Monday, August 21, 2006

Islamophobia - a reality in today's world

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingFor those of you who don't read this blog very often (or hopefully to new visitors), I should make clear that I write as I speak, quite deliberately, very plainly. I also tend to drop a lot of jokes and one-liners into my posts, of variable wit. That does not, however, mean that I am in any way seeking to avoid taking a stance on hard political issues. I just think that it's important for arguments about complex issues to be expressed in the most accessible language possible, as opposed to the most obscure.

With that in mind, let's talk about Islamophobia. I'll explain my stance on the issue whilst discussing the use of the term on the political left. This is an issue that's been gone over many times before in the context of society as a whole (personally I'm a fan of Zia Sardar's short article "The Next Holocaust" in the 5th Dec 2005 New Statesman). However, it has rarely been tackled properly in the context of the left, other then by partisans seeking to score points from each other.

I think that, regardless of whether groups like the SWP and sites like "Islamophobia Watch" either deliberately or inadvertantly abuse the term in order to gain political traction, nonetheless Islamophobia is a very real issue across Europe and the USA today, and one that has become appreciably worse since 9/11. It is, or should be, the moral duty of every person in this country who calls themselves any sort of left-winger, progressive or liberal, to stand publicly against what is a form of racism directed specifically at people perceived as "Muslim" (by which is almost certainly meant "Arab" or "South Asian" in reality), and to acknowledge publicly that such racism is primarly directed at Muslims, as Muslims. I find it honestly amazing that such a facile and obvious point should even be a topic for debate on the left. And yet, in some quarters, it is.

Various arguments are made against the use of the term "Islamophobia". Most of these centre around the fact that Islam is a religion, not a race. This argument is often dismissed as simply stupid (or, in particularly moronic cases, as itself being "Islamophobic") by leftist advocates of the opposite view. In fact, in the literal sense, it is true - Islam is a universalist religion, to which people of any race can, and do, convert. But in terms of whether Islamophobia exists or not, and what the phenomenon precisely is, this argument is beside the point.

The first and most obvious point, is that sections of the left who don't acknowledge Islamophobia as a phenomenon, are ignoring the rise in racial prejudice directed against Arabs and Asians across Europe, as Muslims, since 9/11. Recent news stories especially show that this is not just a transient phenomenon. The second is a concomitant rise in a "Muslim" ethnic identity whereby people's prime ethnic identifier is their religion. These are facts, whether people on the left like them or not, and they will not simply go away if ignored. Similarly, left individuals and groups who make political decisions that do not take proper account of these facts, are simply being irresponsible. This is one of the reasons that I thought, and continue to think, that the AWL's decision to publish the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons was as politically ridiculous as it was (to me) personally appalling, driven as it was by macho posturing about publishing them "because we can", and paranoia about a threat from a nebulous and powerful body called "the Islamists", the precise identity of whom no-one ever did seem to be able to pin down. Aside from the old argument about whether the cartoons themselves were racist (I think it's clear that they were), there is the rather obvious point that one doesn't start a rational debate with someone of a religious persuasion by crapping on their doorstep.

This is not an argument for the sort of boneheaded treatment of organised religion as a primary point of engagement with communities, that the SWP seem to be practising (see the not-inaccurate satire of their article about the cricket, below). But it is an argument for acknowledging a very real phenomenon that afflicts some of the most vulnerable communities in the UK and across Europe. And on that basis to engage with those communities all the better.


Blogger Jim Denham said...

I don't want this to become a discussion between the Priest and myself (we can do that perfectly well in the pub), so I was hoping that someone else would comment before I jumped in; but I've waited long enough, so here are a few prliminary remarks. I don't agree with the Priest about Islamophobia (or about the Danish cartoons): religion is, essentially a belief, an ideology As such deserves no particular respect from anyone or protection under the law. Arguably, it is particularly undeserving of special protection, given that its adherants believe they have god on their side and that all will get their just deserts in the afterlife. In so far as individuals and groups identify themselves by their religion and suffer attack or persecution, the law should deal with the attcks/persecution in the same way it deals with all other examples of violence or threatened violence. But the law has no business preventing "insult" or hurt feelings. In so far as "Islamophobia" has any real meaning as a term, it should be dealt with as racism against Asian or middle Eastern people. We should avoid using the term, as it almost invariably is used to demand special privileges for the Muslim *faith* (not individual people who happen to be Muslim) and/or to silence and intimidate critics of Islam - specialy Muslim and ex-Muslim critics. See Rumy Hasan's article at

See also Amatartya Sen's 'Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny', which deals with many of the same issues (review at

...and the last bit of Lionel Shriver's column in today's Guardian (about the Iranian 'Holocaust' cartoons).

