21 September, 2017

Islamophobia, Islamism and the Identity Crisis: European fears meet the fear of Europe

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Category: European Action Day, Islamophobia, Muslim people, Opinion, Peace
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Written by Jasmeet Sahotay, Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania

[TL/DR]: Don’t treat people like monsters, lest they become the monsters you so fear. Lest you do too.

“As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to men of all nations and races” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

As a 2nd generation British Asian immigrant, with mixed Indian-Irish heritage on one side of my family, Sikh Indian heritage on the other [both sides lived in or around inner-city London while I was attending boarding school, resulting in remarkably different accents and experiences between me and them], I understand better than many how difficult it is to form one’s identity with a mix of so many conflicting and paradoxical self-defining characteristics to latch onto.

For Muslims in Europe, add to that mix the fact that not only is the Muslim community itself having to come to terms with internal cultural shifts that challenge traditional, Islamic-ally rooted moral codes of conduct and practices from South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and its Horn, but furthermore are forced to witness from afar the death and destruction of those who didn’t get the opportunity of a ‘better life’ in the West. They suffer discrimination and persecution by authorities and the public daily, read newspapers that portray their religion, culture or ethnicity as somehow intrinsic to the crimes of others, and hear policy-makers say that their religion is antithetical to Western values, that they are not welcome, or that they need to integrate better or better accept the consequences.

It is important to discuss the harms of Islamophobia, and the misconceptions that give rise to it, yes, and am therefore thrilled to be contributing to this blog on the International Day of Peace. However, in the context of my work and experience, I think it is equally important to discuss the role that overt and subversive Islamophobia plays on shaping identity, and from which conflicts of identity both Islamophobia and Islamism emerge. From this discussion, we can more wholly understand ways in which we contribute to the cycle of violence and ways in which we can break it.

There are many issues discussed here – messily I might add, and my apologies for that – but there are still many more intentionally and unintentionally omitted. I encourage and welcome input and feedback from readers, and will endeavour to further discuss with those who are interested any comments, suggestions and concerns they may have in reading what I’ve written.


PART I. Post-Colonial Fears:

‘Islamophobia’, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Islam as a religion was born into a world of Islamophobia from the outset. Even during the Prophet Muhammed’s time, his followers were in open conflict with polytheistic Meccans afraid of societal upheaval, and Judaic tribes who once belonged to the great Himyarite Kingdom and who sought to re-establish their dominance in what is now called the Arabian Peninsula.

However, the issue of modern ‘Islamophobia’ has gained far more attention in the years subsequent to 9/11 and become a commonly understood term for the “intense dislike or fear of Islam, especially as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it.

There is of course the much less palatable definition:

“Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilizational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended”.

Fundamentally while we struggle to define it, there is a general sense or intuition that we have, that we know it when we see it. One example in my opinion could be the divisive debate over the niqab (face veil) or full-body religious dress being worn in public spaces across Europe. The 2010 ‘Burqa Ban’ (La Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public) in France – and the subsequent media attention given to it – epitomised this debate.

Many argued that the passing of this Act was not ‘Islamophobic’ per se. They claimed that it was a necessary safeguard for the protection of the communal values of French secular culture; that these religious garbs are antithetical to Western libertarian notions of female liberation and choice; and that communities who cannot be encouraged out of challenging these values should be prohibited from doing so.

I disagree. To me, it seems based on a fear that French post-colonial identity is somehow threatened by the arrival of other cultures into its midst. It represents an ethnocentric, irrational, undynamic and narrow conception of what national identity should be defined as.

Extreme examples of these narrow conceptions can be found in the rise of Far-Right and populist parties that spread across Europe in recent years. Many, if not all, base much of their mandate on tackling the cultural threat that Islam presents to the West. If they weren’t themselves guilty of Islamophobia, perhaps because they wanted to retain credibility as mainstream political forces, they certainly legitimized Islamophobic actions committed by their followers and cast into the mainstream the debate about to what degree a religion – no more than a socially constructed reflection of learned social beliefs, cultures and values – was or was not welcome on the shores of Europe.

