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Politics in the Pub

Politics in the pubI will be participating in Politics in the Pub, speaking on the topic ‘Islamophobia in Australia: The politics of race hate in neoliberal Australia’ on February 19 2015. The other speakers are Yassir Morsi and Jock Collins. The event is held at the Harold Hotel, Glebe and begins at 18.30. I hope to see you there.


Here is the text of my talk from last Thursday’s event. A video will be made available soon.

In order to understand the particularlity and extent of Islamophobia in the West, it is necessary to understand what we mean by the ‘post-racial’.

Many people claim that we live in a post-racial time.

For those on the right, to say we are post-race, usually means that it is about time racialised minorities stopped ‘moaning’ about the injustices of the past.

It is the racism of talk-back radio show hosts who claim that Aboriginal people have been given too many hand-outs. It is the racism of Tony Abbott when he said that Sydney was ‘nothing but bush’ before the First Fleet arrived in 1788.

The Tea Party in the US is being postracial when it claims that Obama, apparently a ‘Kenyan Muslim in disguise’, now wields a mighty hand over oppressed whites, too scared to speak ‘the truth’.

For those on the Left, postracialism takes a different tack. It is usually claimed to celebrate the end of racism. For left-liberals Obama’s election is proof that the civil rights movement successfully put paid to segregation and discrimination for once and for all.

If we didn’t already know it, the recent spate of police murders in the US which unleashed the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, has put paid to that idea… you would think.

However, many are not convinced. The Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who shot innocent black teenager Michael Brown.

Just last week, the shooting dead of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill in the US by their neighbour has largely been excused as a dispute over parking despite the well-known militantly Atheist and Islamophobic views of the killer.

But although the arguments on the left and the right differ in character, they converge on the idea that there is too much talk about race; that talking about race distorts ‘rational’ conversations about the type of issues we are concerned with here this evening.

As a scholar of race, I find this very interesting. Why is talking about race seen as irrational or distorting? When racialised minorities are accused of ‘playing the race card’ it is as though they invented race and forced it upon everyone else.
But in fact, it was the other way around; Europeans invented race and used it as a system to justify colonizing, settling and usurping the resources of two-thirds of the world. Yet, it is racialised minorities who ‘play the race card’.

I want to briefly show why, far from being some kind of sleight of hand, race is not only relevant to understanding Islamophobia, but that the denial of the significance of race is part of the way in which racism is played out today.

A key feature of ‘postracialism’ is the denial of racism.

Distancing oneself from racism is now seen as more important than the racism itself.

You can observe this when there are incidents such as racism on buses or trains – there is always a comment piece in the Guardian Australia or the SMH, saying that yes, some ignorant ‘bogans’ will be always be racist but isn’t it heartening to see how many bystanders ‘stood up’ for those being attacked?

Very often, this is claimed to be part of the ‘Australian way’ – mateship or sticking up for fairness. So, being against racism is made a part of national identity. What then of the colonial genocide or the White Australia policy: were these all aberrations?

The same logic is at work in asylum seeker policy. The left likes to use slogans such as ‘not in our name’ or ‘we’re better than this’. But the question is, are we?

Distancing, deflection and denial of racism are what I call the three Ds of racism management. And what is particularly interesting about the way this works is that it is across the board – left to right.

Take, for example what the Sydney-based ‘Party for Freedom’ said on its website about the plan to build a Muslim community centre in Penrith.

The Party for Freedom is a tiny group on the fascist fringe in Australia. But there are no swastikas or other fascist iconography, nor the kind of incendiary language associated with fascist groups traditionally on their website.

Instead, the PFF claims to oppose the community centre because mosques (as it wrongly calls it) are well-known to harbour and encourage Islamist extremists.

When Muslim groups or anti-racists point at that allowing the beliefs of a small group to stand for an entire religious group amounts to racism the retort is immediately – it’s impossible to be racist towards a religion; Islam is not a race.

So, the first appeal of Islamophobes is notionally an anti-racist one. This is crucial to understand.
But what type of antiracism is it?

Many scholars, starting with Martin Barker in his book ‘The New Racism’ in 1981, have pointed out that what they called a new cultural racism had come to replace ‘old’ biological understandings of race.

The argument went that the Right had adopted an antiracist language of cultural relativism to argue that yes, race is a bogus concept – there is no such thing as biological races; there is only one human race – but that there WERE different, and the argument went, incompatible, cultures.

Unlike the multicultural left, the right argued, each cultural group had its own natural home and that immigration and cultural mixing was bad, not only for white ‘hosts’ but also for minorities whose culture also risked being diluted through migration.

While certainly, there was a shift in far-right discourse in the 80s and 90s – from open to covert racism, if you will – my argument is that the idea that culture has replaced biology is not new.

Both biological and cultural arguments have always been intertwined in racial theory.

Racialization involves taking cultural traits and making them natural or immutable. The purpose of race is to ensure the purity of reproduction and succession. This is why race emerges with imperialism and colonialism – it is inherently bound up with property: ensuring some have the right to it and others do not; who has the right to a stake in the future and who is an imposter who will be tolerated only until they claim their just share in that stake.

So, Islamophobia – just like antisemitism – is racism.

Racism imposes double standards, using isolated incidents to make generalisations about whole groups and deny them justice, and excuse violence against them on that basis.

