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Franco-British Council: Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London

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This is the transcript of a speech I gave at the Franco-British council event on the Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London

My cop-panelists were: Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty) Andrew Copson (BHA), and pere Matthieu Rougé.

Transcribed by Sophie O’Flaherty, FBC Intern:

Panel 3 Freedom of Speech and Religion in the Public Domain

I am going to come at this as a journalist and also with my political scientist hat which is my other life in academia. I personally am always a little wary of the eulogising of so called ‘founding documents’ which I think are typically reimagined to accommodate modern sensibilities and thus designed in so doing to ignore the deep inequalities, some of which Shami mentioned, which were often less a sort of afterthought a little error in there and more actually part and parcel of the very constitution of who represents a true human being or in contemporary modern political language who is a true citizen. I am wary because it allow us to think of ourselves as arrived rather than working towards the very ideals which we claim to be celebrating, and it also means that those exempt from its application are often ignored and assumed to be undeserving of those rights and that somehow the removal of those rights is assumed to be because of this premise of this conception of ourselves as having necessarily integrated these values as somehow undeserving or justifiably removed from their application. So I am genuinely more interested in those who are seemingly excluded from these rights, the hundred thousands of immigrants left to drown in our seas, terrorism suspects extradited for torture, I did say ‘terrorism ‘suspects’, citizens that are stripped of their nationality both in this country and in France for given crimes, as if somehow there is something you could do that could deprive you of those rights that you were not constitutive of them in the first place. And that reminds me that perhaps we should view such documents as less an achievement and an indication of our presumed greatness and more a mile stone on an ongoing journey. To come to today’s discussion I thought I would speak to each question in a few lines mainly to deconstruct what I perceive as quite a problematic underpinning to a few of the questions.

I will start off with this idea of the secular settlements of Europe which to me speaks to the increasingly popular idea of Europe under siege from scary Muslims, and unsurprisingly perhaps I have a bit of an issue with that. The truth is and I am going to quote Professor Olivier Roy, who I had the honour quite recently of interviewing, who argues that laïcité in France has shifted from a critical judicial principle designed for the management of diversity, to what he calls an exclusionary ideology and I am going to quote professor Roy specifically on what he understands by that and he says, I quote “we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen that his or her beliefs not be known, a demand of cultural normative ethical homogenisation by the state, that is what I call an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered dominant, but normative and official and we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system of beliefs on people.” I think this leaves a particular issue for French Muslims and one he talks about in the interview that I did with him in terms of what we call a double bind that is that French Muslim citizens in particular, but people of faith more broadly are called to hide all aspects of their faith and we will talk a little bit about the extent to which that has become ever more intrusive, but they are once called to hide all aspects of their faith but then when terrorist attacks happen they are called to speak as representatives of that faith so at once you are unable to speak as a person of faith in your day to day as you go about doing normal good things within your society as a citizen, but when a terrorist attack happens you are demanded by the state, by society to speak from within that essentialised conception of your identity. So that is one of the issues I think that is very problematic, and I think it inherently problematizes the idea of French Muslims constructing them as the polar opposite of French culture, they are this sort of intractable minority that can never be fully integrated, hence the obsession in French national debates, you cannot switch the TV on in France without having another debate about Islam and integration in France. So there is a sense of Muslims being this inherent challenge to French culture, when in truth French Muslims have been part and parcel of French culture, part and parcel of constructing French culture for generations now and maybe it is about time we stopped asking them to justify that.

Do religions have a legitimate right to be exempted from special treatment?

I do not actually think that is the issue, rather than exemption I think maybe an inclusive conception of society might be more beneficial. I think more often than not we assume that religious folk want differential treatment when actually what they want is to have the same treatment and not be the victims of prejudice. Take the Rushdie affair, which people always refer to as the landmark issue in Europe, the protest that happened in England during the Rushdie affair were calls for the application of the same blasphemy laws which existed in this country until 2008 I believe to all citizens, including Muslim citizens. So they were the calls to the application of the same rights for all citizens, they were not calls for an exemption or for some sort of special treatment, in fact it might be nice not to have special treatment for a lot of people of faith, because it is not that special most of the time.

