Racism and Islamophobia.

My comments, adapted by the editors of Socialist Unity’ into a front page think-piece on the intersections of Islamophobia and Homophobia has provoked a quite a few reactions in the blogosphere. One of these is Dave Osler’s response, provocatively titled ‘confessions of a left wing Islamophobe’.

Dave kicks of his thoughts in counterposition to a “post by one Barry Kade, which we must presume to be a pseudonym”. Happily, unlike others who willfully misinterpret what I have said as somehow excusing homophobia if it comes from other oppressed minorities, Dave at least has the honesty to write that: “To his credit, Kade stresses the need to challenge homophobia in the Muslim working class”.  So at least I am excused the gross misrepresentations of some still cheaper polemicists!

Nonetheless, to write a jokey piece about being a ‘left wing Islamophobe’ is problematic. Osler has a genuine and legitimate problem wit the term ‘Islamophobia’. He writes that : “The neologism is ugly, for a start. Used as a suffix, ‘-phobia’ implies anxiety characterised by extreme or irrational fear of something commonplace”. Yes, indeed, I would agree we need a better name for this oppression. I also have problems with the term ‘homophobia’ for the same reason. Yet we use the term frequently, and we know what it means. I would not consider someone a good friend or comrade if they confessed to being ‘a left wing homophobe’. (And as a gay man, I think there is plenty that can be criticised about gay capitalist culture, as formed by the gay scene and commodification. The fetishization of youthful looks, the objectification of humans as if on a consumerist meat-rack, not to mention the prices. But for some reason we do not jocularly call these left wing criticisms of the gay scene  ‘left wing homophobia’).

Furthermore, we have come to understand ‘homophobia’ as not an ‘irrational fear of the commonplace’ like arachnophobia, but as something more loaded. Te ‘phobia’ in homophobia is a cultural-political process of constructing an ‘alien other’.  And of course it is not reducible into a subjective ‘phobia’ in individual heads, but is connected to capitals need to reproduce labour cheaply, through the normalisation of the nuclear family. A better word would be ‘heterosexism’.

Now, back to ‘Islamophobia’. Critics of the term point out that it also can catch legitimate criticism of a religion which indeed has patriarchal and oppressive aspects. Thus Dave Osler proposes we restrict ourselves to the term “Anti-Muslim racism”  thus ‘Islamophobia’ is a “distinctive brand of the more general phenomenon [racism], which the left should oppose precisely for that reason”. So should we call it “anti-Muslim racism”? I think Dave makes a good start. The term ‘Anti-Muslim racism’ captures the religious and racial dimensions of the oppression. But I want to think this through further.

The simple term ‘racism’ on its own does not capture what is going on with the current waive of muslim-hating in Britain. The tabloid press, the BNP, the EDL – and many others – are focusing their attacks on the Islamic RELIGION. This undoubtedly has a significantly racist dimension, because most of the vilified Muslims come from racially oppressed minorities.

But while this bigotry stems from racism, it is not reducible into it. Thus rightwing EDL hooligans have learned to say they are not racist, because ‘Islam is not a race’. They would laugh if you called them ‘Anti-Muslim Racists’.  They can pretend they are progressive secularists and anti-racists, as they pursue their fantasies about pogroms and ethnic cleansing. They have learned to cite those passages from the Koran which support the claim that Islam is a religion that demands conquest and war (despite the fact that we have invaded the middle east, not vice versa). They will even hide behind our progressive criticisms of Islam’s sexism.

There is a definite current developing that wants to construct Muslims as the ‘alien other’, an enemy which must be even ‘ethnically cleansed’ from Europe. This is a real right wing ideological movement that we ignore at our peril.

Some old leftists like Dave can fondly imagine that this is the 1970’s, and re-live their ‘rock against racism’ youth. Then NF racism was based upon biological notions of race. It was relatively simple (but not easy) to construct an opposition coalition of black and white, of feminists, gays, socialists and the rest. Most people could be made to verbally denounce skin colour racism as obviously unjust and without foundation.

In the intervening years, we have seen a shift to culture. Whilst ‘biological racism’ remains, it has mutated into the cultural arena, where racism is now voiced (in Thatchers notorious words) in terms of a fear of being “swamped by an ‘Alien Culture’”. This was named as “the new racism” (Martin Barker 1981, Stuart Hall 1992, Paul Gilroy 1992).

This has now gone viral with the mixture of ‘new cultural’ anti-muslim hatred and ‘old biological’ racism we see today. This wave of anti-muslim bigotry has also been greatly stimulated by the western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turmoil in the middle east, with the growth of diverse Islamicist movements.

Today in Britain we are seeing violent racist attacks where as well as being called ‘P*ki’ the assailants also criticise their victims for being Muslim, as they are attacking them.