The Far-Right and populist parties have maliciously misrepresented an entire religion, swimming in the waters of political discourse that mainstream politicians have hitherto feared to even tread, as the biggest threat that Europe has ever faced.

Comically, it is the blowing of the apocalyptic trumpets, sounding the impending ‘Clash of Civilizations’, that actually leads to the Clash these parties so fear. Not so comically, the growing resentment toward Muslims they foment, combined with violent reactionary forms of Islamic revivalism around the world, are truly the most dangerous threats the Islamic world has faced in its fourteen centuries of existence.

The irony is that both Muslim immigration and Islam are intrinsic to the European identity. Classically cited examples of Islamic influence include the discovery of algebra, the provision of navigation and astronomy, and the translation and provision of Ancient Greek philosophical thought to the West with which its Age of Enlightenment was shaped.

A less popularly known fact is that it was a Muslim that introduced secularism to Western thinking. Ibn Rushd, ‘The Commentator’, posited using Aristotelian logic that truth should be delineated into two distinct forms: Divine Truth, pertaining to the characteristics of God and Creation, and Temporal Truth, arguing that man should be governed by law and reason according to the truths man faces on Earth not by the unconceivable truths of Heaven. He was persecuted by orthodox Islamic leaders and the Catholic Church alike, and yet – for all the attempts to destroy his revolutionary ideas – his work went on to influence Christian scholastic tradition through Thomas Aquinas’ adoption of his logic.

And Europe didn’t grow strong on its own. It did so on the backs of its subjects, including Muslims across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Through its colonising efforts, that touched almost every part of the world, it bled dry the human and natural resources found in those lands using force and violent repression, until those countries had nothing left. Unsurprisingly, many of those who created modern-day Europe, and suffered for it, did not want to stay.

In the years following World War 2 and the de-colonisation of Empires, waves of Muslim immigrants found themselves in the lands of their former masters. In Britain, many of these immigrants were of Indian and Pakistani heritage, in France many came from Middle Eastern and North African ex-colonies such as Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco. Lacking an adequately large labour underclass, immigrants were intentionally recruited to rectify European post-war economic positions, and to aid in recovery efforts. While Eastern Europe rebuilt under the auspices of the Soviet Union and her allies, Western Europe once again found use in Muslim immigrants and refugees, among others.

The waves have not stopped. And racial and religious tensions are as high now as they have ever been. The situations in Iraq and Syria, the worsening of the situation in Afghanistan, the droughts, famines and water wars in the Horn of Africa and other humanitarian disasters led to a massive spike of millions of Muslim people in 2015 that sought refuge in Europe. Over the last two years I have asked myself two questions:

“Why, with a wealth of historical evidence that the benefits to an economy from migration are net positive, have so many European states refused these refugees entry or denied their asylum claims?”


“Why have states, that have in recent history not had their cultures challenged by Islamism or Muslim migration, been some of the most vehemently opposed to accepting refugees from Muslim countries?”

Clearly there is something more nightmarish being perceived than merely just the initial financial burdens placed on states in accepting these refugees. At its core, these refugees present to leaders of these states an additional threat – one which they believe may shake the foundations of what it means to be ‘European’. Many of the newer members of the EU have looked toward the West – at the shift toward multiculturalism, the erosion in national identity and the growing discord between the Muslim diaspora and the authorities – and thought “not here”. Put this in a context of the disdain felt around Europe toward the Brussels ‘elite’, the perceived centralisation of power to EU organs, and the swelling potency of the European Courts to effectively reprimand misdeeds by national Legislatives – leading to major political earthquakes in countries such as Romania, Hungary and Poland – and you start to build a picture of why one more identity threat is most certainly not welcome.


PART II. The Islamic Identity Crisis:

Globalisation leads, inexorably, to the homogenisation of culture – a monoculture – as diverse peoples and cultures more frequently interact, and ideas and trends are more rapidly shared across large distances in microseconds. The old trope of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Wonderbra becoming global cultural norms might rather now be replaced with iPhones, Facebook and [really bad] EDM. Nevertheless, traditional conceptions of community, culture and religion in this context become increasingly irrelevant as the 21st Century trundles on.