Freedom of expression and the protection of religious feelings

There are huge national differences on the conceptions of freedom of expression, I often come into discussions on this and if people are not familiar with the French setting its worth pointing out that there are pretty significant restrictions on free speech in France already, some of which might shock an Anglo-Saxon audience. I am not convinced that religions are the issue that pose the greatest threat to the freedom of speech in France or here in the UK for that matter. Just last year a French court fined a blogger and ordered her to change her headline to reduce its prominence on google for a negative review of a restaurant, it is also worth pointing out that Charb did face threats from Muslim extremists but do you know what he also faced? Threats of criminal prosecution, for some of the things he said. So I think free speech is certainly an issue I am just not convinced that it’s the big bad Muslims that are the problem. I would rather ask whether the ideology that Professor Roy refers to, and specifically the political instrumentalisation of the concept of laïcité is not being used to overrule the civil rights of religious citizens, when a Jewish man in a Kippah come to a polling station and is turned away under the guise of laïcité, you need to question whether the civil rights are being applied to all citizens equally. Similarly now we have French citizens who are excluded from public spaces, from schools, from universities, from hospitals, from using public transport, I call that a civil liberties issue, and essentially to me the real civil rights issue is the profound racism that exists in France today, where there are huge inequalities when it comes to access to housing, to access to power even access to funding religious organisations it is worth pointing out there is still a Christian bias in that sense, a Christian citizens is two and a half times more likely to get a job interview in France than an equally qualified Muslim citizen according to a study by Stanford University not that long ago. I think there are numerous indications from human rights organisations including Amnesty International that have pointed to a climate of what I would call pervasive discrimination against Muslin citizens in particular. To come back specifically to the issue that everyone wants to talk about and this is the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I would make a lot more about the fact that, this discussion is usually framed as Muslims being offended by cartoons. Actually a lot of Muslims were offended by images but a lot of Muslims did not rock up to the offices and to a Kosher store and shoot people. I will end that by saying that actually and I think on this one the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it right when he says that the Muslim crowds did not react to Mohammed caricatures as such, they reacted to the complex figure or image of the West that was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures.

Thank you for your time.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 23, 2015 at 17:26

New Statesman: To talk about race, we need to talk about the problem with “whiteness”

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“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

Written by Myriam Francois

April 28, 2015 at 15:35

ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): “Face Veils and Miniskirts: Whose Interests are Served in France’s Republic of Men?”

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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 website, here

Written by Myriam Francois

April 27, 2015 at 09:27

Middle East Eye: Comic Aamer Rahman on ‘Islamophobia as a flavour of racism’

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aamer rahman

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

Written by Myriam Francois

March 25, 2015 at 13:47

BBC Daily politics: Veil debate: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Myriam Francois-Cerrah

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Writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who published her thoughts on whether Muslim women should wear the full veil, debated this with the writer and broadcaster Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

They spoke to Jo Coburn and guest of the day Ken Clarke on Tuesday’s DP. — at BBC Millbank.

You can watch the video here (for 7 days)

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Written by Myriam Francois

December 2, 2014 at 15:30

Salon: Bill Maher’s horrible excuse: Why his defense of Islamophobia just doesn’t make any sense

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You can read the piece on the Salon website here

Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Her words seem particularly apt this week in light of Bill Maher’s recent opening of the Islamophobic floodgates during his “Last Word” interview with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. In the now infamous segment, Harris argues “Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas” and that “We are misled to think the fundamentalists are the fringe.”

Muslim American academic Reza Aslan was subsequently called on by CNN to comment on Maher’s views, which he demurely dismissed, but what was most interesting was comparing the treatment of Aslan and Affleck, both voices arguing against anti-Muslim prejudice, by mainstream American TV anchors.

In his interview with CNN, Aslan, a professor of religion, was forced into an apologetic stance in which he sought to elicit a recognition that Muslims are diverse in their outlooks and beliefs, despite being persistently dismissed by both skeptical CNN interviewers.

