Friday, September 18, 2009

"The continent proceeds towards savagery..."

Not to be divisive or anything, but I think it is important to at least notice that the ideological (I hesitate to say 'intellectual') motifs that the far right are currently utilising have been prepared over the last eight years by pro-war apologia. I say the far right have utilised these mythemes because it would be grossly misleading to imply that fascists and the belligerati share the same agenda, the same tactics, or the same ideology. Still, having written about the lib imps for some years now, the overlapping strategies for justifying racism cannot but be obvious to me and to many of you - so apologies to those who are already familiar with the material I am about to cite. And given the rise of fascism across Europe, now would surely be an excellent time for some of those who bought this Islamophobic scaremongering to consider how it has galvanised these barbaric political forces. For example, I see that the English Defence League's strategy of arguing about Islam comes straight from the 'war on terror' playbook. It starts with hostility to 'extremism' - we are not against Muslims as such, but 'Islamic extremism'. It proceeds to conjecture that Islam itself is 'extreme', and that there is no such thing as a 'moderate' Muslim believer. The next step is to denounce 'Islamic imperialism', worry about the Muslim birth rate, and tacitly disclose that one is, after all, against Muslims as such. This was necessary because warmongers had to deny that Muslims had any legitimate grievances against Euro-American states that might lead them to be hostile to, say, an American-led conquest of Afghanistan or Iraq.

The most ebullient of these Islam-baiters was initially Christopher Hitchens, who began by diagnosing an ancient psychic malady inherent in Islam, a "triumvirate of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred". No policy could alleviate this, since "the gates of Vienna would have had to fall to the Ottoman jihad before any balm could begin to be applied to these psychic wounds". In other words, the grievance was that Islam had not conquered the world. Later, Hitchens complained bitterly of those apparently 'moderate' Muslims who were in fact "mainstreaming" what he called - in language borrowed directly from the Israeli right - "Islamic imperialism". This "Islamic imperialism" was deeply connected with the immigration of Muslims to Europe, resulting in 'Islamified' geographical spaces - hence, Hitchens' deployment of the term "Londonistan", a twin of Bat Ye'or's "Eurabia" and a not-very-distant descendant of "Jew York". He later concurred with the neoconservative author Mark Steyn that the Muslim birth rate in Europe was potentially disastrous.

But this trajectory was much more widespread than one contrarian author. Sam Harris, the respected atheist writer, commented that "‘Muslim extremism’ is not extreme among Muslims". He averred that the basic thrust of Islam was to "convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world", and that those "who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists." Again, starting from hostility to something called 'extremism', there is a rapid progression to denouncing Islam as such, to regarding it as an inherently imperialist ideology, and to then seeing it as a threat to Europe. Similarly, Martin Amis, beginning with an attack on Islamism as a "creedal wave that calls for our own elimination", went on to draw broad conclusions about Islam (citing Hitchens, Berman, Naipaul and others). He would later froth about his urge to make the whole "Muslim community" suffer: "What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children . . . They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people." If he later disavowed the practical recommendations as merely a confession of a temporary sentiment, he did not stop believing that Islam itself was a threat. Influenced by Mark Steyn's neoconservative polemic, he wondered if "feminism" had "cost us Europe" by permitting the European birth-rate to slow. The complaint was that women, by using contraceptives and having abortions, were not playing their part in the survival of the race - a very Old European idea, it must be stressed.

The belief that Islam itself contained the institutions and energies that produced 'extremism' was repeated by the social democratic columnist Will Hutton, who asserted that "many Muslims want to build mosques, schools, and adhere to Islamic dress codes with ever more energy. But that energy also derives from the same culture and accompanying institutions that produced British-born suicide bombers. The space in which to argue that Islam is an essentially benign religion seems to narrow with every passing day." I cite these examples, being intimately familiar with them, but am conscious of having been exposed to hundreds more like it - often in shrill polemics by American authors. Even oppressed groups themselves were not immune to this hysteria. Writing in the magazine of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, the organisation's secretary George Broadhead wrote: "What does a moderate Muslim do, other than excuse the real nutters by adhering to this barmy doctrine?" This was not, to be fair, tied to any expostulations about what should be 'done' to Muslims, or any programme demanding that Muslims be repressed in any way. But it did identify Muslims as a particularly threatening and dangerous out-group, and thus as an appropriate target for abuse and stigma.

This tendency is not marked by support for fascism. Indeed, its most volubly self-proclaimed attribute is its hostility to fascism - that is, its tendency to anathematise a bewildering variety of ideologies and movements as 'fascist'. Yet it has been deeply complacent about the impact of war not only on its immediate victims but on the societies whose governments are waging it. It has also been insensible as to the racist nature of its statements on Islam, and about the ways in which these helped normalise what have proven to be toxic ideas. That complacency might once have been comprehensible, if not defensible, but is now at the point of being culpable. If people don't break decisively with this Islamophobic rubbish, they make themselves alibis - witting or witless - of barbarism in Europe. As if having supported the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan wasn't already bad enough.