Socialist Worker

Reworking racism

Liz Fekete, author of a new book on racism, spoke to Yuri Prasad about how old prejudices have been adapted for new targets

Issue No. 2148

 (Illustration: Eric Drooker/ )

(Illustration: Eric Drooker/

In your book, A Suitable Enemy, you say that racism has been transformed in recent years. What changes are you referring to?

At the Institute of Race Relations we wanted to distinguish xenophobia, a “natural” fear of strangers, from institutional racism. In recent years we have seen the rise of racism against asylum seekers. Newspapers like the Sun started running articles that said that being against refugees wasn’t racist because a lot of refugees have white skin.

We noted that, unlike anti-black racism, this new racism isn’t necessarily “colour-coded”. It’s anti-foreigner, but it isn’t simply xenophobia because not all foreigners are targets – rich people seem to be fairly welcome here. The common link between those on the receiving end of this new racism is poverty.

What this new “xeno-racism” has in common with older forms of racism is that it is a structured ideology and is institutionalised by the state. The notion of managed migration stems from the needs of the rich. The leaders of the European Union want skilled workers to come here from across the world.

But the trade off for this has been an attack on the rights of refugees. The Geneva Convention says that it is not a crime to cross an international border without proper papers if your purpose is to seek political asylum. Yet in Europe anyone who does this is criminalised and characterised as a “bogus” migrant.

Another key theme of your book is attacks on multiculturalism. Much of the discussion centres on what has happened in Denmark and the Netherlands. Why is that?

Both countries have similarities with Britain. They both have a reputation for tolerance and for being big donators to the Third World. The Netherlands, like the UK, had also developed a multicultural approach to migrants – rather than forcing everyone to assimilate into a supposed national culture there was a degree of tolerance of “differentness”.

So what has happened there in recent years is even more shocking.

We have seen the emergence of something quite different from the traditional extreme right, which is represented by parties like the Front National in France. Instead small local committees against asylum seekers have, over time, transformed into populist parties, like Holland’s Freedom Party, that are capable of winning large numbers of votes. These parties are explicitly anti-immigrant, anti-multiculturalism and rabidly anti-Muslim.

After 9/11 debates around immigration moved away from being centred on refugees towards migrant workers and Muslims. The climate of fear made it much easier for these groups to openly attack Muslims and to suggest that they represented a threat to the country’s “core Christian values”.

But attacks on multiculturalism also started to come from another direction – from those I term “Enlightened Fundamentalists”. Here liberal values are turned on their head and made into an attack on migrants, specifically Muslim migrants.

The Enlightened Fundamentalist says, ‘we Europeans are secular, we support women’s rights, we have a liberal approach to notions of sexuality and gay rights – and all of these are under threat from the Muslim minorities in our countries, who are backward and barbaric. The doctrine of multiculturalism is to blame for allowing these people to come to “our” countries without adopting “our” way of thinking.’

This “secular” attack on Muslims and multiculturalism is for me even more worrying than the far right, as it has legitimised views that were previously confined to the racists.

I think that in Britain there are already strong echoes of these trends.

Why do you think so many leading feminists and gay rights activists have fallen into the trap of targeting Muslims and Islam as inherently reactionary?

First, I think it reflects of the weakness of identity politics, the idea that to change the world you must start from your own experience of oppression and prioritise it above all others. This approach leaves many people unaware of other traditions of oppression, so for example, many feminists don’t understand the impact of colonialism and racism. Instead they see themselves in some sort of competition for rights.

Second, rather than assuming that feminists and gay rights activists come from a left wing background, we should understand that they represent a variety of political views. We should not expect them to generalise and make common cause with others who are oppressed.

In Britain too, some of the most vociferous attacks on multiculturalism have come from those broadly thought of as progressive or on the left. Why do you think that is?

We have, in recent years, seen two myths transformed into everyday commonsense. First is that migrant communities in Britain have segregated themselves and are now living “parallel lives” to the rest of the country. Second is that the notion of institutional racism is false. Behind both of these stand New Labour and its increasing attacks on those minorities living in marginalized communities as in some way to blame for their own situation.

These ideas are not new. They are a regurgitation of the ideas of “cultural deficit” that were developed by reactionary sociologists in the US in the 1960s to suggest that black children underachieved at school because of their “culture” – rather than any failure of the education system.

Today the government says that if you are poor it is because you have poor levels of “social capital”.

Your book looks in detail at what has been described as the “Muslim problem” and analyses the way the state response to it. What are the key features of this?

The main thing is that the state introduces parallel structures for Muslims – laws and morals that are to be applied to them only. We started to get lists of banned organisations, which included many Muslims groups, after the anti-terror legislation passed in 2000. But the development of a parallel legal structure to deal specifically with Muslims really gets going after the attack in September 2001.

This new form of anti-Muslim racism is linked to the concept of xeno-racism because in Britain the people affected are primarily poor, they are often refugees or non-British nationals.

One of main drivers of this criminalisation of Muslims are the security services but their needs increasingly mesh with the authoritarian agenda of the government. Increasingly, security services around the world feed each other with information about suspects, with their hunches and misinformation rapidly taken as fact, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today many Muslims are finding themselves caught up in this web simply because they are Muslim and marginalised

For me, one of the most frightening aspects of this process is the complete capitulation of social democratic parties across Europe to this agenda.

What effect do you think the demonisation of Muslims had on their level of political engagement?

It’s very difficult to come to firm conclusions on this point. However, it is important to note the high level of involvement of Muslims in the political battles over civil rights. To me this is the most significant development over the last few years right across Europe, and it will most certainly continue.

Nevertheless, the constant rounds of anti-Muslim scare stories do have an effect. The reaction to this among some Muslims has been to politically disengage and to be suspicious of others. The government’s attempts to co-opt Muslim groups through its Preventing Violent Extremism programme have often made this worse.

Muslims are told that they must sign up to a checklist of democratic values and show that they are against “Islamism” or they too will be labelled as “bad Muslims”. No other community in Britain is placed under such scrutiny.

I was a guest on a TV programme recently alongside a young Muslim woman. She started her contribution, saying, “We moderate Muslims”. I think it’s terrible that she should feel under pressure to define herself in that way before she has had a chance to say anything else.

And, if you fail to be a “good Muslim”, and you don’t support the government and its initiatives, you can easily find yourself a victim of the parallel justice system.

This challenge of defending the rights of Muslims is one that should go far beyond Muslim organisations. I watched the way in which the G20 protesters were policed earlier this month, and its clear that legislation and tactics that were first designed and tested on minority communities are now used to target protesters of all descriptions. In the anti-racist movement we used to say, “If they come for you in the morning, they’ll come for me in the night.” It’s an old phrase, but I think it is apposite today.

Liz Fekete is executive director at the Institute of Race Relations. Her book, A Suitable Enemy, is available now from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. She will be speaking in the shop on 14 May. Go to »

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Tue 21 Apr 2009, 18:29 BST
Issue No. 2148
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