By Camila Bassi (at Anaemic On A Bike)
“In late modernity, authoritarian movements have arisen again that seek to ideologically combine an organic and holistic natural-social order, a purified nationality, a primeval mysticism, and a belief in a superlative civilisation that was created by an ancestral community of blood.” (Bhatt, 2000: 589)
Post-9/11 sections of the British Left have championed the term ‘Islamophobia’ (fear of Islam) to describe and challenge the surge of racism against people signified as Muslim. This term, however, has limited power to explain the vilification and discrimination of Muslims in the contemporary era both since 9/11 and with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. This prejudice and harm should be understood as anti-Muslim racism. What’s more, Islamophobia’s implied antithesis, ‘Islamophilia’ (love of Islam), is an inadequate basis for a politically progressive anti-racist politics. Much of the British Left – posed as champions against Islamophobia – through its anti-war campaigning at the height of the imperialist War on Terror, identified as allies Islamist movements to the disregard of solidarity with secular, feminist, and democratic forces who opposed both imperialism and Islamism (see Bassi, 2009). This Left not only failed to critique religious fundamentalism, but went further in silencing its critique of religion in general. Through the Stop the War Coalition, at rallies and on demonstrations, women-only areas were organised alongside propaganda stating, for example, “We are all Hezbollah”. Racism as a common sense ideology fixes and orders the world through a hierarchy of assumed and desired homogenised groups of people, whereas a socialist anti-racist politics should understand the reality, and our own desired future, of the world as driven by dynamic exchange and hybridisation of peoples. At a moment when reactionary nationalism is on the ascendancy, it is worth reasserting that we are in favour of globalisation – a globalisation by and for our class.
Racism entails a process of signification, or racialisation: identifying an assumed ‘racial’ difference, be that somatic and/or cultural, as significant and denoting such difference with characteristics and consequences that are negative. The difference that racism signifies is related to what we might understand as ethnicity: to common geography, familial heritage, and socio-cultural make-up (sometimes national, sometimes religious, and sometimes both); whose expression is indicated through somatic difference, such as hair and skin colour, and/or cultural difference, like language, food, beliefs and practices, and clothing. In the case of anti-Muslim racism the signifier of religion connects up with geography, ancestry, and socio-cultural constitution, and difference is seen somatically and culturally.
As a second generation British Indian, born into an extended Jatt Sikh family, I have a specific perspective on anti-Muslim racism. Anti-Muslim racism is a potent ideology in India and across the global Indian diaspora. Moreover, it is a racism that has proven to be compatible with post-9/11 and Brexit and Trump-era racism. Why? Because of a commonly signified and racialised ‘Muslim Other’. The crux of this ideology is not a theological critique but rather a fusing of religion with the idea of a group of people as a biological and cultural ‘race’ apart and below. This racism denotes Muslims as inbred, degenerate, and unclean, and as a dangerous and violent threat to one’s own purified existence. It should be of no surprise then that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have savvily attuned to this current of anti-Muslim racism within the Indian diaspora – courting Sikhs as an exemplary and assimilatable ‘race’ above the ‘Muslim Other’. The footage of a speech by a UKIP MEP (see below) arguing in defence of the Sikh religious and racial right to wear the kirpan positions Sikhs as fighters for democracy. This should be understood in its historical, racialised context. During the British colonial Empire, the British ruling class divided the population of India into martial and non-martial ‘races’, of which the Sikhs (particularly Jatt Sikhs) were designated as the former.
Similar to UKIP’s courting of Indian diaspora Sikhs is Trump’s courting of Indian diaspora Hindus during his presidential election campaign and his appeal to Hindu nationalists in India: here in common is the racialised enemy of the ‘Muslim Other’.
The anti-Muslim racism of the global Indian diaspora owes much of its origins to Hindu nationalism. Chetan Bhatt (2000), in an article titled “Hindu Nationalism and Indigenist ‘Neoracism’”, explains how Hindu nationalism accommodates what it considers a sect of Hinduism, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, while it otherises Muslims. Bhatt (2000: 577) expounds:
“the birth of contemporary Hindu nationalism is usually traced to, and just after, the inter-war period, from 1916-25; during which two organisations, the Hindu Mahasabha (The Great Assembly of Hindus) and its ‘semi-rival’, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the National Volunteer-Servers Organisation) were formed. Hindu nationalism’s key, but by no means only ideologue was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an anti-colonial revolutionary hero and founder of the Mahasabha, who in 1923 presented the novel idea of Hindutva, the essence or ‘beingness’ of a Hindu. Hindutva was a hereditarian conception, born from the time the intrepid Aryans entered India and whose ‘blood commingled’ with that of the original inhabitants of India. For Savarkar, a Hindu could be defined as someone who considers India as their fatherland, motherland and holyland and ‘who inherits the blood of that race whose first discernible source could be traced back’ to the Vedic Aryans (Savarkar 1989: 115). Savarkar’s formulation of Hindutva considerably influenced Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, formed in 1924) as well as Madhav Golwalkar, the RSS’s second leader. Golwalkar extended strands of Hindutva to develop an extraordinarily modern, Nazi-like racial idea of Hinduness […].”
Contemporary Hindu nationalism (as propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and its parent organisation, the RSS):
“undertakes the familiar metaphoric substitution of the nation by the idea of the national, or social or human body; conversely minorities, especially Muslims, are seen as a polluting presence within that body. Consequently, Hindu nationalism is dangerously obsessed with Muslim demography, reproduction and fertility (see, for example, Lal 1990).” (Bhatt 2000: 580)
An example of this is the Hindu fundamentalist theory of Romeo Jihad or Love Jihad, which claims that “Muslim men seek to wage jihad by making Hindu women fall in love with them and marry them, so as to covert them to Islam” (Dixit, 2017).
A parallel can be drawn between Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ and the legislative moves by the Indian government in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016; in this, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Muslim-dominated Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – unlike their Muslim counterparts – are no longer identified as illegal migrants but rather as suitable for naturalisation as citizens of India (Mitra, 2017).
The anti-Muslim racism that is rampant across Europe and the United States, and which finds an easy alliance with Hindu nationalists in India and with a current of Sikhs and Hindus in the global Indian diaspora, is a racism based on the ideas of a purified (racialised) nationality, an advanced (racialised) civilisation, and a natural (racialised) social order. It is not Islamophobia, it is racism – old and new.
Bhatt, C (2000) “Hindu Nationalism and Indigenist ‘Neoracism’”, in L Back and J Solomos (Eds) Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 573-593.