Noam Chomsky’s new article in The Nation on the BDS campaign against Israel has caused a stir. He makes quite a few highly controversial points, not all of which Shiraz would necessarily agree with. We republish this important piece, exacty as it appears in The Nation (starting with the Editor’s note) in the interests of information and debate:
Editor’s Note: BDS has been a topic of vigorous debate in the Nation community. For more on that debate, and for a range of responses to this article in the coming days, go to TheNation.com/BDS.
On Israel-Palestine and BDS
Those dedicated to the Palestinian cause should think carefully about the tactics they choose.
By Noam Chomsky
The misery caused by Israel’s actions in the occupied territories has elicited serious concern among at least some Israelis. One of the most outspoken, for many years, has been Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, who writes that “Israel should be condemned and punished for creating insufferable life under occupation, [and] for the fact that a country that claims to be among the enlightened nations continues abusing an entire people, day and night.”
He is surely correct, and we should add something more: the United States should also be condemned and punished for providing the decisive military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support for these crimes. So long as it continues to do so, there is little reason to expect Israel to relent in its brutal policies.
The distinguished Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell, reviewing the reactionary nationalist tide in his country, writes that “the occupation will continue, land will be confiscated from its owners to expand the settlements, the Jordan Valley will be cleansed of Arabs, Arab Jerusalem will be strangled by Jewish neighborhoods, and any act of robbery and foolishness that serves Jewish expansion in the city will be welcomed by the High Court of Justice. The road to South Africa has been paved and will not be blocked until the Western world presents Israel with an unequivocal choice: Stop the annexation and dismantle most of the colonies and the settler state, or be an outcast.”
One crucial question is whether the United States will stop undermining the international consensus, which favors a two-state settlement along the internationally recognized border (the Green Line established in the 1949 ceasefire agreements), with guarantees for “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.” That was the wording of a resolution brought to the UN Security Council in January 1976 by Egypt, Syria and Jordan, supported by the Arab states—and vetoed by the United States.
This was not the first time Washington had barred a peaceful diplomatic settlement. The prize for that goes to Henry Kissinger, who supported Israel’s 1971 decision to reject a settlement offered by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, choosing expansion over security—a course that Israel has followed with US support ever since. Sometimes Washington’s position becomes almost comical, as in February 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UN resolution that supported official US policy: opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion, which continues (also with US support) despite some whispers of disapproval.
It is not expansion of the huge settlement and infrastructure program (including the separation wall) that is the issue, but rather its very existence—all of it illegal, as determined by the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice, and recognized as such by virtually the entire world apart from Israel and the United States since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who downgraded “illegal” to “an obstacle to peace.”
One way to punish Israel for its egregious crimes was initiated by the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom in 1997: a boycott of settlement products. Such initiatives have been considerably expanded since then. In June, the Presbyterian Church resolved to divest from three US-based multinationals involved in the occupation. The most far-reaching success is the policy directive of the European Union that forbids funding, cooperation, research awards or any similar relationship with any Israeli entity that has “direct or indirect links” to the occupied territories, where all settlements are illegal, as the EU declaration reiterates. Britain had already directed retailers to “distinguish between goods originating from Palestinian producers and goods originating from illegal Israeli settlements.”
Four years ago, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to abide by “its international legal obligation” to remove the settlements and to end its “blatantly discriminatory practices” in the occupied territories. HRW also called on the United States to suspend financing to Israel “in an amount equivalent to the costs of Israel’s spending in support of settlements,” and to verify that tax exemptions for organizations contributing to Israel “are consistent with U.S. obligations to ensure respect for international law, including prohibitions against discrimination.”
There have been a great many other boycott and divestment initiatives in the past decade, occasionally—but not sufficiently—reaching to the crucial matter of US support for Israeli crimes. Meanwhile, a BDS movement (calling for “boycott, divestment and sanctions”) has been formed, often citing South African models; more accurately, the abbreviation should be “BD,” since sanctions, or state actions, are not on the horizon—one of the many significant differences from South Africa.
