"People talking without listening"
The recent furore caused by the UK Labour Party suspending Trevor Phillips for purportedly making Islamophobic comments dating back to 2016 raises all sorts of questions. Some question whether Islamophobia exists at all and that in many instances it is a ruse to mask unpalatable cultural characteristics of Muslim groups who decry Islamophobia as soon as they are called out for them. Others argue that Islamophobia is a pernicious and evil force in society that has few checks and balances, if at all, and where the dominant political undertones expressed by leading government ministers and spokespersons is underscored by the media which assists the hyper-normalisation of this very same Islamophobia.
Phillips was once regarded as a significant race warrior, championing equality and diversity at a time when such topics were very much off the political radar, but he has now seemingly taken to criticising Islam and Muslims. How does this translate to the question of antisemitism in the Labour Party, which is seen as a very serious problem and one which the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has been tasked to investigate the party? For onlookers elsewhere, it does appear to be two very different paths taken to deal with a problem of prejudice, discrimination and bigotry towards particular religious groups who are minorities in the British context. And so the question is what is the reason for this divergence and can it be explained by the simple fact of the power and influence of Islamophobia itself or that there is indeed a question of free speech and that Trevor Phillips has been denied his right to speak out against what he regards as genuine concerns.
What he has said is less important than why him saying it has created so much division and why there is such a polarising response to this situation. It is a matter of politics in the end. What defines what we believe and think is a reflection of our political predilection and views towards other individuals and groups shaped by social learning. It is no surprise that for a considerable period now, Islam and Muslims have been on the receiving end of severe criticism, much of which is exaggerated or designed to alarm and sensationalise the topic, especially in the pursuit of media sales. This is somewhat ironic because up until the late 1980s, Muslims were not on the radar concerning media or political attention. The Salman Rushdie Affair of 1989, the first Gulf War, and the events leading up to 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror have created a particular set of perspectives that dominate understandings of Islam and Muslims, largely shaped by the narrow lenses of cultural relativism and religious extremism. These views have permeated many aspects of society as well as issues relating to counterterrorism and countering violent extremism, much of which is critiqued by community and civil society organisations that have grassroots tentacles that suggest the local issues faced by many are far more subtle and generalisable than the impression that is often given.
The reality is that Trevor Phillips is entirely permitted to present his opinions and he has been generally careful to couch his comments in relatively ambiguous terms so as to not characterise an entire group. However, the idea that somehow there is a need to consider equivalence because he would not say the similar things about Jewish or Christian groups does strike home an important point. That is, some groups are generally in line for very different kinds of treatment to others at the hands of so-called experts, commentators and analysts. The issue reflects more a wider polarisation in society where people are divided between those who would vehemently defend or critique Islam and Muslims but where the shades of grey in between are lost in translation. There are indeed cultural issues that affect the lived realities of Muslim groups that have nothing at all to do with the religion and everything to do with inherited pre-migration values and norms associated with a fixated outlook that can create perilous conditions for Muslims and non-Muslims. In these instances, those who seemingly legitimise their actions by referring to the Islamic scriptures do not understand Islam. Those who ascribe meaning to the actions of individuals implicated in certain crimes and misdemeanours strictly in terms of a perspective on Islam do not even understand the essence of the faith.
These outcomes suggest that there is a particular space that is being ignored or misrecognised due to the polarising climate in which we find ourselves. So many influencers have lost the ability to find a balanced perspective between opposing camps and this is where the real danger lies going forward. Most Muslims in Europe can balance secular and religious norms. Muslim groups are more likely to have friends and associations who are non-Muslims as opposed to vice-versa, and that with all the fuss and attention paid to questions of extreme violence, once there is a degree of familiarity and trust, most Muslim and non-Muslim groups get along perfectly fine. There is a risk in playing to the tune of this polarising rhetoric and thus missing important opportunities to strengthen existing bridges and formulate new opportunities. A culture of division, polarity and anger seemingly compound the neoliberal globalising perspective as nation-states struggle to formulate an inclusive national identity, and where localisation has emerged as a response to these factoring of identities. This retreat has been into ethnic English nationalism in the UK context and similar experiences are found in other parts of Europe where the presumed threats of immigration and diversity are causing political elites to look inwards, and in some cases drawing on the mythological status of the historical evolution of the nation itself. There appears to be a very genuine political and cultural gap at the very pinnacle of society, which is creating the conditions and supporting the institutions to foster further division and ultimately discord and disarray.
In a recent paper I recently published in Philosophy and Social Criticism, entitled ‘Islamophobia as racialised biopolitics in the United Kingdom’, I argue that Islamophobia is a valuable tool among elites who chide the catchall category of ‘Muslims’. Meanwhile, in the case of the UK in particular, issues of economic inequality, a lack of wealth distribution, a taxation system that favours the already well-off and a vision of a nation now gripped with a fever over its internal and external identity have the effect of reducing social cohesion; and thereby trust, participation and engagement in society. For too many people in Britain, Islam and Muslims are a threat. The reality is that for the dominant hegemonic elite, maintaining these perspectives conforms to the idea of strong government and a defining politics. It says everything about Britain’s crumbling multiculturalism model and nothing about how it is going to fix the mess created by austerity, inequality and intolerance which has been directly or indirectly supported by a government now in power for nearly a decade tilting ever further to the right.
Image: CC-BY-SA Stephan Röhl / www.boell.de