Simultaneously, globalisation has also led to the emergence of large Muslim diasporas, the instant exchange of information and ideas pertaining to Islamic thought transnationally, and the interaction between Muslims from different continents and sub-continents – with wildly different cultures. Globalisation, paradoxically, is therefore not just a force against which Islam is losing ground, but a space in which new Islamic identities can be ‘negotiated’ and constructed; ones that are firmly 21st Century in nature. These new identities can often find themselves as challengers to the traditionally conceived national identities of those whose ancestry have been occupying a geographic space for a longer time.

In short, Muslims ask themselves the question: “what role does Islam, both in terms of religion and culture, play in this brave new world?”. And furthermore, “what does being Muslim and British, French, American etc. look like?”

From Muslim to Muslim, the answers to these questions will vary as diversely as the experiences of the respondents themselves. For some the values and cultures of their ethnic and religious heritage is secondary to those of their new homelands. For others, they exist in parallel – having forged dual identities that coexist in relative harmony. For the increasing, but still relatively small, number of Muslims that perceive themselves to have been neglected, mistreated or rejected by their countrymen, Islamic culture and values may take primacy – perhaps even to the extent that they choose isolationism and withdraw into their communities to feel more secure; and perhaps in the belief that Islam and the West are indeed antithetical to each-other.

While European states are generally accommodating in providing negotiated spaces to the Muslim diasporas that seek to follow their religious practices and cultural traditions in peace, there is an opinion within the wider national public sphere that:

“minority groups are expected to adapt to a predetermined sense of belonging. It can be seen in the ‘Idea of Europe’ and the subsequent ethnocentric norms that have helped to reinforce the concept and, in the process, potentially produce chauvinist and racist outcomes. Individual cultures are homogenised and expected to assimilate into a wider multicultural citizenship within an existing national cultural framework, eventually leading to monoculturalism.”

While we will discuss the “chauvinist and racist outcomes” later in this post, for now it’s important to note the effect they may have on identity-formation for many Muslims:

‘Islamic revivalism’ is the term now most commonly used to describe the wide variety of movements that incorporate Islamic theology and Quranic doctrine into modern political practice. They may be intolerant and exclusivist, or pluralistic; favourable to science, or mythical and antiscientific; primarily devotional or primarily political; democratic, or authoritarian; peaceful, or violent. Over the last fifty years, these movements have been increasingly reactionary to Western hegemony, secularism and cultural or political homogenisation. At the heart of pan-Islamist movements especially, which seek to unite Muslims of all ethnicities – sometimes in unified steadfastness against the West – is the concept of the ‘Ummah’. This can be understood to be the global ‘Islamic Community’, or a collection of peoples sharing common ancestry, culture and faith.

Islamic revivalist movements, tapping into the concept of the Ummah, provide common identity and belonging to Muslims around the world, including to the diasporic communities in Europe and elsewhere. Shared across revivalist movements is the use of traditional ‘Islamic’ myths, imagery, language and slogans which would be mutually understandable and recognisable to any Muslim who encountered them. An obvious example is the ‘Takbir’ [the phrase ‘Allahu Akbar’ meaning ‘God is the greatest’] used outside of the traditionally religious environment, in times of protest, defiance and, as is well known in Western contemporary culture, by insurgents, militants and terrorist organisations as a battle-cry.

Because of the politically emancipatory nature of Islamic revivalist movements, they prove particularly attractive to Muslims facing perceived social and personal injustices: those that suffer grievances, limitations to their social mobility, economic marginalisation, denial of civil rights and liberties, or from the effects of war, are more readily drawn to these movements as spaces of escape and a chance for reparation. They also prove more attractive to the young, less-religiously educated, urban and those more disposed to be seeking significance in their lives.

