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Islamophobia Watch

Liberal Prejudice – Notes Towards a Polemic

Marc Mulholland

This piece first appeared on the author’s Daily Moiders blog on 19 July 2004. He summarises his argument against Islamophobia as follows: "My core point is this. If one lambastes a culture endlessly by picking up on its every sin, you will convince individuals who partake of that culture ... that you are interested only in the ‘politics of condemnation’. And those racialists (BNP etc) whom liberals wish to conveniently dismiss as nothing to do with them will use such rhetoric and argumentative strategies as the straw from which to construct bricks for throwing."

ISLAMOPHOBIA IS often defined as slanderous untruths. I think there is an excessively narrow definition of Islamophobia at play here. It is not right that simply stating "the truth" is sufficient to clear one of Islamophobia. Ian Paisley’s attacks on Roman Catholicism are often accurate enough on historical grounds and legitimate in terms of certain theological debates. He can, with some skill, harp on about the horrors of the inquisition or the non-Biblical status of concepts such as purgatory. But it would be ridiculous to conclude from this that Paisley is not sectarian. One must take the content in the whole. If the overall impact is intemperate and insinuating, the overall conclusion is that it is oppressively anti-pluralistic. One must also take into account the context. If "truth" about a community is expressed intemperately and one-sidedly, and that community is already under a burden of suspicion and disadvantage, then one must conclude that this is a freedom of speech exercised in such a manner to oppress and marginalize the group.

I think its a cop-out to argue that attacks on beliefs are different from attacks on inherited characteristics such as colour etc; the former acceptable under the rubric of "freedom of speech", the latter unacceptable. On the one hand, this "pure" form of racism is actually quite rare and certainly recent, being an invention of scientific reasoning (the Shoah is the most hideous outcome of such "pure" and "scientific" racism). Much more common is to argue that immigrants or whatever minorities are bad because they are behaviourally unacceptable. One can concede full humanity to individuals of the minority – perhaps even theoretically all of them – but isolate and hate the group as a cultural construct. The most common genocidal drive in history, including the bulk of anti-Semitism, has been "conversionist", with only the perceived recalcitrants then being expelled or murdered (we have seen this in the Twentieth Century in mass assaults upon "class" enemies such as kulaks).

It’s worth recalling that liberal modernity is itself a historic and contested construction, not a revelation of reason and human essence. It celebrates homosexuality, where it treated it with the gravest suspicion within the lifetime of most liberals today. It taboos interactions with the young, not only but particularly sexually, in a manner incomprehensible even to Victorian society, never mind the ancient world. It anathemises certain forms of drug culture in manner that crystallised only in the 1960s. It celebrates sexual availability at the cost of family structures. It glorifies wealth and celebrity whilst scorning status and privacy. All this is, quite rightly, under constant pressure (just today Tony Blair had leaked a speech where he announces the "end of the sixties" on law and order). The point is, liberalism is not self-evident. It is the ideology of a particular form of liberal-democratic advanced capitalism. This is not to say that one cannot argue that it generally accords with universal values – much of it does accord with the drive towards human self-realisation which in turn is a reasonable basis for morality – but it is not by definition immoral to dispute the values of western society.

Liberals have a tendency to treat their own norms as self-evident and, as expression of ahistorical "rights", not only universally applicable but necessary components of full human morality. Pre-liberal cultures are unacceptable unless reduced to fancy dress. Liberals in effect treat non-liberal values as "false consciousness", easily sloughed off by liberated humanity. In reality, cultural identities are not as easily shed as liberals like to think, and for the constituents of the group exposed to constant denigration, the caveats expressing regard for liberal or assimilable currents in the persecuted group are likely to be rejected as hypocrisy. Indeed, patronising homilies on the need to reform – liberals in the Christian tradition often unselfconsciously call for Reformation, as if the epoch that produced the Thirty Years War is owed universal respect – are more likely to reinforce the authority of archaic institutions as buttresses against cultural inundation.

Liberal Islamophobia is, in my opinion, the most dangerous prejudice we now face. As an old religion of the Book bearing the imprint of numerous pre-modern societies, there is of course very much that can be found objectionable in its canon. The reaction against relative failure to compete in the modern world – the Middle East is notable for its systematic failure to develop competitive states, a humiliation highlighted by the regional super-power status of tiny Israel – has led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, an opiate to dull the pain of Arab Nationalism’s dashed illusions.

Islamic fundamentalism poses not the slightest serious threat to western liberalism, but the fairly low-level organisation of nihilistic terror, the slim if real chance of WMD proliferation to these terror groups, and substantial Islamic immigration into the western heartland, have combined to give shadowy substance to engrained prejudice. Liberalism provides the ammunition for the cognitive organisation of Islamophobia. Nick Griffin of the BNP even name-checked Polly Toynbee in his defence of his own scurrilous demagoguery. More to the point, almost every component of his argument could be traced to empirical observation and liberal norms. I don’t know, but its hardly unlikely that rape was a tool for cultural penetration in Islam’s past (it’s not so different in spirit from Roman Catholicism’s Ne Temere decree, never mind the numerous conversionist genocides in Christianity’s past). There is historical and indeed contemporary evidence of Islamic armed evangelism. No doubt such legacies crudely meld occasionally in the anti-social rationales of individual Muslims, just as notions of "respect" justify violence in Afro-American culture, or liberal notions of autonomy and permissiveness inform white western lumpen asociality. Culture inevitably provides the garb for both benign and malign social phenomena.

What is to be done? Liberals have every right to defend their values, and to spread them as they see fit. But it is unacceptable to demonise minorities, and it is treacherously insidious to do so by constructing rhetorical strategies that harp endlessly on Islamic fundamentalism, reactionary traditions that require purgation, and the selection of Islamic paragons to grant the liberal spurious inoculation against accusations of prejudice. Minority communities must be granted autonomy, in which liberals treat with due regard their representatives. Ken Livingstone was quite right to greet diplomatically Yussef al-Qaradawi for this reason. Michael Howard was shameless in his opportunistic condemnation of such toleration. And I use the word toleration advisedly – one does not need to agree with emissaries of autonomous culture-groups. But cultures must be respected as rounded expressions of full humanity, just as we expect our cultures to be treated so. By all means, condemn what one wishes in whatever culture, but liberals must remember that we are a world not of human atoms accorded rights defined by ahistorical reason, but of organic and evolving communities deserving of respect by virtue of their framing of human existence. To serve liberalism by highlighting all that is wrong with Islam is to whip up prejudice and is thus unconscionable.