The Politics of Islamophobia: Race, Power and Fantasy

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    David Tyrer

    Publisher: Pluto Books

    Year: 2013

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 208 pages

    ISBN: 9780745331317

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Despite its emblematic place within contemporary racism and its increasingly important position in defining relations between states and ethnicised minorities, Islamophobia remains a contested, frequently unrecognised and largely under-theorised form of racism.

The Politics of Islamophobia provides a definitive contribution to these debates, offering a theoretically sophisticated account which draws upon a series of substantive case studies to position Islamophobia as an expression of racialised governmentality.

By taking into account connections across different national contexts, and by moving beyond the limiting framing of the war on terror which has dominated recent debates, this book offers a new perspective on the study of Islamophobia.

What People Are Saying

"A new framework of political and social theory which will facilitate the interrogation of Islamophobia, drawing on complex, multi-level analysis that makes a major contribution." Ian Law, Professor of Racism and Ethnicity Studies at the University of Leeds and author of Racism and Ethnicity: Global Debates, Dilemmas, Directions (2010).

About the Author

David Tyrer is Reader in Critical Theory at Liverpool John Moores University. He is the co-author of Race, Crime and Resistance (2011).

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, ix,
Prologue, 1,
1 Framing Islamophobia, 21,
2 Now you see me: fantasy and misrecognition, 41,
3 Once more, with feeling: Islamophobia and racial politics, 60,
4 Post-politics and Islamophobia, 82,
5 Democrat, moderate, Other, 102,
6 Islamophobia beyond the war on terror, 123,
7 Questions, questions, questions: reframing Islamophobia, 147,
Epilogue, 169,
Bibliography, 174,
Index, 193,



Framing Islamophobia

So, where to begin? Perhaps we should start at the beginning by pointing out that Islamophobia is a form of religious discrimination that emerged most forcefully as a backlash against Muslims in the wake of the terrorist atrocities that occurred on 11 September 2001. Only it didn't. The term was originally coined in the late 1980s (Quraishi 2005: 60). Then again, it had first been used some decades earlier at the start of the twentieth century (Vakil 2011). But wait, for Islamophobia is not a form of religious discrimination at all, but an emblematic expression of contemporary biopolitical racism (Tyrer 2011). Anyway, these conflicting accounts are actually of little consequence, since Islamophobia does not even exist other than as a cynically imagined political device designed to override our right to offend the foolish by critiquing their beliefs (Toynbee 2005). Since these disagreements over Islamophobia are so fundamental to its meaning, we really ought to start over from a different point of departure and begin with a recognition of its contestedness, for perhaps in this we can find the key to unlock the politics at stake in Islamophobia. To do this it is helpful to begin in Britain since this is where such contests first emerged in their current form and have been most visibly played out, and then to broaden our understanding of this field of contest to other fronts.

Although the term Islamophobia has a longer history than is often acknowledged, the publication of the Runnymede Trust's report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All (Runnymede Trust 1997) revived the term and opened up a new political field by drawing attention to the phenomenon of discrimination against Muslims that seemed to occur in a number of fields and which was increasingly visible in media portrayals. The context in which the report was produced was shaped by two related factors. First, an earlier report on anti-Semitism published by the Trust (Runnymede Trust 1994) had recommended that a similar report on discrimination facing Muslims be produced. This implied an acknowledgement that Islamophobia's form is not unique, but that there are certain parallels with wider expressions of racism with which we are familiar in the West. Second, a significant shift in racial politics in Britain had witnessed the emergence of a Muslim identity politics that appeared to displace traditional modes of identification along the lines of established racial and ethnic signifiers, and this brought into play questions concerning the relating emergence of a form of discrimination that emerged around their naming as Muslims. The report termed this form of discrimination Islamophobia, a naming that had the effect of exceptionalising Islamophobia by disarticulating it from wider expressions of racism with which it seemed to share a family appearance. This move was cemented through the report's definition of Islamophobia as 'unfounded hostility towards Islam' (Runnymede Trust 1997: 4), which combined with the reference to Islam in its coining to open a space for conceiving of Islamophobia as a form of religious, rather than racial, discrimination. This definition was qualified with the recognition that Islamophobia 'refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs' (Runnymede Trust 1997: 4). This recognition implied that religion was not the only thing at stake in Islamophobia, but that the treatment of human populations was also a factor, and as such it hinted at the possibility that its manifestations mirrored those of racism. But the curious thing about the ensuing debates was the extent to which they mobilised a curious series of narrative devices that had the effect of instituting a quest to isolate the ontically pure form taken by Muslim identities as a means of determining whether Islamophobia could most helpfully be understood as racial or religious. At the heart of these contests was the notion that subjects who are essentially religious experience religious discrimination while those who are essentially racial experience racism, and as they played out they gave way to a wider politics concerned not simply with the terms on which we can construe Islamophobia, but with the pursuit of a politics in which fictive racial certainties became the final arbiter of the political acceptability of enunciations about Muslims. A more colloquial way of expressing this would be that a wider politics was introduced through the red herring of race.