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Janine said...

Here are my semantic concerns about the term Islamophobia:

1. It defines the prejudice as being against the relgion itself rather than against the adherents of the religion.

2. It suggests that opposition to Islam is an irrational fear (a phobia) rather than a rational critique.

It therefore, to my mind, risks muddying and disguising the prejudice against Muslims which does exist. 'Anti-Muslim prejudice/bigotry' might be a better expression.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

But there is also much irrational fear of Islam, as well as Muslims - which you encounter a lot on the web: the 'gates of Vienna' syndrome, in which Islam as a whole is seen as intent on the destruction of the west (or the only unscary Muslims are a couple of sufis here and there). I agree that most of the time 'Islamophobia' just means racism, and should probably be called that, or it refers to any criticism at all of anyone who's a Muslim. But sometimes I think 'Islamophobia' describes something real.

11:24 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Jim; the term does describe racism, directed against Muslims, as Muslims. Maybe the SWP misuse it to describe anyone who disagrees with their cynical political project (a stitched-together coalition with organised religious bodies in UK Muslim communities), but that doesn't render the term itself invalid.

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Janine said...

Clive no doubt has a point, but ...

Discrimination against Muslims comes from more than an irrational fear of their religion. There is, for instance, straightforward bigotry/hatred/prejudice, and there is the disadvantage that comes from being a member of a religious minority in a not-completely-secular society (eg. you may find it harder to get time off work for religious/cultural festivals than you would for Christmas.)

My problem with the use of the term 'Islamophobia' is that if it is used properly ie. only to describe irrational fear of Islam, then it ignores the other aspects of discrimination against Muslims (let alone of Asians and Arabs more generally). Or it is used to describe all those things, which is not accurate.

In terms of practical application - thinking of issues such as verbal and physical assault against railway staff who are (or appear to be) Muslim, or the two guys kicked off the plane in Spain - we should focus on defending those people rather than defending their religion, so I'd say "anti-Muslim bigotry" is a more useful term than 'Islamophobia'.

And in any case, I'd say that the term 'Islamophobia' is so widely used in such a crap way that it is probably beyond redemption and is best avoided.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Boogski said...

I despise the religion of Islam. In my opinion, it's a death cult and has absolutely nothing to offer the modern world or modern mankind. It really is at the top of my shit list. You can call that "Islamophobia" if you want.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

See? The idea that a religion of millions of people is a 'death cult' - even though the vast, vast, vast majority of its adherents probably are quite content to, you know, live - what do you call that?

11:03 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Yup - kinda makes my point for me, doesn't he?

11:29 PM  
Anonymous boogski said...

Ah yes. The "vast, vast majority" argument. Didn't a recent poll in the UK indicate that a rather sizable portion of the vast majority of Muslims would have no problem whatsoever if Sharia law was instituted? I'd say that's worthy of at least a raised eyebrow.

3:29 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

People support all manner of laws that aren't instituted in the UK - and they also talk all manner of bollocks to pollsters. What does that have to do with the whole religion being (as you put it) a "death cult"?

Perhaps reading a little wider might be of help (less LGF/Jihad Watch, and more balanced stuff ;-))?

3:43 AM  
Blogger Warmongers Anonymous said...

Great post. My comment is somewhat related to it, although it is more related to jim denham's comment. I'm hoping you can explain something to me that smells of double standards, because this really puzzles me. The Danish cartoons were offensive, yet perfectly legal. Supporters of the cartoons argue for free speech. Around the time of the cartoons, a British historian got jail time for denying the Holocaust. Is this not free speech? People should either oppose both the cartoonists and Holocaust deniers, or support both as champions of freedom of speech. They should not comdemn and imprison one while patting the other on the back.

9:53 AM  
Blogger El Tom said...

Yep, stupidest thing the AWL have ever done, that. doesn't even fit their own perspective.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous ed said...

I'm not sure the AWL supported jailing Irving, did it? Personally, I don't, anway. I wouldn't want to campaign to defend him, either, though.

12:07 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...


Thanks for the kind words about my post. I genuinely can't recall what the AWL's view was on the Irving issue - perhaps Jim or one of the AWL commenters could remind us?