Read the rest here
By Gabriel Noah Brahm (at The Times of Israel):
Step by misstep, the faltering BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions) movement is stumbling into an abyss of hatred that will soon lead to its rejection by reasonable people everywhere. In fact, at this rate, critics of the campaign to unfairly stigmatize Israel for its supposed lack of “academic freedom” (news to Freedom House, the respected organization giving the Jewish State a laudable rating of 1.5 on a seven point scale, 1 being the freest) will have little more to do than quote BDSers themselves–in order to discredit an extremist ideology that rejects a two-state compromise solution to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute in favor of denying Israel’s right to exist. First, one of its otherwise more intelligent spokespersons, the distinguished political theorist, Corey Robin, of Brooklyn College, is reported by Jonathan Marks, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as having surprisingly confessed to an undeniable overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the BDS movement:
“You say you’re a left-wing critic of Israel, so I presume you’ve supported some actions against the state. Well, guess what: I bet among those who also support those actions there are people who want the Jews to disappear. “
Next, to make matters worse, the prominent Italian philosopher (and member of the European Parliament), Gianni Vattimo, comes out with the following statement of his own, in a recent book called Deconstructing Zionism–in which, if nothing else, the emeritus professor candidly names names, identifying unabashedly who at least some of Robin’s (and his own) allies and would-be Jew-disappearers, as a matter of fact, happen to include:
For good reasons of international stability, one never dares—or almost never, except in the case of Islamic heads of state like Ahmadinejad—to question the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence…. When Ahmadinejad invokes the end of the State of Israel, he merely expresses a demand that should be more explicitly shared by the democratic countries that instead consider him an enemy.
Yes, the philosophy of BDS embraces the “philosophy” of Iran’s former President, and Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–the one who, like Professor Robin, dares to speak the truth. Israel is illegitimate. Its end should therefore be sought.
So! With that bracing reminder. Knowing for sure who at least a couple of BDS’s more recognizable fellow travelers include–a terrorist-sympathizing dictator/puppet who famously threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and a Heideggerian postmodernist who thinks that “democratic countries” above all should give credence to the essential thought behind the Iranian nuclear bomb project–do the opponents of BDS really need to mount arguments in favor of peace and reconciliation instead?
As the preeminent man-of-letters, Edward Alexander, helpfully reminds in a brilliant editorial of just a day ago, Jews Against Themselves: The BDS Movement and Modern Apostasy, it was the courageous German historian Matthias Küntzel who accurately discerned that “Every denial of the Holocaust contains an appeal to repeat it.” Well, Küntzel’s point is to the point, indeed. And furthermore–the point I myself would stress here and now–today the additional link that needs to be made above all is to the analogous denial inherent in the BDS campaign for the delegitimation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. For what BDS, Ahmadinejad, Corey Robin, and other leaders of the not-so-stealthy “stealth campaign” to seek to infiltrate the norm of a one-state “bi-nationalism” from-the-river-to-the-sea all seem to forget (including the influential Queer Theorist, Judith Butler, and the anti-Israel activist, Omar Barghouti, who openly proposes to “euthanize” Israel) is that the real tragedy, the true nakba even, of modern Israel’s rebirth is that it came a decade or more too late.
Is rolling the clock back now supposed to help? BDS and its allies–”well, guess what”–want to do just that. Only it’s far too late for that, and the only people they are really hurting with their fantasy of time-travel are the Palestinians themselves. Which is why I join with Abu Mazen in rejecting BDS for the ideological arm of a new kind of terror campaign that it is. For, as Marc H. Ellis also frankly avers in his grotesquely phantastical contribution to Vattimo’s same edited volume,
“At least in the present the very announcement of a process of ending a Jewish State of Israel would probably precipitate a mass exodus of Jewish Israelis to Europe and the United States—if, that is, the borders of the various states would accept millions of Jewish Israelis.”
And “if not”? The ideologists of BDS don’t really care to comment. After all, why should they? Disappearing Jews is what BDS is all about.
H/t: Terry Glavin, via Facebook
By Camila Bassi (at Anaemic On A Bike)
“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)
Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1977) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:
“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”
The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.
Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.
Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:
“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)
This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:
“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)
Above: excerpt from John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Stuart Hall Project’
The death yesterday of Stuart Hall, aged 82, robs the British left of a major intellect, an energetic organiser and a warm, charismatic human being. I should declare an interest: in the early 1970’s Stuart was one of my tutors at Birmingham University (where he was director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies) and, together with Dorothy Thompson in the History department, was instrumental in ensuring that I wasn’t chucked out and eventually obtained a degree (albeit an ‘Ordinary’). So I owe him a great deal: I only wish I’d got to know him better and found out, for instance, that we shared a love of jazz (although, I learned from Desert Island Discs, his favourite musician was Miles Davis, so even that might have generated some disagreement).
So I hope it’s clear that I liked and respected Stuart Hall a great deal, and if the articles reproduced below, in his memory, are quite sharply critical of aspects of his politics (particularly his rejection of the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism), that’s because serious, honest people can (or, at least, ought to be able to) disagree and still hold one another in high regard.
