Thursday, December 03, 2009
What's in a minaret? posted by Richard SeymourA minaret isn't much to get worked up about. It is a tall, ornate tower appended to a mosque, which is sometimes used to broadcast calls to prayer. Yet, in the arguments of those who wished to ban the construction of minarets, thereby singling out Islam for restriction and opprobrium, they amount to a form of 'colonisation'. Whether that 'colonisation' is identified as a threat to conservative or left-wing values depends on the audience. Some members of the Swiss Socialists justified their support for the minaret ban on feminist grounds, and the feminist writer Joan Smith has attempted to lend this appalling stance some respectability. The Lega Nord, meanwhile, calling for a similar move in Italy, justifies the campaign on the grounds that Italy must remain, like Switzerland, Christian and white. Conservative writers like Michael Burleigh claim that it represents a stand against alleged infringements on European 'democracy'.
The language of 'colonization' is very important in the racist right's lexicon. These Lega Nord posters remind people that 'immigration' to the Americas resulted in Native Americans living in reservations - seriously implying, therefore, that white Europeans might become the victims of a genocide. It is also a language that the BNP is given to use, and of course, it was dramatically pictorialised in the icons of the anti-minaret campaign in Switzerland, with minarets depicted as black missile-like objects covering a Swiss flag, with an ominous looking woman wearing a burqa in the foreground. One cannot help but notice the 'bad faith' involved here. Muslims tend to be so targeted precisely because where they are least likely to be assertive, most isolated, and least in a position to defend themselves. They are targeted as a minority, with poor resources for mobilising on their own behalf, not as a colonial power. While we're about it, might we also notice the militarist implications of such a language? For if Europe is supposedly being colonised, in a way that threatens a fate akin to that of the injuns, then a war of liberation is surely the implied solution. The thugs marching on mosques across Britain, and the fascists who think they don't go far enough, understand this perfectly well.
A corollary implication is that those who do not rally to the war against 'Islamic colonisation', 'Islamic imperialism' or the 'Islamification of Europe', as it is variously called, are traitors. Now you might think that such language is the preserve of fascists and nutters, ultra-reactionaries, racists, EDL thugs, the BNP, etc. You would be wrong. For example, The Express, expostulating about its phoney 'revealations' about government funding for "fanatics who want to kill us", takes the logical step from its fabrications and fulminates: "It does not take a brilliant detective to work out what is going on here, just an ordinarily observant person: Britain's cultural identity is being systematically dismantled by a government of traitors." It is true that the Express takes the most extreme racist line toward Muslims of any of the tabloids, but this is an unabashed plagiarism from the pages of the British Nationalist. As it happens, the charge against New Labour is not only wrong on the facts, but it is politically perverse. No mainstream party has done more to capitulate to racist ideology than the one presently in command. Gordon Brown's dog-whistling about 'local houses for local people', following his tremendously successful 'British Jobs for British Workers' gambit, has been followed by more 'tough but fair' language and promises of concrete measures to deal with immigration. Brown is particularly concerned, after all, about 'Britishness' and 'British values'. Nothing saddens him more than the idea that we can't take some pride in the achievements of the empire, and of Anglo-Saxon culture in general. The allegation that this government is insensible of "Britain's cultural identity" (which appears to consist of being white, Christian, bigoted, ignorant, full of shit, and proud of it) is nonsense.
The main thing that vexes the Islamophobes, supposedly, is violence. If pressed, some of them will readily concede that any violence by Muslims is practised by a negligible minority and by no means incriminates the majority. (Do not even bother asking them to weigh it against the colossal violence of Anglo-American imperialism, which has incited such relatively miniscule violence as has taken place on the European continent.) The majority, though, will insist that such violence, even if practised by a minority, is driven by their commitment to doctrines that are mainstream in Islam. Thus: 'we are not against Islam, just extremism - but then, isn't Islam itself extreme'? Their attention to violent 'extremism', though, and that of the media and political class in general, is severely curtailed by their obsession with Muslims. Tell me if this sounds familiar. A man is found in possession of explosives, guns, ammunition, and other weapons. He is arrested, charged with terrorism offenses, and is convicted. But he is not a Muslim. He is white, and a BNP member, so his case doesn't grab the headlines. No one notices that the BNP has a demonstrated propensity for churning out terrorists. Let's try another one. A pair of students are severely beaten after attempting to defend a woman from a threatening gang. Suppose the gang is a Muslim gang, leering at a white woman, and the students are Ben Sherman wearing Brits on their way to play darts or something equally ridiculous. You would expect headlines from that. Predictably, of course, that isn't the case: the students are Muslims, as is the woman they were defending, and the attackers are white racists who were taunting the woman for wearing a hijab. So, it's not much cop, especially since most newspaper editors have it in their heads that wearing a hijab is itself a culpable and subversive act, which can at best be 'tolerated'. Incidents of both type are increasingly routine, as is their general oblivion in the welter of competing, largely fabricated, stories about the menace of Islam.
Given the pace of reaction across Europe, and the growing hold of this specious, essentialist garbage about Islam, it is unsurprising that an innocuous and sometimes rather beautiful structure can, if the PR is effective, become so suffused with peril and portent for so many. But the minarets are just the start of it. No Islamophobe would be content with what is, at the moment, a symbolic gesture, a super-sized fuck-you. There will be numerous intermediate steps. Sarkozy and his allies may be next with the idea of a ban on the 'veil'. Someone else may take up the original intended issue of the Swiss reactionaries, and try to outlaw halal butchery. But if the intended effect is to intimidate Europe's Muslim population and ultimately reduce their numbers, then it can only be a matter of time before 'peace walls', ghettos, and forcible expulsion are on the agenda - presuming no one lifts a finger to protest in the meantime. Some Swiss anti-racists have already taken to the streets. They are, at the moment, small in number. But they could not possibly be as small in stature, as pathetic, as ridiculous, as paltry in almost every respect, as that majority of Swiss voters who cast such a petty and vindictive vote.