My view, by the way (which I think is consistent with my view of the cartoons), is that Irving shouldn't have been jailed. To put it crudely, he talks offensive bollocks, but talking offensive bollocks shouldn't be a criminal offence. However (and this is where the AWL's argument about the cartoons falls flat), that does not make it the left's job to republish his racist material "in defence of freedom of speech".

Basically, a right is not the same as an obligation, and that's what the AWL forgot - coupled with their misunderstanding of the nature and method of theocratic currents in Islam, but that's another story.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

I personally, and the AWL as an organisation , are opposed to any legal ban on holocaust denial. We opposed tyhe jailing of David Irving (though I doubt that we'd go on a demo or organise a petition in his defence). That;s why I (in my first post, above) referred, approvingly, to Lionel Shriver's 'Guardian' column on the Iranian 'Holocaust' cartoons: she's against any sort of ban. So am I. So is the AWL.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

Where the priest's argument about the Danish cartoons in contrast of Irving's holocaust denial "falls flat" is simple: every sane person, regardless of their politics, knows that holocaust denial is crazy. It is quite impossible to reach a rational verdict on the cartoons without seeing them: the mainstream press in the Uk would not publish them. Therefore it was right and proper for defenders of free speech to publish the, I'm proud that the AWL did so (unlike the racist Murdoch press, etc: the fact that the BNP also published them is of no more consequence than the fact that they also supported anti-war demos)

4:37 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

That wasn't why the AWL published them, Jim. It might be why you think they should be published, but that wasn't the AWL line on the issue.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous ed said...

Yes it was.

3:04 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

No, it wasn't. Show me how you get from the text in that article to "well we only published them because otherwise no one would see them". Furthermore, the original version of that text was even further away from that justification.

3:59 AM  
Blogger Jim Denham said...

In fairness, Priest: there was an element of "fuck you" to the religious bigots who sought to censor what we are allowed to see; and I am all in favour of a "fuck you" attitude to religious bigots, of whatever hue.

2:19 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

That stance makes for a great row in the pub, James; however as serious politics it's just risible.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Boogski said...

You running for office, Volty? :D

I find Jim's stance refreshing. The reaction from the "Muslim world" to the cartoons was an indication of just how out of touch with the realities of the modern world those goofballs are.

I see nothing wrong with exercising your rights for no other reason than because you can. Use 'em or lose 'em.

4:00 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Which "goofballs"?

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

"coupled with their [the AWL's} misunderstanding of the nature and method of theocratic currents in Islam..."

In what regard?

8:49 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...


Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd say there's a prevalent view (and indeed literal use of the phrase) that there are these reactionaries "the Islamists", who we as socialists should oppose. The hysteria that some people showed during the debate over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons showed that on a few occasions.

In reality, there are all kinds of strands to the phenomenon - for instance, you (to my recollection) have a good understanding of the Brotherhood/Qutbist tradition that gave rise not just to today's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but also directly or indirectly to other organisations like the MAB and Hamas. However, these organisations operate autonomously of each other, and none of them have anything much to do with the Wahabi/Salafi theocrat bodies operating from Saudi dissident areas, or indeed with liberal "Islamists" like the AK party in Turkey who may well be the more centre-left of the options on offer at the next Turkish general election. And there are many other traditions aside of that, which arose in many different ways, and which espouse radically different agendas.

I may well be telling you things you already know, as I know you're more conversant than most with this issue. But I don't think that's the case with most of the AWL, either at an individual or organisational level.

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

Well, yes, there are divergent Islamist trends - and certainly the current Turkish government is a radically different beast from, say, OBL - or the Association of Muslim Scholars, or the MB.

Most of these currents *are* reactionary, though. (The only current which in a certain sense was Islamist, but which wasn't flatly reactionary - in a hard or soft form - I can think of is the Shariati-influenced movement in Iran, the Mujahedeen e Khalq, and even that's kind of debatable),

And there certainly has been, for many years, a relationship between the MB and the Saudi government (even Tariq Ali refers to a 'triangular relationship' - I think that's his phrase, I can't be bothered to check - between the MB, the Saudis, and the Jammat in Pakistan.)

For sure the MB and its principal offshoots are 'moderate' in comparison to al-Qaeda, etc etc, and certainly in comparison to the violent schisms from itself, like Jihad (and al-Qaeda, therefore, in a sense). But it's not a progressive force.

