Resisting hysteria, populism and indifference in the face of Islamophobia Forum speech delivered | by Nina Trige Andersen

by Jul 18, 2012All Articles

resisting-hysteria-islamophobiaSince the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new enemy has replaced the figure of the communist in the propaganda of Western imperialism. Migrants in general and Muslims in particular, are now casted as the threat of liberty and prosperity of Europe and the US. As with the case of anti-communism, islamophobia functions to blur the inherent contradictions, crisis, political emptiness and cynicism of the dominant world order.
With constant and massive propaganda the Muslim is constructed as an outside threat and at the same time a creeping danger from within. A danger that justifies imperialist and capitalist aggression directed towards both the western and non-western populations. At the same time reactionary Islamistic forces use this idea of a Muslim-Western antagonism to tighten their grip on the populations of Muslim majority countries as well as migrants of Muslim affiliation, situated as they are in the often blatantly racist environments of western countries.
For capitalism, replacing the figure of the communist demon with that of the Muslim furthermore has the advantage, that racism and islamophobia are highly effective technologies in the game of producing and upholding class structures as well as refining the hierarchies of exploitation and super-exploitation within the working class. All over the world, not just in the West, but also in Asia, the Middle East, everywhere, migrants as well as racialized minorities of the populations are most often employed in the sectors with lowest income and the worst working conditions.
The left – at least our currents of the left – are well aware of all this. And for this reason we have and have had for decades, anti-racism and anti imperialism as well as the struggle against border regimes as integrated part of our programs and actions. Even if these struggles are not always properly prioritized…
But the left and the workers organizations has also always and do still participate in and produce the mechanisms and logics of racism and what we’ve come to know as islamophobia. Instead of solidarity with the workers and the proletariat of the world, too often the left and the labour unions have placed their solidarity with the nation state and allied with the national bourgeoisie in producing racist propaganda and installing racist bureaucratic and juridical measures; arguing e.g. for ”Denmark for Danes”, as some agricultural workers did already in the 1910’s, or ”British jobs for British workers”, as some British labour unions did during the economic crisis in 2008-9.
Now, we as Marxists claim to be rooted in material and rational analysis of society and of the class contradictions that shape it. And articulating our demands and struggles in a confined framework of the nation state is no rational response to exploitation and insecurity – not from the standpoint of the working class and proletariat interests. None the less, even within our currents and the coalitions we work in, arguments such as limiting migration to prevent ”social dumping” can be heard. So can arguments about the so called ”problem of integration” posed in ways that are completely separated from the problem of material inequality.  Buying into the capitalist and imperialist mystifications that feed the discourses of e.g. democratic values versus feudal traditions, or the liberal, enlightened and tolerant culture of Western societies versus the backwardness and reactionary nature of Islam and Muslims.
What we can observe today is that in addition to an old problem of left and workers nationalism, when it comes to the question of Islam and Muslims it seems as though a sort of occultism and hysteria has grabbed hold of the left. And when it comes to the veil/the headscarf in particular, a regular epidemic of superstition and moral panic seems to be raging.
Now, apparently there is some sort of generational gap in play. The hysteria and preoccupation with e.g. the veil seems to be more widespread among the ranks of older comrades. Where as among the youth, the problem of islamophobia and racism in general takes on a some what different shape. Namely and upsurge in workerism or economism, where racism, sexism etc. are seen as isolated forms of oppression, and as less important problems to address in the class struggle. A struggle that in this logic is primarily directed towards and should be led by white, male, heterosexual manual workers, preferably in industry and construction. A group that in fact no longer – if it ever did – constitutes the ”masses”, but rather a diminishing minority if you analyze the working class composition of advanced capitalist economies. Again, situating the white, male, heterosexual manual worker as the revolutionary subject seems to be the outcome not of analysis, but of sloppy heterosexist patriarchal auto-logics and quite an amount of mystification and sentimentality. These political dynamics seems at least to be prevalent in Denmark – and you’ll be the judge of whether you recognize something from your own contexts.