Paving the way for New Labour
By Matt Cooper (2013)
Cinema documentary has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with fine examples exploring subjects as diverse as sushi in Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and death squads in 1960s Indonesia in The Act of Killing (2012).
Nonetheless, a film about the semi-Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall is unexpected. Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1952 and was the founding editor of New Left Review (NLR) in 1960. This was a journal which explicitly adopted a “third way” approach between Soviet Communism and social democracy, but was ambivalent about the working class and its revolutionary potential.
After resigning as editor of NLR in 1962, Hall became a leading radical academic joining the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964 and becoming its director from 1968 to 1979. Cultural studies grew out of the New Left interest in the culture of the working class, which had largely been ignored by academia, and was part of a rise in a form of academic radicalism that mixed some real insights in an overly abstract and obtuse theoretical carapace and, like the New Left, often had little relationship with real struggles.
The last phase of Hall’s career commenced after 1979, when, despite his earlier rejection of both Stalinism and social democracy, he was one of the key theorists of bringing the two together. Through the pages of Marxism Today (the journal of the right wing of the Communist Party), and his own books, Hall argued that Labour needed to form a new progressive alliance in tune with “new times” where the organised working class was a diminishing force.
The problem with Akomfrah’s film is that it fails to address the development of Hall’s thought. It is strongest on his part in the formation of the New Left, and here hints at the weakness of this approach. While Hall’s co-thinkers were well established in Oxford and London, he reports that he was perplexed by an early encounter with the northern working class in Halifax. Like much else in the film, which is straitjacketed by its choice to use only the words from radio and TV appearances by Hall, this is left undeveloped.
Similarly, the film moves briefly over Hall’s work in the 1970s and fails to communicate what was specific about Hall’s understanding of culture — particularly his work on the moral panic over mugging in Policing the Crisis (1978).
Worst of all, the film entirely misses out Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism in the 1980s and his increasingly pessimistic response about how the left should respond to it.
Strangely, the film includes a clip of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, but there is no reference to any words from Hall to accompany it. Hall, while clearly sympathetic to the strike, thought it the doomed expression of class struggle that could no longer win. Without any clear sense of transforming society, Hall looked only to create a new more progressive ideology removed from such outdated class struggle. Unwittingly, he was preparing the ground for New Labour (which was more enthusiastically supported by many of his Marxism Today collaborators).
Without much grasp of Hall’s place in the movement away from class politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, The Stuart Hall Project ends up with a fragmented kaleidoscope of images without any clear narrative.
It neither does justice to Hall’s ideas nor shows any critical understanding of them.
“Post Fordism”: collapsing into the present
By Martin Thomas (1989)
Capitalism has changed and is changing. Vast new areas in the Third World have industrialised. The introduction of small, cheap, flexible computers is revolutionising finance, administration, retailing, manufacturing. The majority of the workforce in many capitalist countries is now “white-collar” – but white-collar work is becoming more industrial.
Dozens of other shifts and changes are underway. Which of them are basic? How are they connected? What implications do they have for socialists?
Into this debate has marched the Communist Party’s magazine “Marxism Today”, bearing a banner with a strange device – “post-Fordism”. “At the heart of New Times”, they write, “is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post” Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics” (Marxism Today, October 1988). These New Times call for a new politics: in place of the old class struggle, diverse alliances.
There are several issues here. Do the political conclusions really follow from the economic analysis? Is the economic analysis sound? Where does the economic analysis come from? What do the terms “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” mean? Read the rest of this entry »
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Above: Kassim Alhimidi (left) and Trayvon Martin (right)
By Unrepentent Jacobin (Reblogged from Jabobinism):
On the Hounding of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky
There is a damaging idea fast gathering influence on the Left that – like a lot of contemporary postmodern Leftist thought – urgently needs dismantling. This idea holds that racism is only possible when prejudice is married with power. The corollary of this premise is that racism may only travel in one direction – from the powerful to the powerless – and it is therefore nonsensical to discuss, still less condemn, racist attitudes expressed by ethnic minorities. In the West, racism is the preserve of the white majority who use it – often, it is claimed, unconsciously – to sustain their advantage and to oppress those they deem to be ‘other’. In the geopolitical sphere, meanwhile, this racism is the preserve of the world’s wealthy democracies and is expressed as Orientalism, Military and Cultural Imperialism, and Neoliberalism, all of which are used to dominate and subjugate the Global South.