Thus only last Thusdsay, a gang of over 30 black and white youths united to attack a group of Muslim students at City University. According to reports, the attackers shouted “Get those Muslims” and “P*ki”. Four students were stabbed, and one was given a fractured skull, amidst the other serious beatings.

Around where I live in Lancashire, Muslim women have had their headscarfs and veils ripped from their heads by white men.

(Incidentally, are those pro-war ‘leftists’  who inhabit the Harry’s place blog comfortable with this? Perhaps they think that It is this the work of progressive secularists and feminists, liberating women from the veil and resisting theocracy?)

And is it simply ‘racism’, when black and white youths gang up to attack Muslim students, shouting ‘get the Muslims’?

Or is their something more complex for us to deal with? Is there perhaps something called religious hatred? We have seen religious hatred and bigotry before. While the Nazis racialised European Jewry as part of their genocide, it is incorrect to simply reduce the history of European Anti-Semitism to ‘racism’. Perhaps it is best describes as an ethno-religious hatred and oppression. We have also seen a long history of anti-catholic bigotry on these Islands. This used to be one of the most serious divisions hampering working class solidarity in these parts.

So neither the terms Islamophobia, racism or ‘anti-muslim racism’ quite name the enemy yet. But we know what we mean, when we look at the vituperation of the tabloid press.

So how do we challenge the rising ethno-religious bigotry of the muslim-baiters? It is also true that Islam, like other religions, has deeply oppressive and patriarchal dimensions. We can not ignore these, and it should remain legitimate to criticise Islam. However, how can we differentiate this criticism from anti-muslim bigotry and ethno-religious hatred? Some are not that bothered, those ‘pro-war leftists’ who here make fun of our deliberations. If they can support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then they are not bothered about violence and killing on a massive scale, and all the backward and colonial notions that are revived. They see Muslims as part of the enemy, and have no real concern with the dilemmas we have, or the complexities we see. But for genuine socialists, who want to unite the working class, and overcome multiple religious, racial and sexual divisions and hatreds in order to do this, we have to think and discuss amongst ourselves. We must always support women and gays resisting sexism and homophobia within every community, religion or ethnicity. As a the best and most practical strategy we seek left wing allies from within the Muslim community, to mobilise that section of the population to join the wider working class resistance against cutbacks, unemployment, war, racism and bigotry. By strengthening these allies from amongst Muslims, then progressive forces against fundamentalism, sexism, homophobia and anti-semitism can have a chance within these increasingly besieged communities. And lifting the sense of siege in these communities with a society wide offensive against racism and anti-muslim bigotry would also be a great step forward. And most important, we need a class based mass movement against the recession and cutbacks, uniting people from every race and religion and more. That would be a realistic strategy amongst those who really want to improve the situation – rather than those who want to make their shrill propaganda, or deny the complexity of the problems we face.


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4 responses to “Racism and Islamophobia.

  1. DaveB

    A thought provoking piece…
    I agree that a new terminology is needed. The ‘phobias’ and ‘isms’ have become shaded by psychological and administrative contexts and this has eclipsed the political content that should, as far as socialists are concerned, be obvious. A political (and moral) dimension as well as being more appealing and accessible, would provide an alternative to the impression (often associated with progressives) of an unthinking concern with political correctness.

    Probably bigotry is a better term.

    The “shift to culture” has brought a number of advantages that have yet to be fully explored by the left – possibly because the fore-fronting of culture can problematise the more familiar strands of marxist analysis.

  2. I think there is a fundamental weakness to your argument that racism is becoming a cultural rather than biological. Namely, hasn’t racism always been cultural first, regardless of whatever biologically-fixated ideological trappings it expresses itself in?

    All the great European racists justified themselves through cultural enlightenment.

  3. barrykade

    Sorry, perhaps i did not express myself very clearly – I would argue that ‘race’ is primarily socially constructed through history, economics, culture. It is not a ‘naturalised’ or biological given. So maybe we actually agree? But I also want to further argue that racist ideology expresses itself in different and changing ways, that racism has a history we can trace. Thus although racism had cultural, economic, and historical roots, it was originally justified within the ideological registers of biological science. Or what you call the “biologically-fixated ideological trappings it expresses itself in”. So we might agree that racism is a cultural construct expressed in “biologically-fixated ideological trappings”. Yet following what some theorists call the ‘new racism’, some claim to observe a shift to rhetorics of ‘cultural difference’ in justifications of inequality, discrimination and violence.

  4. Brinkman Stats

    Apologies for not replying to your “wiping the floor with me” on “socialistunity” but I was blocked by the site.
    Aaah well, that freedom of speech socialist style I suppose.

    Fare thee well chap.

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