In many European countries, there are few adequate mechanisms available to young Muslims for making sense of the issues and experiences they are facing. Parents and mosques in immigrant communities sometimes have limited intellectual, linguistic, cultural or religious skills and literacy to communicate with the 2nd and 3rd generations. Instead these young people seek out this information on the internet, in friendship circles, in secretive and fraternal religious study groups, with a focus on Islamic-ally framed political activism.

The groups provide even more belonging and identity, and while some are not violent, many are. These environments are the perfect setting to radicalise young, vulnerable Muslims, and are exploited by Islamist terrorist organisations around the world. Here these Muslims become more isolationist, intolerant, anti-Western and fantastical. Many are able to justify the deaths of innocent people using Quranic quotes and phrases, without having been taught their proper context. Many are able to justify their own deaths in the pursuit of their ideological objectives. To them, this is a form of liberation, from oppression and persecution, as well as an escape to form an identity that is uniquely theirs.

Hence it is easy to see that direct and indirect experiences of Islamophobia or Islamophobic practices, whether at the hands of authorities or members of the public, only serve to push Muslims further toward ideologies and organisations that provide them answers. It could further explain why many ‘foreign fighters’ from the West come from certain Inner-city neighbourhoods, are mostly young men, and relatively less religiously educated.

There is one further factor that ‘pushes’ Muslims toward these movements, and one that I would fundamentally rests on cultural, perhaps subconscious, Islamophobia:


Many Islamist revivalist movements are born in the context of war, and many more claim that the West is at war with the Islamic world – evidenced by the countless conflicts the West and the International Community have either waged themselves, supported or failed to act upon, in which Muslims have suffered the terrible consequences. Both Europe, especially the UK and France, and the USA have been heavily complicit in reinforcing this idea.

islamophobia1While some argue that the military threat the USA poses to Muslims is merely a matter of misperception by Muslims, the fact is even ‘best case’ estimates put the number at around 30 Muslims killed at the hands of the US for every 1 American killed by a Muslim, in recent history.

“The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of “excess deaths” in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.”.

The Muslim world has seen, post 9/11, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya with the blood of those countries’ civilians freshly dripping from Western hands. It may not be just the ‘West’ who is to blame, but other members of the international community, too. Muslims have – as a demographic – suffered more than any other in countries such as The Philippines, India and others.

At the time of writing, systematic violations of Human Rights and other profound flagrances of International Law are currently being carried out under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in Myanmar, specifically targeting the Muslim Rohingya population – of whom, around 389,000 have fled to Bangladesh and more than 1000 have been reportedly killed. Graphic and chilling stories of massacres, mass rapes and the refusal by the government to allow humanitarian relief to access conflict-zone-trapped civilians have emerged which the international community has ultimately failed to act upon, despite the growing condemnation from left wing media outlets, human rights organisations, prominent peace actors and UN officials.

A few mornings ago, I woke up to see satellite images of the remnants of a Rohingya village having been set alight in an “orchestrated campaign” by security forces in western Myanmar. The images proved to be unintentionally allegorical of the cold distance with which the West views this genocide, and the deaths of Muslims in the name of the ‘War on Terror’, unable to fully grasp the horror of persecution.

It would be hardly surprising if – given the communal bond many Muslims feel toward each other, in the context of their own domestic injustices – Muslims sensed that they were globally persecuted as well. The Ummah therefore becomes an even more attractive concept and a powerful political force. And ‘prescient’ Islamist rhetoric that prophesizes an inevitable and impending moment when the ‘Armies of Rome’ shall violently clash with the ‘Caliphate’ should undoubtedly make sense to some.


PART III. Violence Erupts:

maxresdefaultI use the term ‘erupts’ cautiously. It is itself a violent word: fundamentally implying a system broken, or rendered, where fire, ash and death are natural consequences of its occurrence. This narrow conception of the manifestations of violence factually undermines the subversive nature of true violence. Violence may – indeed – be manifested in direct conflict between parties, wherein individuals are physically, emotionally and psychologically harmed. But direct violence always finds itself situated in a context of structural ‘enabling’ violence, and cultural ‘justifying’ violence. They still lead to harm, and further violence, but you just don’t see them do it.

