‘The problem of the twentieth century’, wrote the African-American historian W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 treatise on racism, The Souls of Black Folk, ‘is the problem of the colour-line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’. Du Bois could just as easily have looked behind him and said that the problem of the colour line had bisected the previous century during which chattel slavery in America had been ended as an institution after a nearly all-consuming civil war. Instead Du Bois looked to the century stretching before him and observed that racism was not only very much alive in his own country, codified in the segregationist Jim Crow laws, it was flourishing across the globe, embedded in the European colonial project busy carving up Africa and Asia. However, even in his darkest nightmares Du Bois could not have imagined that within four decades an ideology of racial purity and superiority would result in the Holocaust – the near total extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis.
Will the colour line dog our progress too? It seems as if we are heading that way. In his essay on Du Bois’s biography of abolitionist John Brown, Gary McFarlane notes that ‘we now have Black History Month, African-American history departments in the major universities of the West and an African-American president of the US, but, as we saw in Ferguson, none of that can shield us from still confronting a reality shaped by the legacy of slavery’. McFarlane is referring to the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by the police, a case that reminds us that at the heart of America is ‘a sickness that has been with the republic since its birth; a searing contradiction in the land of the free’.
Of course we know now that there is no scientific or genetic basis for race and associated notions of superiority and inferiority. Or we think we know. Just twenty years ago Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein published The Bell Curve which argued that African-Americans were genetically predisposed to lower intelligence and higher levels of anti-social behaviour than other ‘races’. More recently, popular science writer Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance advances the argument that ‘evolutionary differences between societies on the various continents may underlie major and otherwise imperfectly explained turning points in history such as the rise of the West and the decline of the Islamic world and China’.
Whenever notions of race and racism and theories of human development rear their heads, I am reminded of the Ray Harryhausen animated scene in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, in possession of the Golden Fleece, is being pursued by King Aeetes. The King sows Hydra’s teeth which spring up as an army of skeletal warriors with swords and shields who advance towards Jason and his men. Every time Jason takes a swipe at one and shatters its bones another springs up to take its place. Jason only escapes being killed by jumping off a cliff, whereupon the skeletons follow him lemming-like and sink to the bottom of the sea while he swims to the Argonaut and safety.
Today the dragon’s teeth are constantly being sowed and re-sowed with the skeleton army springing up everywhere. Europe teems with xenophobic, racist and fascist parties, invigorated by a combination of imperial blowback from the Middle East and economic decline at home – as our list of ‘Ten Xenophobic European Political Parties to Avoid’ demonstrates. A new, but rather indistinct, phrase ‘Islamophobia’ has been coined to describe the hostility towards Muslims that now seems a permanent and baleful influence on Western societies. I prefer the term ‘anti-Muslim racism’, or even ‘anti-Muslimism’, the term advanced by the British political scientist the late Fred Halliday.
Indeed, in some countries racism and xenophobia are now part of the mainstream political landscape. As Jim Wolfreys argues, established political parties in France have been unable to challenge the impact of the far-right Front National on French politics with any integrity and have instead tried to outbid it: ‘The blunt truth is that instead of isolating and exposing racism, and the way it has adapted under the pressure of economic crisis, the two principal parties of government, the right-wing UMP coalition (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) and the Socialist Party (PS), have rushed to embrace it. The scapegoating of Muslims has reached unprecedented levels, with their activities subjected to relentless scrutiny.’ Wolfreys shows how the revolutionary ideal of laïcité, originally developed to deprive the Roman Catholic Church of overweening influence in public affairs, has been co-opted as a weapon with which to beat Muslims. Both the left and the right in France have menaced Muslims with ‘Enlightenment values’ to justify their desire to curb their freedoms. Their great hero is Voltaire who wrote an obscure drama about the ‘imposter’ Mohammed. But they forget that in his final years Voltaire also campaigned in defence of religious minorities – specifically the violent persecution of France’s Protestants. On hearing of a particularly awful incident Voltaire wrote to a friend: ‘I am beside myself. I am concerned as a man, and a bit also as a philosopher. What I want to know is, on which side is the horror of fanaticism?’ It is a question that politicians in France and elsewhere would do well to ponder.
