Sad, Old and Out of Touch: The Identity Crisis of Islamophobes

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Posted Jun 15, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Sad, Old and Out of Touch: The Identity Crisis of Islamophobes

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

In recent weeks we have seen a growing tide of racism, intolerance and xenophobia in Europe. Let us be very clear that this is in the main an Islamophobic tide, even though there are worrying signs of a resurgence of anti-Semitism too in the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.

The difference is that Islamophobia is not confined to the far-right and lunatic margins but flourishes on all political wings and at all levels in European culture and society. It would be unthinkable today, and rightly so, for a European leader to pronounce publicly that Jewish civilization was inferior to Western civilization, but, as we know, the Italian Prime Minister declared soon after September 11th that Islam was inferior to the West, even if he was roundly castigated for so doing.

What is worrying is that the tide of Islamophobia is beginning to carry with it even some of those we might have trusted in the past to resist it with intelligence, fairness and humanity.

It was predictable that in certain sections of the British press the anti-Semitism of Jean-Marie Le Pen would thankfully be beyond the pale while a measure of indulgence was accorded to the anti-Muslim demagogy of Pim Fortuyn.

Melanie Phillips (Spectator, 13 May), for example, believes that Fortuyn was right in believing that Muslim immigration, which makes up “most of the mass immigration now convulsing Europe”, threatens Western liberal values because Islam is “fundamentally intolerant and illiberal”. Further on in the article, in a paragraph making obeisance to Samuel Huntington?s poisonous doctrine of the Clash of Civilizations, we are told in one sentence that it is “militant Islam” which poses the threat against “the West” and in the next sentence that it is “Islam” as a single monolithic entity. This interchangeability between Islam and militancy, as if they are necessarily equated, is a classic demonstration of the dishonest intellectual sleight of hand which marks out the language of Islamophobia.

We might have expected, too, that the Queen Mother?s funeral and the impending Golden Jubilee would give the old guard of the Conservative party an opportunity to exploit patriotism and love of tradition as an apparently respectable means of replaying their fusty critique of multiculturalism, if not the more caustic and disreputable variant we associate with Norman Tebbit.

Thus, Norman Lamont (Daily Telegraph, 8 May), re-ploughing the old furrow left by previous champions of “England for the English”, such as Sir Richard Body, gives us the platitude, masquerading as insight, that “all human beings need to belong” and that the “Queen?s Golden Jubilee gives people a chance to celebrate their real identity”.

Lamont is careful, of course, to renounce in his very first paragraph the “hateful” policies of Le Pen and Fortuyn. Nevertheless, according to him, the “real identity” to which everyone is required to subscribe, is the “national identity” of “Britishness”, the “adherence to the values of one community”, as opposed to a “community of communities” based on “facile ideas of diversity” like those promoted by the Runnymede Trust?s report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain ? the very same report, by the way, which identified Islamophobia as a “challenge to us all”.

So much we might have expected. But when Ministers in a Labor government ostensibly committed to fairness and respect for diversity begin to speak the same language, albeit less stridently, we have to agree with Inayat Bunglawala (Observer, 19 May) that the Muslim community is being singled out and scapegoated.

When Home Secretary David Blunkett warns of asylum seekers and refugees (most of whom are Muslims) “swamping” our schools and when the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain observes that Muslim immigrants tend to be “very isolationist in their own behavior and their own customs”, we have to ask what is really behind such utterances.

We can argue for ever about the detail of what they said, the words they used and what they really mean, and about the relative degree of truth or untruth in each statement, but there is a much bigger picture here and we need to develop the vision which will enable us to see it.

Consider again the statement of Norman Lamont that we all need to “belong” and celebrate our real “identity”. Now, it is ironic that opponents of multiculturalism often refer to the empiricism of Sir Francis Bacon as one of the key features of “Englishness”. Bacon was one of the fathers of the scientific revolution in England. He held the view that we must purge the mind of prejudice, conditioning, false notions and unanalyzed authority ? what he called the “Idols of the human mind” which distort and discolor the true nature of things ? and rely instead on direct experience, perception, observation, and “true induction” as methods of gaining sound knowledge. In support of his ideas, Bacon draws on the view of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus that the limitations of the human mind cause us to seek truth within the confines of our own “lesser worlds” rather than in the “greater or common world”.

