Author and activist Tariq Ali spoke on ‘The Perils of Islamophobia’ last week at the annual Marxism festival in London
‘We live in dangerous and unpredictable times. If anyone had suggested 30 or 40 years ago that one of the central issues we would be discussing was Islam or religion, we would have laughed.
One reason for that was that throughout the Cold War period of the last century, the imperialist countries – the US and its allies – essentially used political Islam as a bulwark against their enemies all over the world.
The US would use organisations which called themselves Islamic to hammer the enemy. They used them against secular nationalism in the Middle East, against communism in Indonesia, against waves of radicalism in South Asia – particularly, but not exclusively, in Pakistan.
We have to see things in that context. Islamophobia is something that has been artificially engendered, especially in the Western world, against what is regarded as the new enemy.
It has been engendered from the top by some who should know better and others, like the extreme right, who use it as a weapon against migrants.
There are different aspects to this Islamophobia and it has to be confronted on many different levels.
Let us start with the so-called “popular” agitation against Muslims. This is very different in my opinion to opposition to fundamentalism or “Islamic terrorism” but has everything to do with hostility to peoples of different cultures, and in particular to the new migrants who came to Europe after the Second World War.
The arguments that have been used against them are very similar to those that were used against the Jews in the first half of the last century – they were not like us, they came from a different culture, they had a different religion, they observed the Sabbath on a different day, they didn’t eat pork, they wore funny clothes.
Very similar arguments are used against Muslims today – they’re not like us, they’re the “other”.
The issue that comes up time and time again is terrorism. I was astonished to see how deep this had gone in this country in an opinion poll recently. This said 51 percent of people questioned said when they heard the word “Muslim” the first thought that came into their mind was “terrorist”. These polls are never reliable but not completely wrong either.
If such a poll had been done in the 1920s or 1930s people probably would have said that when they heard the word “Jew” the first word that came into their mind was “Bolshevik”. Today it’s not “Jewish Bolsheviks”, it’s “Muslim terrorists”.
There were no ordinary Jews at all, apparently – they were either Bolsheviks or multimillionaires.
Often you hear that same kind of argument against Muslims. They’re either rich Arab sheikhs gambling their country’s wealth away in the casinos of Mayfair – which, by the way, is not totally untrue – or they are “Muslim terrorists”.
In between – like every other community in the world – there’s a huge gap of ordinary people, some believers, some non-believers, who are of Muslim origin. But they’re being targeted. And this targeting produces a cultural response.
I’ve spoken to many young women who wear the hijab and aren’t even religious – they do it because they’re told they can’t do it. In France particularly this is the case.
Think of all the education that modern western Europeans have received on what happened to the Jews during the Second World War.
So deep does it go that some idiot politicians, Tony Blair for one, have actually said that the Second World War was a war fought to “save the Jews”. The level of ignorance and cynicism that goes into that remark is quite horrific. If that’s the case, we lost the war.
They didn’t succeed in saving them. They didn’t send their bombers in to bomb even one of the concentration camps, despite Jews’ requests, because bombers couldn’t be diverted from the main task, which was the destruction of Germany.
What is taught is so superficial that the roots of antisemitism aren’t discussed. That would educate people about treating any minority in the same way – and those lessons clearly haven’t been learned.
It’s not that Islam is a religion and culture without a history in Europe. The novels I’ve written called the Islam quintet are historical novels set in the period where Islam was a normal, major part of European culture, and in fact a very advanced one intellectually.
The expulsion of the Muslims and the Jews from the Iberian peninsula [now Spain and Portugal] in the 15th and 16th centuries created the new European identity. That identity is now being challenged, ironically, by a new influx of migrant Muslims who come to find work, largely from countries that were colonised by the Western powers.
There’s a whole group of people who traduce Islam non-stop, and this has to be resisted. Some of them who were once on the left are criticising Amnesty Internatonal’s defence of political prisoners from Guantanamo, saying they have a bad attitude to feminism. Even if they do, so what? You argue with them. But to say that they shouldn’t be given a platform to explain what happened to them in Guantanamo is unacceptable.
Many German Greens, for example, said that the war in Afghanistan was justifiable because we were going in to liberate women.
But now it’s starting to trickle through: this wasn’t a war to liberate the women of Afghanistan any more than the Second World War was a war to liberate the Jews from Hitler. These things aren’t carried out to liberate people, they’re carried out to preserve and defend Western interests.
Attitudes are different in different countries.
But we know the situation in Europe. The Germans call their migrants “guest workers”. The name was not thoughtless – if you’re a guest you can always be asked to leave.
In France you’re told you’re a citizen, with all the rights of a French citizen. Yet you suffer discrimination when it comes to getting jobs.
And when the police attack them and in some cases kill them, these young French kids are so well integrated that they do what the French normally do when they’re repressed. They attack property, they build barricades and they defend themselves. And what would the history of France be without that?
The US is a country of migrants. And there are two sets of new migrants – Hispanic and Muslims. But Islamophobia in the US grew very strong after 9/11.
You had communities infiltrated by the FBI, permanently under watch, young kids picked up off the streets – all creating an atmosphere of fear. The same things happened here.
In Britain you have Muslim members of parliament and Muslims in the groups of the left. That’s normal – that’s as it should be. The notion that any one people are a huge undifferentiated blob is never the case – never was and never will be.
After the July 2005 bombings in London we heard “Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam”. The New Labour neocon apologists argued that violence is inherent in Islam. I publicly argued the day after that the reasons for it, unacceptable though it was, had to be understood.
Unless you understood the causes you couldn’t do anything – and the causes were Blair’s foreign policy and his decision to back the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s what every British and American intelligence report now says.
Islamophobia is useful for the authorities because it helps to keep their own populations worried. It helps to justify some of the atrocities that have been carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guantanamo, as some of its inmates tell you, is horrible but nothing compared to the atrocities that have been carried out in Bagram prison outside Kabul in Afghanistan.
Islamophobia says: this is terrible, but you know we have to do it really, because you know what these Muslims are. That’s why it’s taken up and used quite openly in the mainstream media: to justify American wars and occupations and the support Europe has given them.
Barack Obama continues to follow the policies of Bush all over the world.
Will Islamophobia last forever? I don’t think so. It is something that was switched on from above and can be switched off again when the time comes.
Its political basis is that the US now occupies large tracts of the Middle East, and in order to occupy these countries they need Islamophobia. They need the idea that the “war on terror” is a war against “evil”.
In attacking Islamophobia, we mustn’t forget that those of us who consider ourselves socialists can’t just do that. We have another task – to win people over to the idea that the capitalist system is irrational, benefits a minority, and is prone to crisis.
We must say that the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberal capitalism has been a disaster, and in the vacuum that exists many things sprout. We need to make sure that the plants we plant today grow and are nurtured.
We believe in a society where there is genuine popular sovereignty on every level – factory and farm, locality, region, country. This is the socialism we believe in. And it is only through a system like this that many of the old cobwebs can be swept aside.”
This is an edited version of Tariq Ali’s meeting at Marxism 2010. Meetings are available on CD from Bookmarks bookshop for £3 as are a number of Tariq’s books including:
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