marie Le Pen says he plans to question the competency of the executive office to dismiss him, as well as its partiality, while his lawyer dubbed the decision “suicide” for the party. All the commotion has dominated the French press where the infighting within the FN is often presented as a somewhat bemusing family feud.

In reality, the FN has become a staple figure on the media scene, where it has succeeded in normalising its presence and ideas thanks to a combination of astute rebranding, careful image management and an arid political scene where infighting within the right-wing UMP and utter indolence on the part of the Socialist party has left the way ripe for the mainstreaming of previously marginal oppositional voices. While Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, where he decisively lost against Jacques Chirac, was met with general dismay, political analysts are already predicting a strong show by the FN in the 2017 presidential elections. In a poll by the French agency Ifop in January this year, Marine Le Pen would have won the first round of the election had it been held then, with its leader gaining around30 per cent of the public vote, significantly ahead of all hypothetical challengers.

The exclusion of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a fortuitous opportunity for the party to distance itself once again, very publicly, from its xenophobic tendencies, ahead of a presidential campaign Marine believes she has a real chance at winning. But whether Le Pen’s marginalisation reflects a shift away from the founder’s racist views among the party more broadly remains to be seen, with various FN MPs coming out in shows of support for the patriarch. To quote the MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, “Le Pen may have been excluded from the FN. Now to banish his ideas.”

You can read the original piece here, on the New Statesman website.

Written by Myriam Francois

August 22, 2015 at 22:23

Foyles Battle of ideas: Riots & revolutions: Europe’s young radicals?

leave a comment »

Such was the global political upheaval of last year that many across the political spectrum were moved to ask whether 2011 would become as era-defining as 1968 and 1989. Even those uncertain about the aims and prospects for the Arab Spring couldn’t help but feel inspired by the youth-led demands for democracy and change, which stood in stark contrast to the seeming conservatism and apathy of their Western counterparts. Similar enthusiasm for the spirited rebellion of the young has been shown towards a number of anti-austerity movements such UK Uncut, Spain’s Indignados, Alexis Tsipiras’ Greek SYRIZA coalition and the youthful support for Hollande in France. Meanwhile, from one-off demonstrations such as SlutWalk to large-scale calls for social change like Occupy, social media has become an increasingly influential mobilisation tool for global protest.

Yet a celebration of the radicalisation of previously apathetic youth turns to profound concern over the rise of a ‘new European far right’, with the likes of Hungary’s Jobbik and Finland’s True Finns complemented by the electoral breakthroughs of Le Pen in France and Golden Dawn in Greece. There is much discussion of how what unites European youth is the relative hopelessness of the ‘jilted generation’, saddled with debt, ageing populations and high unemployment. The exodus of the young from crisis-ridden countries such as Ireland and Greece seems to indicate the depths of youthful desperation, although some see opportunity for new allegiances and communities of interest to be formed through the turmoil. For some, last summer’s English riots were an angry and incoherent reaction against the politics of austerity; for others, however, the nihilism of the riots suggested that the generation told they have ‘no future’ had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Do Europe’s youth need to unite together as particular victims of the crisis, or would such a perspective simply breed division between the generations, undermining social solidarity? Is it useful to discuss social movements and problems in generational terms at all? Are there grounds for apprehension in the rise of populism, or is there a danger of scaremongering? Is there potential for a European Spring, or is it more a case of hope springs eternal?

Speakers / discussants:

Clive Bloom
emeritus professor, English and American studies, Middlesex University; author,Riot City: protest and rebellion in the capital

Neil Davenport
writer; head of sociology, JFS Sixth Form Centre; contributor, spiked

Mary Fitzgerald
writer; editor; campaigner; former senior editor, Prospect

Myriam Francois-Cerrah
DPhil candidate, Oriental Studies, Oxford University; journalist; regular panellist, BBC1’s Big Questions

Ashley Frawley
researcher in the problematisation of happiness and wellbeing, University of Kent, Canterbury

Thais Portilho-Shrimpton
journalist; former campaign coordinator and web editor, Hacked Off

Chair:

David Bowden

France Legislative Elections: A Left turn for Europe?

leave a comment »

This piece is featured in the New Statesman here and on the Huffington Post blog, here

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31%) in France’s legislative elections as 6500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next 5 years, reducing the deficit to 3% by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of ‘three ways’ in the second round on June 17, whereby three candidates reach the second round, and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande’s Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left.

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande’s power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a ‘citizen revolution’, has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this “corrupt and unjust capitalist system” and reflects the only real alternative: “We don’t need three cars or big houses – the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind – we need a revolution.” But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe’s problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they’re concerned there could be a ‘return’ of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by “near constant strikes.” After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen’s views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and “the fratricide which occurred” means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party.