Furthermore, racism exists independently of individual prejudice and cultural mores – like the power systems of which it is a part, it is abstract; metaphysical; unavoidable; unchanging. It is all-pervasive, ‘structural’, endemic, systemic, and internalised to such a degree that even (or especially) white liberal Westerners who perceive themselves to be broad-minded and non-prejudicial are not even aware of it. It is therefore incumbent on every white person, male or female, to ‘check their white privilege’ before venturing to comment on matters pertaining to minority cultures, lest they allow their unconscious ethnocentricity to reinforce oppressive power structures. Instead, moral judgement of minorities by universal standards should – no, must – be replaced by a willingness to indulge and uncritically accept difference.
In the view of this layman, this kind of thinking is wrong, both morally and in point of fact.
Postmodernism is notoriously unhappy with anything as concrete as a dictionary definition. However, the inconvenient fact is that racism remains clearly defined in the OED, and by the common usage its entries are intended to reflect, as follows:
Racism, n: The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities.
That the effects of this prejudice and antagonism are aggravated, perpetuated and sometimes institutionalized by the effects of power is undeniable, but this is a separate issue. Many unpleasant aspects of human nature and behaviour (greed, for instance) are also exacerbated by power, but that doesn’t change the ugly nature of the behaviour itself, nor allow us to infer that the powerless are incapable of making it manifest.
Efforts to effect an official change to this definition should be strongly resisted on grounds of egalitarianism (an idea the Left once cared about deeply). The difficulty with the power + prejudice formulation lies, not just in its dilution of what makes racism so toxic, but in a consequent moral relativism which holds people to different standards. It is manifestly unjust to hold some people to a higher standard of thought and behaviour based on their unalterable characteristics. However, it is far worse to hold others to a respectively lower standard based on those same characteristics, which insists on the indulgence of viewpoints and behaviour by some that would not be tolerated from others.
This separatist thinking has given rise to identity politics, moral equivalence, cultural relativism and what Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others have called “a racism of low expectations”. As Hirsi Ali remarked in her memoir-cum-polemic Nomad (excerpted here):
This Western attitude is based on the idea that people of colour must be exempted from “normal” standards of behaviour. There are many good men and women in the West who try to resettle refugees and strive to eliminate discrimination. They lobby governments to exempt minorities from the standards of behaviour of western societies; they fight to help minorities preserve their cultures, and excuse their religion from critical scrutiny. These people mean well, but their activism is now a part of the very problem they seek to solve.
Identity politics reinforces the racist argument that people can and should be judged according to their skin colour. It rests on the same crude, illiberal determinism, and results in what the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described as a “racism of the anti-racists”. This, as we shall see, leaves those vulnerable to oppression within ‘subaltern’ groups without a voice and mutes criticism of chauvinism and out-group hatred when expressed by minorities.
The alternative to this, now routinely derided as ‘Enlightenment Fundamentalism’, is a principled commitment to egalitarianism and universalism – the notion that what separates us (culture) is taught and learned, but that what unites us is far more important and fundamental: that is, our common humanity. On this basis, the same rights and protections should be afforded to all people.
This is what underpinned the idealism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, two of the most noble documents produced by Enlightenment thought. It was the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and adopted in the wake of the carnage of the Second World War. And it is the basis upon which civil rights groups and human rights organisations have sought to advance the laws and actions of nations and their peoples.
The answer to prejudice, and to the division and inequality it inevitably produces, is not exceptionalism based on a hierarchy of grievance, but to strive for greater equality on the basis that we belong to a common species, divided only by our ideas. As Martin Luther King declared on the steps of the Lincoln memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
On 20 December, the feminist writer and activist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky published an article in the Huffington Post entitled Stop Bashing White Women in the Name of Beyonce: We Need Unity Not Division. Wilde-Blavatsky’s post was a rebuke to those – on what she described as the post-colonial or intersectional feminist Left – who use identity politics and arguments from privilege to delegitimise the voices of white feminists speaking out about the abuse of women in the Global South and within minority communities in the West. Read the rest of this entry »
As a keen follower of structuralism, post-structuralism and other post-modern banality and pretentiousness, I’ve noted the increasing use of the word “intersectionality” (often accompanied by the exhortation “check your privilege”) throughout 2013. ‘Sarka’, a BTL commenter at That Place, wrote the following (which I found very useful, and reproduce below without permission). As usual, when we reblog a piece, it should go without saying that we don’t necessarily agree with all of it:
“Intersectionism” is one of those tiresome constructs that are either just cumbersome names for the obvious (even if we confine ourselves to viewing the social order just in terms of positive/negative relative privilege, it is clear that in any complex society more than one criteria is at work, and these “ïntersect” or at least interact…see my old hands of cards dealt to individuals simile) or else if explicitly or implicitly assigned more explanatory content, they are very dubious….
