Sunday, January 09, 2005

Kenan Malik's Myth Of Islamophobia

Over at The Importance Of Disappointment David Skinner has posts here and here on Kenan Malik's interesting contribution to thinking critically about contemporary anti-racist and multicultural (not at all the same thing) politics. I was involved in anti-racist politics in Britain for nearly two decades and I always found Malik's work - especially The Meaning Of Race - to be unusually perceptive. I have been out of that particular political milieu for a little while but since I am based in Malaysia - and living in a state that promotes a kind of spurious multiculturalism - Malik's recent commentaries seem to have a great deal of resonance. And he comes to some unexpected conclusions on the current claims that Islamophobia is rampant.

In his article in Friday's Guardian, Malik sets out the received wisdom - across the political spectrum - that Britain (and we can presume an extension to other societies, at least in Europe) is gripped by Islamophobia - the "
morbid fear and hatred of Islam and of Muslims". But Malik contends that this kind of hatred is a "myth", at least in the sense that most people understand it. He points to the gap between the perception of widespread anti-Muslim hostility and the reality which is not anything like so bad. For example, in relation to police abuse of stop and search tactics Malik highlights the fact that there is considerable racist discrimination at play - "but the victims are not Asian - they're black". So the issue is not really a new post-9/11 Islamophobia but rather the well-entrenched practices of racism. It was always thus.

So why has such a consensus developed around the "threat" of Islamophobia? Malik suggests that "
the hatred and abuse of Muslims is being exaggerated to suit politicians' needs and silence the critics of Islam":
For Muslim leaders, inflating the threat to their communities helps consolidate their power base. For government ministers, making a song and dance about police harassment allows them to appear both tough on terrorism and sensitive to Muslim needs. But it does the rest of us, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, no favours at all. The more the threat of Islamophobia is exaggerated, the more ordinary Muslims believe that they are under constant attack. It helps create a siege mentality, it stokes up anger and resentment, and it makes Muslims more inward looking and more open to religious extremism.
I find this entirely plausible. It was always the weakness of the ungrounded multicultural argument, one that privileged essentialised religious or cultural difference as the determining factor of discrimination and hatred. The bitter irony in all of this is that it closes down the political space available progressive, critical voices in the Muslim communities themselves. All deference is proffered to authoritarian, conservative leaders. And it closes down the hope of dialogue and common politics with so-called liberal progressives who bed down with these same reactionaries in the name of the same spurious multiculturalism.

Kenan Malik's film
Are Muslims Hated? was screened by Channel 4 last night. Obviously, I wasn't able to watch it. But I'd be interested to hear of responses to it.


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