Of course, racism is not just a problem for Western states; it is equally deeply rooted in Muslim societies as well. As Ziauddin Sardar shows, the part of the world that we are increasingly told to look to and draw our global Islamic culture from is based on the most brutal racial hierarchy that draws not only on super-exploitation but on bondage. ‘Xenophobia and racism are intrinsic to the worldview of the kingdoms and emirates of the region; an element of their brand of ultra-orthodox conservatism’, he writes. It is often justified in religious terms and accepted by Muslims elsewhere who perpetuate this bigotry by bowing down to the superior Muslims of the Arabian peninsula. Something similar can be seen amongst Muslims in Britain who, as Naima Khan notes, like to believe that the practice of Islam, and therefore Muslims as a ‘community’ (although following the historian Benedict Anderson we might more accurately term it ‘an imagined community’) are somehow pure of spirit and free from racial prejudice – the chosen people. It is an assertion of an ideological and social superiority against a world that considers us inferior in every respect. But, like its reverse, it is a flawed conception. It allows us to turn a convenient blind eye to manifestations of bigotry and inequality amongst us. Khan accuses the South Asian Muslims of a ‘jostling for position in the racial pecking order that has not just separated Asian and black people but caused fault lines to form within our communities’. They have internalised the notion that blackness is bad, black men are criminal and that black women are undesirable. This attitude manifests itself in prejudice surrounding interracial marriages, the dismissive attitude towards young Asian boys who emulate the perceived stereotypical mannerisms of their black counterparts, and the Asian shopkeepers who perpetuate ideas about beauty by supplying Indian hair extensions to black women. ‘There is a cruel ignorance in our expectation of black people to conform to their stock characters while we consider ourselves worthy of more nuanced depiction’, argues Khan.
Racism in Muslim societies, like in the West, is not a recent phenomenon: it has a long history. As Robert Irwin shows in his examination of a major canon of Islamic literature, The Arabian Nights, which was also the Victorians’ favourite tale from the East, racism was an integral part of Muslim societies. Irwin’s examination of the ‘morality’ behind the tales ‘reveal racist prejudices not only regarding blacks, but also with respect to Jews, Persians and Europeans’. Irwin traces the layers of prejudice that were added to the tales over the centuries by various translators, including the Victorian adventurer and scholar Richard Burton. We get an object lesson in the enduring but changing nature of racial stereotypes through different civilisations and modes of production. Irwin also includes the response to racial prejudice on the part of those burdened by it. How fascinating to read of al-Jahiz’s eighth-century riposte to the denigration of black people: The Book of Vaunting of Blacks Over Whites, an early example of an articulation of what we know today as ‘Black Pride’. However, not everyone wanted to fight, or could fight, racism with scholarly weapons. As Hugh Kennedy shows in his fascinating article, the ninth-century East African slaves, labelled the Zanj, chose to fight by other means – their revolt culminated in the destruction of Basra. Kennedy is careful to note that the reasons behind the revolt are complex and cannot be easily fitted into modern categories. However the rallying cry of the Zanj leader does come down to us loud and clear: ‘the slaves were going to be rich and free and their masters were going to suffer’.
If history is written by the victors and the powerful, we sometimes have to use imagination to spirit up those robbed of their identity. Dorothea Smartt’s beautiful cycle of poems about ‘Bilal’, breathes life back into ‘Sambo’, an anonymous slave who died within days of his arrival in eighteenth century Lancaster. We all know that Bilal was an African slave – but how many of us ask why black African slavery existed as an institution before, during and after the life of the prophet Mohammed? And what came first, the belief that black Africans were inferior beings and thus could be enslaved, or that the use of Africans as slaves needed a set of ideas, including religious dictates, to justify it? Was the racism that branded the African the spawn of Noah’s curse on Ham’s son Canaan the same as the racism that excuses slavery in parts of the Muslim world today? Was the treatment of the Zanj that caused them to finally rebel the same as that meted out by the police in Ferguson, Missouri?