E.g. in the Graun article on “intersectionalism” much was made of the “huge explanatory power”of the thing….WTF? Surely only to people so mentally challenged that it has never struck them before that being e.g. female and gay, or disabled and black and poor, may multiply relative disadvantage Duh – as you Americans so irritatingly say, Go figure! No shit Sherlock! And wouldn’t that be characterisation rather than…er…explanatory power?
But obviously when apparently reasonably intelligent people make totems out of truisms something more is going on than the belated growth of two brain cells to rub together.
Here – to be very crude – the elevation of the truism is cover for a) the activity (well described by you, elsewhere) of establishing and adjusting competition in victimhood hierarchies, or indeed the apparently zero-sum victimhood market, and b) despite the apparently differentiating dynamic of intersectionality (it seems to admit the existence of different forms of oppression), it enables some supposed – usually very very thin – unity of all the variously oppressed against their oppressing oppressors, conceived (by their aggregate privilege!) to be responsible for the whole bang caboodle of oppression..Or alternatively – blacks used to blame whites, feminists used to blame men, the poor used to blame the rich, gays the straights etc etc… but rather than pulling these strands of oppression apart, “ïntersectionality” tangles them all together again….Suggesting that the fault is in the aggregate: it is white, western, straight, male, rich people who are ultimately responsible for every form of oppression, and every form of oppression is – though separate – ultimately traceable to the same source.
Hence it is a faux pas, e.g. to criticise brown people, especially poor ones, for oppressive behaviour to women or gays, for they are not the real source of the trouble…which can only lie with any with a greater aggregate of trump cards in their hands.
This is what [Laurie] Penny laughably thinks of as “structural explanation” – which in another guise presents itself as the (essentially wilfiully paralysed) position that no kind of injustice or oppression can be addressed unless ALL injustice or oppression is addressed…
Today’s Graun quite rightly praises EP Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class, on what may or may not be the exact fiftieth anniversary of its publication. But whether the book was first published in November or December 1963 is of little importance: as the Graun states, “No historian of British society has since produced a book to match [it]…Through 900-odd pages the book crackles with energy, as it uses scraps of evidence such as popular songs and workshop rituals to paint a picture of workers’ lived ‘experience.'”
It is, however, depressingly significant that the Graun‘s one criticism is of Thompson’s negative and entirely disrespectful attitude towards religion, and Methodism in particular: “[Thompson's political commitment] led to some poor judgements (Methodism as ‘psychic masturbation’).” Such a robust attitude to religion is, of course, in stark contrast to the grovelling stance adopted by much of today’s liberal-‘left’, typified by the Graun and the New Statesman.
Such pro-religion criticisms were made during Thompson’s lifetime and it’s interesting to note that in the preface to the 1980 edition, he makes a point of stating “I remain unrepentant as to my treatment of Methodism.” For those readers who do not have a copy of the book to hand, here’s a flavour of what Thompson wrote about Methodism. It’s worth noting that he attacks it not just because of its baleful effect on industrial militancy, but also because of its repression of human personality, spirit and sexuality (noting also that the two go very well together):
“Nothing was more often remarked by contemporaries of the workaday Methodist character, or of Methodist home-life, than, than its methodical, disciplined and repressed disposition. It is the paradox of a ‘religion of the heart’ that it should be notorious for the inhibition of all spontaneity. Methodism sanctioned ‘workings of the heart’ only upon the occasions of the Church; Methodists wrote hymns but no secular poetry of note; the idea of a passionate Methodist lover in these years [the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries - JD] is ludicrous. (‘Avoid all manner of passions’, advised Wesley.) The word is unpleasant; but it is difficult not to see in Methodism in these years a ritualised form of psychic masturbation. Energies and emotions which were dangerous to social order, or which were merely unproductive (in Dr Ure’s sense) were released in the harmless in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, band-meetings or revivalist campaigns” – excerpted from Chapter 11, ‘The Transforming Power of the Cross.’
