Friday 16 May 2014

Islam is not a race - so what?

British Muslims at the Jubilee
As though it were a dog whistle, whenever a Ukipper makes racist remarks about Islam and I make mention of it, within moments a Ukipper will be keen to remind me "Islam is not a race". So that's ok then.  Because Islam is not a race, a prejudiced bigot escapes the label of being a racist.

By calling ignorant assholes racist, by some measure I am somehow attempting to close down the debate.  I don't see how.  You are free to continue parading your prejudices and if you bring them to me I will debate them until the cows come home. Though curiously, whenever you do have this debate with a Ukipper, they will flounce off and discontinue the argument.  And not just on this subject either.

My own view is that the word "racist", through overuse, has passed in to the vernacular to describe bigotry and prejudice by casting an amalgam of people as threatening outside-Others.  Right wingers are keen to argue that "racism" as a word has lost all meaning through overuse.  I disagree. The Left have called Ukip's latest poster campaign racist, which by whatever mental gymnastics you perform, just it isn't. What it is, is stupid, fact-free, populist scaremongering.

But just because the term "racist" is as overused as the word "fascist", it does not rob it of any meaning. Language is flexible and fluid. Words acquire meaning through common use and racism is generally a good shorthand to include what would otherwise be described as islamophobic.  But islamophobia as a concept most certainly is one of those words with which to frame a debate toward a politically dishonest outcome.

Much to my surprise I find myself in agreement with comments made by Nesrine Malik in an otherwise crap article in The Guardian when she remarks that "Racism is behaviour, not an informed academic position. I doubt that anyone abusing Muslims in the street, or defacing a mosque, or snatching a veil off a woman's face, has paused to examine their premise beforehand. The argument that Islam is not a race is a cop out. It's time that we dispensed with it once and for all, because it prevents us from identifying acts motivated by hatred for what they really are. Islam might not be a race, but using that as a fig leaf for your unthinking prejudice is almost certainly racist."

I agree.  This canard is entirely a fig leaf to enable and excuse bigotry. For sure we could just call it plain old bigotry, which is accurate enough, but the anal-retentive sophistry that characterises the debate around this debating canard is designed to excuse and validate the bigotry directed at Islam.  I view it in context. When your average Ukipite is talking about Muslims, they're talking about British Muslims from Bangladesh and Pakistan. So if it smells like racism, it probably is.

The reason I know this, is because these are the exact same arguments I used to make when in my "angry young man" phase I was advancing similar views on Islam.  If you trawled hard enough through the internet, you would probably find the evidence.  But with a name like Peter North, I very much doubt you'd be willing to sift through Google results long enough before your stomach gave way.

I was called a racist, but that certainly didn't shut any debate down.  I recall when phpBB forums were en vogue, I spent most of my waking hours on them furiously debating these very subjects, often making blood enemies in the process, but over the years came round to the view that Muslims are not taking over, Islam is not going to dominate the world and that while the pace of integration is glacial, it does happen - and the longer I spend away the more noticeable it is when I go back home.

Just recently I returned to my hometown of Bradford and for reasons I don't recall I elected to take public transport into town one evening. The bus was delayed as as a young fat Muslim woman in a headscarf, tracksuit and Reebok trainers boarded the bus with a double buggy, with two children of mixed race.  She spoke to the driver it that particular West Yorkshire accent that could strip paint from walls. It is a large part of the reason I moved South so as not to ever hear it. If ever there were an example of integration with the locals, she was it.  So much so, I let out a laugh at this realisation.

Getting on the bus the following day to Halifax, one noticed the population is still predominantly white even in a city famous for its large Asian population.  Moreover the middle class suburbs are as middle class as ever they were, though with Asian/Muslim residents who, like everyone else, wash their cars, mow the lawns and nip to B&Q on a Sunday.  For every one joining the Jihad, there's another ten going down the pub. Yes there are ghettos of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Poor immigrants.  But that is normal. Humans have a natural tendency to agglomerate with their own kind - and in twenty years or so, those areas will look transformational.

The paranoia surrounding Muslims is simply a fiction.  Twenty years ago, Bradford did experience something similar to what this Ukip candidate describes.  "All the old owners of the neighbouring shops have been squeezed out by Muslims. The entire parade - once lovely owner/occupier shops - resembles Helmand Province now."  Though if I recall, the entire parades were far from lovely - and if they resembled Helmand Province, that would have been something of an improvement.  Fast forward to today and those same streets are thriving, and the shops have new frontings and light-up signs that are now a matter of prestige for shop owners, in the same way sign-written signs once were.  In many respects the dilapidated main roads into Bradford look better now than they would have in the 1970's in a deep post-industrial slump.

Moreover, as the Bradford Muslim community has become wealthier, gone have the bright green domes on the mosques. They have been replaced with much more ornate domes, much more sympathetic to the Bradford skyline, which ironically, built during the industrial revolution, had architecture borrowed from all over the Middle East and India.

