4.3.11

Can we talk about gay racism now? - Johann Hari and liberal racism

It's easy to be anti-racist these days. Most of us, having grown up, or lived most of our lives in a society that is, officially at least, tolerant of racial minorities - which has embraced multiculturalism (in rhetoric at least) - find it relatively easy to denounce old-fashioned vulgar racism, and assume that racism is an anachronism: something which only old people and the ignorant working class take seriously.

But there is a much more slippery form of racism, but one which is no less pernicious, underlying much of modern liberal (and sometimes radical leftist) thinking. This is a racism which sees racial minorities not as being ipso facto bad, but rather sees immigrant communities (and Muslims in particular) as being a threat to the supposed progressive values of white/Western liberalism. In Western countries, so the narrative goes, we have embraced feminism, LGBT rights etc., and it is only the dark-skinned barbarian immigrant hordes which pose a threat to the safety and freedom of our precious women and gays.

Far-right and crypto-Fascist groups such as the BNP and the EDL in Britain, Geert Wilders' PVV in Holland and the National Front in France have already begun to embrace progressive language in order to create fear and hatred of Muslims and to create a sense of us-and-them, of a profound and inescapable cultural conflict. Across Western Europe, far-right parties are calling for bans on the burka and the hijab, which are portrayed as inherently oppressive of women and a creeping threat to our newfound feminist values (rather than simply being signifiers of another culture with which they are not comfortable). Simultaneously, overtly and deliberately racist depictions of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, and Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic film Fitna are defended as the last bastion of Western free speech against the Muslim menace. (See here for more.)

The English Defence League, in particular, has been successful in recruiting outside of the far-right's usual all-white ultra-masculine football hooligan base, even going so far as to set up an LGBT division, and has used the language of LGBT and women's rights to build "the most significant far-right street movement since the National Front". (See (1), (2), (3), for examples.)

It is in this context that we should read liberal gay journalist Johann Hari's bizarre and irresponsible article 'Can we talk about Muslim homophobia now?', in which he claims:
East London has seen the highest increase in homophobic attacks anywhere in Britain, and some of the worst in Europe. Everybody knows why, and nobody wants to say it. It is because East London has the highest Muslim population in Britain, and we have allowed a fanatically intolerant attitude towards gay people to incubate there, in the name of "tolerance".
Its a sad irony that Hari has chosen to adopt the stance of 'saying the unsayable' in the face of the politically-correct establishment favoured by right-wing racist journalists like Richard Littlejohn, particularly given that Hari once famously took Littlejohn to task for helping to "create a culture in which groups like the BNP can spread." Worse, like Littlejohn, Hari adopts the tactic of exaggerating and distorting the facts in order to attack an immigrant population. As it turns out
Police figures show that over last year there was a reduction in attacks on lesbians and gays in London boroughs with the largest Muslim populations—Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest. (H. Dee, Fighting homophobia: Attacking one form of bigotry with another is a dead end, Socialist Worker)
But crucially, by singling out Muslim homophobia as being especially worthy of attention, Hari helps to create the us-and-them, Same-and-Other dynamic in which Fascists and racists thrive. Homophobia becomes a characteristic of the Other, another way in which Muslims are not like us, in which they pose a threat to our identity, while simultaneously allowing us to ignore the ways in which Western societies are homophobic. As Hari puts it: "It is "Muslim culture" today to be bigoted against gay people. It was British culture to be anti-gay thirty years ago." (Implicitly, then, British culture must now have entirely embraced queer identities in all their multifarious forms.)

This is not to say that the Muslim community (like any religious community) does not have to confront the attitudes of its members towards LGBT people, but rather that this struggle can only be a struggle within that community, rather than by white Westerners against the community. Moreover, it is important to understand the class antagonism underlying Muslim homophobia. It is no coincidence that the areas which are displaying the worst of this intolerance are among the worst slums in Britain. As pointed out by Slavoj Žižek (writing in relation to the Netherlands):
What effectively fuels the Muslims' animosity is their perception of gays as part of a privileged elite which exploits them and treats them as outcasts. Our question to the gays should thus be: what did you do to help the immigrants socially? Why not go there, act like a Communist, organise a struggle, work together? The solution of the tension is thus not to be found in multicultural tolerance and understanding but in a shared struggle on behalf of a universality that cuts diagonally across both communities, dividing each of them against itself, but uniting the marginalised in both camps. (S. Žižek, Living in the End Times, pp.138)
In other words, the creation of oppositions between communities (and particularly between the Westerner and the Immigrant) can only increase animosity and tension between communities. It is only through a shared struggle for a common humanity (i.e. through class struggle) that the walls of division can be broken and our mutual humanity can begin to be recognised.

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