Kenan Malik is not someone we often recommend, not least because of his dubious friends in the RCP/ Spiked Online / Institute of Ideas. Still, he’s often struck us as a bit more intelligent than most of that lot (the frankly embarrassing Claire Fox, etc), and this piece (from a couple of weeks ago), would seem to confirm that view:
I am taking part on Friday in a discussion entitled ‘When does criticism of Islam become Islamophobia?’, hosted by Oxash, the Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists. So, I thought it might be worth setting out the basic points that undergird my own thinking about the relationship between criticism, Islam and Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is a problematic term. This is not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly it does. Islamophobia is a problematic term because it can be used by both sides to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’. On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia, in other words, makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two.
When it comes to criticizing ideas, nothing should be out of bounds. Nothing should be unsayable simply because someone finds it offensive. Particularly in a plural society, offending the sensibilities of others is both inevitable and important. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities.
‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority.
If no criticism should be off limits, nevertheless some kinds of criticism need to be challenged. The other side of defending free speech is the necessity of confronting bigotry. The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is, in other words, morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to also stand up to racism and bigotry.
When does criticism become bigotry? The line is crossed when criticism of Islam, of ideas or beliefs, become transposed into prejudice about people; or when critics demand that Muslims are denied rights, or be discriminated against, simply because they happen to be Muslims.
We should oppose all discrimination against Muslims in the public sphere, from discriminatory policing and immigration laws that might specifically target Muslims, to planning regulations that make it more difficult to build mosques than other similar buildings or restrictions on the ability of Muslims to assemble or worship that apply merely because they happen to be Muslims. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. A Muslim should have the same rights and obligations as any other citizen.
We should also oppose all attempts to use criticisms of Islam to demonise Muslims. But criticism of Islam, of whatever kind, even if it is offensive or bigoted, should not be a matter for the criminal law. Bigoted speech should not be a legal but a moral issue. Just as Muslims have the right to express their beliefs, short of inciting violence, so should everyone else, including the right to express the most pungent beliefs about Islam. A society that outlawed anti-Muslim arguments would, in my mind, be as reactionary as one that banned Muslim immigration or pursued discriminatory forms of policing.
It is important to make the distinction between criticism of Islam and prejudice against Muslims. There is also, however, a large gray area on the borderlands of bigotry that needs addressing, a gray area between, on the one side, vicious anti-Muslim hatred and, on the other, absurdly self-serving claims of ‘Islamophobia’ hurled at everyone from Salman Rushdie to Tom Holland. It is a large gray area where you may sometimes find, say, the likes of Sam Harris or Martin Amis. I have been highly critical of both; not because they are bigots in any reasonable sense of the word but because their arguments often so lack nuance, and are so bereft of context, that they both provide intellectual ammunition for bigots and can become a means of mainstreaming bigoted arguments.
Much of the problem arises from the way that the debate about Islam is filtered through the lens of the ‘clash of civilizations’, the claim that there is a fundamental civilizational difference between Islam and the West that will, in the words of Samuel Huntingdon, the American political scientist who popularized the term, set the ‘battle lines of the future’, unleashing a war ‘far more fundamental’ than any ignited by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The ‘clash of civilizations’ is a threadbare argument, but it is part of a genuine academic debate. It is also the frame through which the ‘otherness’ of Muslims is established, a frame within which both popular discussion and the arguments of the bigots, including tellingly those of Islamists, have developed.
The academic arguments need challenging. So do popular perceptions, and the arguments of the bigots, too. The academic debate is clearly distinct from the popular discourse which in turn is separate from the claims of the bigots. Yet not only does each shade into the other, but the academic debate also provides the intellectual foundation for both the popular discussion and for the arguments of the bigots.
The real issue we need to address, then, is not so much where to draw a distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ criticism, as how to remake the very framework within which Islam is viewed, a framework that helps define both mainstream and bigoted ideas. Or, to put it another way, we should stop being so obsessed by the distinction between legitimate criticism and Islamophobia, and start thinking about how an obsession with both Islam and Islamophobia distorts our culture and our debates.
Above: Prof Ramadan
Comrade Coatesy draws our attention to the unspeakably depressing fact that Tariq Ramadan (Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford and poster-boy for supposedly “moderate” Islamism) has been chosen deliver this year’s Orwell Lecture.
Now, Orwell was no saint, and certainly had his prejudices and blind-spots. He can reasonably be accused of a degree of sexism and homophobia. There are passages in his writings that have been considered anti-Semitic. He was a child of his time, and did not always rise above the prevalent backwardness of that time. But he was aware of his weaknesses and seems to have made genuine efforts to fight his inner demons. He was nothing if not scrupulously honest, self-critical (to a degree that sometimes played into the hands of his enemies), and humanist. He was also hostile to all forms of totalitarianism, religion and spirituality, despite a sentimental soft spot for the rituals of the C of E. All of which makes the choice of Professor Ramadan to deliver the lecture named after him, especially unfortunate.
