An electoral court ruling against Lutfur Rahman in the London borough of Tower Hamlets throws into relief how the British establishment uses and fuels Islamophobia today. The liberal white press pretends to be against the racialisation of politics, but the claim that Rahman ran a corrupt ‘dictatorship’ in the East End of London stinks of Islamophobia, which is now one of the most potent ideological motifs, a keyword in contemporary Western racism.
Much has been made of the company Rahman keeps, drawing attention to his allies in the defence campaign after the court verdict, and it is true that he has shifted political allegiances in the past few years. But this is the case for any politician whose horizons are limited by electoral politics and the possibilities of using the local state apparatus to bring about progressive policy changes. If there is a problem with Lutfur Rahman, something which differentiates his strategy from that of revolutionary Marxists, it is that he has been forced to pick and choose alliances which will enable him to get into one of the seats of power. Putting that complaint against him aside, we need to understand why Tower Hamlets has been marked out, treated with special measures by the British state, and how quite different standards than those applied to other bourgeois politicians have been used to discredit this council.
Tower Hamlets council under Rahman as mayor has been breaking from the austerity consensus, making it clear that it opposes the ‘bedroom tax’, a vicious attack on poor people in social housing which targets those on welfare benefits, and the council has used resources to support families affected by it. This goes alongside quite explicit resistance to the government scrapping of educational maintenance for poorer students going into further education, and transfer of resources to make up the shortfall for students from the borough. Limited though this break has been, largely limited to local budget re-allocations, even that was too much for the state, and one easy way of discrediting this kind of resistance was to demonise the community which seems to provide its electoral base.
The court case was brought by four local ‘petitioners’, two of whom are from the Labour Party, now keen to get rid of anything to the left which will build real opposition to the government’s austerity agenda, so keen that they are willing here to ally with the secretary of the local UKIP to do it. The judgement of the court was explicit that the court was not treating the Tower Hamlets’ ‘Muslim community’ by the same standards they would use for the ‘secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite’. Yes, this community was like every other religious community, bound to its leaders by ‘loyalty and obedience’, but in this case the spectre of ‘apostasy’ was thrown into the mix, and this is where the judgement chimes with fear of Islam as something more dangerous than other religions. Little evidence was provided of this spiritual influence, but the judge decided that that was the ‘real meaning’ of the Imams interventions.
This race card used against Tower Hamlets plays on what everyone in Britain thinks they know about Muslims in the inner cities. The popular commonsensical line that there must be antipathy between the new immigrant communities, in this case from Bangladesh, and the older East End Jewish community, has been neatly skewered by a Green Party commentator on the case who drew attention to historical parallels between the experiences of the two communities. The kind of community mobilisation that Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party has engaged in – this is where it went beyond the limits of electoral politics and became a real threat – repeats the strategies of minority communities over the last century, and the new council has actually been supportive of the Jewish community as an immigrant community that preceded it in the borough, allocating money for restoration of the East London Synagogue, for example.
Likewise, Rahman has mobilised its population against the English Defence League, making it clear that the council stands with the LGBT community in Tower Hamlets against fascist attacks, been photographed with his arms round drag queens, and has protested against closure of a Shoreditch LGBT pub. A BBC television documentary filmed a customer of another gay bar in the borough that had been saved from closure by Rahman’s intervention, but did not include the footage in its broadcast, presumably because it did not fit the line of the programme, which was hostile to the Tower Hamlets council.
This particular singling out of Islam as an enemy within is actually also a repetition of older British colonial strategies of divide and rule, and of pathologising those over whom it rules. The charge of ‘spiritual influence’ was last wheeled out in the nineteenth century against Catholic clergy in Ireland who were urging parishioners to vote for home rule. The old accusations of ‘spiritual influence’ made by British colonialism in Ireland also served then to pathologise and infantilise the natives, turning them into childlike victims of their priests. In this respect, ‘spiritual influence’ is part of the package of orientalist ideology in which subject peoples are treated as if they are less than human, that is, less than European middle-class white men and rather more like women and children.
There are, of course, two linked elements in this ideology, for every childlike faith community susceptible to ‘influence’ is seen as subject to the barbaric manipulation of leaders. Some kind of feminisation of the followers runs alongside some kind of hyper-masculinisation of their dangerous leaders. Early British ‘Islamophobia’, as we might now term it, homed in on its first ‘Mad Mullah’ resisting the Empire in Somaliland, and this motif has been wielded whenever possible against Muslims ever since. It turns anti-colonial political resistance into something else, into religious conflict, and today also into some kind of psychopathology.
There is a risk now that accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ play the same game, turning politics into a battle of ‘influence’ in which one side – Islam – is reduced to the level of naïve victim at the mercy of a brutal leader, while the other side – those who seek to demonise Islam – are treated as individuals with some weird kind of phobia. ‘Islamophobia’ names hostility to Islam and, like ‘homophobia’, also pathologises those it names (and also treats those who suffer from it as having a sickness, individualises it). Reactionary Christian commentators have noticed the parallel, complaining that the ‘phobe’ part of the accusation is part of a ‘totalitarian’ attempt to discredit their suspicion of both Islamic and LGBT political activity.
In this sense the motifs of ‘influence’ and ‘phobia’ operate as mirrors of each other in a discourse that turns politics into psychopathology, and so we need to grasp how the one – ‘spiritual influence’ – is being used now by the electoral court and bourgeois media to demonise Rahman and Tower Hamlets council, while the other – ‘Islamophobia’ – is being used by us to name ideological hostility to a community that dares to defy central government. Yes, it is possible that some of those who are celebrating the outcome of the court case really are ‘phobic’ about Islam, but what is crucial here is that this Islamophobia is functioning now to racialise British politics; religious discourse is being used as a weapon by the right and the state.
Forms of political identification by communities under attack have shifted over the years in Britain, with ‘Black’ as signifier once reclaimed by communities under attack but now turning Asian youth movements into ‘black, asian and minority ethic’ (BAME) communities subject to Islamophobia; they are bureaucratised and racialised, often within religious discourse. It is not enough to bewail that shift. We need to analyse and respond to it. We need to distinguish between mobilisation of faith communities against injustice, something that has a history going back at least to the development of the British Labour movement in the Methodist chapels, and the appeal to religion to poison politics and turn it into something else.
Islamophobia must be understood as a political response, a reactionary response, to the mobilisation of a community which makes it seem as if that mobilisation cannot be understood in any other way than as subject to ‘spiritual influence’. That is why the problem of the ‘phobia’ seems to mirror the problem of the ‘influence’, and that is why defending Tower Hamlets against this attack by the British state will help us break that mirror relation while combating and eventually ending the ideological influence of Islamophobia, understanding it for what it is, the racialisation of political resistance.