Home Front

By Ali Nobil Ahmad, 12 January 2004

The British press is increasingly prepared to identify a new American imperialism in the global arena. When it comes to related domestic subjects however, even its liberal left seems incapable of expressing anti-imperialist interpretations. Analysed together with the generalised hysteria over Islam, the outlines of a new racial ideology start to emerge. By Ali Nobil Ahmad


Although immigration and the presence of Islam in the West are by no means historically new social phenomena, the unprecedented centrality they have come to acquire in public debate compels more careful consideration than has been forthcoming. Existing media speculation on the ‘problems’ resulting from the migration and settlement of Muslims in Occidental domains tends to focus either on perceived threats to internal security or the supposed eradication of social cohesion due to the presence of ‘different’ cultures, and feeds into wider anxieties about the general drain on resources caused by the growing infiltration of ‘greedy economic migrants’ posing as refugees. The new common sense dictates that none of these apparent ills get analysed with reference to causality or social context, so that even where the West has a hand in precipitating large scale displacements of populations (for instance, by bombing countries like Afghanistan as part of its ‘war on terror’), those who dare seek asylum within its borders are disconnected from the origins of their journey at the moment they enter European space. Whilst they are by no means the sole victims of this ideological trick, Muslim immigrants in the west occupy a privileged position among those groups variously demonised as belonging outside the West but constantly threatening to permeate, contaminate and destroy what lies within it. Their representation as aliens provides the glue in liberal and right-wing rhetoric that yokes their status as threats to the local/national, to that of a more global menace to advanced capital. This process, by which well established traditions of prejudice are being restructured in accordance with new regimes of capital accumulation, is the latest chapter in an older story of racialisation.

Shifts in the political-economy of imperialism have generated a gradual displacement in the hegemonic discourse of 20th century anti-communism and skin-colour based colonial racism by a more ‘differentialist’ neo-racism of the kind suffered historically by the Jews. The latter is now increasingly mobilised to envelop ‘deviants’ as diverse as Arabs, Muslims, immigrants and asylum seekers. Islamophobia’s victims, in other words, are not just Muslims. Its power, rather, derives from the fact of its deep intertwinement with broader reactionary and xenophobic currents being stirred up to deflect attention from the failings of the post- Keynesian state. Who better to explain the problematic of this new imperial agenda than Francis Fukuyama, former US official and celebrated neoliberal ‘philosopher’, whose pronouncements have taken a decidedly Huntingdonian turn since Al-Qaida’s horrific attack on New York: There does seem to be something about Islam, or at least fundamentalist Islam, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity…Islam is the only cultural system that regularly seems to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, who reject modernity, lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of how representative such people are of the larger Muslim community…Certainly the number of people willing to go on suicide missions and actively conspire against the US is tiny. But sympathy for them…extends from the middle-classes in countries like Egypt to immigrants in the west.1 Whether in the Middle-East or in Bradford, whether suicide bombing or expressing sympathy with suicide bombers, Muslims signify, for Fukuyama, a frustrating, stubborn rearguard force: a unitary block of backwardness between the market and its goal of Ending History.

It isn’t hard to imagine how, in the context of debates on Britain’s immigration ‘problem’, such vague depictions of Islamic anti-modernity translate into suspicion and hostility against groups such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, now increasingly homogenised under the general category of Muslim. As the Bush doctrine reverberates down the imperial chain into Britain, resurgent conservatisms claim 9/11 as vindication of its suspicions against the now dominant liberal multiculturalism which rose to hegemony in the 1980s. Right-wing media commentators have sought to restore the esteem of Britain’s ‘host’ population. Now is the time, they feel, for the natives to recuperate territory lost to the aggrandising projects of antiracism and ‘political correctness’, as Minette Marrin of The Sunday Times explains in her column: The massacres of September 11 have brought many extraordinary changes and one of them has been in the way that people talk. Suddenly, all kinds of unsayable things have become sayable. In particular, all sorts of things about multiculturalism are being murmured.2 This ‘growing national frankness’, she asserts, is rolling back ‘the assumption of multiculturalism that all cultures are equal and deserve equal respect’, ‘an idea that almost nobody actually believes in.’ It was only ever accepted, we are told, because ‘decent people with such doubts have been cowed into silence for years’ by ‘the bullies of the race relations industry’ advancing the interests of a mere ‘8% of Britons’ (‘racial minorities’) at the expense of ‘the indigenous culture of Britain’ which has been ‘shamed, belittled, ignored’. ‘Our national identity’, Marrin goes on, ‘has been weakened and confused.’ ‘Our’, here, of course, excludes Britain’s ‘racial minorities’ who do not apparently share ‘our’ history, and possess ‘minority cultures’ which ‘desecrate the sacred western belief in the rights of women.’ For guardians of this higher civilisation – those who knew the damning truth about ‘minority cultures’ all along but had to bite their tongues for fear of being dubbed a racist in the 1980s and 90s – the post 9/11 publicity accorded to female circumcision has conveniently ‘shown people in the light’. Now not even those of a more liberal persuasion, who once may have turned a blind eye to such exotic barbarities in the interests of ‘multicultural tolerance’, can ignore the plain truths of Oriental despotism. Most people would struggle to connect female genital mutilation and Al-Qaida’s attack on New York. Not Marrin. Their common roots in anti-western barbaric forces are obvious enough, and allow her to treat the ‘problems’ of Islam, terrorism and immigration as one.