And as you might expect, the England-for-the-English camp take the “lesser world” as the “isolated” immigrant community which either cannot or will not be assimilated to the values of the “greater world”. Whether this is the “common culture” of Englishness or Britishness is still unresolved among the antagonists of multiculturalism. But let?s not quibble. We?re trying to catch a bigger fish in a much larger pond.

It is the grossest form of reductionism to equate the “lesser worlds” with the assumed “parochialism” represented by the imported cultures of immigrant ethnic minorities, and to equate the “greater common world” with a fixed nationalistic identity, as if that is any less parochial. There is a greater common world than the “common culture” of Englishness, whatever that may be. It is greater too than the assumption of shared values in the rhetoric about preserving the “way of life” in the West, even if we would agree that there are certain core values in Western civilization which are worth defending. It is at least as big as the increasingly connected global community, and this already transcends those dwindling national boundaries which are becoming impossible to police.

For people who seek a still larger identity, the “greater common world” is greater even than the global community. It is a world which Bacon associates with what he calls the Ideals of the Divine, not the Idols of the human mind. It extends further out beyond this planet to the universe, and to that sense of awe and wonder which its vastness, beauty, and mystery evokes in people of imagination and questing spirit. And for people of faith, the “real identity” which Norman Lamont restricts to national pride is the fully inclusive world of our true nature as fully human beings in harmony with God and the Universe. It can have countless cultural expressions. Celebrating the Golden Jubilee can be part of that, but to equate such a celebration with my “real identity” is to present to me a miserably stunted picture of myself.

I believe that we are on the brink of an exciting leap in human development, a true paradigm shift. This is an adaptive challenge which will define who is capable of moving forward and connecting with the rest of humanity. Impending paradigm shifts, those radical changes in the way we view the world and ourselves, are threatening to those who are incapable of adaptation. They prefer to remain locked and imprisoned within safe and familiar boundaries.

As the new paradigm emerges, they retreat further, redoubling their defense of the old model of reality. Xenophobia, which in its most virulent contemporary expression singles out and scapegoats Islam and Muslims, is the last refuge of those who are incapable of that expansion of the heart which enables us to engage with and to embrace the “other”, to welcome and love the stranger in our midst, and, beyond that, to connect with the rest of humanity, wherever they may be.

Everywhere, boundaries are crashing down or melting away. This is the age of connectivity, of permeability. It is ironic that Islam is often stereotyped as being implacably opposed to modernity. True modernity, for all of us, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, is to embrace the challenge of a connected world, to identify and dissolve the forms of parochialism which limit us.

To cling to our lesser world, in the words of a group of children I once taught, is to be sad and out of touch. It is also to be old ? not physically old, for there are many sparkling old people whose eyes still shine with curiosity and the spirit of adventure - but to be old, cramped and blinkered within, hanging on to a fusty world of outmoded and barren habits of thought. To borrow another of Lamont?s misplaced adjectives, it is this fearful retreat which is truly “facile”, not the engagement with diversity. And its most facile expression, so easy and unconscious, is to blame others for your own lack of development, to project cravenly onto others the least developed parts of yourself.

The growing tide of racism, xenophobia and intolerance is nothing less than a fearful retreat from an impending paradigm change which radically extends our boundaries. And the scapegoating of Islam and Muslims is the most convenient expression of that failure to extend ourselves. It is a failure on every level ? a failure of the heart, of the mind, of the imagination ? and it is a dismal failure to be truly modern in our outlook.

The real clash is not the bogus Clash of Civilizations, with its regurgitated clich鳠about the opposition between Islam and modernity, but the clash between a new way of looking at the world and our own crippling prejudices.

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