Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Racism and the contemporary far-right

This post was originally published on my old blog on February 2nd, 2011

Racism and far-right politics are, of course, no strangers. However, one aspect of far-right discourse that has undergone a notable shift in recent years is attitudes towards specific racial and religious groups – Jews and Judaism are clearly no longer (at least for now) the principle bêtes noires for most far-right organizations and individuals. Islam and its adherents have become the target of choice for many contemporary far-right movements. Indeed, we now have the spectacle of nationalist politicians such as Nick Griffin – a man who once referred to the holocaust as the “holohoax” – trying to reach out to Jews and Zionists under the banner of opposing a purported common enemy.

One particular strand of contemporary nationalist discourse that is, in this respect, clearly having a profound effect on how far-right political entities are positioning themselves is the “counter-jihad” movement. Counter-jihadism suggests that Islam is a threat to the integrity of (historically white and Christian) European and North American states. While most exponents of this type of discourse will make significant efforts to present themselves as being anti-“militant Islam” and not against Muslims per se, a cursory glance at the rhetoric used by some of the most high profile figures in this movement reveal that this is clearly not the case.

A common theme pushed by this movement is that European “liberal” elites have conspired to allow large scale immigration from the Muslim world in a deliberate effort to fundamentally alter the demographic landscape in their respective states (this is also an accusation that has been specifically levelled at the UK Labour Party in recent years by fringe far-right groups such as UKIP and the BNP). They suggest that “the left” seeks to appease non-white advocates of cultural practices that they would otherwise roundly condemn – for example, turning a blind eye to one type of religiously inspired homophobia while loudly castigating another. In this respect, the accusation of “dhimmitude” is often levelled by advocates of such ultra-nationalist discourses.

My interest in this movement is two fold. First, theoretically, what are the implications of this shift in emphasis in nationalist discourse for our understanding of far-right ideologies and, indeed, for our broader understanding of how ideologies are constructed? Second, what are the practical implications of the emergence of movements such as the English Defence League (EDL) for community cohesion in de facto multicultural societies such as the UK’s – and what strategies should be deployed to counter their spread?

Regarding the first issue, my thoughts are far from coherent or crystallized and, anyway, it may be too early to tell – the counter-jihad strain of nationalist discourse may well have a limited shelf life and it is entirely possible that the fascist right will soon revert to type and return to promulgating hackneyed conspiracy theories regarding Jews and world domination. Indeed, this issue is already causing splits among ultranationalists between those who wish to exclude former neo-Nazis and those who are more forgiving of their past – as well as among “moderates” and those who are completely unwilling to renounce their anti-Semitism even at the cost of building broader support for the core tenets of their political programme.

However, even if this movement has only a short-term effect on far-right ideology and strategy, its impact on relatively mainstream ways of thinking and talking about Islam and immigration are, unfortunately, already being felt and are unlikely to disappear any time soon. The frankly ludicrous idea that Islam is set to supplant Christianity as the principle faith in the UK and that we may soon all be subjected to Shari’ah law (the Muslim population of the UK is around 3%) – as well as more sinister and insidious beliefs, such as those regarding the targeting of white girls by Muslim “paedophile gangs” – are already common currency in some parts of the tabloid and mid-market press. This is leading to the gradual entrance of such ideas into popular consciousness and is certainly driving the growth of movements such as EDL.

This brings me to my second concern: the practical implications of the growth of such movements and the development of strategies to combat them. While I believe confronting these people on the streets – by organizing counter-protests and protecting those communities most at threat from violence – certainly has a role to play, this is a battle that needs to be fought and won at an ideational level. And in this respect, I am not optimistic. Alarmism and dog-whistle racism sells papers and this isn’t going to change any time soon. The next atrocity on European or North American soil committed in the name of Islam, and there will undoubtedly be more, will just be grist to the mill of the racists that wish to promote disharmony between different faith and race communities within Britain – a goal that, somewhat ironically, is shared by the extremists of organizations such as Islam4UK. Indeed, the strategies and short-term objectives of people such as Anjem Choudary and “Tommy Robinson” are, in many ways, quite similar: sow discord and recruit followers on the basis of the strife that inevitably follows. And even their long-term objectives are not completely dissimilar – they both seek a type of homogenous community where pluralism is absent and dissent from certain founding myths is not tolerated.

So regardless of whether counter-jihadism continues to grow as a political movement or begins to fizzle out – and regardless of whether or not Jews and Judaism return to their “privileged” position at the heart of far-right discourse – while the right-wing press and racist groups continue to enjoy such a symbiotic existence, I believe the situation looks rather bleak. Popular attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration are likely to undergo significant changes over the coming years and I worry that we are now seeing the emergence of a new racial/religious-based politics that will be part of the landscape for some time to come.

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