What? Ham? Are You Crazy?

A synonym occasionally substituted for red herring is MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock used MacGuffins to good effect in a number of films including North By Northwest, in which Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) finds himself at the sharp end of a manhunt having been mistaken for a man named Kaplan who possesses secret information. Now information, whether secret or otherwise, is always a good thing to have, but in this case it counts for nought, for neither the viewer nor Roger Thornhill ever discover what it is. In any case there is no guarantee that the real keeper of this information even exists. Hitchcock used the term MacGuffin to describe such futile devices, and his explanation of the term involved a conversation between two passengers on a train. One enquired into the nature of a package in the charge of his fellow passenger. The owner replied that it was a MacGuffin, which he defined as a contraption designed for catching lions in Scotland. When the first passenger drew attention to the absence of lions from the Highlands, the owner of the mysterious package replied 'Then that's no MacGuffin' (Cohen 2005: 156). A MacGuffin is thus a pretext or red herring (Insdorf 1994: 43); a device that has a presence in spite of its apparent immateriality, which is crucial in driving the plot forwards, and yet which is at the same time insignificant since it simply does not exist – nor does it matter – outside the economy of the plot it is deployed to press.

The notion of MacGuffin is an interesting metaphor for the politics at stake in how we understand what is meant by Islamophobia. For although it is well established that there is no scientific basis for the racial categories we use, debates about Islamophobia came to entail a quest to trace the existence of this most fluid and contested of social constructions as a means of determining whether or not Islamophobia can be said to exist. Within the terms of this debate, the idea was repeatedly expressed that since Muslim identities are not properly racial, either Islamophobia cannot be accurately described as racism or, worse, it cannot be said to exist at all. Thus, rather than engaging in a substantive analysis of the nature and form of Islamophobia and its positioning within a wider racial politics, the quest to uncover the essential nature of Muslim identities (whether properly racial or not) acted as a device that could drive forward a wider narrative of denial while foreclosing politicisation around experiences of Islamophobia. Race thus took the form of a red herring that could displace particular types of debates and modes of politics and institute others. But in itself there is nothing novel about the suggestion that Muslim identities lack a phenotypical basis. Once we accept that race has no scientific basis but instead refers to the ways in which subjects are constructed as racial, then to suggest that Muslim identities lack this biological racial ground is neither remarkable nor unique among social groups (Patel and Tyrer 2011). Thus: Muslims are not properly racial – but so what? In the style of our lion-hunting rail passenger, we could perhaps retort, 'Then that's no MacGuffin'.