Now, when I talk about a form of hysteria or mystified idealism on the contemporary European left, what I’m broadly referring to is the way in which people are occupied with phenomena such as religion, the nation, the state, and so called ‘culture’ and ‘values’. And the not very materialist or historically specific ways in which the left deals with these themes.
It is my claim that you can in fact find some of the most stern believers of the mysterious powers of nation, state, religion and culture not among the ranks of fascists, conservatives, social democrats, priests or imams – but among the ranks of self proclaimed Marxists and socialists.
Nowhere is this occultism and hysteria of the left more visible and potent than in discussions of Islam and Muslims in general and specifically in the preoccupation of the left with the hijab, the niqab and the burka.
As most of you will know, the NPA in France and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark have had similar experiences during the last three years – namely concerning the electoral candidacy of a female with migrant background wearing the hijab. Ihlam Moussaid in France and Asmaa Abdol-Hamid in Denmark.
In both countries these candidacies have sparked massive hate campaigns from the bourgeois media, right wing and reformist parties as well as reactionary religious forces. This is not surprising.What is surprising, or at least alarming, is how the debates have unfolded inside our own organizations.
The attacks on the Danish candidate Abdol-Hamid, also from within, centered around some of the following arguments:
  • Having a female, headscarf-wearing migrant candidate, and thus creating discussion about religion, islamophobia, sexual liberation, gender and other ”marginal” issues, took away focus from the real and important questions concerning ”ordinary workers”.
  • Being religious is either incompatible with being socialist or at least a great obstacle to becoming a true socialist.
  • Wearing the veil/headscarf means that you’re either a fundamentalist (even if in disguise) or that you’re unable to resists the pressure from and control of fundamentalist religious people and institutions. In either case you pose a Trojan horse kind of threat within the party.
  • Wearing the veil/headscarf is legitimizing patriarchy in general and specifically the Islamic version of patriarchy which is supposedly much worse and more pathological.
  • Having an official candidate with a visible religious symbol signals an inappropriate mix of politics and religion, ultimately a threat to secularism.
  • Being Muslim and actively religious is in opposition to gender equality and sexual liberation – and if you claim to be feminist and pro LGBT rights, you are probably either confused downright lying.
A left current with a proud feminist profile such as our own should be among the first to be alarmed when suspicion is attached to the female body, and when arguments and attacks play on an assumed automatic relation between appearance and individual convictions or capabilities. And in relation to islamophobia, it’s also important to note that none of the allegations or interrogations conducted against Adbol-Hamid was ever made in public against openly Christian-Protestant members and representatives of the Red-Green Alliance.
The reactions we saw in Denmark during what’s now tellingly become known as ”the Asmaa-case” – as well as the general incapacity of the left to effectively address and struggle against islamophobia – points in my opinion to several weaknesses of the contemporary European left:
1. A vulgarization of the Marxist critique of religion. A vulgarization that among other faults does not take in to account, what Gilbert Achcar among others have pointed out: That ”classical Marxism only envisaged religion from the viewpoint of relationships of European societies to their own traditional religions”1 or, one might rephrase, between European states and the dominant churches and religious institutions. Now neither institutional Islam nor Muslims are dominant in European countries today, quite the contrary. Consequently, the analysis must be re-framed to understand the role of religion in relation to Islam and Muslims in Europe. What should also be noted is that both Marx and Lenin always came down very hard on any comrade that tried to turn critique of religion as institution into a critique or persecution of people with religious beliefs.
2. A lack of reflection upon imperial and colonial relations and the role of the workers movement on this. To quote again Achcar: ”The road to the hell of racist oppression is paved with good ‘civilizing’ intentions, and we know how much the workers movement itself was contaminated by charitable pretensions and philanthropic illusions in the colonial era”2. And still is, we might add.
3. A degeneration of secularism and republicanism. What was once a strategy of separating two powerful institutions, the state and the Church, have turned into ideology, an unreflected principle uprooted from time and space.