In Parts I & II, I’ve already touched upon some of the structural ways in which Muslims experience violence in Europe and around the world. They are systematically denied certain rights in the USA, as can be seen in the American Civil Liberties Union’s list of Muslim “issues we’ve specifically focused on”. Not limited to the USA, Amnesty International published a report early this year – “Dangerously Disproportionate” – wherein they examined eight ways that 14 EU states have been dismantling the ‘edifice of rights protection’ in the name of counter-terrorism measures. They found that these measures, across Europe, had a disproportionate or profoundly negative impact “particularly on Muslims, foreign nationals or people perceived to be Muslim or foreign”. This includes passengers being removed from planes for “looking like a terrorist”, women being banned from beaches if wearing certain Islamic attire, and refugee children being arrested for carrying plastic guns. Faced with this many systematic applications of Islamophobic practices, one can assuredly say that the structural violence that Muslims face in Europe is as well systemic.

This Islamophobic, Eurocentric, structurally violent system derives itself from a much more shrouded ‘cultural violence’: one that acts, from the shadows, as a puppet master for the violent incidents and conflicts that we witness between Muslims and non-Muslims. Cultural violence encompasses those social norms, beliefs and values that inadvertently justify or enable direct and structural violence occurring. You can find them in the way in which major media outlets uses their influence “to amplify anti-Muslim alarmist threats and conspiracy theories”, or the much-propagated myth that Islam is an inherently violent religion. No, indeed, the latter of these structural violences is not limited to the fringes of society, but is much discussed by popular printed news services, journalists, and authors with hundreds of thousands of watchers on YouTube.

Not only do these opinions rub off on sporadic individuals, but because of their mainstream platforms and ‘credible’ voices they can sway and shift majority-public opinion, until the debate becomes a legitimate one that Islam may be considered a religion more prone to violence than any other. Swathes of evidence actually suggest that Islam, like any religion, is shaped “as much by its own postulates and ethical demands as it is by the specific circumstances of Muslim people in the modern world”. This can justify certain practices such as the additional stop-and-searches at US borders, and can lead to an additional and unnecessary caution exercised by non-Muslim people against Muslims – both of which alienate and stigmatize Muslims further; both of which occur because of Islamophobia: the fear of Islam.

These structural and cultural forms of violence however, act as the turbulent magma on which an unstable societal crust floats. Eventually, structures that enable violence, and cultures that justify it, put so much pressure on a social system that we witness a visible flaring up of direct violence, experienced on the ground as terrorism, hate crimes, Islamophobic rhetoric, Islamists demanding the introduction of Sharia Law, wars in the Middle East and elsewhere; violence, death, violence, death – the constant cycle.

For those in warzones, the violence reflects yet occasionally supersedes a daily reality: the view that violence is normal, until an instance where it can only be described as apocalyptic reckoning. See for instance the rhetoric used by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in his maiden public speech from the dais in Mosul’s al Nuri Mosque:

“Oh Soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest soldiers. Erupt volcanoes of Jihad everywhere. Light the Earth with fire upon all the tyrants, their soldiers and supporters…by Allah’s permission”

Or the accounts of civilians in the vicinity of the explosion of the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ (MOAB) that was dropped on Islamic State militants in Afghanistan earlier this year that ‘engulfed the sky in flames and sent tremors through the ground’. To them:

“it felt like the heavens were falling”

For others in the West, it bursts into their personal life without warning, and shatters the illusion of safety and security that many have built up around them.

One quote comes to mind when I think of this direct eruption of violence; this ‘War on Terror’. In the movie The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, when discussing the merits of joining the War of Independence against British Colonial forces, says to his compatriots:

“This war will be fought not on the frontier or on some distant battlefield, but amongst us — among our homes. Our children will learn of it with their own eyes. And the innocent will die with the rest of us.”