Postracial racism not only denies its racism, on cultural grounds, but that denial of racism is one of the main vehicles through which racism functions today – adding another level that is vital to understand.

What this results in is that not only do those who face racism have to endure violence, discrimination and vilification – this is nothing new – but a second ‘postracial’ level of justification adds insult to injury.

In our book, The Crises of Multiculturalism, Gavan Titley and I argued that the post-9/11 consensus that multiculturalism was, to quote Angela Merkel, an ‘utter failure’, led to the dismantling of many of the structures put in place to deal (albeit problematically) with racism in western Europe, Canada and Australia.

The move away from multiculturalism towards a ‘mainstreaming’ of diversity is one way in which this was done. Diversity politics is a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for tackling discrimination that puts gender, disability, ethnicity, sexuality and so on in one basket.

Of course, it is vital to recognize how discriminations intersect with and exacerbate each other. But what the diversity approach encourages is a flattening out of difference, so that the roots of particular forms of injustice and exclusion become obscured.

If we no longer have any historical narrative behind racism (or indeed sexism or homophobia) we cannot explain what it is and where it came from.

It leads to racism being seen as largely an individual attitude that is universal – the argument is that it is natural for all people to be racist. This is simply historically inaccurate. There is nothing either natural or universal about the idea of race.

Further, by lumping racism in with other forms of discrimination we see sexism or homophobia, for example, being made compete with racism.

This is how the Party for Freedom, in its opposition to the Penrith Muslim Cultural Centre, can claim that Muslims are anti-women, anti-gay, and have hatred for Jews, Sikhs and non-believers.

Here we have a fascist party ostensibly taking a pro-feminist, pro-gay rights stance in the name of opposition to Muslims who, from this point of view, are portrayed as the real fascists.

But, crucially, you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between the PFF and the Attorney General, or indeed many reputable newspaper columnists.

So, postracialism creates an amazing consensus whereby mainly those with white privilege – from the leaders and opinion-makers of most western states down to their fascist fringe groups – agree that an entire religious group made up of diverse and heterogeneous populations should be brought to book because they are the chief deniers of the rights of women, sexual and other racialised minorities.

This is in a country where more than one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week.

There are many solutions proposed to this ‘threat’ – from more to less violent. But there is one thing that all Islamophobes agree on. That we must be – as the German sociologist Christian Joppke put it, ‘intolerant to be tolerant’.
Let’s take a second to consider what this means…

The postracial, post-multiculturalist argument is that Muslims have been allowed run roughshod over the rights and freedoms of the rest of us; that we have been so cowed by our own guilt for colonialism (or some such) that we ‘have bent over backwards’ to be ‘tolerant of those who only seek to silence us’.

The main way in which we – the silent, tolerant majority – have been denied our rights is through the denial of our freedom to ‘call a spade a spade’. We are not allowed to speak out about Muslims because someone is always there to call us a racist.

And because we know that the worst thing in life is to be called a racist (remember the 3 Ds) then that is doing us – the fair-minded majority – a gross injustice.

It is time this brave silent majority took the bull by the horns, threw caution to the wind, and called it like it is. In the name of freedom of speech, it is time Muslims were denied the freedoms we have given them for too long.

Wait a minute… did I just say that? It’s time we denied people freedom in the name of freedom?

In arguing for the ban on the hijab and the burqa in France, this is exactly what Christian Joppke argues, to take just one example.

And this is exactly what is being argued by the free speech warriors who arrested those who refused to ‘be Charlie’ in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders.

It is exactly what is being claimed by those who say that the Chapel Hill shootings of three Muslim students had nothing to do with race, but was a mundane disagreement over parking.

What is essentially being said is that only some of us get to define our experiences. Only some of us get to be angry. I can be angry that you were offended by my cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and draw some more and encourage others to republish them; but you don’t have the right to be angry and burn them.

Your protest is invalid; freedom of speech is a universal right, but all types of speech are not free.

So, we must repeal the racial discrimination act because it denies the ‘right to be a bigot’, but we need tougher laws to curtail your bigotry.

Postracial racism elevates my sense of injury over yours. In that sense, there is nothing ‘post’ about it. It is merely racist.
White ‘bigotry’ is seen as benign, without intent, mere words that unlike sticks and stones can never hurt.

When it does incite and hurt, it was a dispute over parking, the victim might have been planning a suicide bombing, or as was argued after the Utoya tragedy in Norway, this was logical outcome of what the British journalist David Goodhart calls, ‘too much diversity’.

Muslim words, black words, Aboriginal words cause us pain, we who have given so much, our anger is justified when you throw our hospitality back in our face, when you reject our values and refuse to stay in your place, a place you should be grateful to have been given.

This is the logic of postracial racism and Islamophobia – and this is why it works so well.

By avoiding tainted arguments about inferiority and genetics and focusing on the old themes of what David Goldberg calls progressivist racism – assimilationist racism – gratitude, hospitality, integration, civilization – postracialism hides the trace of race.

But, and I’ll end with this. It is instructive that such appeals are often followed with a proviso – ‘I’m not being racist, but…’ – the denial of racism is the admittance of racism and this opens a crack at which we can begin to chip away.

Alana Lentin