Dead Men Left

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Kenan Malik: missing Islamophobia

Found via new(ish) blog, The Importance of Disappointment, Kenan Malik, writing in the Guardian yesterday, claims that Islamophobia is exaggerated "to stifle criticism of Islam":

Everyone from anti-racist activists to government ministers wants us to believe that Britain is in the grip of Islamophobia - a morbid fear and hatred of Islam and of Muslims. Former Home Office minister John Denham has warned of the "cancer of Islamophobia" infecting the nation. The veteran anti-racist Richard Stone, a consultant to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, suggests that Islamophobia is "a challenge to us all". The director of public prosecutions has worried that the war on terror is "alienating whole communities" in this country.

Malik rattles out a few statistics to attempt a demonstration that, to the contrary, British Muslims may walk the streets with only a little "minor... shoving and spitting" to worry about. Malik further claims that racism now is nowhere near is bad as it was in the '70s '80s. Now, I don't dispute that 30-odd years of anti-racist campaigns and a reasonably concerted political effort have made Britain less overtly racist than the society which British Asians found themselves growing up in. I disagree, however, with Malik's implicit claim that this direct and often physical abuse is the only form of racism that matters. The critical point hinges on the blurred distinction modern Islamophobia makes between being a Muslim and merely "looking like" a Muslim. It functions in what is often a far more sinister fashion than the blunt, irrational hatred of simple difference.

Malik inadvertently makes the point himself: quoting the author of the EU's report on public racism following 9/11, he writes that Islamophobia "manifested itself in quite basic and low-level ways." It is not the overt harrassment, nor the obvious use of anti-terror laws, that constitute the driving force of Islamophobia. It is not the ability of racist boneheads to single out (real or imagined) "Muslims" for abuse that push the process of marginalisation onwards. Alarmingly, modern Islamophobia is a political inclination, making definite claims about the structure of the world and Muslims' place in it: it is Islam as such that is the focus.

For this reason, amongst others, David Aaronovitch was quite correct to compare Islamophobia in the West to the classic form of antisemitism: not simply the hatred of the Other for being "different", but hatred of them for their supposed power, or their political machinations, or whatever other sinister importance they hold. Based on a deep ignorance of the faith itself, this tendency has become disturbingly well-settled under guise of the "war on terror": the idea that, unless carefully controlled, Muslims constitute an insidious fifth column of wannabe suicide bombers and theocrats. The vile Will Cummins was allowed space in a national newspaper to state these unexamined assumptions a little too directly; Cummings described the outer limits of a widely-held worldview, generally laid out with rather less vehemence. It is the Clash of Civilisations made flesh. (For my own part, it has been particular unsettling to sections of the presumed Left indulge in the same rhetoric should British Muslims show inclinations not to, for example, vote Labour as they ought.) It means the struggle against Islamophobia is necessarily more politicised, forced immediately to deal with the political questions raised by the "war on terror", in a way that long-standing liberal appeals solely to "tolerance" cannot deal with.