Shanon Shah addresses this question by way of raising another question: can we construct Islam as a race, or ethnicity, or both? He explores the question by placing his fictional character, Abdullah, in a variety of different Muslim and Western contexts. Shah shows that racial, religious and ethnic categories are increasingly fused together at state and global levels, and identities imposed upon us in ways that have little or no bearing on how we see ourselves or our relations with our fellow citizens. While individuals ‘might internally feel that concepts like “race” or “religion” limit their expressions of humanity, they cannot escape being defined by these concepts. In too many situations, they feel like their racial and religious identities choose them, not vice versa’, he writes. This sentiment was also expressed by young Muslim women interviewed by Shabana Mir for her book Muslim American Women on Campus. But Mir’s young students are highly intelligent and world savvy. Samia Rahman writes in her review of Mir’s book that as marginal individuals they ‘use the cultural resources at their disposal – including Orientalist discourse, dominant majority practices, stereotypes, and slurs – to perform and to reinvent identities, and to represent communities, ideologies and themselves’.
There are many responses to being at the receiving end of racist categorisations. For example, it is all too easy to slip into ‘believing the hype’, and absorbing the racial or religious characteristics imputed to you, until they become a part of you. As Du Bois wrote in the introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, the African-American is ‘born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’. In 2014 we saw this ‘veil’ literally manifested in a campaign launched by the British tabloid newspaper The Sun with a pull-out poster image of a woman in a Union Jack print hijab with the headline: ‘As police swoop on first Islamic State terror cell in UK, The Sun urges Brits of all faiths to stand up to extremists.’ The subtext was that Muslims must prove a false negative and publicly declare their opposition to terrorism, lest they be suspected of secretly revelling in the decapitation of hostages. As The Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ commentator Nesrine Malik pointed out, this is ‘not to say that Muslims should not condemn Islamic State. Many do, and have. But to have it demanded of you is different. And to have it linked to your nationality via the Union Jack is a threat. It attaches conditions to that nationality that others do not have to meet’.
Another response is to say ‘we are not like that’ – we are hard-working, honest, peaceable, moderate in our temperament, good law abiding citizens, even middle-class in our values. But surely the true measure of equality in any society is to be as lazy, dishonest, lawless and ‘common’ as anyone else, but not to have such behaviour and attitudes attributed to your race or religion. The game of being, pardon the pun, as white as white can be, is a no-win exercise, because you can guarantee that the rules of the game will be arbitrarily changed and the goalposts shifted to make sure that yearned-for acceptance is always just out of reach. As Ziauddin Sardar has written elsewhere we have to break out of the confines of a dominant discourse that increasingly recognises ‘only two kinds of Muslims: the terrorist (who has declared war on the West) and the apologetic (who claims to be liberal and defends Islam as a peaceful religion)’.
In The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois, even when talking about the intense racial hostility directed by whites towards the black population, is at pains to avoid categorising all whites as perpetrators and blacks as their victims. He witnesses in his travels through the Deep South that racism consumes the hater and the hated alike. In his biography of Enoch Powell – the demagogue infamous for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – the campaigning British journalist Paul Foot pointed out that ‘politics can drive the knife home or remove its menace…No-one can underestimate the danger of that choice. The tiger of racialism, once unleashed, knows no master. It devours its liberators and its prey with equal ferocity’.
How true. I can still vividly recall attending the trial fourteen years ago at Kingston Crown Court, London, of Robert Stewart, accused and found guilty of the murder of teenager Zahid Mubarek. The two boys had been locked up in the same cell in Feltham Young Offenders Institution despite prison officers knowing that Stewart was a severely disturbed young man who harboured fantasies of killing a black person. Mubarek had landed up in Feltham after being sentenced to three months in jail for stealing some razor blades worth six pounds. The day before he was due to be released and return to his East London family he was bludgeoned to death by Stewart. It was a terrible murder, and entirely avoidable as the subsequent public inquiry found.