The discussion subsequently continued without Aslan, his voice having largely been ignored until that point anyway, but what was telling was that his contribution was recast as a hostile and angry response by a third CNN presenter, Chris Cuomo: “His tone was angry. He wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”

“Angry” is just another term used to invalidate someone’s position by attempting to root their arguments in emotion rather than rationality – it’s what men do to women in the “angry feminist” variation, and it’s what white people do to ethnic minorities (women especially, through the angry black woman stereotype). Cuomo was seeking to delegitimize Aslan’s perspective by making him appear as an extension of the irrational and angry faith the anchors had consistently upheld as the only valid perception of Islam.

Compare this dismissal of Aslan’s polite frustration with the response to Ben Affleck’s visceral anger and disgust at Maher’s original statements. “It’s gross and racist” Affleck retorted, his annoyance evident. But unlike Aslan, who’s subaltern identity meant he required approval from the anchors in order for his arguments to be given credence, Affleck’s white privilege allowed him to express a similar sentiment to Aslan in far cruder and more assertive terms, yet without being dismissed.

I was reminded in watching the clip of a statement by the activist Audre Lorde: “Black and Third world people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity.” Discussions involving Muslims begin with the assumption that Muslims must prove their humanity to a hostile audience, the same premise which requires Muslims with no connection to ISIL or violent jihadis to begin a campaign like “Not In My Name” so they can avoid guilt by association.

The debate has been framed as a discussion over the nature of liberalism but that is, frankly, to give Maher’s bigotry far too much credence. Maher called Islam “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing,” a statement which, when deconstructed, is a textbook illustration of bigotry.

For a start, religions don’t do or think anything – people articulate ideas or act in the name of religion; Affleck was spot-on when he queried whether Maher had somehow determined the “the codified doctrine of Islam.” And he was even more accurate when he lambasted Maher’s attempt to play on white victimhood by casting himself, a highly influential TV host, as part of an oppressed group whose voice was somehow being suppressed on issues relating to Islam and Muslims — all the while demonizing Islam and Muslims, largely unchallenged, on primetime Television.

This phony martyrdom is a classic example of what the writer Richard Seymour terms “white victimhood,” rebranding minorities as aggressors with the fictitious power to mimic the type of systemic discrimination actually experienced by those cast as outsiders. This attempt at “liberal victimhood” ultimately serves — just like white victimhood serves to undermine anti-racist struggles — as a way of delegitimizing the very real and enduring struggle against institutional racism and individual prejudice experienced every day by Muslims. ‎

TV hosts like Maher appear to revel in deliberately inviting debate with known moderate Muslim figures in order to seemingly undermine them, and thus simultaneously undermine the very notion of a moderate Islam. There are no moderates, the common refrain goes; or as Maher himself stated on the show, “Its not a few bad apples”, implying that the net of suspicion should be cast on every Muslim who isn’t merely a “nominal Muslim.” (The thinking here being that the only good Muslim is one who doesn’t actually identify with their faith.)

The sheer recklessness of claiming that Muslims share “too much in common with ISIS,” a violent guerrilla group which has incidentally beheaded far more Muslims than it has Americans, can hardly be overstated. There is an increasing and alarming consonance between the far-right discourse of Muslims — that they are an existential threat out to destroy western civilization — and the language spouted by Maher and others, who insist that it isn’t a minority, but the majority, of Muslims who represent a threat to liberal ideals. And this discourse isn’t happening in a vacuum. New York City public transit currently features a series of ads paid for by the polemicist Pamela Gellar, featuring the phrase, “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline,” above a picture from the beheading of James Foley. Meanwhile, the latest advertisement for TV series “Homeland” features Clare Danes as a blonde red-riding hood in what writer Laura Durkey describes as a “forest of faceless Muslim wolves.”

A consequence of this Islamophobia, and the ‎intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Western societies, is that Muslims are facing increasingly tough conditions. According to NYPD figures, anti-Muslim hate crimes are up 143 percent since last year.