NB: In another article on Islam in particular, Achcar arrives at the not very materialist and not very fruitful conclusion, that despite all analysis Islam can be said to be inherently reactionary, and more so than e.g. Christianity (Achcar, Gilbert (2006): ‘Eleven theses on the Resurgence of Islamic Fundamentalism’, International Viewpoint). This goes to show that no amount of political education or analytical skills can vaccinate from bourgeois imperial mystifications.
3 In this process the modern European state – which as we recall is a capitalist, imperialist and bourgeois state – thus becomes naturalized. And the idea of the republic becomes catapulted beyond reasoning and analysis.
4. The struggle against patriarchy and symbols of oppression of women becomes an abstraction and invested in imperialist and (post-)colonial agendas, as is the case with the obsession of western feminists with the headscarf. Claiming that this or that piece of clothing is either inherently oppressive, regardless of contexts, and regardless of the beliefs and practices of the person wearing it, is an expression of hysteria and arrogance, not of Marxist analysis and feminist solidarity. Furthermore it’s an expression of belief in the mysterious and occult powers of a symbol, not of materialist foundation – in other words, exactly what religious fundamentalist would have us believe.
5. Last, but not least, when comrades claim that the issue of islamophobia takes away focus from other, more important issues it reveals the weakness of the ability of left forces to understand the complicated and effective ways in which islamophobia and racism shapes and transforms class relations and capitalist modes of production in contemporary global political economy.
Now comrades, let’s all take a deep breath, and let go of the hysteria. The state is neither a liberator nor a neutral universality. It’s a set of institutions and technologies that we can try to combat, use or transform upon careful consideration of what best serves our strategic goals.
The nation as well as national identity or culture is neither an inherited privilege nor a pathology. As with the state, it’s a historically specific social, economic, and political formation. And religion is neither a conspiracy nor a remote control. Man makes religion, religion does not make man, as Marx polemically put it3. Let’s not get carried away by today’s imperialist and capitalist tricks of mystification and dominance.
The working class and the proletariat is no more – and no less – divided today than yesterday, as bourgeois-liberal ideology would have us believe. But it seems that the historic defeats and disillusions that the left forces has suffered throughout the last decades has made us some what more vulnerable to the tricks and propaganda of the ruling classes. And not least more tempted by populist and simplistic answers to complicated questions of e.g. social position, place in production and development of class consciousness.
In the face of islamophobia, our response must neither be hysteria, sentimentality or indifference. What we need, and what parts of our currents are already deeply involved in – especially the youth – is calm and careful analysis of the social compositions, the modes of production and the revolutionary potential of the different sectors of the communities we work in.
This is what enables us to build alliances, and to mobilize and organize the entire working class for a communism of our time.
  • Achcar, Gilbert (2005): ‘Marxists and Religion – yesterday and today’, International Viewpoint.
  • Ibid.
  • In relation to this I would add, that the idea of religion as a false consciousness, that will either wither away with revolution or should be sought actively detached from the revolutionary subject, is a dead end. Whether people have religious beliefs today or tomorrow, and whether more or fewer people become religious can be an indicator of important shifts in the political economy that revolutionaries should be aware of and act upon, but it can not be reduced to this. Furthermore, reducing religion to false consciousness and the like in our programs and propaganda leads inevitably to formal and/or material inequality among the ranks of cadres – if one comrade can be said to suffer more from false consciousness than another, does it not follow, that she is a less qualified or useful revolutionary? As long as people struggle in this world for the cause of socialist revolution, individual beliefs and convictions is no more the right of the party than it is of the state to poke its nose in.
Nina Trige Andersen is in the leadership of SAP – danish section of the Fourth International. She is also a militant of the Red-Green Alliance (RGA) in Denmark and the Queer Group of the RGA, as well as a former militant of the Socialist Youth Front (SUF), a youth organization affiliated with the RGA.
Resisting hysteria, populism and indifference in the face of Islamophobia Forum speech delivered by Nina Trige Andersen under the title ‘Islamophobia and National Identity’ at the 27th International Revolutionary Youth Camp, Perugia, 2010
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