Surely the AWL's principal concern is to address a milieu in which 'radical' Islam as a whole is seen as simply a 'flawed response to oppression', therefore fundamentally all right, fundamentally merely a kind of petty bourgeois nationalism, with whom the left can make common cause over common issues. It seems to me entirely right to fight this simplistic and suicidal conception. If the AWL could occasionally be more subtle and nuanced, all right, I'm all for that. But on the central matter at hand, it's right.

5:17 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

Sorry meant to add: being a bit under-nuanced does not amount to a 'misunderstanding of theocratic currents'. Nobody has ever said they're all the same.

5:19 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Would that justification for the AWL's stance on Islamism hold true for its stance on the cartoons? If so, it's the third different such justification for the AWL's stance that's happened in the course of this thread, let alone in the course of the debate as a whole.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

VP. I in all honesty don't have a clue what you mean.

You said the AWL's line on the cartoons was because of 'misunderstanding theocratic currents'. I don't think the AWL does misunderstand them, and you haven't said why you think they do.

The AWL took the view that it was wrong - on the part, for instance of newspapers like the Groan - to capitulate to pressure from relgious forces complaining, fundamentally, about blasphemy. Since it was impossible to make head nor tail of the argument about the cartoons without seeing them, the AWL decided to publish them.

I don't see the connection you're making between 'stances'. I was not 'justifying' a 'stance' on Islamism, I was explaining it, since you appear not to understand it. Since I wrote the most detailed analysis in any AWL publication on Islamism, I think I am entitled to put it that way.

The AWL's 'stance' on the cartoons is a different order of thing.

4:43 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

In point of fact Clive, I have said why, but I'll repeat it for the sake of the discussion.

I very much doubt whether anyone else in the AWL could reel off the history and politics of Islamist groups in the way that you did above. No great surprise there - not a lot a lot of other people could do that. To most people in the AWL, Islamists are Muslims who want a theocratic state - a basic understanding but one not divorced from reality. They might also know a bit more about the MAB, know they have something to do with the Brotherhood, etc. But not a full understanding of the political current, for sure.

Now, the way this relates to the stance on the cartoons (this takes aside the issue of whether the cartoons themselves were racist), is that people neither understood the size, power or force of the Islamist groups which were campaigning to have the cartoons banned. As a consequence they VASTLY over-inflated them, and mixed them all up, I would argue. I can recall in the course of that debate having people who are normally preternaturally calm and reserved, ranting in my face about how "the Islamists" are a powerful force in the UK, we've got to "hold the line" against them, etc, as though this were the Alamo and we were Davy Crockett. This was also because there was a perceived physical "threat" (which was why, in spite of all the posturing about freedom of speech, the AWL never actually published the things in its paper) resulting from this conflated, confused view of "the" Islamist campaign. Whatever one may think about the MAB, they have no history of violence.

So yes, the AWL's stance on the cartoons is of a "different order", but it is informed by a crude and misinformed understanding of the political nature and method of Islamism, just as I said. Given that you're so well informed (and you are), you might want to write something again, to correct that. ;-)

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

Sorry, point taken, you did say what you thought was wanting in the AWL's understanding. What I meant to say is that I think you are wrong about that, in which case the link to the AWL's view on the cartoons doesn't stand up.

There was more in the cartoon stuff than organised Islamists, yes. Many Muslims, once the campaign an achieved international profile, reacted as Muslims who felt under attack, etc. (Though many didn't, in my experience).

But it took several - three, as I recall - months for this campaign to achieve an international profile; and for sure organised Islamists, winning the backing of the Saudi government, played a crucial (to put it midly) role in this.

I don't think it's fair to complain that not every AWL member is an expert on the subject. Obviously, some people will know more than others (about this or anything else), and - as is the nature of things - have more or less sophisticated 'takes' on a position, express themselves more loudly or quietly, and so on. You sometimes, to be honest, give the impression that a big part of what you take to be the AWL 'line' is just what you pick up in rows in the pub ;-) Its considered view is what it says in 'print' (and its 21 c equivalents)

You can argue about whether it was right, in the sense of tactically sensible, or right in principle, to publish the cartoons.

Certainly, for myself, when the controversy first began, it was simply impossible to take a view without seeing the bloody things, since 'a view' depended on whether they were blasphemous or racist. If they were blasphemous, I couldn't give a shit; if they were racist, I could.

