Doomed to Repeat Them: Islam, ‘Othering’ and Fascism

Distribution of Muslims in Europe. Image credit: Michael Bueker et al, Giornorosso et al and Visite fortuitement prolongee via Wikimedia

Shortly before I began this article, the now-infamous burkini ban was suspended in one area of the Riviera, in a ruling expected to provide a precedent with which the bans elsewhere in the country might be overturned. However, those of us who thought the ban a misguided, cynical and malicious piece of policy should nonetheless celebrate only warily. We should heed the example of the USA: the political activism of its Supreme Court has devalued its judgements for the populist sides of both right and left, who are inclined to see its rulings (especially those which do not go their way) as anti-democratic. Ironically, instead of resolving conflicts, America’s court rulings seem to stoke resentment and fuel anti-élitist sentiment. Most likely the Front National will be the beneficiaries in the long term of this decision in France.

The burkini ban is symptomatic of a more deep-seated hardening of attitudes against perceived Islamic alterity, ‘otherness’. The language of the part of the right that considers itself to be waging an ideological war against Islam (in particular the newly-prominent so-called ‘alt-right’, though this is only the loudest part of a much larger throng) stresses the aspects of Muslim behaviour and alleged Muslim behaviour that separate them from the rest of the population. We see commentators, currently marginalised but gaining ground, insisting that Islam is ‘incompatible’ with liberal democracy (never mind that they themselves often hold views that approach the fascistic), all as part of an effort to ingrain in the public consciousness a caricature of the Muslim as sinister, alien, and treacherous, deliberately making ruptures in the social fabric.

Europe has seen this before. In the central Middle Ages, there was a similar hardening of attitudes against non-Christians, and particularly against Jewish communities. In the same way, it was believed that they were consciously separating themselves from Christian society; it came to be believed, further, that their presence was actively poisoning it, a fear with unnerving parallels in our own time. Entirely false accusations of ‘blood libel’ were used to present them as a threat to individual Christians, and prejudice was reinforced on the small scale by Christians’ resentful visits to moneylenders, a trade into which Jews were channelled by law; Muslims today are regularly portrayed as child abusers on the basis of particular incidents. It was believed that Jews formed an active global network, their loyalty to which exceeded their loyalty to the community; in the same way, it is imagined today that Muslims have a greater affinity to foreigners of the same faith than to their countrymen.

The implications of these parallels are grim. Once the notion of Jewish alterity had ensconced itself in the European consciousness, persecution of the group was ramped up. The Talmud was condemned by the Church and publicly burned. Popular anti-Semitic violence became increasingly common. Legal restrictions on their rights became more and more punitive. The culmination of this was a series of expulsions from western European countries, beginning with England in 1280 and reaching their horrifying zenith in the notorious Spanish expulsion of 1492, in which 40,000 people were banished from their home without even their possessions. At this moment, one of the two contenders for the leadership of the free world is advocating a temporary ban on Muslim migration to the USA, and has proposed increasing surveillance on Muslims. Muslims everywhere talk about their experiences of casual abuse. Who knows where legal and popular action against Muslims will end? We have a chilling precedent.

Another significant similarity exists between mediaeval European Jews and modern European Muslims. The people’s prejudice against Jews was aggravated by the link between Jewish communities and political élites: monarchs and nobles tended to bring Jews under their personal protection for the sake of raising easy loans from them. Christians regarded these relationships as detrimental to their own interests and resented the apparent preferential treatment. Today, Muslims are linked with, in hackneyed right-wing phrasing, the ‘liberal élites’, who, the right believe, are willing to turn a blind eye to Muslim misdeeds, while silencing those who criticise Muslims with the charge of ‘Islamophobia’.

No doubt part of this is scapegoating, part of it the result of the irresponsibility of the right-wing press. However, there are ways in which this criticism of liberals rings true. Too many liberals have, in their efforts to deny the alterity of Muslims, gone too far the other way and made critics of Islam an ‘other’. Racism is treated like an inherent and irredeemable attribute of certain humans (if they might be granted the label) rather than the product of environmental conditioning. Meanwhile, Right-wingers commonly complain, and perhaps with some justice, that accusations of Islamophobia are used to delegitimate and stamp out the mildest criticism of Muslims or Islam.