Nevertheless the notion remains that the failure to trace a phenotypal basis for Muslim identities can undercut its recognition. For example, Weller (2006: 303) frames Islamophobia as discrimination on religious grounds and notes that the refocusing of the far right British National Party's racial politics onto Muslims constitutes a 'suspension' of its racist agenda (Weller 2006: 318). This is curious, for all the evidence suggests that its focus on Islamophobia does not displace its racial politics but that it is central to its contemporary articulation. To support his argument Weller cites Islamophobic BNP literature from 2001 issued under the slogan 'Winning for White Oldham: Winning for You' (Weller 2006: 318), but this undermines his position because a politics mobilised around racialised subject positions such as White is clearly organised under the horizon of race. That its Others are rearticulated as Muslim does not dispel its racial intent, but it does open up a new form of racial politics in which the ambiguous nature of Islamophobia (whether racial or religious) presents the opportunity for disavowal and denial of racism. The contests over the nature of Islamophobia and the continued deferral of its recognition as racism thus have the effect of keeping open spaces for the pursuit of racial politics that would otherwise appear politically incorrect, anachronistic, or extreme were traditional signifiers for racial difference to be employed. Across Europe and the United States, parties of the populist far right have made the most of this kind of MacGuffinery about phenotypical race that reduces the very definition of racial politics to a surface effect of the inherent biological difference of the racialised, rather than the contested object of a wider politics. The space opened by this reliance upon notions of the ontically pure racial subject as the determinant of racism has been exploited by the far right with a certain cynically knowing innocence. For example, on a number of occasions in 2008 British National Party activists issued Islamophobic leaflets and then, when their members were arrested, staged demonstrations that would coincide with the release without charge of the activists who, of course, had not committed crimes under UK race law (Patel and Tyrer 2011: 41). In 2006 the party's leader Nick Griffin – a man previously convicted of incitement to racial hatred on account of his holocaust denial – was again tried in court for incitement to racial hatred, this time on account of his Islamophobic rhetoric. Griffin and his co-defendant were, of course, cleared on this occasion, and in his defence Griffin made the key point that his views could not be described as racist precisely because they had not attacked a race. In contemporary far right discourse this logic is especially important, for in framing the disavowal of racism it enables political parties to remain within the terms of the law. For example, after the Flemish Vlaams Blok party was subjected to a de facto ban on grounds of discrimination in 2004, its relaunch as Vlaams Belang was accompanied by attempts to formally clean up its act while making the Muslim question even more central to its rhetoric; this was, after all, possible without risking the accusation of racism. In February 2012 Vlaams Belang politician Filip Dewinter initiated a 'women against Islamization' campaign accompanied by a poster in which an attractive young woman (his daughter) posed in bikini and burka, emblazoned – the poster, not the model – with the slogans: 'Vrijheid of islam? Durven kiezen!' [Freedom or Islam? Dare to choose!]. In an interview in De Standaard under the headline 'Dochter van Filip Dewinter is een boerkababe' [Filip Dewinter's daughter is a burkababe], An-Sofie Dewinter explained her decision to participate in the campaign on the grounds that 'women are fighting against the Islamization of society. We must dare to choose between freedom and Islam' (De Standaard 2012). This provided a justification of the campaign as simply a legitimate engagement over women's rights pursued through criticism of Islam in the abstract.

