After his acquittal on the charge of inciting racial hatred, Nick Griffin was asked whether he was a racist. He replied that he was no longer one, that he is now a “religionist”. But should we believe that Griffin has really abandoned the racism that frames his ideology and that of the party he leads? Of course not. All Griffin has done is stretch from one category of racism to another – without breaking with the former: from a discourse founded on racial hatred to one based on religio-racial hatred. In the speech for which he and his assistant, Mark Collett, were taken to court, the two shifted effortlessly from referring to Islam as “this wicked, vicious faith” that “has expanded from a handful of cranky lunatics about 1,300 years ago”, to speaking of Asian “muggers”, “rapists”, “bastards”, “cockroaches” and “ethnics” who need to be “shown the door”.
We are witnessing the emergence of a new type of hatred, where religion and culture overlap with race and ethnicity. The climate generated by the war on terror – stoked further by the inflammatory speech on Friday of the MI5 director general Eliza Manningham-Buller – has allowed the far-right to redirect its poison of exclusionism from specific racial minorities to specific religio-racial minorities: from the black and Asian, to the Muslim black and Asian.
Across the channel, Griffin’s words are echoed by the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who speaks sometimes of “diseased” Arabs and Africans, at others of barbarians and Muslims. For all the ugliness of their thinking, the BNP and French National Front and their like expose the fragility of conventional distinctions between race and religion. When we speak of Islam, for instance, we speak of a religion, the bulk of whose followers are not white.
This also applies to the Muslim communities of western Europe, whose origins are found outside Europe’s imaginary frontiers. The majority are former colonials who have made the metropolis their home. The relationship with these minorities incorporates a multiplicity of dichotomies: between the colonial and the coloniser, the black/brown and the white, the Christian and the Muslim. To reduce the terms of this relationship to race alone is a crude simplification.
That race and religion go hand in hand in the definition of the self and the other is nothing new. In medieval times, Latin Europe referred to its Muslim neighbours with a mixture of racial and religious terms: Saracens, Hagarenes, Arabs, Muhammadans and Turks. The same mechanism is at work today. Religious communities are no less susceptible to discrimination, stigmatisation and demonisation than those determined exclusively on the basis of ethnicity.
With the tragic events of 9/11 and the July 2005 London bombings, the threat of violent groups such as al-Qaida, and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, an explosive political climate was born. In this context, a dangerous language emerged, one that moves smoothly from race to religion, from terrorism to Islam, from al-Qaida to Muslims. The dominance of this discourse is such that it is no longer necessary to explicitly link these terms together. It is sufficient to invoke fanaticism, violence and extremism for Islam and Muslims to spring to mind. Today we have slid further towards the explicit and direct association of Islam and Muslims with all that is “wicked”, “vicious” and dangerous.
On the day that Griffin was cleared, Manningham-Buller delivered a public speech on the terror threat. Instead of the secrecy and discretion we are accustomed to from the intelligence services, the head of MI5 seemed to metamorphose into a politician. We cannot undermine the seriousness of the threat, but these statements are certain to be exploited by numerous media and political players. The MI5 director general insisted she knew of 30 major terror plots. If that is the case, why haven’t the plotters been arrested, and why did she give credence to patently unreliable surveys suggesting 100,000 British Muslims supported last year’s London bombings?
Just as the war-craving Sun turned the government dossier claim of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction into “Brits 45 mins from doom”, the Daily Telegraph gave a twist to the MI5 chief’s words. “Al-Qaida threat” was transformed into the “Muslim threat”, and “attempts to radicalise and indoctrinate our youth” into “the next batch of terrorists is still in the classroom”. Thus even Muslim children find themselves targets of suspicion from all, including their schoolmates.
We are sowing fear and doubt in our classrooms, bequeathing the creation of otherness to our children. Day by day we are moving towards a society of fear and suspicion. Al-Qaida certainly bears a large part of the responsibility, but the reckless games of politicians, media pundits and religio-racists are no less responsible. We, the majority and minority, are caught in between.
First Published in The Guardian, Monday 13 November 2006