What I will talk about mainly is the recent events and what they mean for the struggle against racism. The attack in Paris was, particularly for Dutch anti-racist activists, a quite bizarre experience. I was very active in the Dutch anti-racist movement when [?1:05] came up firstly after 9/11 in 2001 and then Theo Van Gogh was killed two years later. Watching Paris was like being thrown back 10 years, with some similarities and differences that I want to going into because I think they are important for our analysis in how we deal with the current form of Islamophobia and how we understand also how it changed.
What is interesting is, everything you hear about Paris, similarly what we heard about Van Gogh in the Netherlands, is that it’s very unique and that it’s “unprecedented” and “historical.” All the news framings are giving us the idea that this is a historic phenomena. The only reason why it’s unique is the sense that terrible things happen in the world but they happen in the periphery, or they are proxy wars elsewhere, in which Europe or the West is involved, but they don’t happen in the centre. This is the “unique” element used in framing this as a “shocking” event. For those of us who know people in other parts of the world, who are in solidarity with other struggles, it doesn’t quite feel that way. Of course it’s unique for other reasons but we sort of have an ability to internationalise and frame these events in a different light. But an identical narrative was given when [?3:06] was killed: it was the first political assassination in 300 years in the Netherlands.
There are several extracts from social anthropologist Sindre Bangstad’s book Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia that challenge the assumptions of ‘freedom of speech’. I’m sharing these as I think they contain some ideas to bear in mind when formulating a response to the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and for analysing whatever shit’s about to come. I’m a big fan of letting words stand on their own merit. Sometimes you don’t need to interject and explain. So below are a few of the strongest points from chapter six of Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia, a chapter on freedom of speech and hate speech. Of course, this is a book that deals with the populist right (namely the Progress Party) and far-right in Norway, but the parallels hardly need to be laboriously explained.
Hatred of Islam and various Islamic cultures can be easily justified by claiming that the veil or headscarf is representative of the religion’s sexist nature – the logical conclusion being that by being anti-Islam one is on the side of women’s liberation. British newspapers not only agree with this stance, but are probably to blame for such a perspective. Between 1998-2009, three of the five most commonly associated adjectives with the veil were: obligatory, undesirable, compulsory. This portrays Muslim women as passive, their only hope being the liberation of Western liberal democracy. The topless protesters of Femen have gained a lot of mainstream attention lately, strongly believing that they are coming to the rescue of downtrodden veiled women everywhere.
With this kind of sentiment, we forget to listen to the voices of the people whose opinion should matter most: Muslim women. Muslims in this country of course do face discrimination daily, being much more likely to be stopped and searched or denied work. But the argument over the veil totally excludes those who are imagined to be the victims. Unsurprisingly, many Muslim women view their headscarf to be personally liberating.
As well they might: veiling is as much a part of the freedom to express religion as wearing a crucifix or a Jewish cap. The popular Facebook group Muslim Women Against Femen, with the aim to “expose Femen for the Islamophobes and imperialists they are” gives a voice for empowered Muslim women that the papers tend to deny. With Islam having such diversity, it features women of different skin colours and languages, and various styles of headscarf, including those who choose not to wear one. Still, the broader aim of Femen is an important one. It is absurd that men can usually wander around topless on a hot day, but a bare-breasted woman is seen as grotesque and necessarily sexualised. For some, being topless is liberating. If someone feels freer for wearing their niqab, then that is just as valuable.
Next I will answer the idea that Islam is anti-democratic. Really, I am quite ignorant about Islam but would love to learn more, so tell me if I should correct something or if you can think of a book or article I need to read. I’ve just started Adam J. Silverstein’s Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction.
For the next few days I will be responding to some widely accepted lies about Islam. They are all used to justify bigotry, making it sound concerned and respectable. It is a very common bigotry, with 61% of Britons not believing Islam is compatible with British culture*, but I have noticed how popular this kind of thinking is in atheist or secularist communities.
The issues are:
- The veil/burqa/niqab/hijab is misogynistic and oppressive
- Islam is anti-democratic
- Islam is violent
- Islam is un-British/Muslims can’t integrate
Comparisons to Nazism and antisemitism usually fall flat, but in Kevin Passmore’s A Very Short Introduction to Fascism**, he points out how, for national-populists, “the figure of the Muslim has taken over from that of the Jew as the embodiment of evil” (not to suggest that antisemitism no longer exists). The far-right may have led hatred against Muslims, but they aren’t the only ones buying into it, asking for this fear-based ideology to be treated with ‘serious debate.’ Essentially I only want to persuade you of one idea: that the about the supposed threat of Islam is fashioned out of media portrayals, and not the other way round.
*according to a 2009 Gallop poll