I sat in the public benches in the court alongside other reporters and Mubarek’s grieving family. In the dock sat a small, undernourished, deathly white young man – Stewart. On his forehead you could see the faint outline of a badly done amateur tattoo spelling the letters R.I.P. and a cross. Next to me sat various anti-racist activists who glared non-stop at Stewart, as if they were trying to project righteous anger towards him. I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. All I saw when I looked to the dock was a victim. I didn’t feel sorry for him. I knew he was a racist and a murderer and should be deprived of his liberty. But Stewart was in another way also a casualty of the drip-drip racist poison that people like the Right Honourable Enoch Powell MP MBE and others like him had been dispensing to the British people for decades. Admittedly it is not always easy to see the victim in the perpetrator – especially in the heat of the moment. Not so long ago walking home through an alleyway I was blocked by a group of aggressive white teenagers who spat insults at me: ‘Paki, Bin Laden, terrorist, fuck off back to where you came from’. I confess I did not instinctively reach for Du Bois’s detachment – only later could I appreciate how their jumbled insults were a fine example of the synthesis of old and new racist configurations.
In Britain the divisions that have separated those of a different ‘race’ or religion have been institutionalised demographically. Different communities have been engineered via social policy to grow apart. The Lancashire mill towns are an example of this. From the 1960s male immigrant workers from Pakistan and India were lured to towns such as Blackburn to work for low wages in the textile mills. They were segregated from their white counterparts by the mill owners, given different shifts and allocated to work on different floors of the factories. It was a deliberate strategy that sought to divide the workforce on racial lines. I reported on an industrial dispute in the mid 1980s at a mill in north Manchester where the workers had gone out on strike for higher wages. By this time the British textile industry was going into permanent decline, undercut by factories in South and East Asia. On the first day of the strike the workers threw up a picket line to stop lorries going in and out of the factory. Except it wasn’t a picket line: the Asian strikers stood on one side of the road, the white strikers on the other, leaving a big gap in the middle which the lorries thundered through. I asked the Asians why they weren’t physically joining up with their white workmates to complete the picket line and stop the trucks. ‘We don’t know them, we don’t think they like us’. I asked the same question of their white co-strikers: ‘We don’t know them, they keep themselves to themselves you see.’ I did see. The strike was doomed. I was not surprised to learn that in a parliamentary by-election in this same area of Manchester in the autumn of 2014 the UK Independence Party had come within a hair’s breadth of defeating the shoe-in Labour candidate.
The industrial divide I witnessed was mirrored in social policy. ‘Old Labour’ controlled councils infected by casual ‘old racism’, allocated the Asian workers different housing estates in the town apart from the indigenous working class. The men were gradually joined by their wives and had children who went to their local primary school, which because of residential segregation, eventually became attended almost exclusively by children of South Asian heritage. The few white children in those schools were over time withdrawn by their parents, creating mono-racial teaching environments. I worked in a school in Rochdale, Lancashire, in the 1980s that was 99 per cent Pakistani (except the teaching staff who were exclusively white).
In his autobiographical study of the Asian population of Blackburn, playwright and poet Avaes Mohammad, paints a picture, illuminated by snatches of dialogue from his stage plays that echoes my own experiences. Mohammad was perhaps fortunate: ‘my parents were wise to ensure my primary education was delivered at an all-white school on the other side of town, otherwise my only interaction with White England would have been at the hands of the National Front who would pass by occasionally to touch up their graffiti and steal our toys’. But he also tells a story of a community that, in a way, thrived in its isolation, thrown back as it was on self-reliance. He talks of ‘new generations of confident and capable South Asian Blackburnians, for whom their town is their only home and any notion stating otherwise is to be whole-heartedly challenged’. This is the other side of the coin: young people who plant their feet firmly on British soil, and who assert their rights to be treated equally, by which I mean the same as everyone else. Some of them have managed, typically through the hard work, business skills and thrift of their parents, to get a foot on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
While we traverse Du Bois’s colour line, we must not neglect the other divides that pull apart our common humanity – the patriarchal attitudes that seek to place women into an inferior relationship not only with men but with God. In her commentary on ibn Arabi, the thirteenth century sufi philosopher, Sa’diyya Shaikh deconstructs the gendered power relations embedded in orthodox Muslim beliefs. Shaikh points out that ‘patriarchal theologies often excessively focus on elements of God’s distance, majesty and transcendence’ from which a hierarchy descends like rungs on a ladder. She goes on to argue that ‘proponents of such patriarchal approaches may also denigrate materiality and the body and, by extension, women, whom they primarily identify with the bodily principle’. From this flows the active denial for women of leadership positions within Islam, a state of affairs that ibn Arabi described as ‘a state of ignorance and spiritual negligence’.
