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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.

Below are a selection of quotes from three prominent figures of the Atheist movement, and three prominent far-right figures. Try and guess which are which and maybe comment with your score (answers at the bottom).

  1. I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world, and I fear that we have a very difficult struggle there… There are people in the Islamic world who simply say, ‘Islam is right, and we are going to impose our will.’
  2. Western values, freedom of speech, democracy and rights for women are incompatible with Islam, which is a cancer eating away at our freedoms and our democracy and rights for our women.
  3. It’s almost impossible to say anything against Islam in this country, because you are accused of being racist or Islamophobic.
  4. I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women.
  5. The Koran is an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror.
  6. Islamo-fascists gave us no peace and we shouldn’t give them any. We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murderers and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.
  7. The dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants.
  8. Islam is not compatible with our Western way of life. Islam is a threat to our values. Respect for people who think otherwise, the equality of men and women, the equality of homosexuals and heterosexuals, respect for Christians, Jews, unbelievers and apostates, the separation of church and state, freedom of speech, they are all under pressure…
  9. Let us remind ourselves what Sharia means on freedom of speech, conscience, and protest. All we need do is look at a few examples from other countries.
    In Pakistan, the Criminal Code articles 295 and 298 have shut down any freedom of speech as regards Islam. The blaspheme laws are a rod to beat down and kill the non-Muslim population.
    In Saudi Arabia, in 2007 the religious police beat little school girls back into their burning building because they were not properly covered.
    In Egypt, converts from Islam have to either flee the country or go into hiding.
    In Iran, protesters are gunned down in the street for declaring their lack of confidence in and support for the recent presidential elections.
    And in this country we are apparently not allowed to have an opinion that can be in anyway construed as being negative about Islam.
  10. As a matter of doctrine, the Muslim conception of tolerance is one in which non-Muslims have been politically and economically subdued, converted, or put to sword.
  11. Sharia – the rule by a so-called Allah means the domination of non-Muslims. It is a central teaching of Islam and rooted in the Qur’an and the example of Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
  12. I think it is well arguable that Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today.
  13. This wicked, vicious faith has expanded from a handful of cranky lunatics about 1,300 years ago, to it’s now sweeping country after country before it, all over the world. And if you read the Koran, you’ll find that that’s what they want.

The point of this (to preempt some of the more predictable objections to this) is not that atheism inevitable leads towards fascism or racism (as some of the more ludicrous religious evangelists will argue) nor that the Atheist movement and the far-right share common ideologcal roots (they don’t). It is to illustrate that the kind of vulgar post-political reductionism embodied by the likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens converges with the far-right around a shared problematisation of Islam, and, more specifically, the presence of Muslim immigrants in the West, as well as shared anxieties around multiculturalism and political correctness. One can find much more explicit racist framings of Islam among the comments on the likes of Richard Dawkins website, while Dawkins and others are quoted enthusiastically by the EDL et al. This suggests (unsurprisingly, given that both inhabit the same political discourse) not just a point of convergence but an inter-relation of the two movements – a mutual feeding-into-one-another.

EDIT: Ok just to be clear, for the benefit of all the Redditors, I’m not asserting, nor do I believe, that the word ‘Muslim’ is interchangeable with ‘Arab’ or anything of the sort. But nor is it possible to draw a sharp distinction between race and religion as many commenters have. The word Muslim has a set of associated racial meanings. It is used in various ways to signify a multiplicity of minority races and cultures. This is simply a fact of our political discourse. This is why the political framing of Islam is a racial issue. What’s more: everyone knows this. The “I’m criticising their beliefs not their race” gambit is merely an attempt to deny the racial content of your statements in order to sidestep accusations of racism – a classic racist move.

Answers:

  1. Atheist Richard Dawkins (source)
  2. Fascist Nick Griffin (source)
  3. Atheist Richard Dawkins (source)
  4. Atheist Richard Dawkins (Ibid.)
  5. Fascist Geert Wilders (source)
  6. Atheist Christopher Hitchens (source)
  7. Atheist Sam Harris (source) (He goes on to say that “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”)
  8. Fascist Geert Wilders (source)
  9. Fascist Tommy Robinson (source)
  10. Atheist Sam Harris (source)
  11. Fascist Tommy Robinson (source)
  12. Atheist Richard Dawkins (source)
  13. Fascist Nick Griffin (source)

This is a blog post I wrote on my old blog when Trinity Philosophical Society had invited Nick Griffin to address a debate. The debate was subsequently canceled due to pressure from anti-fascists. I’m reproducing it here because it says some important stuff about free speech.

