Islamophobia: when the reality retires, we can retire the term
Back when I was at college, a feminist lecturer had a sticker on her door: “I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy”. Her feminism was mostly concerned with international relations; the feminism which has seen a resurgence since then mostly concerns body image and combating the rising pornography and thinly-disguised sex industry, against which it has had some success. James Bloodworth, a blogger who has contributed articles to the Independent’s website, claims that the term ‘Islamophobia’ originates, in modern usage, from the Iranian revolution and is now used “to shut down almost any contemporary political debate by blurring the distinction between legitimate criticism of Islam and the anti-Muslim prejudice of the far-right” and that it is commonly conflated with racism. (More: Myriam Francois-Cerrah.)
The description of a person or an opinion as “islamophobic” has gained popularity in the last 10 years or so for understandable reasons. In the hope of capitalising on a widespread fear of Islamist terror on the back of 9/11, propagandists of the far-right sought to foster the impression that all Muslims were potential terrorists who constituted a threat to the survival of British society. Encouragingly, the progress made in this country in terms of race relations forced the hand of the far-right to some degree. Today it is overwhelmingly frowned upon to be openly racist or antisemitic, and therefore extremist groups looking to build a following must drop talk of the “inequality of the races” and adopt more subtle language that stresses the supposed incompatibility of foreign and native cultures. Any goose-stepping and talk of racial purity must be saved strictly for the backrooms of pubs on dodgy estates.
This conveniently ignores the more visible effects of the shift away from open racism and antisemitism in popular culture. It is no longer acceptable to be anti-Semitic (and has not been for decades) because it led to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the subsequent Holocaust. Racism declined in popularity as the Black migrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s (who were British citizens) became settled, and became people’s friends and neighbours, became a force in popular culture, and as mixed relationships and marriages grew and because there was a strong anti-racist movement in the public sector and the trade union movement (to simplify things a great deal). The National Front’s popularity was curbed not only by being exposed as a front for a tiny but long-established fascist and Hitlerite tendency, but by the Tory government tightening up immigration laws in the early 1980s. For years, they lingered in the wilderness, unwilling to move on from their racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy politics.
Anti-Muslim politics changed all that, because it was still acceptable in the late 90s and the present century to adopt an openly hostile stance towards Muslims as long as you refrain from using racist language, but deal in lies and generalisations about Islam itself and Muslim behaviour instead. Newspaper reports repeatedly featured distorted stories about what Muslims were “demanding”, such as removing piggy banks and covered-up single-sex swimming sessions in public pools, and amplified the views of the same tiny group of extremists who in fact called Muslims who disagreed with them (which is almost all of us) “hypocrites”, such that when that group caused offence by mounting a tiny demonstration against a public army parade, it triggered the formation of a nationwide, violent anti-Muslim organisation, the English Defence League.
The fear factor is relevant: people are made to fear a Muslim take-over (by scare stories about how most Muslim students support Shari’ah law, for example), or terrorism, or change in general — a change from a white-dominated society to one where they have to accommodate people of other races and cultures, although that isn’t why the term became popular. It became popular because it’s snappy, because all the alternatives were too much of a mouthful, and because the English language seems to prefer Latin and Greek-based neologisms (sometimes mixed together) when it comes to making up new words for new realities. However, it should not be forgotten that Muslims are also afraid, because the newspaper campaign against Islam which continued from well before 9/11 until the present government decided “benefit scroungers” were a more deserving target led to other violent attacks against Muslims. Just because it’s not Kristallnacht or Gujarat circa 2002 does not mean there has not been any violence other than at EDL marches. The reason fewer women can be seen in niqaab these days (since the campaign turned on them specifically after Jack Straw’s comments in 2006) has a lot to do with this fear, as well as the fact that women can no longer expect to travel outside the UK, other than to Muslim countries, while wearing it.
For those of us who are averse to religion and abhor prejudice (it is possible, I assure you), it is both insulting as well as dishonest to have it implied that our criticism of monotheism is the equivalent of colour prejudice. As Pascal Bruckner puts it in his book The Tyranny of Guilt, “To speak of islamophobia is to maintain the crudest confusion between a religion, a specific system of belief, and the faithful who adhere to it…Must we then speak of anticapitalist, antiliberal, antisocialist, and anti-Marxist racism?”.
These are all ideologies; Islam is a religion. In the case of Islam in the UK right now, it is associated with racism because the majority of Muslims are members of visible ethnic minorities or of well-defined immigrant groups, and the language of one can be used to disguise the other. Reading between the lines of the Bruckner quote, one can see the implication that anti-fascism might be branded racism as well. By lumping religions in with ideologies, we see an attempt to separate race (which someone has no choice over and is often very visible) from religion, which they can portray as a mere matter of personal choice or mere opinion, which they can choose to abandon or at least hide (providing justification for any law which bans any display of religion or, at least, any display of it that is not in keeping with white norms). It is quite reminiscent of the mentality of Indian Hindu fascists, who say that Indian Muslims are “converts”, even though their families have been Muslim for generations, who can just as easily convert back (to Hinduism).
Some Muslims do want to see Islamophobia separated from racism, because classifying violent attacks on Muslim women as “racist attacks” when they were clearly motivated by hatred for their religion does not help anyone. It also excludes people who are not members of the right visible minority from protection from prejudice against their religion (so you might have a situation where allowance for Muslim customs in schools is made to Asian Muslims, “because it’s their culture”, but not to the child of a white — or even Caribbean — convert, or an attack on a white woman in hijab not written up as a hate crime but as common violence because she does not tick the right boxes when it comes to race). However, to invalidate the only word used to refer to prejudice against a particular religion is to make discussion of that prejudice more difficult or long-winded at a time when it is still very relevant. We can stop talking about Islamophobia when others stop practising it.
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