The main reason for my wariness about using the term ‘Islamophobia’ is that it can be interpreted fatalistically, putting hostility towards Islam and Muslims in some kind of unique and eternal category that stretches back through time. But if the contributions to this issue of Critical Muslim, and W.E.B. Du Bois, tell us anything, it is that racism is a shape-shifter that moulds itself into the contours of time and place. It is not true that the Crusades and what is happening in the Middle East at the moment are one and the same thing, and that today we are just going through an asymmetrical re-run of a mediaeval conflict. We need to situate ‘Islamophobia’ in its modern context, otherwise we can render ourselves blind to the commonalities between different groups who are persecuted, under attack and who may potentially be our allies. For example, even though the far-right across Europe today seeks to brand Muslims as ‘the problem’, a deep-seated, vile animus towards Jewish people lurks within them. The journalist Gary Younge is right to point out that ‘the most potent anti-Semites and bigots in Europe do not live in run-down housing projects, but grace the corridors of power. They are not Muslim, they are Christian. The continent is not suffering from some new strain of bigotry imported from the Arab world or the Maghreb – it is simply suffering from one of the oldest viruses harboured among its most established populations’.
This virus has already had serious consequences for the Muslims. The tangle of presumptions, wrong assumptions, historical fantasies of eternal nationhood, the ‘othering’ of your next door neighbour or people of the next town or village, has proved to be a nihilistic tool in the hands of political rabble-rousers who wield it regardless of the carnage they leave behind. Ruth Waterson’s essay on Bosnia combines prose, poetry and photography to build an impression that is powerful and poignant in turn. She impresses upon us the sheer human tragedy and near obliteration of hope that overwhelms the Bosnian people twenty years after the end of the bitter, civil war fuelled by racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and ethnic rivalries.
Younge echoes Edward Said who argued that ‘hostility to Islam in the modern Christian West has historically gone hand in hand with, has stemmed from the same source, has been nourished at the same stream as anti-Semitism’. However, when we rhetorically state ‘Muslims are the new Jews!’ we should understand what that really signifies and the responsibility it carries with it. That is why it is so tragic that anti-Semitism has so much currency in Muslim societies. Of course, one should not equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism: people are right, and have a right, to criticise the Israeli state but that does not automatically imply hatred of the Jewish people. Israel and its supporters are guilty of playing a dangerous game by equating the two. Some of the most vocal opponents of what the Israeli state is inflicting upon the Palestinians are Jewish people themselves, the majority of whom live outside its borders.
It is, however, alarming to see figures such as the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala playing the anti-Semitism card in his stand-up act, including inventing a stiff-armed downwards gesture, the quenelle, which apparently signifies an inverted Nazi salute. It is reported that some of his admirers amongst North African youth in France have taken it upon themselves to be photographed outside synagogues performing the quenelle. It may be argued that Dieudonné’s act represents a satirical two fingers at an outraged hypocritical establishment, or an example of post-modern irony, but ultimately it is stupidly self-defeating. Why on earth in France of all places would you give succour to your common enemy, the Front National, in pursuit of the ephemeral gain of cheap popularity and notoriety?
Dieudonné’s bitter retort is to say that the French media give ‘special treatment’ to the genocide against the Jews, whilst ignoring other ‘crimes against humanity’, such as the transatlantic slave trade or the treatment of Native Americans. But as Gilbert Achcar writes in his important book The Arabs and the Holocaust: ‘there is no reason at all, in my opinion, not to submit oneself in horror and awe to the special tragedy besetting the Jewish people. As an Arab in particular I find it important to comprehend this collective experience in as much of its terrible concrete detail as one is capable: this act of comprehension guarantees one’s humanity and resolve that such a catastrophe should never be forgotten and never again recur’. We must ensure that the ‘the colour line’ defining our century does not repeat history.