Fellow debaters,

It is with disappointment that I write to complain about the University Philosophical Society’s irresponsible decision to invite BNP leader and Holocaust denier Nick Griffin to speak at a debate on immigration. Griffin’s ultra-right racist political views and involvement in fascist organising are well-documented, and undoubtedly well-known to the committee. The threat he and his party pose to immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer and trans people is both real and pressing. While in the short term, the BNP is unlikely to gain power and carry out their policy of forced deportation of blacks and Muslims, even modest success is enough to encourage hate crimes both by members of the BNP and others on the far-right, both in the UK, and in Ireland. The sense of legitimacy afforded by an invite by a debating society, particularly one as prestigious as the Phil, directly contributes to the momentum of these groups. Moreover, appearances by far-right speakers in events such as this are strongly correlated with increases in the incidence of hate crimes in the surrounding areas. These dangers are particularly acute in times of economic crisis, where ‘blame the immigrants’ rhetoric offers an easily-understandable explanation for complex socio-economic processes.

‘Free speech’ controversies such as this occur with depressing regularity in the debating community, and play out in a ritualistic manner: Some debating society, in an attempt to assert their commitment to freedom of speech and/or provoke a debate about the limitations of freedom speech (or, if I’m being cynical, to stir up controversy for the sake of publicity), invites a well-known fascist to address the house. Predictably, anti-fascist, anti-racist and immigrant groups come out strongly in opposition. The debate itself is of little importance as a debate (since an interesting, informative and nuanced debate would not involve Nick Griffin) but rather as the centrepiece of a dramatic narrative with the society’s committee in the centre defending the open society against the illiberal forces of unfreedom – immigrants, racialised minorities, and the anti-racist movement – with the fascist playing the hapless victim who just wants the opportunity to present his opinion. This inverted ontology, in which racialised minorities become the oppressors and the racists the victims, is a recurring trope of racist discourse – the ordinary white man as victim of imagined multiculturalist hegemony – and is a consequence of the elevation of abstract principles (‘freedom of speech’) over concrete realities (people’s lived experiences of racism).

Of course, we are always told, the fascist will not be given an uncontested platform, but rather will be robustly challenged by invited guests and society debaters. Having invited the fascist to speak regardless of the views of minorities and anti-racists, the debaters now adopt the pose of anti-fascism (white knights to the rescue!) and (rhetorically) confront the fascist as principled defenders of multiculturalism. By taking on both the anti-racists and the racists, the debaters consolidate their self-image as supremely rational intellectuals, through their performance elevating themselves above the vulgar irrationalism and illiberalism of the antifascist struggle, brave defenders of universal values against the murky contingencies of subjective struggle. If only these minorities would rationally argue that they shouldn’t be deported en masse to the Third World because of their ethnicity, rather than trying to undermine our free speech utopia!

This is a perspective steeped in privilege. It’s easy to be in favour of free speech for fascists when you’re not the one whose humanity is called into question, and when you’re not the one whose life and safety is under threat from the growth of far-right groups. Posturing aside, there’s nothing particularly brave about forcing other people to take the risk in order for you to maintain your consistency in applying an idealised schema of rights and freedoms. Only in a worldview that invisiblises racial hierarchies does it make sense to conflate the ‘right’ of fascist groups to organise with the concept of freedom.

In any case, have we not been here already – dozens of times? Have we not already had the meta-debate about the limits of debating? Have we not already explored the boundaries of freedom of speech through the performance art ritual of the fascist in the debating chamber? Can we not have a debate about a complex issue like immigration with descending into Marilyn Manson-esqe transgressive theatrics? There’s plenty of people with important things to say whose perspectives we’re ignoring because we’re too busy focusing on the fringe lunatic, not least those for whom racism is a daily lived-reality rather than an opportunity for a publicity stunt