But there was more to the campaign than simply a critique of religion, and it also involved Filip Dewinter taking to the streets with two burka-clad women bearing posters emblazoned with the slogan 'Stop immigratie' [Stop immigration]. Indeed, in her interview with De Standaard, An-Sofie also claimed that White women are subjected to pressure over their attire by ethnic minority youth, and noted the prospect that they may eventually have to wear a headscarf, shifting the emphasis away from a critique of religion to the threat of Others. The attempt to deny the racist nature of Islamophobia is of utility in extending a particular racial politics without risking the accusation of racism, and in doing so it also centres problematic ideas of phenotypal racial difference, not by labelling Muslims as biologically bounded but by contrasting Muslims against other minorities who are held as such. It thus guarantees the continued hold of race as the basis for organising society and distinguishing between subjects, because it holds phenotypal race as the logical arbiter of whether racism can be said to exist. However, it also constructs Muslims as a lack – as lacking raciality. An important feature of the attempts to deny Islamophobia's racist nature is that they enable the far right to present themselves as defenders of democratic values such as free speech, through the argument that they are not targeting minority populations but simply criticising religion. In fact this putative defence of free speech is not the sole preserve of the populist and far right; Richardson (2004: 128) claims that liberals have used the question of free speech as a 'stock' topic against Muslims. Indeed, when the Runnymede Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia first published its consultation paper, the Independent on Sunday newspaper ran a headline accusing the Runnymede Trust of wanting to be Islamically Correct (Runnymede Trust 1997: 4). Writing in the Guardian newspaper in the context of wider political debate about protection against anti-Muslim racism which she opposed, Toynbee (2005) asserted a hardened distinction between race and religion by way of arguing in turn that the notion of Islamophobia is simply a 'nonsense'. In a similar vein Kenan Malik (2005) retreated into similar factual MacGuffinery to argue not only that Muslims are not ontically racial, but moreover that the extent of Islamophobia has been exaggerated both to stifle free speech and consolidate the power of Muslim community leaders. In 2010 the novelist Ian McEwan broadened this, suggesting that to criticise Islam is not racist and that Islamists who promote such agendas are the 'shock-troops for the armchair left' (Adams 2010).

In turn this logic has given way to the emergence of a politics of offence involving contests over the right to offend Muslims. I shall return to this in Chapter 5, though for the time being I am concerned with how this has overshadowed attempts to recognise Islamophobia by reducing it simply to a question of the right to criticise religion. Thus, this politics emerges in the space opened by the contests over the nature of Islamophobia (which are themselves moored to assumptions about the ontic purity of racialised subjects). In this context the Netherlands has proved an important site of struggle over free speech. In 2004 the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh released his controversial film Submission, based on a script by Ayaan Hirsi Ali that engaged with the problem of violence against women in Muslim societies. Van Gogh's own advocacy for free speech was not unproblematic; some years previously he had been convicted of anti-Semitism. Following his murder at the hands of an Islamist extremist his renown grew, and the influence of the case on debates about Muslims and Islamophobia across Europe cannot be understated. Cherribi (2011) has demonstrated its role in shaping the emergence of Islamophobia beyond the Netherlands to Germany and Austria, arguing that 'neither the [Danish] cartoons [of the prophet Muhammad] nor [Geert] Wilder's Fitna would have been possible without the precedent of Submission, which raised the provocative spectre of what could be made of the Western free press among Islamic fundamentalists. After Submission, 'Europe simply could not leave the topic of the free press and Islam alone' (Cherribi 2010: 209). In the Netherlands Geert Wilders, Leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), twice went to trial before finally being cleared of hate speech in 2011. Alexandre Caeiro and Frank Peter (2007) discuss a further case where in September 2006 a French teacher named Redeker wrote an article about the 'Islamic threat' that was published in Le Figaro. This led to criticism of the newspaper on Al Jazeera and its banning in Tunisia and Egypt, while the teacher received death threats that forced him out of his job and home. In the ensuing furore Le Monde published a cartoon that 'perhaps best expressed the angst of large sections of French society: in a depressing and sombre modern city populated by menacing women covered in black, a white Frenchman gesticulates anxiously to a friend about to eat a sandwich: "What? Ham? Are you crazy or what?"' (Caeiro and Peter 2007: 26). It is perhaps also worth noting that a Le Monde columnist also responded to Redeker's article by stating that 'We would certainly not have published it. Our "Debates" pages are not a place for empty insults but for analysis' (Todorov 2010: 147). In their discussion of the Redeker case Caeiro and Peter note that the attempt to represent the case as the inevitable result of a clash of civilisations silenced the voices of Muslim dissent that had condemned the appalling threats made against the teacher. In this there is an important point to be made, for the contests over Islamophobia that give way to a wider politics of offence have the effect of foreclosing politicisation against Islamophobia while opening an alternative field of racial politics that places the Muslim question at its heart.

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