Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, February 06, 2006

Islamophobia and the British intelligentsia

Just thought I would put up Ziauddin Sardar's article in the latest New Statesman for you, which is itself a resume of "'Get off your knees': print media public intellectuals and Muslims in Britain", by Nasar Meer, in Journalism Studies, Volume 7, Number 1, February 2006. Because I'm kind like that - and because Islamophobia among mainstream commentators isn't challenged enough.

'I am often dumbfounded by what some of our prominent newspaper columnists have to say about Islam and Muslims. But not too surprised. Stereotyping is an old and, dare I say it, almost respectable institution in Britain. Muslims have been pigeonholed as violent, inferior fanatics for centuries; it provided a good excuse for colonising their lands.

Consider this example from Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, a year and a half ago. British Muslims, she screamed, "rarely speak out against terror" and "excuse, rather than refute, the many ferocious verses calling for the blood of infidels in their holy book, verses that justify terror". This is not simply a statement of monumental ignorance and arrogance, but also one of the finest examples of demonisation. It ascribes terrorism to Muslims through a double bind. If the Koran justifies terror, and all Muslims by definition believe in the Koran, then all Muslims by definition are terrorists. If Muslims reject and refute what the Koran says, then they cease to be Muslims. So the only way for Muslims not to be terrorists is to denounce their religion, join Toynbee and become dogmatic secularists. QED: "they rarely speak out against terror".

Then there was this from Will Hutton in the Observer: Islam is "predominantly . . . pre-Enlightenment". This statement has several layers of ignorance. It projects Islam "predominantly" as monolithic. It suggests that being "pre-Enlightenment" is inferior to being post-Enlightenment. It assumes that "Islam" and "Enlightenment" have nothing to do with each other - as if the European Enlightenment emerged out of nothing, without appropriating Islamic thought and learning. It betrays an ignorance of postmodern critique that has exposed Enlightenment thought as Eurocentric hot air. And, of course, it frames Muslims as "pre-Enlightenment" irredeemable barbarians.

Toynbee and Hutton are among a dozen newspaper columnists whose work is examined by Nasar Meer, a postgraduate student at Bristol University, in a brilliant paper published in the latest issue of Journalism Studies. The paper reveals how such demonising logic has become bread and butter for commentators of all political persuasions.

Meer shows how conservative nationalists (such as Charles Moore and Kevin Myers of the Telegraph, and Melanie Phillips and Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail) as well as liberal secularists (such as David Aaronovitch of the Times) project "white fantasies" of ethnic others. The convergence of anti-Muslim opinion on the left and right enhances the falsehood that the presence of Muslims on British soil is an insidious danger to Britain.

Meer identifies a number of themes: by nature, Muslims are anti-modern and antipathetic to democracy and human rights. Muslim - but not Jewish and Christian - faith schools are a way of protecting young minds from modernity. A distinct Muslim identity is dangerous for Britain; assimilation "into the canon of Britishness" requires Muslims to abandon all ideas about preserving their identity. Muslims are a fifth column, a product of the policy of multiculturalism. Muslims are trying to strip Britain of its culture and traditions. Muslims are afforded special treatment at the expense of other beliefs and groups. Muslims lack self-criticism; and they charge everyone who criticises them with Islamophobia. It may not be long, Charles Moore suggests, before they are "extending the logic of their concentration in places like Bradford and Leicester" and seeking to "establish their own law within these areas". And so it goes on.

Newspaper columnists do not only determine how public issues are understood; they also shape knowledge of these issues. What we have here is a conscious construction of, as Meer says, an "apocalyptic vision" of Islam and Muslims in Britain. This knowledge, or rather this intellectually respectable racism, is being used to justify the claim that certain commentators have the right to tell Muslims how they should live their lives, what they should believe, and how they should conduct their community affairs. It also comes in handy in keeping alive the myth, first invoked by Enoch Powell, that racism is perpetuated by the very presence of ethnic others.

If you were to describe Jews or gay people in a similar manner, you would rightly be hounded out of what is left of Fleet Street.'

Islamophobia Watch is worth keeping an eye on as well.

Edited to add: Respect coalition statement on the cartoons.

'The Prophet and the Proletariat' - a Marxist analysis of Islam by Chris Harman is also online

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At 3:53 pm, Blogger minifig said...

I agree with you here. In fact *all* religions promote ignorance, not just Islam, and *all* religious schools are step in the wrong direction.

There are few people out there discounting all Christians because a tiny minority are fire-bombing abortion clinics in the US, but this seems to be what happens with Muslims every time.

Personally, I think all religious people are the intellectual equivalent of country bumpkins.

At 8:06 pm, Blogger steffaction said...

I can do nothing other than agree with the previous poster. The fact that the vast majority of the followers of Islam are moderate does not mean that we should stop to criticise those people on the marches with placards like "Behead those who think Islam is violent". Also, it's not islamophobic to suggest that, maybe, just maybe, the abolition of faith schools might lead to greater integration, and an partial destruction of the walls of ignorance that exists between various communities. Oh, and free speech is key, those on the marches have as much right as the publishers of the cartoons.

At 8:58 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for comments.

Minifig - It is not the case that 'all religions promote ignorance' - that is too one-sided. Are British imams and vicars who speak out against war and tell their followers to attend anti-war demonstrations 'promoting ignorance'? Lets try to remember religion - as any ideology - is more complicated than that.

Steff - While 'free speech is key' - the cartoons were and are racist - simple as - and so anyone publishing them is spreading racism and so taking away other freedoms from other people eg. freedom from harassment.