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou’s ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the ‘New Right’. Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP’s right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an ‘ideological blockage’ for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure on the UMP to concede is even more accute, in light of the thirty two ‘three ways’ in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen’s success in transforming the image of her father’s party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN which achieved almost 18% in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly, a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77% of the votes, a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May’s election. In the second round, the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the “Marine blue gathering”, a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France’s Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10% unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France’s policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

Madonna: Opposing the FN while performing in Israel is like denouncing animal cruelty whilst wearing mink

with 2 comments

Madonna has always had a flair for publicity stunts. This week, she sparked controversy by showing an image of France’s Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika across her forehead during a concert in Tel Aviv. Though some judged her decision to publicly berate Le Pen as risqué, few have noted the irony of her stance given her choice to perform in a country currently governed by members of the Far-right. The threat posed by Ms Le Pen, whose party has 2 MPs in the French parliament, pales in comparison with the actual damage the Far-Right have wrought in Israel. Discriminatory policies so far enacted include home demolitions, severe prohibitions on construction, settlement expansion, movement restrictions, and denial of access to land and water. And while Marine Le Pen has previously compared France’s Muslims to the Nazi occupation, Israel’s Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman upped the ante by calling for the execution of any Arab MPs who met with Hamas, comparing  them to Nazi ‘collaborators’.

Madonna’s decision to make an ill-conceived political statement comes in the context of lobbying by Human Rights groups who’d sought to dissuade her from performing in Israel, citing the brutality of the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian land as well as its discriminatory, apartheid like system. In the first in a series of misjudgements, the queen of pop sought to silence her critics by offering them – presumably sardonically – free tickets to her concert.

Both Israel and France have seen a surge in the popularity of a Far-right themes in recent years, including hyper-nationalist and xenophobic ideas, disguised as a concern over immigration and ‘cultural identity’, partly fuelled by shared platforms whereby Israeli ministers have welcomed far-right European leaders. Parallels in the discourse have become increasingly salient, and the French National Front leader’s claim that immigrants represent a threat to France’s “national identity” seems almost tame compared with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai ‘s statement that “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”

Madonna’s decision to take a stand against the French National Front comes amid recent protests by the Far-Right in Israel calling for the mass deportation of African immigrants. Likud party member Miri Regev recently referred to African Migrants as a “cancer” in Israeli society and following a public outcry, chose to apologise to cancer suffers  – though not to migrants… Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself referred to the Africans as “the infiltrator problem” who, like Arab Palestinians are said to represent a threat to the security and identity of the Jewish state, in a statement which could equally have been pronounced by Ms Le Pen concerning France’s Muslim population.

What is the significance of the imagery used by the songstress, in a country  where Arab citizens face routine discrimination including calls they sign an oath of loyalty to the state? Where migrants can be detained for up to three years without trial or deportation? and where, in 2004, a member of the Likud party proposed “massive ethnic cleansing” of non-Jews as a “final solution” of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – Is the absurdity of opposing the Far-right from a country involved in ethnic cleansing somehow lost on Madge?

Madonna’s selective denunciation of Far-Right rhetoric is perplexing, particularly when anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment are often correlated. While her father was fond of holocaust denial and racial slurs, Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric reflects a broader shift in the Far-Right towards a less racialised discourse, focused on national identity and the alleged threat posed to it by immigrants and principally, Islam. The fact Islam is the religion of 6 million French citizens suggests ‘immigrants’ are not the only ones being targeted. This isn’t to suggest the FN has exorcised its anti-Semitic demons, far from it, but the evolution in the language and the focus of Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic diatribes is clear – the new enemy is Muslims. Opposing the Far-Right necessarily involves reflecting this evolving strategy and supporting all victims of their discrimination.

Marine Le Pen is a dangerous and deplorable voice in French politics who should rightly be condemned. However, she neither leads the country, nor currently has significant influence in devising discriminatory policies, unlike the Far-right in Israel. While both the FN and Israeli Far-right subscribe to a hierarchical conception of race expressed in what Pierre Vial calls “ethno-differentialism”, a vision which relegates those outside the accepted group to second-class citizenship, the Far-right in Israel actually has the power to implement its policies and has done so. Madonna’s publicity stunt may have seemed like a jibe to the FN, but her decision to perform in a country governed by members of the Far-right is a significantly greater validation of their legitimacy. Unless she plans to feature a picture of Netanyahu wearing a Klu Klux Klan outfit in her next concert  – I, for one, will be boycotting it.

 

 

 

Written by Myriam Francois

June 7, 2012 at 17:41

Myriam Francois Cerrah – France shootings, BBC World, News, March 2012

with 3 comments

An interview I did on BBC World about the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in March 2012

Written by Myriam Francois

March 20, 2012 at 16:32

Europe: Tucking Away the Real Deal

with 3 comments

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)

Written by Myriam Francois

October 21, 2011 at 19:18

“There aint no crescent in the Union Jack”

leave a comment »

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