The French revolutionary socialist and Marxist Yves Coleman wrote a trenchant critique of Ramadan back in 2007, published by Workers Liberty. We republish it below, preceded by Workers Liberty‘s introduction. Given Ramadan’s evident popularity not just on sections of the “left”, but also with Guardianista-liberals, and his selection as the Orwell lecturer, this is a timely reminder of just how unpleasant his underlying politics are:
“40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot” was written by the French Marxist, Yves Coleman and has been reproduced by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The text presents factual information about the politics of Tariq Ramadan.
There are many issues the Left must address.
First is the question of honest polemic.
Useful political debate requires clearly presented political positions and an attempt to honestly engage with opponents.
And yet Yves Coleman believes that it almost impossible to either ‘catch’ or ‘corner’ Tariq Ramadan. He is difficult to pin down. The reason is simple: Tariq Ramadan often says one thing to one group, and something different, or contradictory, elsewhere.
This slipperiness connects with the second issue for the left.
No doubt, given the support Ramadan has on the “left”, there will be further “left” attempts to refute the damning contents of this document. However, it will not be good enough to answer Yves Coleman by producing further quotes from Ramadan.
It just won’t do to reply to the reactionary statements Ramadan has made on the issue of women’s rights, for example, by presenting other quotes suggesting he is a liberal on the question (and so implying Ramadan can’t have made the statements cited by Yves Coleman without having to address the quotes directly). Ramadan might well have made both the reactionary and the liberal statements. As Yves Coleman shows, on many issues Ramadan has done exactly that.
It will not do to protest that Ramadan is more liberal-minded, less rigidly reactionary than extreme Islamist groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir. He is. Mainstream Catholic ideologues are less rigidly reactionary than the Tridentines. They are still not allies for the left.
Nor will it do to try to change the question by saying that the left has also had Christian preachers sometimes share platforms with it to denounce apartheid or war. The left will work with campaigners who may be Muslims on the same basis. But Tariq Ramadan’s left-wing friends promote him not because he has campaigned on some progressive political issue (and despite his Islamic ideas), but because he is a (sometimes left-sounding) Islamic ideologue, regardless of him doing nothing for progressive politics other than making bland statements against poverty and so on.
The only possible “left” responses to this document are: to attempt to prove Coleman has mis-quoted Ramadan; or to attempt to explain away Ramadan’s statements (by claiming some sort of special privilege for Muslim bigots); or to accept Ramadan is a reactionary.
Third is the peculiar fact – one which Yves Coleman notes in his text – that the left finds no problem in condemning Catholic reactionaries, but often praises and promotes Islamic reactionaries such as Ramadan who have similar views. Criticisms of Tariq Ramadan are often called “Islamophobic”. But we do not say that Ramadan is worse than a Catholic reactionary because he is Muslim rather than Catholic. We only say that a Muslim reactionary is no more defensible than a Catholic reactionary.
The problem is that large sections of the left have degenerated and decayed to such an extent that they become unable to differentiate between critics of existing society who offer a positive alternative to capitalism (the working-class, class-struggle left), and those critics who are backward-looking reactionaries.
The kitsch-left has – seemingly – forgotten what it positively stands for, and can only remember what it is against (Blair, Israel and, most of all, America). Since Islamists are against Israel and the USA, and Catholic reactionaries generally are not, the kitsch-left thinks the Islamists are progressive. Or that Ramadan, a Swiss university professor, is the best person to invite to be a “Voice of the Global South” at the European Social Forum, precisely because he is an Islamic ideologue.
It is organisations such as the SWP – which found itself unable to condemn 9/11, and which supports the so-called resistance in Iraq – that promote Ramadan.
Forth is to understand Ramadan’s project.
Yves Coleman writes: “The basic thing is that Ramadan wants is to enlarge the power of control or religion on society. Ramadan always invokes French racism (which exists and can not be denied) and colonial history to explain the hostility he provokes in France. In this he is partly right, but what is at stake is the meaning of secularism. For him (as well as for the SWP and its French followers) secularism means that all religions are treated equally by the State and are respected. For the French Republican tradition, it means something different: it means (in theory) that people should not express religious views in the public sphere (in their job, in the schools, in Parliament, etc.) and should keep their religious views to the private sphere. That’s where the difference lies.