Just as minarets or face veils have become imbued with a significance ‎beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination ‎against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the ‎fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, and thus are fair targets. But people don’t choose the significance that ‎others attribute to their symbols — especially when they themselves have so little access ‎to defining them for themselves. People don’t have a choice in the stereotypes and ‎assumptions people make on the basis of their skin color, nor do they have a ‎choice in the stereotypes concerning the symbols which people interpret ‎according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural ‎incompatibility. ‎To be Muslim in America today is to be first and foremost a walking signifier for other people’s prejudice — regardless of how many credentials come after your name.

It is the height of civilizational arrogance to assume you understand a creed, the manifestation of which varies not only in transit from Asia to Africa via the Middle east and Europe; but which also varies in its understanding even within nations and among peoples. And it is bigotry without bounds to suggest that those adherents of a faith — a faith persistently maligned in the public sphere, with little to no ability to rectify its public perception — are the ones wielding any power to redefine or even constrain American ideals.

American Muslims are literally being left out of the conversation over what it means to be American. When they are present, they are forced into justifying their own humanity in order to absolve their very presence in the debate. More typically, they are simply kept absent, a faceless monolith for Americans to cast their darkest prejudice upon, fuelled by a self-righteous notion that they are in fact the carriers of a superior moral ideal, under threat from the enemy within.

It is a telling indictment of our times that some of our most illustrious academics, who happen to be Muslim, should have to sit through the public humiliation of an interview in which their competency is questioned on the basis of their religious identity. In any conversation in which American values are being discussed, Islam is the image against which America constructs its own civility, the bogeyman against which to contrast American greatness and American Muslims are the unwitting casualties of a struggle which persistently dismisses them as the unalterable “other.”

Written by Myriam Francois

October 15, 2014 at 10:36

AJE: What are Cameron’s ‘British values’?

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The discourse on British values smacks of neo-imperialism in a post-colonial world.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech on “British values”, published as an op-ed in The Daily Mail, had all the hallmarks of a colonialist eulogy. If the colonial project was about land and power, it was also a cultural project which involved exporting a presumed superior culture and imposing it on presumed inferior peoples.

We in Europe have a long history of defining ourselves in opposition to the great “other”. The Greeks often contrasted themselves with the Asians who were deemed to be servile, ruled by tyrants and corrupt, whereas Greeks were virtuous and freedom loving. Viewing Islam as the great threat also dates back to the days of competing empires, in which Islam came to be the measure against which European Christians forged their identity.

“[F]reedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” are values all human beings aspire to and the British have no monopoly over. In fact, a recognition of the multiplicity of routes through which humanity has arrived at these ideals, acts as a form of global solidarity, of mutual respect and ultimately, of equality. Although many societies lack these ideals in their formal structures, this shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of their rejection, but of the tumultuous conditions which impede their full realisation.

Any discussion of British values can’t be blind to the historical inequities undertaken in the name of those very values, and any assessment of other cultures cannot occur outside of an understanding of their position within the global system of wealth. When Cameron stated “I strongly believe our values form the foundation of our prosperity”, he could have inverted the sentence with far more accuracy to: “I strongly believe our prosperity forms the foundation for our values.”

We have come to formalise, institutionalise and uphold certain principles thanks to a level of affluence which not only came off the back of many nations but deprived them of the ability to achieve those same objectives. We absolutely should be bashful about our “greatness” because it came at the expense of others who continue to suffer the consequences to this day. The supreme haughtiness is to then decry the backwardness of the very nations which we helped relegate to the developmental dung heap.

What’s more, to speak of the need to assert the greatness of British values over a portion of society requires examining the power relations which govern those dictating the values and those being dictated to. As the educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse rightly points out, in reference to a number of schools in Birmingham targeted in Cameron’s “British values” speech, “what the proud city of Birmingham needs least is to be treated as a colonial outpost of London”.

Cameron’s op-ed is a clear means of expressing the dominance of white, secular liberal Britons, and articulating the commensurate respect of that supremacy from those deemed subordinate, in this case, minorities and specifically Muslims from some of the most impoverished areas in the country. It was also an attempt to arrogate the meaning of “British values” while excluding those targeted by the speech from inclusion in any discussion over their ultimate definition.