We know of this violence. We see it regularly on the news. And it doesn’t just occur 1000 or more miles away. Our innocent children die along with the rest.

Muslims and non-Muslims suffer together. Just driving down a street with family can result, merely based on the colour of one’s skin, in horrendous disfigurement where said skin literally melts from their body in an act of brutal irony. A girl’s aspirations to be a model are dissolved away with it, a grown man is reduced to “screaming like a baby”, and both are denied the chance to live deservedly normal lives in peace.


PART IV. Paths to Peace, Paths from Peace:

IMG_9639-e1467497129736Giving into fears is the quickest way back into this cycle of violence. As a society, we must come together to jointly recognise the crises of identity we are going through, that lead to these fears arising.

Muslims around the world are fearlessly standing up to systems that deny or challenge their right to be practicing Muslims, as well as standing up to violent Islamist organisations that undermine their right be peaceful Muslims. In the process, these Muslims are creating spaces of real civic engagement that allows 21st Century interpretations of Islam to fuse with 2nd or 3rd generational Islamic cultures. They indeed can become wholly Western or European, and simultaneously wholly Muslim (with whatever culture their families originated from).

Take for example Linda Sarsour in her keynote speech to the Islamic Society of North America in July. In it, she both re-appropriated the term ‘Jihad’ away from violent Islamists who use it as a Call-to-Arms for like-minded Muslims in the world:

“And our beloved prophet [PBUH] said to him, ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad’”

Not only this, but she then took that now re-appropriated term and turned it against the other system that challenges her Islamic identity:

“stand up to those who oppress our communities [as] we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or on the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America.”

These Muslims become role models for other Muslims to follow suit. Whether in politics like Sarsour, Television-come-Film-come-Rap-come-Political Activism like Riz (MC) Ahmed, or in sport like Muhammed Ali, all of whom are not afraid to publicly defend their faith, their life choices and their identity.

Non-Muslims and Europeans have to be just as fearless.

It is time for European education systems to have frank, real and open discussions about some of the atrocities that the colonial powers committed in the lands that they subjugated. Germany has provided at least a working model with their discussions and education of the Holocaust, and their outright recognition of the actions of the Nazis. Similar approaches in the UK and France would allow for the reflexive spaces that have emerged in secretive religious study groups, and now in Leftist agendas, to open up into mainstream discourse.

Courage needs to further come from the people of those states who have had less contact with the Islamic world, have had less contact with immigration and cultural diversity, have had less interactions with subversive religious doctrine, including Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary.

To those people: your governments, and many of your compatriots, are afraid of cultural diversity and change. But the fact is change has already come, and it will continue to come long after you are dead. This doesn’t mean that Muslims will come, occupy your lands like the Nazis did, and change the national religion or culture. It means that Muslims are a part of your lives, and a part of global culture, whether you resist it or not. Coming from a city where one third of the population was born outside of the UK, and countless more are the sons and daughters of these people, I can confidently say that immigration is a good thing. Where else can I hear stories from Nepal, Poland, Albania, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sweden, France, Somalia, Eritrea and from Roma travellers in one day if I wanted to. The cultural value of exposing yourself to their experiences and views is limitless. And the fact is, despite opinions to the contrary, immigration benefits the economy, don’t ‘steal’ jobs, and don’t commit any more crimes than the local population. Whether they are Muslim or not.

Finally, to Europeans, Westerners, non-Westerners and whoever else: stand up to Islamophobia when you see it. Provide mechanisms for the defense of Human Rights and values, and resist when they are under threat. In the UK, TellMAMA is a fantastic reporting and monitoring tool. In Spain, the organisation Fundacion Al Fanar has the ‘Observatorio Islamofobia’ [‘The Islamophobia Observatory’] which monitors, records and reports Islamophobic content and messages in the news, on television and on the internet. If your country has one, use it, if it doesn’t, create one.