I don't think, with one exception, the cartoons were racist, or at least any worse than a gazilion other things we see in our papers. Considerably less racist than the average article on asylum seekers in the Daily Mail, for instance. On those grounds, the call for their suppression (which is what the campaign against them demanded) was unsupportable.

Given all that, it was lilly-livered for the Guardian etc (under pressure from the Government) to not publish them, even to inform their readers. You can't call the Guardian cowards and then not do it yourself...

I don't want to get into a debate about this, necessarily, so don't feel honour bound to respond. I simply felt that your claim that various different 'justifications' for publishing the cartoons were in accord with 'justifications' for a line on Islamism. On both counts, I think it's just the AWL position is more complex than you're giving it credit for.

3:20 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

You sometimes, to be honest, give the impression that a big part of what you take to be the AWL 'line' is just what you pick up in rows in the pub ;-) Its considered view is what it says in 'print' (and its 21 c equivalents)

Oh come on, that's both cheap and misrepresentative. I do read your bloody newspaper and your website, you know! :D:D:D

I presume here you're referring to the redoutable Mr Denham - who I do indeed have the row with in the pub on many an occasion. However, no, he isn't my only source of information on the AWL "line". Which really I think you do know, not least because stuff that I posted can be publicly seen all over the AWL site. Furthermore, I was a heavy participant in debates with AWL members about this leading up to your conference decision - and you're the only person, to be honest, who seems to think that I don't know what the group's line is.

I think it's also worth pointing out that just because Jim perhaps isn't the most subtle conduit by which the AWL's line is expressed, doesn't mean he's got it wrong either. He spoke at your annual conference in support of the AWL majority's line (see - not in the pub, again ;-)), to the general approval of those who supported it. Hardly a sign of a maverick out of step with his group, is it?

Anyway, yes, we'll not re-rehearse the debate about the cartoons (I think it's clear that they were racist, but we're never going to convince each other about that). However, I would just reiterate that it simply isn't the case that the AWL's line on this was ever based on "well people won't be able to see them otherwise". Not least because:

a) On a basic level, such a line would have been asinine - the AWL only published them on its website, and the cartoons were already freely available on the net

and b) The arguments posed (in writing, not the pub) about the line were all about racism and freedom of speech, not about providing a service to enable the general public to read them.

3:47 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

All right, didn't mean to offend. Really, I didn't.

I was referring in particular to your argument regarding Islamism - people shouting at you, people not knowing as much about it as you and me, or whatever, etc. Were you just talking about Jim? I assumed not.

Anyway, what I meant is that to my ears - for instance whether the AWL 'misunderstands theocratic currents' - you present crude versions of AWL positions to then knock down.

For instance I didn't say that the AWL 'line' was *just* about 'providing a service' for people to see the cartoons. I said it was an element - in a particular context, which was a discussion about whether the cartoons were racist.

The main point I made, and the AWL made at the time, was that there certainly was an organised Islamist role in making the cartoons a cause celebre some months after they were published. This conversation began because you commented, in this context specifically, that the AWL 'misunderstands theocratic currents'. If the AWL was simply wrong about this, or that was your argument, I would understand exactly what your point is.

But it seems to me you respond by focusing on a secondary thing, to make the AWL look silly, rather than the actual question. If it's *true", as I and the awl contend that it was, that organised Islamists - with the support of the Saudi government - were crucial in that campaign, it seems a pretty important factor to consider.

7:58 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

My point is that what is misunderstood by people who talk about "the Islamists" in this context, is that the reaction to those cartoons was not all co-ordinated by "the Islamists", precisely because there is no such body in a sufficiently coherent form, to have pulled it off. Even within the UK, different Islamist groups reacted in different ways. For instance, Al-Muhajiroun did the whole marching-around-with-toilet-roll-belts-on thing, whilst the MAB simply called for restraint on the part of the press, supported Blairite legislation that was pertinent to the issue etc. Whether or not you disagree with both of those responses, they're substantively different.

I genuinely have not seen a single document from that particular debate which acknowledges the simple fact that there is no one such coherent group as "the Islamists", nor to my recollection was it in anything that the AWL passed at its conference. I have however heard a lot of people talk about "the Islamists this or that" when discussing the issue. I think this does betray a crucial, and relevant, misunderstanding of Islamism as a phenomenon, on the part of at least a significant section of the AWL.

3:18 PM  

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