If anything the Muslim community is more likely to again bring about that very British concept of being a "nation of shopkeepers", bound by a socially conservative moral ethic - and much more likely to have strong family ties in ways that we have been conditioned away from, as we become clients of the state rather than codependents.

In a post-faith Britain we have fewer reasons to congregate, fewer reasons to dress up, fewer rituals and traditions - and in the age of post-modernism, as social constructs of old are dismantled, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. It is for this reason we have abnormal levels of thirty-something childless singletons living selfish, empty lives.  If you wanted to turn the clock back to a 1950's version Britain (as Ukip seems to want) then you should probably welcome more Muslims. I think they have a lot to teach us about who we used to be.

There is no reversing what was done to Britain, and I don't think, in the final analysis, I would want to.  Muslims are here to stay and they are part of the fabric of our lives and they are part of our history and culture now. The are part of our island story. Get over it.

The anger and resentment surrounding Muslims has little to do with Islam, more the clueless actions of our largely unelected administrative class. Similarly, the fires of racism are stoked by the reluctance of authorities to act quickly and decisively on sensitive issues such as grooming gangs.

Even after the police were finally embarrassed into acting on grooming cases, it still goes on and there is still a reluctance by the police to grasp the nettle on it. It is that PC forelock tugging that fuels this kind of racism. It is that which ultimately harms race relations. We simply don't uphold the law, - as with other aspects of immigration. That creates a toxic brew of fear and resentment.

This essentially boils down to moral cowardice by the police - which is a consequence of a time when the police most certainly were institutionally racist and for a decade or more repeatedly denied there was a problem in their ranks. That same culture of denial still exists within the police and NHS today.  If they don't investigate a crime, they won't find it - job done. This is not the product of Islam but the product of our own dysfunctional state. I expect it fair to say British Muslims want something done about this as much as the rest of us.

Most immigration issues do come down to improper enforcement of law. In Bradford the term "dirty paki" used to stick primarily because Pakistani areas were dirty, and recent immigrants were unaware of our customs and attitudes as to the proper disposal of waste.  As Environmental Health authorities wised up to the dynamic at play it was resolved and it's no longer the issue it once was.

There is more to be done. Much could be done about money laundering that exists in connection with the drug trade.  More could be done to tackle distortions in the labour market.  More could be done to deal with poor housing conditions.  Immigration puts pressure on all these factors but scapegoating immigrants will get us nowhere.

Brits have a right to be angry and one cannot blame them for joining the angry party but racism isn't the answer and nor is fear-mongering. I recall back in the days when I was pushing those same stupid racist arguments about Muslims, I was angry too.  I was trapped in a dead end job in a dead end town with little to look forward to and little to live for.  Very much the product of the Blair welfare era.  Life didn't turn round until I stopped blaming the world and everyone around me and got busy sorting out my own life - as indeed immigrants come here to do.  I took a leaf out of their book and got on my bike. I have never once looked back.

But for those who are left behind, those for whom the rising economic tide did nothing, in towns where the boom years simply didn't happen, living in a permanent state of recession and dilapidation, surrounded by economically mobile immigrants gradually becoming wealthier, I can understand the resentment - and I even feel the pain. But rather than scapegoating Muslims, if we turned our guns on the state that constructed the mechanisms that hold us back, and teach us learned helplessness, perhaps next time there's a boom there won't be so many left behind?

This is a debate that needs to be had and branding people who are genuinely concerned about this as racist is wholly counter productive, but we cannot allow the likes of Heino Vockrodt to represent us in that debate when the issues are nuanced and diverse. As to how this reflects on Ukip, that is entirely an own goal by deliberately seeking the BNP vote. These are the candidates Ukip are fielding therefore that is how Ukip must be judged.

The problems are many and serious that grow up around immigration - and integration problems are very much the product of our own governments mishandling of everything, where well meaning race relations organisations have created empires of their own and nurtured divisions rather than cultivating commonalities. Our welfare state has undermined opportunity and given the advantage to law breaking employers who hire cheap foreign labour. It is our government who have done this to us - not Muslims.

As with leaving the EU, there are complex and technical issues and by pandering to manufactured fears, Ukip is essentially saying we're too dumb to understand the issues at play, rather than pushing adult ideas based in fact. The arguments surrounding trade, democracy and the rule of law are the arguments the Ukip I once joined would have made, rather than resorting to cheap populism and fact-free grandstanding. That was what set Ukip apart from the BNP.  Now, in many respects, I can no longer tell the difference.

You'll get no argument from me that carelessly bandying around of the word "racist" is unhelpful, but when individuals leave a pigs head on the steps of a mosque or spit at veiled women, or start blaming Islam for the ills of our country, let's not beat around the bush, and let's please call it what it is... racism.

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