Ours is a righteous cause,” says Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) of the English Defence League, “Alright, OK,” replies Jeremy Paxman, anchor of BBC2’s flagship news programme Newsnight, “A lot of people are worried, I believe you.
The decision to invite the EDL to appear on Newsnight on February ahead of the its march on Luton planned for February 5, touted as the “the biggest demonstration in its 18-month history” according to The Guardian, was ill-informed. Those interested in engaging in the ‘no platform’ debate may do so. However, what was more striking about the Newsnight appearance was Paxman’s ultimate inability to counter the incendiary, anti-Muslim statements tripping off Lennon’s tongue. Inability or unwillingness?
Although Paxman countered Lennon’s characterisation of Islam as a religion or culture that promotes violence, rape, pimping, and homophobia, by asking whether this is representative of Muslims as a whole and suggesting that a minority among all communities engages in these activities, he makes no attempt to decouple the link between something being called ‘Muslim culture’ and violence, sexism and homophobia. Anyone sympathetic to the notion that Muslims are more likely than any other group to be responsible for such behaviour would not have ended the programme believing that there might be another side to the story. The reason for Paxman’s ineffectualness is not, I believe, because he is actually an Islamophobe but that there is a convergence between the EDL’s position, as expressed by Lennon, and general public consensus which is based on the position espoused by political leaders. The common sense is that there is something that is intrinsic to Islam (and hence Muslims – although the two are far from being the same) which leads them to be more sexist, homophobic or violent than the rest of the population.
This is classic racialization: stereotypes about a particular group of people (often clumped together in a homogenising mass that ignores the internal differences among them) are naturalised and made to stand for them. We are thus no longer able to see Muslims without perceiving the stereotypes about them that abound. The debate I participated in on Wednesday night at the Brighton Dome was a case in point. The majority of the panel and the audience was against the proposal that EU countries are right to ban the wearing of religious symbols (75% of the audience polled) and thought that the bans were actually about Islam per se rather than religions in general. Nonetheless, the representative of the Humanist Society, Peter Cave, represented the belief that in fact represents the majority in society at large – that allowing the wearing of the burka, for example, is a slippery slope towards honour killings and forced marriages. In other words, a simple choice to dress according to a particular interpretation of religious belief was linked directly to the ability to kill another human being. Needless to say, as indeed Paxman was meekly attempting to point out on Newsnight, if this type of argument was made about another group in society, it would not go down as easily. Kudos therefore to the audience at the Dome for largely rejecting it!
Both Lennon and Paxman are mired, therefore, in the contemporary logic that discursively separates between racism and the objection to practices associated with a racialized group; in this case, Muslims. A postracial agenda that relativises the significance of racism and increasingly portrays it as ‘reversed’ – enacted by minorities against an embattled and cowed white majority – has become entrenched. It is within this hegemonic consensus that attacks on Muslim people of the vile nature expressed by Lennon become banalised and palatable: there is, nothing, it is argued unique to Muslims that mean they deserve greater protection against slur and attacks of this kind. Postracialism artificially puts everyone on an equal footing by discounting the relevance of colonialism, racism, immigration, and the contemporary civilizational discourse that pits Islam against the West. Muslims, in this vision are not only responsible for more of the violence in society, but their status as a minority group has afforded them unjustifiable protection; it is time now to unveil (pun intended) them and their true intentions.
Postracialism masquerades under the guise of equality to deliver the most pernicious form of racism, one that is purposefully disingenuous. Lennon’s discourse, and Paxman’s easy capitulation to it, demonstrates how widespread an acceptance of the postracial agenda has spread. The EDL talks the talk of equality and diversity, integrating the language of tolerance and inclusivity: everyone who abhors what Muslims are purportedly doing to British society – Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and gays included – are welcome to join. What acceptance of this discourse and the fact the EDL does have prominent members of all of these groups do is to dismiss the degree to which a certain form of racism has today become compatible with a commitment to diversity and tolerance.
While theorists of ‘culturalist racism’ in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Martin Barker and Verena Stolcke, were taking note of how far right-wing parties were using the language of multiculturalism to make them more politically palatable, the current status quo is slightly different. The EDL’s diversity-speak emerges from contemporary racial arrangements: diversity and exclusion complement rather than oppose each other. Under current arrangements, representing a certain form of acceptable, or ‘good diversity’ (not rocking the boat, being secular – or at least not Muslim, shedding the excesses of your ethnic particularism…) can be painted as acceptable. However whoever diverts from the, albeit ever-changing, script of ‘good diversity’ quickly falls into the category of ‘bad diversity’ (the religious, the radical, the angry, the economically useless, etc.). Where you are on the spectrum can change (Muslims were not construed as a particular problem prior to 1989), and that is the convenience of racism today: it is essentially drawn up around shifting inclusions in and exclusions from ‘good diversity’. However, the lip-service paid to diversity itself shields us – the EDL included – from being condemned as racist because, it is suggested, one need only reject ‘bad diversity’ and become ‘good diverse’ subjects for the spotlight to be taken off. The fact that the dividing lines between good and bad are constantly being redrawn is rarely drawn attention to, but it is this that should make us wary of the postracial agenda and its utility in facilitating the persistence of racism.