Identifying “the other”

The claims about historical truth made in the speech mask the very real construction of a narrative, a particular vision of “Britishness” in which some Britons apparently have no say. This vision is asserted as enduring and unchanging in nature when such narratives always involve a convenient reimagining of history, as illustrated through the grandiose extolling of the Magna Carta.
Inside Story – Extremism in British schools?

As the historian Dr Dominic Selwood points out in the Telegraph, “despite widespread beliefs about the charter’s contents, it actually contained very little of significance.” It also had a number of clauses we might not be so keen on highlighting today, such as “No one will be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except her husband” and provisions against Jewish bankers.

The discourse concerning the “otherness” and danger posed by Muslims is reasserted through manufactured hysteria about otherwise mundane aspects of Muslim life.

From halal meat to circumcision, the construction of a mega-mosque or the amplification of abhorrent, but thankfully limited social injustices: forced marriage, honour killing, female genital mutilation – all these are portrayed as inherently Islamic issues, despite evidence of their presence across ethnic and religious groupings.

The consequence is a social stigma attached to the Muslim label, reinforced through media associations of relatively uncontroversial issues, such as separating boys and girls for certain activities, with far more serious allegations, such as endorsing extremist speakers. An unconscious equivalence is drawn between the two, equating a practise otherwise normalised in other parts of British society such as single sex schools, single sex clubs or facilities with support for al-Qaeda-style views.

Most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that the problems identified within a number of schools in Birmingham somehow reflect the type of Islamic extremism “practised by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist network”. This slippage creates the notion of a monolithic Islamic threat, stretching across the globe. Such high-profile statements reinforce perceptions of essential “otherness” and of a latent threat posed by the so-called enemy within.

Other social issues are labelled in manner which essentialises them, as a means of locating the route of oppression within Muslim culture, rather than broader, patriarchal practises found across societies. The term honour killing suggests phenomenon culturally distinct from domestic violence, which afflicts 30 percent of British women.

The same might be said of forced marriages, for which new legislation has recently been passed. The establishment of a specific law to target this practice, one already criminalised under existing laws, reinforces the perception of a culturally specific crime, rather than recognising coercion as one of a myriad of patriarchal oppressions. As activist Amrit Wilson states, the reason prosecutions are so low isn’t to do with laws, or a lack thereof, but rather, “These are often not implemented, partly through lack of will and partly because most services which support women through the legal process have been abolished.” Such laws actually serve a distinct purpose: They are about defining ourselves against an imagined bogeyman, rather than recognising shared ideals.

‘A wink to the right’

Ultimately, the debate on British values hinges on the nature of liberalism and whether we think of liberalism as a tool which allows for the articulation of varied and mutually contradictory viewpoints, including illiberal ones, or if we consider it a narrow ideology, which requires a muscular imposition on those who fail to recognise its truth. The irony of the latter position should hopefully not be lost.
Listening Post – Is the British media Islamophobic?

It is also an opportunity for the Tory party, which has lost support among its more conservative followers to pander to those voices who might otherwise be leaning towards the UK Independence Party or UKIP.

This wink to the right of the right was evident in Cameron’s choice to refer to “fish and chips”, rather than Britain’s national dish of curry, a hankering after a romanticised image of white Britain, untainted by these foreign influences, engaging those alienated through his adoption of liberal policies on issues such as gay marriage.

Every empire has claimed it has a mission to enlighten, bring order and democracy. Although the empire may be long gone, the mentality which views the descendants of the former colonies as subjects remains. The motivation for imposing “superior” British values on others was bound up in a doctrine of European superiority and racism. Back in the 19th century, it was a British mission to lead the backward non-European nations to civilisation. Today, it’s all about leading the backward non-European subjects to civilisation, a notion of British greatness constructed off the back of its own minorities.

What we do need as a society is a common language, a critical and contested understanding of global history and our place within it, and some common ideals. The ideals cannot be forged by a section of society as a civilising project, but rather should include a broad-based discussion on the nature and manifestation of those ideals. To paraphrase the great philosopher Aime Cesaire, no culture possesses “the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendez-vous of victory”.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 18, 2014 at 15:43