“Ramadan may not be a fundamentalist of the worst sort but he is clearly training a whole generation of religious cadres who are trying to change the content of secularism in France in a more pro-religious direction.”
Fifth is to understand the role Ramadan is playing in NUS.
Behind Ramadan – urbane, reasonable sounding – stand the Islamists of the MAB/Muslim Brothers.
Ramadan is the reasonable face of Islamic politics, and he is the thin end of the wedge.
Finally, we need to understand that attempts to shout down Marxist critics of Ramadan with demagogic accusations of “Islamophobia” and even “racism” are absurd.
Discrimination and even violence against Muslims are real. We oppose such bigotry.
However we also demand women’s liberation, gay liberation. The AWL is an atheist organisation, and fights for secular values. Therefore we will not ignore Ramadan’s bigotry or backwardness.
40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot
By Yves Coleman
Tariq Ramadan often complains that the media accuse him of being two-faced. He considers that this critique is a plain racist slander in the line of the eternal cliché about so-called Arab “deceitfulness”. If we read Mr Ramadan’s writings we reach a much simpler conclusion: Tariq Ramadan is a sincere Muslim who defends reactionary positions on a number of issues, but that does not prevent him from holding critical views on many injustices, while being fundamentally a moderate in politics.
Just as Pope John Paul II condemned the “excesses of capitalism”, unemployment, greed, poverty, the war in Iraq and the way Israel treats the Palestinians.
Only somebody who has never thought about about the function of religions (of all religions) can be surprised by this coexistence of different interpretations of the world: a faith in myths (as in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Upanishads, etc.) and absurd superstitions; a use of reason in many daily (manual and intellectual) activities ; a sincere revolt against all injustices; a misogynist and homophobic moralism; a need for dreams and utopias, etc.
Revolutionaries do not question Tariq Ramadan’s right to defend his religious beliefs, or to proselytise. After all, as he rightly notes, nobody in France is scandalized by the constant propaganda waged by missionaries like Mother Teresa or Sister Emmanuelle in Asia. Nobody protests against the repeated presence of Sister Emmanuelle, Cardinal Lustinger (former cardinal in charge of Paris) and other priests, nuns and monks in all sorts of French TV shows and programs.
Nor is this a matter of a theological dispute with somebody who is always going to know Islam better than any “Western” atheist.
What we insist on is that there are other interpretations of Islam, from Muslims who are much more democratic and secular than Ramadan.
And we reject the dishonest gambit used by this Swiss philosophy lecturer to deflect criticism: each time a Muslim intellectual defends an opinion which is different from his, it is because she or he is “westernized”, has adopted a “West-centred vision”, or worse, has sold out to imperialist, colonialist and racist Western powers.
Revolutionaries do not claim that Tariq Ramadan holds reactionary positions on all issue. We simply ask his “left-wing” friends not to knowingly dissimulate his obscurantist positions and not to dismiss in advance the positions of other Muslims who are much less conservative than him as regards morals, secularism and all the issues of daily life.
This dissimulation comes sometimes from a unworthy paternalism (“he will shift as he comes into contact with us”), sometimes from a manipulative approach (“we are not interested in him, but in the immigrants he influences”), and sometimes from a political vision which blurs all class divisions (“the confluence of all anti-capitalist movements”, the “revolt of the multitudes”, and other such rubbish), sometimes from the cynical relativism of disillusioned former adherents of dialectical materialism (“after all, no-one knows whether scientific truths exist”), and sometimes from a “Third Worldism” which has still not given up on the Stalinist illusion of “socialism in one country”.
In all these cases, such hypocritical attitudes to Ramadan’s bigotry do a disservice to workers who still believe in Islam but who also want to fight against capitalism. And after all, as revolutionaries, it is those “Muslims” who interest us.
Tariq Ramadan does not approve of flirting, sex before (or outside) marriage, homosexuality, women’s contraception or divorce. He thinks that Muslim women should submit to their husbands if they are “good” Muslims. He believes that men must be financially responsible for the well-being of their family, and not women. In other words, Tariq Ramadan is opposed to or equivocal about feminism, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual liberation. One should also have strong doubts about his respect of the freedom of speech and thought: in Switzerland he contributed to a campaign against a Voltaire play, and he wants Muslim parents to control the content of State school programs according to “Islamic values”, to give only two examples. But that does not prevent him from constantly using the key words of today’s public relations industry: “respect”, “tolerance”, “communication” and “dialogue” in the manner of a cynical politician.
What a strange friend for the Left! Read the rest of this entry »