Challenging consensus on Islamophobia

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 28 January, 2005 - 6:05

Sacha Ismail reviews “Are Muslims hated?”, Channel 4, 8 January

In the 1980s, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik was a member of a peculiar left group called the Revolutionary Communist Party, which always, for reasons one could not trust, took up what they would have called “iconoclastic” views. Perhaps it should be no surprise how sharply the ideas he develops on racism, religion and the idea of “multiculturalism” are in conflict with the conventional wisdom of much of today’s left. But that does not necessarily mean he is wrong.

From the official anti-racists of the Commission for Racial Equality through Ken Livingstone to the SWP, the dominant forces on both the liberal and radical left share a number of key assumptions about racism and anti-racism in Britain today. Malik’s programme dealt with two that will be very familiar to readers of Solidarity.

The first is that “Islamophobia”, or hostility to people of Muslim religion or background, is the dominant feature in the landscape of British racism today, threatening Muslims in much the same way that anti-semitism threatened Jewish people in earlier periods of history.

The second is a prescription that the best way for progressives to respond to Islamophobia and other forms of racism is to champion “multiculturalism”, a concept rarely clearly defined but involving endorsement of diverse cultural practices in the name of tolerance and mutual respect.

In his half-hour slot, Malik sought to challenge both assumptions.

Black Britons are five times more likely than Asians to be stopped and searched, despite representing a much smaller section of the population.

One Muslim interviewee echoed an idea common on the left by stating that 95% of “anti-terror” searches have been carried out against Muslims; but Malik responded coolly that in fact Muslims account for only 15% of stop-and-search procedures authorised under the 2001 Terrorism Act.

He compared the worrying but comparatively small and non-violent increase in anti-Muslim attacks following 9/11 (mostly involving shoving, spitting, etc) to the climate of intimidation, fear and murderous violence which faced British Asians of all backgrounds in the early and mid-1980s.

No doubt the SWP, if they bother to respond to Malik at all, will dismiss him by the old Stalinist trick of the amalgam (“Kenan Malik says this, so does the Daily Mail, therefore. . .”) However, whatever criticisms one can make of his programme (and, mainly because it was so short, it was a little thin), it is clear that Malik was coming from a standpoint of anti-racism and also, for instance, opposition to the so-called anti-terror laws, which he described as an “affront to democracy”.

The denunciation of “Islamophobia” can be used to stifle criticism both of Islam and of the established authorities in mainly-Muslim communities.

Malik is opposed to the cultural relativist view which the Government’s proposals to outlaw religious hatred imply: “Why shouldn’t I be able to say I despise or detest [Islam] and its often misogynist, homophobic and reactionary practices?” (He interviewed Maryam Namazie, a leader of the Worker-communist Party of Iran, to reinforce this point.)

That “multiculturalism” is antithetical to the Marxist approach of consistent democracy and support for the oppressed has been demonstrated in the negative by the experience of the Respect Coalition, which not only has soft-pedalled on issues such as abortion and gay rights, but takes the classless approach of appealing to Muslim voters en bloc, the Brick Lane restaurant owner as much if not more than those whose labour he exploits.

In this, of course, Respect stands in the worst traditions of the Labour Party. The current “left” obsession with “multiculturalism” is essentially a gigantic popular front, stretching from the SWP and Muslim “community leaders” to the very heart of the new Labour government.

Only last month, Blair’s Energy Minister Mike O’Brien attempted to firm up the Muslim vote by attacking Michael Howard for his alleged failure to support a ban on religious hatred, the expansion of Muslim schools, and the “right” of women to wear the hijab (Howard’s response, naturally, was that he fully supported all these things).

What is striking is that the supposedly Marxist SWP would not dissent from any of what Howard was keen to agree with O’Brien about. In this climate, Kenan Malik provides a useful reminder of what the left should be about:

“Diversity is important because it allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It’s important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create more universal values and beliefs.

“But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that multiculturalism can suppress in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’. The very thing that is valuable about diversity — the clashes and conflicts that it brings about — is what multiculturalists most fear.

“Rather than cut ourselves off from each other, each in our own multicultural ghettos, it would be far better to help build a dynamic common culture to which we all contributed and from which we all take.”


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 31/01/2005 - 17:16

So Sacha Ismail anticipates in advance that the swp et al "will dismiss him (Kenan Malik) by the old Stalinist trick of the amalgam (“Kenan Malik says this, so does the Daily Mail, therefore. . .”)" and then goes on to say "The current “left” obsession with “multiculturalism” is essentially a gigantic popular front, stretching from the SWP and Muslim “community leaders” to the very heart of the new Labour government."

Aside from stretching the meaning of the 'popular front' to beyond any Marxist understanding of the term Sasha engages in clear hypocracy. The Daily Mail did indeed heap prase of Malik's grotesque hack work, Sasha scoffs the idea that Malik and himself can be said to be in some sort of bloc with the racist right over this issue whilst claiming the SWP are in a popular front (sic) with Blair over the issue of 'multi-culturism'!

