Sunday, February 10, 2008

Another pogrom, chaps?

That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more. I was not about to comment on all this 'Sharia' business, because the controversy is largely manufactured on the basis of what turns out to be a rather conservative and moderate statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course, there are more interesting ways to respond to such a statement than by either hysterically over-reacting or simply seconding it as a common sense bit of multiculturalism. So, why waste time refuting acres of sensationalist trash when the usual effect is to incite even more while trapping one in a self-defeating binary? But look at the picture to your left. This cover is an attempt by The Independent on Sunday to be cutting edge, by which I mean racist and alarmist. The story that it links to is actually a rather glib piece of work that trivialises domestic violence, and while it does externalise such violence, it doesn't at any point make the explicit equation "Honour Killings = Muslims". But then most communication is not verbal, and the cover says everything. It makes the formula quite explicit through its selected image, and it is inserted into the context of hysterical overreaction to Rowan Williams' musings in such a way as to provoke a chain of further hysterical overreaction. The offended secular liberal would be instantly aflame, seething with a potent and toxic mixture of resentment and sanctimony: "What is the Archbishop thinking, and doesn't he realise that this is what Sharia law will mean, and why must we let them get away with everything, and isn't this just Political Correctness Gone Mad, and why do we always have to apologise for our own culture, it's just not fair, and isn't it about time we just stopped being sorry and said to Muslims enough is enough..."

The reaction to Williams' statement adequately expresses the three basic coordinates of contemporary Islamophobia, veering between burning resentment about Them getting 'special treatment', fear and loathing of the 'Muslim threat', and finally a vague 'humanitarianism' in which whitey rescues Asian Babes from their non-white male captors. The first two being the usual racist discourse, and the latter being a staple of colonial ideology. Incidentally, these reactions are being blended in roughly the same measure in both the crude right-wing tabloids and in the broadsheets. (One outstanding exception, which beats all competition by its single-minded devotion to a daily dose of anti-Muslim racism is the Daily Express, which - like most pets - is coming to resemble its owner: as unadulterated scum). It is clear that honour killings are not to do with Islam, but it is equally clear that liberals who think it does are barely in a state to tell what time of day it is never mind check their facts. The Independent's headline says that there are 17,000 'honour' attacks each year, which is based on the following rumination by Commander Steve Allen of the Association of Chief Police Officers of the 'honour-based violence unit':

"We work on a figure which suggests it is about 500 cases shared between us and the Forced Marriage Unit per year," he said: "If the generally accepted statistic is that a victim will suffer 35 experiences of domestic violence before they report, then I suspect if you multiplied our reporting by 35 times you may be somewhere near where people's experience is at."

I would point out that - as alarming as this is - the story drastically underestimates the scale of domestic violence in the UK. There are also 12 million incidents of domestic violence each year, 89% of which is directed at a female spouse, and this accounts for 16% of all violent crime in the UK. One incidence of domestic abuse is reported to the police every minute. One in four women will experience this in their lifetimes, according to official statistics. On average, two women are killed each week by a current or former partner. So, you could say that's over 100 'honour' killings a year. (These figures from the Home Office and the NHS). If we followed the ACPO method, the figures would be even higher (one report of domestic violence each minute would actually yield more than 18 million incidents per year). By anyone's standards, that is a staggering amount of violence. Only a fraction of it is headline news, however, because only a fraction of it can be spuriously attributed to Islam and Shari'a law.

The three basic elements of Islamophobia mentioned above are all present in the hysteria about what Muslim women wear: resentment (why should you get to hide your face?); fear and loathing (what have you got to hide?); and patronising 'concern' (that veil hides bruises and tears, sister, so kindly allow whitey to liberate you). The latter component is not particular to the centre-left press, but it is essential to the amour-propre of the liberal that liberalism alone is sufficiently attuned to the iniquity of misogynistic violence. Far from being in any sense feminist, however, The Independent's alarmism involves a particular kind of misogyny. In the first instance, by its omissions, it seriously understates the real level of violence against women in this country. Secondly, by its distortions, it transfers the blame for it onto a spotlit minority. Thirdly, in its hateful depiction of Muslim women (especially those wearing the niqab), it contributes to a battery of imagery and claims that has actually resulted in several instances of violence against Muslim women, such as this and this.

I fear we are in for a spell. Every time the media goes on another Muslim-hunt, it is almost inevitable that the politicians will find something to say about it that makes it worse. Gordon Brown has attempted to distinguish his government by attenuating the naked provocations of the Blair era. He will not risk another humiliation in a Labour heartland, if he can avoid it. But he is also an opportunist and it would not be at all out of character for Mr "British Jobs For British Workers" to join the offensive. And if he doesn't, his silence will surely be remarked upon by David Cameron, who is almost as repellent a charlatan as Blair was. The logic of parliamentary politics almost dictates that the two main party leaders have to compete for the lowest common denominator on this question. In Autumn 2006, the Blair government was sputtering to its dismal end, and in its decrepitude launched one attack after another on Muslims. Cameron joined in, and the newspaper editors collectively creamed their pants. Jonathan Freedland wrote: "If this onslaught was about Jews, I would be looking for my passport". A pre-pogrom atmosphere about Muslims is being cultivated in this country. The liberal press bears a great deal of responsibility for that.