Would respectable Danish papers have published cartoons portraying Jesus as a child molester - or perhaps Nazi 'cartoons' of Jews as rats? No - because rightly such papers would be straight out of business and possibly their editors would go into prison - yet racism against Muslims is the last acceptable form of racism it seems. There is some good stuff about the double standards going on here on the Respect website.

At 8:42 am, Blogger minifig said...

I have to say I disagree, Snowball. The fact that there are some nice and dare I say it, even clever people who follow a religion, does not mean that religions are not inherant ignorance factories. Belief in something that you have no evidence for is ignorant, whichever way you happen to look at it.

I agree that it's good that vicars and imams may promote the anti-war cause, but this does not make their religion make any more sense.

At 10:48 pm, Blogger steffaction said...

unfortuantely, without wanting to seem rude, i have seen the cartoons. they are not horribly racist. they simply aren't. http://drawingsoftheprofetmuhammedislamforum.blogspot.com/2006/02/muhammed-drawings.html . also, to describe them by comparing them to images of jewish as rats etc. is hyperbole, when you actually see the cartoons, two of which could be considered offensive. finally, by describing them in such a strident and, well, hysterical way as firmly RACIST, you're simply adding to the furore

At 8:34 am, Blogger minifig said...

I'm with you, Steff. I'm surprised at how happy people seem to be to give up their right to free speech in what looks to me like a misguided attempt to appear "respectful". Personally, I find having my freedoms impinged in this way far from respectful, and extremely offensive. This should not turn into an issue over Islam - I would not expect any group to have this sort of facist effect on our media and it scares me that perfectly intelligent people seem to support it.

At 9:45 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Steff and Minifig - Kevin Ovenden in this weeks Socialist Worker makes the case why the cartoons are racist better than me, but I just want to say I have also seen the cartoons - and many of them depict Muslims as somehow violent/terrorists. Yet it is the 'Christians' Bush and Blair who have killed far more people (mainly Muslims) over the last few years. Might cartoons depicting Christ as somehow a terrorist be then in order?

No, the Danish Newspaper responsible turned down cartoons making fun of Christ as it said it would be offensive - but then deliberately organised a series attacking Islam. Incidently, the same Right wing paper in the 1930s also supported Fascist leaders like Mussolini. Where did Fascism take place, incidently? - the heart of 'Christian' Europe.

The West are gearing up to attack Iran - it is in that context that the cartoons are published in Denmark - to try and help sell a new war to us. That is why anyone anti-war has to expose this 'divide and rule' agenda of the ruling class which is about weakening the anti-war movement.

In fact, it is in part a tribute to the strength of the anti-war movement in Britain that British newspapers so far have not dared to publish them - though the BBC apparently did show a flash of them.

Ovenden's article in SW: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_id=8267

At 2:39 pm, Blogger minifig said...

you're right Snowball - let's make some cartoons to offend Christians!

I'm being facetious, but I maintain that regardless of our foreign policy, this is an issue of free speech, and I would be just as vehement about it whether it was aimed towards Christians, Jews, Muslims, Facists, Nazis or whatever. People should be allowed to say what they want.

I didn't think much of the cartoons and I can see why people would see them as offensive, but this also has to be seen in light of the fact that this only blew up after Danish Imams toured Islamic countries with the cartoons (and some that they appear to have added that are considerably more offensive).

Personally, I would stand up as much for the right of these cartoonists to draw what they want, and for the newspapers to print them as I would stand up for the right of the protesters to make threats of violence, if that is what they want to do.

Free speech is an important right and should not only be "given" to those with whom you agree and whose motives you approve.

At 9:03 am, Blogger Snowball said...

But a society in which we had free speech as an abstract (as you propose) would be a horrible world to live in. Think about it - if I owned a newspaper I could have on my front page 'Minifig gets off on child pornography' - would you say, 'oh, well its free speech, everyone should be able to have their opinion, fair play'? There have to be limits to free speech in any civilised society.

Free speech does not appear in a vacuum - it appears in a context - a capitalist society - where there are structures of exploitation and oppression.

If you are a billionaire like Rupert Murdoch, who owns one of the biggest multinational corporations out there - News International - he has a vested interest in maintaining those structures of oppression - and so whipping up racism is a good way of dividing his workforce - black, Asian and white - and so keeping control over all of them. That is why he whips up Islamophobia and talks of free speech.

The Nazi BNP in the name of 'free speech' also go around and whip up racism against Muslims. It is the overwhelmingly poor and powerless Muslim immigrants in Europe who are at the recieving end of this 'free speech' - and have no rights of redress.

These latest cartoons follow in a long line of imperialist stereotypes of the 'other' - in Britain historically there have been cartoons made out of the Irish in the 19th century, Jews at the start of the 20th century, black people (Golliwogs) at the time Europe was carving up Africa and so on - 'cartoons' against Muslims fit with imperialism today. Anyone who cannot see that context to what is going on today would presumably be in favour of republishing all the older cartoons as well?

Those older cartoons are now seen clearly as racist and beyond the pale - the new anti-Muslim cartoons look like that old racism, smell like that old racism - so you can take a pretty good bet that they are that old racism.

At 12:47 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Western leaders should not be trusted with a barge pole by any person but especially muslims after Bosnia and Kosovo and Iraq and many other world problems which are directly the result of western policies.

Tony Blair says 9/11 happened due to violent extremism without any cause or reason but he never mentions all the many problems before 9/11 and all western inspired which led to 9/11 giving birth to world terrorism.

Western leaders are hypocrites and even their own populations do not believe a word they say these days.It would be best for them not to open their mouths because they always cause a stink but they do. they are petty and silly but do not some how see it that way.


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