Just ask yourself who really is helping Blair and co out here: Those who take a firm stance against Islamophobia and stand in solidarity with muslims against police/anti-terror harrasment or those who engage in attempting to play it down or deny it even exists as a social problem?

John Black

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/02/2005 - 00:32

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

John Black does exactly what I predicted the SWP would do: attempt to smear those with Malik or the AWL's view by associating us with the right-wing critique of "multiculturalism" rather than actually engaging with our (left-wing) arguments. If he did the latter, after all, he would be unable to plausibly accuse us of blocking with the racist right.

Look at the facts. I did not, nor does the AWL, deny that racism againt people of Muslim background exists. We denounce and campaign against it. We oppose the so-called "war on terror" and its attendant war on civil liberties. We say without embarrassment that all immigration controls are racist and call for their abolition. We believe that those who want to defend "British culture" from outside infiltration are peddling chauvinist filth.

What does this approach, which counterposes a democratic, internationalist and socialist common culture to the cultural relativism of the multiculturalists, have to do with the British cultural chauvinism of the tabloid press? By contrast, both the SWP etc, much of the soft left and the more stupid liberals do not criticise Islamism, Islamic chauvinism and conservative Muslim "community leaders" even slightly. This is so much the case that Ken Livingstone and his bag-carriers accuse of racism those who criticise Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Islamist so right-wing that thousands of Muslim clerics have written to the UN denouncing him as a "sheikh of death". In other words, we are demonstrably not in any sort of popular front; the multiculturalist "left" demonstrably is.

Lastly, let us be very clear what we are talking about. If all "multiculturalism" meant was supporting freedom for people to look, dress, speak, eat, dance etc however they chose - in other words if referred simply to the material artefacts of various societies - then of course no democrat could or should do anything but vigorously support it. But "culture" can also mean the moral/political values and practices of a given society: and, given this, "multiculturalism" inevitably means accepting discriminatory, oppressive and exploitative practices on the grounds that "it's their culture". As consistent democrats, it is our duty of socialists to oppose this nonsense.

"I like my food, and I like my dress. These are the things I will keep. But why should I accept the tradition of oppression? Freedom is not just for you, it is for me too." - Taslim Nasrin

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/02/2005 - 10:49

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

It’s a shame that Sacha choices to obfuscate instead of responding to my actual arguments. My point was not of that Malik/AWL have the same views on multiculturalism as the racist right but that Sacha was engaged in double book keeping by claiming that the SWP had the same views of multiculturalism as the Blairites.

I understand the SWP (of which I am not a member btw) approach to multiculturalism is something like as follows; Multiculturalism is the product of 30-odd years of anti-racist campaigns and insofar as it represents an advance on discrimination it is a positive development. However, multiculturalism stops short of explaining causes and divorces "culture" from the economic motors that generate change; inequality, exploitation etc and is thus cannot solve the problem of racism in itself.

There is obviously clear water here between this Marxist understanding and the faux-liberal platitudes of New Labour. There can of course be distinctly right and left critiques of multiculturalism, but Sacha must in turn recognise that support for multiculturalism can too come from different perspectives.

Anyhow, my actual concern here is not "multiculturalism" at all, a concept I have never looked into at any great deal. What concerns me here is that Malik/AWL are, intentionally or not, in a de-facto alliance with the racist right on the specific issue of denying Islamophobia.

It is worrying that Sacha uncritically cites Malik’s flawed and selective statistical research that apparently "proves" Muslims are not particularly victims of police harassment post 9/11, try telling that to Barber Ahmed! So Sasha can bang on about how the awl are not denying "that racism against people of Muslim background" exists all he likes but he is positively citing "research" that seriously downplays it.

Denying or downplaying very real police discrimination against a minority group should be shameful for a self-styled ‘socialist’.

"Truth is on the side of the oppressed." ~ Malcolm X

"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." ~ Mark Twain

John Black

Submitted by Mike Wood on Fri, 04/02/2005 - 16:11

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Sacha does not attack your position by reference to the Blairites similar position. He quite clearly states that they are similar and then attacks the position independantly of that. There would be reasons for that position being bad even if the Blairites did not hold it.

The problems with multiculturalism are not that it stops short of a critique of culture but that it never gets close. I think you may have a slightly skewed understanding of what multiculturalism is to be honest, as your description of it sounds more like toleration than multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, in its strong form, states that distinctions between people are intrinsic - that no culture is any better or worse than another but that they are different. When this is applied to moral values you can see the problem for socialists as any critique of a cultural practice, hoewever reprehensible it seems to us (e.g. female genital mutilation) cannot be attacked as we share no common ground from which to do so. It becomes unjust for us to campaign against injustice, as to do so is to apply our own standards to others.

The drawbacks should appear obvious, and as a moral theory this is fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes. Egalitarianism and multiculturalism are oppositional doctrines, not progressive bedfellows.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 04/03/2005 - 14:44

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The alliance between the Left and Islamofascim shows the true face of a bankrupt ideology.

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