Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Talking to MPAC

I was invited to give a talk to MPAC activists on Sunday, about combatting Islamophobia in the 'new media'. Well, I thought, you've asked for it. I accepted the invitation, fully intending to be the extremist of the day, which wasn't that difficult given how moderate the other speakers appeared to be. It was a well-attended, professional event, with powerpoint presentations and a few media people in evidence. What to say about a topic like this? Well, MPAC is focussed on lobby-like activity, so much of the discussion that I saw was about how to react to negative press stories, how to compose a good complaint, who to contact - practical advice for specific, determinate interventions to disrupt the propaganda machine. Hopefully, this would have the cumulative effect of reversing the tide somewhat. Aside from the limitations of such an approach (more on that in a minute), I had to wonder how this would apply to the 'new media', the blogosphere, where literally anything goes, where there is even less accountability than the corporate media, where anonymity provides the basis for intensified viciousness and dishonesty? Who to complain to? Would they even be interested? And what do I know about lobbying on the internet? If I knew anything about lobbying, my readership wouldn't have stayed roughly the same for about two years.

So, I decided to keep it as political as possible. I told the audience what they already knew about the scale of the problem, cited some statistics, drew a correlation between violent anti-Muslim rhetoric and the incidence of anti-Muslim violence, and so on. I told them what they already knew about the history of Islamophobia, its origins in the European empires, particularly the British Empire, and the appropriation of its tropes by the American one, especially as it got more involved in the Middle East. I said something about the importance of racism for justifying and maintaining the racial hierarchy in the UK, and the way that anti-Asian racism (manifest in the response to the riots in formerly industrial northern cities) had been commuted into Islamophobia after 9/11. Not merely to justify the attack on Iraq, the arms to Israel, the support for the assault on Lebanon, the torture flights, the crackdowns on civil liberties and so on - but also to frustrate challenges to New Labour's domestic agenda. I said that given that the war on terror is a structural component of the geopolitical landscape for some decades to come now, the problem will get worse. I noted that the stereotypes about Muslims were never far from the mouths of US soldiers who were busy torturing and killing Iraqis. I mean to say, Islamophobia is not just about ugly words - it is a rationale for murder.

But that still left me with five or ten minutes to ruminate on the 'new media', about which I have precious little to say. There has been some research into Islamophobia on the internet - well, actually, one study by a guy named Goran Larsson, but it draws rather obvious conclusions. There are plenty of Islamophobic blogs, across the political spectrum, many of them drawing their prestige from support in the 'old media', but these are rarely susceptible to lobbying. There is definitely a case for activists to use the internet to combat Islamophobia, and it is easy to set up blogs and so on if you have access to the internet. You can have mailing lists set up free of charge. There are a number of useful blogs which combat Islamophobia, including Islamophobia Watch and to some extent Arab Media Watch, which was represented by its president at the meeting (more about him in a minute). And given that this should come out of activity in the day to day world, I feel the same alignments should apply - hook up with the antiwar blogs, the pro-Palestine blogs, alert them to any offensive material, alert them to important information, set up mailing lists and subscribe to the mailing lists of others. Er. That's it, I suppose.

Except, of course, that isn't it. Someone with better technical knowledge than I possess could probably have added a lot more on that front. However, as I say, I think lobbying tactics are self-limiting. They bind you to the processes provided by the news organisations themselves. Yes, they have a complaints procedure. Yes, they have some accountability. Yes, it's worthwhile. Yes, it somestimes gets results. And yet, it's like swimming against a tide of sewage. Despite the best efforts of very committed, knowledgable and articulate groups and individuals, it gets worse. The chap from Arab Media Watch, who is one of those committed and knowledgable types, and a considerably cooler customer than I, was eager to overturn the "conspiratorial, monolithic" view of the media. Well, look at you, Mary Sue! I mean, the nerve. He said that the media is composed of individuals, and that there are lots of good people in it (ie, not all of them are scum, not even in the Murdoch press - I'm giving his speech a liberal dose of interpretation here). And he said that a lot of them are simply pressed for time, so unfortunately groups like Arab Media Watch have to do their job for them. There is some truth in this - but, alas, a lot of truth is also obscured by it. And this leads me to my earlier reasoning. For, to talk about the origins of Islamophobia and Orientalism, and its structural relationship to imperialism - even in a flustered, syncopated fashion that one occasionaly affects in front of an attentive audience - is to at least imply that the media isn't half of your woes. After all, these ideologies are not usually produced in the first instance by the media, and their daily reproduction is not necessarily the result of proprietorial pressure. There are broader ideological formations that are produced and reproduced through a variety of vectors, including universities, think-tanks, various components of the state, and so on. Historically, these formations have been produced through relations of power and domination, and their persistence is a testament to the endurance of those relations beyond the formal colonial system. It seems to me that if this wasn't so, then the over-worked hack would not find it so easy, so automatic, to revert to well-worn types. It would not seem somehow natural for said hacks to conjure with phrases like "Muslim extremism", "Islamic militancy", "Islamic terrorism" and "Muslim plot". Nor would it seem obvious that 'honour killing' was something specific to Islam (which, of course, it is not). Avoiding a monolithic view of the media does not entail the neglect of structure. This has strategic consequences, since it would imply that the way to combat Islamophobia is to produce countervailing ideological poles and alignments - by which I mean, if the main source of Islamophobia at the minute is the 'war on terror', the best riposte is the antiwar movement.

I didn't say all that latter part, actually - somehow my eloquence deserted me at that precise moment. But I definitely thought it very loudly, and in that precise sequence. And of course, I did also use neuro-linguistic programming to convert the audience to revolutionary socialism, but I can't guarantee that my gyratory, spluttering, umming and aaahing delivery would have made this very effective. And I was also interviewed for a radio programme afterwards, during which I managed to impugn the reputation of this Disunited Queendom and many of its inhabitants, who can all considers themselves officially pwned. Anyway, best of luck to MPAC in all of their efforts, and long may they rile the government and its internet claque.