This is a piece I started to write in the aftermath of the killing of a British soldier in Woolwich in May. For various reasons I stopped writing about halfway through and no longer remember precisely what it was I wanted to say. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to do my best to finish it, as I feel there were useful ideas in the piece which I should publish.
The reaction to the politically-motivated killing of a British soldier in Woolwich is an interesting and important moment in the history of British racism. Naively, one might have expected that the most obvious racial aspect to the attack, around which a racist moral panic might coalesce, was the African racial characteristics of the two men responsible: Michael Olumide Adebolajo, and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale, both of Nigerian descent. It would seem inevitable, one might have thought, given the black skin of the attackers, that long-established racist discourses of savage, violent, animalistic African men would have resurfaced to form the basis of race-based explanations of what had occurred. What happened instead was altogether different: the British state, media and public began almost at once to search for a kernel of ‘Islamic extremism’ around which to build a narrative, looking, if not quite past, through the skin of the suspects to see if it in fact concealed the essence of The Muslim. More or less the same search for The Muslim played out in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing recently, and of the Utoya killings, which turned out to be the work of a white fascist. Subsequently we have seen a nearly 1000% increase in attacks on Muslims, including the firebombing of mosques, and demonstrations by a newly-revitalised EDL across England.
This, I think, tells us something important about the shape of racism in 2013, not just in Britain, but across Europe and ‘the West’. Faced with an event with two fairly distinct possible racist interpretations – ‘violent Africans’ and ‘Muslim terrorists’ – the dominant culture overwhelmingly opted for the latter rendering. To simplify for a moment, we might understand the former as ‘biological essentialism’ – the idea that race has a biological basis and meaning; that all black people, for example, possess common and non-superficial biological traits that in some way determine their behaviour and place in the world – and the latter as ‘cultural essentialism’ – that the basis of race lies in the superiority of certain cultures over others; to use the same example, that black people’s subordinated status results from the backwardness of African culture(s) compared to Westerners – although, as we shall see, this distinction is much harder to make in practice. The first thing we can say about anti-Muslim racism, then, is that it would appear to signify a shift in racist discourse, a break from biological essentialism to a racism that resides entirely within the realm of culture. No one is born a Muslim, there are no Muslim genes, and Muslims exist within a wide variety of ‘biological’ racial categories, including whites. This is not to say, however, that biological characteristics such as skin pigmentation no longer function as racial signifiers, that dark skin no longer attracts the racialising gaze of white society, merely that they now point to one’s cultural rather than biological destiny: brown skin marks one out as a potential terrorist, rather than as a biological inferior.
For anti-racists, this raises important question regarding how we understand and talk about race and racism. What exactly is race? What does it mean to say something – an idea, a practice, a group, an institution, a system – is racist? Given that a culture is composed of ideas and practices, how does one respond to the claim that it is not a group of people but an ideology that is being criticised and attacked? Are we talking about racism at all or is it something else: ‘Islamophobia’? These are not new questions, but they are questions that pose themselves with a new urgency in the face of organised racist violence across the UK.
I think it’s of vital importance, both strategically and theoretically, that anti-Muslim racism is not partitioned off as ‘Islamophobia’, even rhetorically. To understand ‘Islamophobia’ as somehow distinct from racism is to accept the terms dictated by the culturalist racism of the right: that racism is about biological categories which, they mostly accept, albeit reluctantly, are not valid, but that cultural ‘criticism’ is an entirely different matter. From that starting point, it is easy to paint opposition to ‘Islamophobia’ as wooly-headed liberalism or repressive political-correctness. It is vital that Muslims are able to lay claim to the term ‘racism’, with all of its cultural weight built up over years of struggle, to describe their experiences and their situation. In any case, racism has never been simply an ideology of biological superiority – it has always involved claims about cultural superiority. If we consider Nazi anti-Semitism, while the Jews were cast as biological inferiors, and thus a threat to the purity of the Aryan race, it also involved a set of claims about Jewish culture – their cosmopolitanism, their decadent intellectualism, their imputed disloyalty to the nation, their greed – which cast Jews as an immanent threat to the nation. As a result of the horrors of the Holocaust, the collapse of scientific racism and the agitation of postcolonial and anti-racist movements, racism has been forced to gradually shed its bio-essentialist baggage and make a strategic shift to the terrain of culture. If anti-Muslim racism appears to be entirely divorced of biological content, this can only be understood as the outcome of a long-term strategic shift by the right, and not as an entirely new and separate phenomenon.