The fearless unification of the European and Muslim worlds, with a synergetic 21st Century identity of its own, would deflate the identity politics espoused by violent Islamism and European nationalism alike. Through setting examples such as these, we can re-establish the faith to the people around us, from all sides of the political spectrums, that the system is working again and not broken. That our identity is of one people, and certainly not under threat.

1 Comment

  1. Steven Rhodes

    I want to take your final comment “our identity is of one people, and certainly not under threat.” and examine the implications of it. It is certainly true that part of my identity is as one of those people who believes that race is a construction. But it is only part of it. I am made (as are you) from a whole host of cultural and relational factors. And if I am to persuade others to take a more open view of identity then I need to assure them that there will a place for them in a society based on that openness. It would be tempting to say ‘The future is homogeneity; get used to it’ but I can’t see that’s going to persuade anyone and, in any case, it’s not true: outdoor ice-swimming is going to be a cultural activity in Finland that it simply will never be in Ecuador, the climate won’t permit it.

    Further, we can’t force people to share their time together and while I would actively avoid, and seek to disrupt, gatherings where the talk was of ‘our people’ I can’t see that I can stop them doing this factually or legally (if outlawed they wouldn’t be daft enough to announce that they were a white-only group; the Ku Klux Klan’s stated position on their membership seems impeccable – the reality is wholly different).

    But this is in abstract. Let’s look at something concrete such as face veils. I believe French municipalities are fundamentally wrong in banning ‘Burkas’ (although the Burka is a quite specific garment not isolated in those laws). I don’t feel what people wear should be outlawed. However, I do not like being talked to by someone whose face is covered. In Western society there is no positive association with covering the face and no history of one (with the, again, very specific exception of nuns in enclosed orders meeting visitors to the community).

    This may be generational (although I have younger friends from a variety of communities who also do not like face-covering) but I suspect it is more personal. In any event it is neither religiously not gender based: the belief or sex or gender of the person is immaterial. But whatever the motivation it is one of the occasions where it is a zero-sum game. My conversation partner may be uncomfortable revealing his face; I may be uncomfortable talking to an obscured face. We can’t have it both ways.

    But how do I explain to someone who doesn’t like face-covering that they are not being reasonable in such a situation? Because it seems that someone wearing a niqab is also maintaining a position and I cannot see that I can accuse only one side in this debate of being culturally assertive.

    My own view is that I should be allowed to request someone to remove a veil if I wish to talk to them. They will have absolutely no obligation to do so; but I should have the right to request it (politely and respectfully). To deny this is to privilege only one side of the debate.

    I understand that post-modernist theories of liberation would suggest this should not be the case; and that the bias should be in favour of the perceived minority. Western society should simply step-down. But, in fact, most political movements have swayed back and forth on this. It’s not often remembered that during the Satanic Verses controversy in the late 80s most Conservative opinion was firmly anti-Rushdie and against the position of free-speech precisely on the grounds that Muslim religious sensitivities should not be challenged. The Right has done a complete 180 degrees on this issue and, over time, all political positions have the tendency to reverse their positions. Recently Manchester SU decided that cis gay men should lose their liberation status; but I cannot see there are any agreed criteria for this and there is now no agreement between the student union movement as to whether this is appropriate

    But if we are going to have a more open society we need a set of principles that is going to be seen to apply equally to all sides: as principles should. My problem with your analysis is that it assumes that the perception of threat is coming only from one side. It is not inappropriate to observe that cultural conservatism, not liberation, in Saudi-Arabia requires the enforcement of the face-veil by law. There they feel threatened by the possibility of talking to an uncovered woman who is not a close relative.

    Whichever the environment, we will not create a global society without creating a place where all can feel comfortable – that must involve an even-handed set of principles which can accommodate those with diametrically opposed views. I cannot see post-modernist thinking fulfilling this role. So, how are we going to frame principles of engagement between the Islamic and non-Islamic world that serve to undermine Islamophobia? I too unequivocally believe that immigration is, and has been, beneficial to British society. But to say ‘It’s happening, get used to it’ is merely a statement of fact; not a value judgement suggesting, as I believe, that it is a good thing.


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