Thursday, February 18, 2016

Is it racist to use the term Islamo-fascist?

Twitter is abuzz over Peter Tatchell's issue with the NUS LGBQT+ leader, Fran Cowling, because she called him a racist and transphobe, but refused to give any evidence for the accusation. Against my better judgement, I joined in the maul on Twitter, because like many, I deeply admire Peter's lifetime of dedication to the cause of human rights (including, I must admit, his collaboration over the Global Human Rights Index). I also want to find out why anyone would accuse Peter of racism (I will not dip into the transphobia accusation; that is just too silly).

In the course of the twitterspat, I was asked to read this enormous blog post by Sara Ahmed, who is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmith's College. It carries the interesting title "You Are Oppressing Me!" and  is 10,000 words long. It is not particularly badly written in that it reads smoothly, but it is circumstantial, over-long and opaque. In my non-academic opinion. But somewhere in there, I believe, there is the answer to why Peter is accused by some to be racist.

In the article Sara Ahmed refers to a shorter post that she wrote "about racism in relation to Peter Tatchell's work". The post bears reading, since it is not unreasonably long. Here is the crux:

"Racism in speech does not simply depend on the explicit articulation of ideas of racial superiority but often works given that such associations do not need to be made explicit. So for example politicians might use a qualifier ‘this is not a war against Islam’ and then use repeatedly terms like ‘Islamic terrorists’ which work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words: the repetition of that proximity makes the association ‘essential’."

Proximity of words is important. We must not say "Islamic terrorist". 

Nor are we allowed to say "Islamo-fascism". This is from the You are Oppressing Me! post: (about half way down. Use CTRL+F):

"Consider Tatchell’s article, “Far Left Collusion with Islamo-Fascism.” The term “Islamo-Fascism” makes exactly this translation. I would describe this term (without hesitation) as a racist term, where the availability of this term as a singular term is a condensation of a history. The proximity between the two words “Islamo” and “Fascism” is signaled in the abbreviation of the dash. It is just a small line that gets us from one to the other. The term “Islamo-Fascism” unsurprisingly was exercised a great deal in official justifications of the war on terror, performing a similar function to the term “Islamic terrorists” that I discussed earlier. The nearness of the words does the work of argument without having to make an argument: Islamo – fascism as Islamo = fascism."
(emphasis added)

And there we have it. It is racist to talk about Islamo-fascism. 

(This raises a side issue: what then are Daesh and AQ? Do they exist, or are they simply made-up stories by our media? Should they be condemned at all for burning people to death, or is this just "cultural" and therefore beyond criticism? I will not go into this here)

[update 20Feb] How is it racist to talk about Islamo-fascism? This involves a jump. "Islamo-fascism" per se is not racist; if it is any kind of -ism, it is religionist. Muslims come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. So it would seem that Sara Ahmed is stretching "racism" to cover religionism. As an expert in communication she knows that "religionism" is a new word that lacks impact, but that racism is a word that does by no means lack emotional impact.

Now it is very clear that the Taliban and Daesh are clearly fascists. When they control an area they stop girls going to school, they make women wear the veil, the bully men who do not wear beards, they torture and executed hostages and civilians. They talk like fascists, they act like fascists. They are fascists. 

And they are Islamic Fascists. They are not Christian Fascists, Jewish Fascists, or Hindu Fascists. They are not Animist Fascists nor are they Atheist Fascists. They pray, they revere the Prophet (pbuh) in their words if not their actions, they believe the Q'ran and the Hadith, so they are Islamic. Certainly, true pious Muslims may reject them, a few may even put them under a fatwa, but, sociologically speaking, they are Islamic. They are fascists and Islamic, therefore they may accurately be called Islamo-Fascists. Yet to use those terms is, in Sara Ahmed's analysis, to be unacceptable, and she will call anyone who uses the term "racist" even though it would be more accurate to call them "religionist".

We are looking at words from different sides. Most thinkers deal with words as having specific meaning, as indicating concepts or things. Sara Ahmed is dealing with world as carrying with them a kind of feeling-field, feelings that can move around, a field that over-rides their specific meaning.

As soon as I say that Daesh are Islamo-fascists, it will be assumed that I back the so-called War on Terror. I do not. I accept that to a great extent Daesh and their allies have been helped to prosper (if that is the right word) by the WoT. Daesh, AQ and their allies are deeply unpleasant phenomenon, and we must defend ourselves against them through the police and intelligence services, by a general fatwa from reasonable imams, and maybe by instantly overpowering any terrorist who starts shooting at civilians.

This is my disclaimer, but it will not work. By using the term Islamo-fascist I have become a racist, and therefore one of Them, not one of Us.
I have long incubated a small notion that the Left, having been in effect excluded from political power by the corporate media, have to some extent retreated from the political arena in public life into political correctness in academia. Speech is of course an important aspect of reality, but it is a dynamic, evolving part of life, and if we focus on speech and language to the exclusion of what is really going on out there in the real world, we can end up in an absurd mess. 

The accusation that Peter Tatchell is a racist is one symptom of just such a mess.


Anonymous said...

Surely the question is whether the label 'Islamic' is relevant in this case?

Ahmed points out occasions when labels like 'gay' or 'black' are used in newspaper headlines, when their sexuality or skin colour is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Her writing on this point is very good (if obfuscated by academic language).

If the fascists' Islamic faith wasn't relevant to their fascism, or if you wouldn't use the qualifier 'Christian' or 'Jewish' in equivalent cases, then it's clear-cut case of racist double standards. However, if you think their Islamic or Islamist beliefs are particularly relevant, then to my mind it clearly isn't racist.

I seem to recall that Mussolini claimed to be re-establishing the Holy Roman Empire. Was he a Christian fascist?

Tatchell has been plenty outspoken about christian churches as well, and he is objecting to the use of Islamic scripture to justify homophobia, so I can't see how he can be dismissed as racist in those cases. Perhaps he isn't the most consistent, considerate and conciliatory commentator, but who could expect that from the man that founded Outrage?

I don't really have a firm view on this, but I agree that Ahmed's essay seems to be ruling out the use of these racial and religious signifiers full stop, particularly when applied to minorities who suffer discrimination, and that cannot be right.

DocRichard said...

Hi Tom, thanks for a thought provoking comment.

Easy bit first, Islamophobia is not "racist", it is religionist. Ahmed is making a jump, using racist because it is a powerful term already in the language thanks to Hitler and Apartheid.

Was Mussolini a Christian fascist? Breivik and other extreme right wingers certainly had fantasies about being Christian, and flaunt Crusader images, but Christians would certainly distance themselves immediately. As moderate Muslims do with regard to Daesh etc.

So should we not use the word "Islamic" at all? Or at least not in a negative context. We can talk about Islamic art.

Maybe you're right. You could be right. But I have to confess it doesn't feel right to me. It feels as if we are tip-toeing around the problem, granting indulgences to the Muslim culture/religion that would in no way be granted to Christian culture religion.

But then again, we sanitise our own acts of warfare. We use civilised means, drones and missiles to deliver our smart bombs, instead of nasty bloody suicide bombers. And our pilots do not shout God is Great when they press the button. The man that presses the nuclear button may or may not be a practising Christian.

Whatever, I still do not believe that usint the accurate term Islamo-Fascist deserves to be condemned as racist.