It would be equally reductive, however, to assume that anti-Muslim racism is merely the old biological racism in new clothes, and to use this as the basis for an anti-racist opposition to state racism and the far-right. ‘Muslim’ is not simply a code for this or that ethnic group (e.g. Arabs, south Asians, people from the Middle East etc.) but a racial category in itself. It is not the case that ‘critique of Islam’ is new packaging for the same old racist content but rather that certain critiques of Islam are in themselves the content of a new modality of racism – that political opposition to Islam as an ideology is the primary discursive mechanism by which Muslims are constituted as a race in Western societies. Outside of the lunatic fringes of the right, there are few who believe in the biological superiority of whites. An anti-racism that aims at mapping anti-Muslim racism onto old racial discourses is unlikely to have much success: those who engage in racist framings of Muslims are unlikely to recognise themselves as covert white supremacists, even if those framings can be shown to be white supremacist in their effects.
This means that the ideological front of the fight against racism is significantly more complex than it has been in the past. It is relatively easy to win the argument that it is wrong to make judgments about a group of people on the basis of the colour of their skin – that one should be judged on the content of one’s character. Pinning the charge of racism to political framings of Muslims, on the other hand, requires large numbers of people to understand and accept a much deeper theorisation of race, since one’s religion or culture is demonstrably a body of ideas and practices that might be validly criticised. If cultures are made up of ideas, is it not valid to make judgements about those ideas, to assert that some are superior to others and to organise politically to oppose the proliferation of destructive ideas? Does the anti-racist position then reduce to placing Islam above criticism?
This is the point where I stopped writing, originally. What follows is an attempt to reconstruct from memory what I had intended to say by way of conclusion.
One form of discursive intervention which I think is crucial for anti-racists to make is to break apart the dominant constructions of ‘Islam’ as a unity in both their rightist and liberal forms, which necessarily entails breaking apart the unity of the ‘we’ which is counterposed to the ‘they’ without merely falling back on a class reductionism which renders race invisible by asserting the a priori unity of the international working class. The right constructs Islam as an inherently political and colonialist ideology which is by definition opposed to the West militarily and culturally. Muslims are positioned as inherently incompatible with Western liberal democracy, and it is therefore concluded that it is only through the exercise of coercive state power (immigration control, surveillance, and policing on the domestic front, and pacification through the exercise of overwhelming military force on the international) that the Muslim threat can be contained. The liberal multiculturalist counternarrative is superficially better, in that it at least refuses the framework of race war in understanding Islam. However, liberal narratives almost inevitably end up reducing cultural difference to a kind of ‘citizenship flavour’ with no political content or meaning – we may worship different Gods, eat different foods, etc., but within the political sphere we are all merely citizens of the nation – which constructs those Muslims who articulate political ideas or demands through an Islamic discourse as bad Muslims who refuse to behave as proper multicultural subjects, who must then be disciplined into the appropriate form by various hard and soft (coercive and persuasive) forms of disciplinary state power. Both constructions are motivated by an underlying fear of meaningful difference which might divide the political sphere, which in both cases is understood as fundamentally unified: there may be differences of political opinion, but there are no fundamental political divisions that cannot be reconciled through, or at least contained by the state. It is precisely the fear that political Islam might really exist which unites the Islamophobic right and the tolerant liberal. The anti-racist left must refuse this binary in two ways: First, we must emphasise that there is no single ‘Islam’ which is or is not political, or that is or is not antagonistic to ‘Western values’ (whatever they are). There are, in fact, a multitude of Islams which are in various ways and to varying degrees, political or apolitical, and through which a great heterogeneity of ethical and political claims are articulated, some of which might be considered reactionary, others progressive, but none of which necessarily characterise the essence of Islam as reactionary or progressive. Second, we must critique the supposed unity of ‘the nation’ or ‘the West’ so as to emphasise opportunities for affinity and collective self-organisation across the ‘racial divide’.
Additionally, it is necessary to recognise the politically ambiguous nature of “critique of religion” in modern discourse. The leftist critique of religion was always only secondarily (if at all) concerned with the actual content and truth-value of religious beliefs. The key concern was the structural role played by religion in maintaining the power of the dominant class and critique of religion necessarily went hand in hand with critique of bourgeois rationality. The hegemonic form of contemporary atheism instead involves the veneration of bourgeois rationality in opposition to religion, and is utterly disconnected from any wider project of liberation. Most troublingly, the construction of religion as oppressive in itself (without any wider critique of society) provides a vector by which racist and colonialist attitudes towards Islam might become legitimated within the left. It is therefore imperative that the Dawkinsian critique of religion be understood as what it is: an exercise of a fundamentally bourgeois and racialised power and not the discourse of liberation which it presents itself as.