Her remarks should be understood within the context of Home Secretary David Blunkett’s public lamentation of the lack of ‘cohesion’ in northern mill towns like Oldham and Bradford. Where there was at least some minimal acceptance in liberal circles of the notion that unemployment and alienation lead to the 1981 outbreaks of discontent in Toxteth, Liverpool and Brixton, the current government’s reaction to the disturbances in Oldham and elsewhere fostered the view of young British Muslims as ‘culturally different’ even before 9/11, so that the picture painted is one of an obstinate group not wanting to be part of ‘our’ society. Blunkett did not go so far as to draw any connection between his own hardening line and more aggressive western foreign policy after 9/11. The timing, however, of his statements on ‘abhorrent’ minority cultural practices have allowed others like Marrin to make the obvious inferences. (See also Anustup Basu’s article, p. 64)

Journalist Lesley White is another who took advantage of the post-9/11 atmosphere to get stuck into ‘multiculturalism’ in a lengthy front page feature for the Sunday Times Magazine which sets up Oldham as the dark heart of Northern England, the object of a courageous anthropological investigation into the causes of ‘racial conflict’ that led to the apparent creation of ‘no-go’ areas for white people.3 Daringly, she arranges to be driven around Glodwick estate by a white resident at night past ‘a gang of Asian teenagers’, recounting the episode in Conradian tones: ‘Their smiles contort to an absurdly exaggerated sneer; one holds my gaze in a silent hostile demand: what are you doing here, white woman?...a moment of indignation overtakes my nervousness; why shouldn’t I be driving through a street at 10pm in my own bloody country? [her italics]. Now there’s a thought for the enlightened multiculturalist.’4

‘Anti-immigrant racism’, asserts White, ‘is something of the past.’ Now Britain’s besieged natives are the ‘ethnic minority’. The communities she describes are portrayed as strong and aggressive rather than biologically inferior, as were young black men in the 1980s, when the social problems triggered by de-industrialisation first kicked in. With the deepening of this malaise under New Labour, the same trope is being remobilised to frame a new scapegoat. This time, in accordance with the logic of neo-racism, the old skin-colour term ‘Asian’ is used in Oldham ‘to describe only Pakistanis and Bangladeshis’ (‘The Indians aren’t Asian, you’re confidently informed’). Of course older racial ideologies directed against other non-white groups continue to operate alongside the dominant Islamophobia that White discovers. But the geographic concentration of South Asian Muslims in the poorest former industrial districts of the North (and East London) alongside the bitter white working classes abandoned by New Labour, together with the emergence of visibly integrated Indian middle class, has indeed strengthened the perception that religion rather than skin colour is the primary site of ‘difference’. Hardly surprising then, that the BNP, who took votes from all the major parties in the last election, concentrated its efforts in areas heavily populated by Muslims who, for party leader Nick Griffin constitute ‘the biggest problem at present.’ This is not only because ‘Islam is an aggressive religion’, but also because they ‘have a high birth rate’ and need ‘living space’.5 Similarly Malthusian references to British Muslims, deemed to be ‘importing poverty’ by Labour politicians like Anne Cryer, underline the irritation caused by their stubborn refusal to sever ties with their communities of origin in the South, and do much to expose the real concerns that lie behind a good part of the talk about social cohesion – if this wasn’t obvious enough following Blunkett’s drive to curb transcontinental marriages. Marrin puts it frankly: ‘Any arranged marriage is unappealing, perhaps even shocking to people within the host culture,’ but what ‘causes real resentment’ is the suspicion that ‘the point is to get a prized British passport for the foreigner and to enable people to jump the immigration queue.’

There are, of course, genuine issues of gender oppression at stake in forced marriages. And one has to agree with the left liberal Guardian journalist Ian Buruma in the bankruptcy of cultural relativism: the notion that ‘all customs and habits must be tolerated, regardless of their merits’ is, few would dispute, misguided.

Problems with Buruma’s benevolent concern for the plight of oppressed immigrant women, however, emerge as early as the title of the article, ‘Why Blunkett is right about curbing arranged marriages’, which simply conflates ‘forced’ and ‘arranged’ marriages even more clumsily than does Marrin in her more hostile rantings.