Liberals make an easy polarity between decent people and racists. Such a polarity might seem natural and indeed socially beneficial, but resentment is beginning to grow that the fear associated with being designated one of the latter leads many to self-censor, to silence qualms that they have about Islam. The experience of totalitarian régimes throughout history shows that isolation might achieve temporary acquiescence, but is not a good method of persuasion. This pressure not to speak one’s mind dovetails with actual legal restrictions on public criticism of Islam and Muslims, helping to foment in large sections of the right a sense that they are being silenced, formally and informally. Again, some will argue that this is beneficial, as it renders racism illegitimate. In reality, this is not how human beings think. People resent the feeling that they are prevented from speaking their minds; in some cases, it confirms to them that the ‘liberal élite’ is engaged in a conspiracy to afford Muslims special treatment, or else and more sinister still in the pocket of Muslims with an agenda to seize power in European states. If this sounds melodramatic, look at some right-wing Facebook pages. People believe it, and their belief is being reinforced by liberal heavy-handedness.

In addition to their concerns about their freedom of speech, right-wingers tend to brandish the charge of ‘liberal hypocrisy’. Again, those trying to take this allegation with a pinch of salt might find more than a grain of truth in it. The burkini ban might have been stupid and ill-intentioned, but that did not call for a chorus of liberals to begin defending and praising women’s decision to preserve their ‘modesty’ on the beach. Since when did liberals endorse the idea of ‘modesty’ as a female virtue? A right-winger talking about female modesty would be mocked mercilessly, and rightly so. To adopt this language is a betrayal of our principles and of women, in particular these Muslim women.

The same goes for Islamic laws on covering in general. The entire purpose of the niqab and the burqa, both usually instinctively excused by liberals, is to prevent women from offering ‘temptation’ to the roving eyes of men. When an elderly judge or politician deems that a woman brought her sexual harassment or assault on herself by dressing ‘provocatively’, liberals vehemently and rightfully castigate them. Where, then, is the liberal critique of these Islamic garments? Liberals remained shamefully silent when it emerged last year that within certain communities, Muslim women were being ordered not to stand for political office for the Labour Party by local patriarchs. Recently a Muslim youth was beaten up the street in front of his girlfriend — not by skinheads, but by another Muslim man who did not think a Muslim couple should be immodestly expressing their love for one another by kissing in public. This incident provoked no discussion and apparently no reflection regarding the traditional mores that still haunt certain British Muslims, as they do certain (and more commonly derided) British non-Muslims. Again and again, the liberal left has conspicuously remained silent when Muslims have acted illiberally. Others see this, and have come to despise them for it. It seems once again to confirm the idea that liberals and Muslims are in cahoots, or that liberals have more regard for Muslims than for non-Muslims, that a Muslim is not to be subjected to the same standards as a non-Muslim. It makes no difference whether or not this is true, and risible: what matters is the impression we make, which is damaging the credibility of our arguments.

Until liberals can simultaneously decry legislation regulating women’s sartorial choices and query the healthiness of a religious culture that fetishes the concealing of the female body; until they can worry about both the wellbeing of British Muslims and the implications of the instances of misogyny and homophobia that sometimes surface in their community; until they can accept that there are excessively insular Muslim communities which earn the distrust of all of their non-Muslim neighbours, not just of bigots; until, in short, they can recognise and condemn equally the illiberalism in all of Britain’s communities, their opinion will be devalued. This is not about pandering to far-right opinion, or being ‘tough on Islam’. It is about being intellectually consistent and fair-minded. Keep saying ‘Not all Muslims’; just do not use it as an excuse not to confront the wrongdoings of the specific Muslim in question.

If we continue down our current path, the consequences will be dire. Liberal opinion is being devalued every day by the perceived double standards and high-handedness of liberals. It is a mistake to endorse even tacitly the polarity constructed by the anti-Islam right between ‘pro-Muslims’ and ‘anti-Muslims’. If we allow the debate to be conducted along that dichotomy, make it appear as if the only options are to be wholly in favour of all Muslim actions and customs or to be wholly against them, then we risk inflating the numbers of the group that is violently opposed to Islam. A small group of diehard bigots on Facebook is not going to be able to destroy North America and Europe’s Muslims. However, if enough people are sufficiently disillusioned with liberal apologia and suspicious of Islam that they will tacitly assent to it, then just a few bigots will have enormous power.

As the cliché goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Muslims living in Europe and North America are being rendered a caricature, a homogeneous class of sub-human child abusers, misogynists, and ideological extremists. Well-intentioned liberals have chosen to respond with a similarly all-encompassing defence of Muslims. The truth is that neither blanket characterisation fits. Instead of allowing the debate to arrange itself in two simple ranks, liberals must develop a kind of critical solidarity that seeks simultaneously to stand up for the dignity of Muslims while addressing the specific instances of Muslim bigotry and the cultures which permit it. The virtue-signalling unconditional solidarity is not only obsolete, but actively damaging to the cause of liberals and Muslims. If we fail to adopt a critical solidarity, then in only a few decades’ time the long history of European Islam might be brought to an abrupt end.