A decontextualised ‘feminist’ analysis of the psychological process they supposedly perpetuate then allows him to conclude:‘It is humiliating to force a young woman to marry a stranger from a far away village, with whom she has nothing in common apart from her race. The father chose to live in a strange country. The daughter was born here…discouraging long-distance arranged marriages helps to promote integration in Britain and thus the chance of individual happiness.’6 Once more, Buruma’s assumption that ‘longdistance arranged marriages’ are always forced upon unwilling victims by an all powerful patriarch is not necessarily sound, but let that pass; we shouldn’t dispute the existence of harsh forms of patriarchy within impoverished migrant communities. The problem is more that his touching concern for the ‘integration’ and ‘individual happiness’ of migrant daughters subjected to ‘humiliation’ by patriarchal fathers rather conceals the historical context in which this scenario was produced in the first place, namely state sponsored migration put into effect to meet British demand for workers in those segments of the labour market evacuated by poor white women.

Moreover, that some of the greatest humiliations undergone by migrant women, particularly in the British context, have historically been perpetuated by the imperial state. The infamous virgin tests, in which brides arriving from the subcontinent were subjected to medical examinations in order to prove their virginity and thus their status as authentic Asian brides to British immigration officials spring most immediately to mind.

Without conflating the Far Right with these liberal intellectuals and politicians, it seems legitimate to point out that what we see after 9/11 is merely a respectable version of claims made by the former entering the mainstream. If Buruma’s feminist discourse is subtle in colluding with this process, Marrin’s assertion that ‘we have been embarrassed out of standing up to those who despise our values, the book burners, the terrorists’ casually conflates Al- Qaida and Britain’s Muslim communities (who for many came to be signified by the trope of ‘book burners’ after a few Bradford mullahs torched some copies of The Satanic Verses in 1988) in a manner that is little different to BNP leader Nick Griffin’s sweeping claims about Islam. She too regards the latter as a homogeneous global entity whose content can be reduced to the sum of the actions of its most extreme manifestations.

Along with Buruma, she attributes the clouds of suspicion gathering over ‘moderate’ Muslims to their regrettable failure to distance themselves from the Jihadis. Just how many of Britain’s one million Muslims either of them consulted before reaching this conclusion remains unclear. Within the British Muslim public sphere, condemnation of terrorism has in fact come from virtually all quarters. Its shortcoming as far as the mainstream is concerned, one suspects, is that it tends to be directed at terrorism in all its forms, including that perpetrated by western governments.

What, then, is the material effect on policy of this distortive media debate on ‘terrorism’ and the loyalty of British Muslims? Although difficult to measure in precise terms, the latest Tory proposals aimed at curbing immigration suggest it fosters an atmosphere in which ever more draconian policing of borders will become the norm. Outflanked by New Labour’s increasingly hard line on these matters, the Conservatives are left with little strategic alternative but to drag the political centre of the debate still further to the right, as is clear from their proposal to introduce health screening of those who wish to enter Britain as part of a bid to stifle ‘NHS tourism’. The latest statistics, allegedly, betray an increase in numerous infectious diseases in Britain on a scale unseen in years, a fact which apparently reflects the growing tendency to migrate here for free health care. London, according to Liam Fox, Tory Health Spokesman, is ‘the TB capital of the western world.’ The London borough of Newham, a chief recipient of asylum seekers, has been repeatedly singled out as an example by reference to its high rates of TB. (The 15 per cent or so of Newham’s NHS nurses poached from poor countries, however, seldom figure in such calculations of the cost of migration to ‘our’ welfare system which, like a good many other public services, owes its very existence to migrant labour.)

That the renewed spread of infectious diseases like TB is a global problem that will not be solved by keeping ‘them’ out gets lost in the simplicity of such bile, as does the irony of the Tories and right-wing press joining forces to protect the welfare state. Concern for the plight of fellow human beings who are sick, needless to say, does not enter. It is simply presumed right and good that that these people should go off and die somewhere else. In a different world, statistics which confirm that the health of refugees deteriorates in a wealthy country where they reside in overcrowded and rat infested accommodation would be more a matter of shame for the host nation than those who seek its protection, but such is the logic of the current debate.

1 Francis Fukuyama ‘We Remain at the End of History’ The Independent October 11 20012 Minette Marrin ‘At last, a debate that will penetrate the racial fog’ in The Sunday Times February 10 2002 p213 Lesley White ‘Britain’s New Ethnic Minority’ Sunday Times Magazine 13.01.2002 p484 485 Jeevan Vasgar ‘Far Right aims to gain foothold in Oldham’ The Guardian May 30 20016 Ian Burma ‘Why Blunkett is right about curbing arranged marriageseven if it means stepping on extra-sensitive toes’ The Guardian 12.02.2002 (G2 p5) population. Now is the time, they feel, for the natives to recuperate territory Without collapsing together the Far Right with liberal intellectuals and politicians, it seems legitimate to point out that what we see after 9/11 is merely a respectable version of claims made by the former entering the mainstream

Images>'The Summer of Discontent'; Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, 2001. 'The current government reaction to the disturbances in Oldham and elsewhere fostered the view of of young British Muslims as 'culturally different' even before 9/11, so that the picture painted is one of an obstinate group not wanting to be part of 'our' society.'

Ali Nobil Ahmad <Ali.Ahmad AT > is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. His Phd is a comparative study of migration from Pakistan to London and Algeria to Paris