The government is trying to drive a wedge between hard anti-racists and the wider layer who have supported refugees
The tail end of 2015 brought chilling news for Muslims and for anti-racists. In France the far-right Front National took a quarter of the vote in the first round of regional elections. Its campaign was steeped in Islamophobia in the wake of November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, had been on trial just two months earlier for comparing Muslims praying in the streets with the Nazi occupation of France. In the US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump made the extraordinary demand that all Muslims be barred from entering the country.
In Britain there was an upsurge in Islamophobic attacks, especially on veiled Muslim women. An arson attack on Finsbury Park mosque in London was the most violent incident, but there was plenty of low level harassment. In Bristol a Muslim was allegedly thrown off a National Express coach for “looking shifty”. In London a commuter forced a Muslim passenger off the tube for acting “suspiciously” with an iPad. In Sweden, things took a farcical turn when police raided a meeting of the “Bearded Villains”, an international organisation promoting facial hair. Bearded men in dark clothes had been seen raising the society’s black flag and were mistaken for an ISIS cell.
One commonplace response to racism is to see it as a consequence of the ignorance of those at the base of society. In this view, currents such as Islamophobia spontaneously develop among the benighted poor who are then manipulated by dangerous demagogues.
This completely misses the centrality of racism to capitalism. Karl Marx captured the essence of the phenomenon in a letter from 1870, detailing the strife between Irish workers and their English counterparts. This, he claimed, was “the secret of the impotence of the English working class”. Marx was perfectly aware that in a society in which competition is deeply embedded — competition on the labour market or international competition that pits nations against one another — racism and nationalism could gain a hold over sections of the working class. However, his letter also emphasised that this antagonism had to be “artificially kept alive…by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes”.
The past year provides ample evidence.
Take the Sun’s front page headline in the wake of the Paris attacks: “1 In 5 Brit Muslims’ Sympathy For Jihadis”. This story was based on a poll carried out by Survation after the Sun’s regular pollster, YouGov, refused to undertake it.
Survation phoned a statistically unrepresentative group of people deemed to have “Muslim surnames” and asked if they had “sympathy” for Muslims going to fight in Syria. They did not even specify whether they meant those fighting on a particular side.
Some 5 percent expressed “a lot of sympathy”, 14.5 percent “some sympathy”. This is where the “one in five” figure originated. Incidentally, an early poll showed 14 percent of non-Muslims had at least some sympathy for those going to Syria — no headline screaming “1 In 6 Brit Non-Muslims’ Sympathy For Jihadis”. Given there is no factual basis whatsoever for the Sun’s headline this can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to provoke Islamophobia.
To take another example, consider the government’s response to the refugee crisis. This has posed a huge problem for our rulers. Not only did 100,000 people march through London in support of refugees, but a third of the public offered donations. Faced with this, the Tories’ response was to try to drive a wedge between the hard anti-racists and the wider pools of public support.
First we had Home Secretary Theresa May’s noxious Tory conference speech. Here she sought to divide those coming to Britain into “refugees” and “economic migrants”. Furthermore, she explicitly tied migration to social questions, arguing, “It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope.” Blame migrants, not austerity, was the message.
The Paris attacks offered another opportunity. Politicians, police and the press were desperate to link the attacks with Syrian refugees. Think of the mass of ink spilt over the discovery of a Syrian passport near the scene of the attacks, despite the fact that the known perpetrators were all EU citizens.
Why are our rulers so determined to reinforce racism? As Marx explained, racism divides the working class and binds a section of it to the ruling class. This weakens class struggle at home and bolsters support for imperialism abroad.
Racism is never all-powerful though. The experience of living, working and, above all, fighting alongside one another, along with the struggles of the oppressed themselves, can undermine racism. Old forms can be pushed, for a time, to the margins of political discussion.
“Respectable” forms of discrimination, attacking Muslims and migrants, are the means by which racist divide and rule can be reinvigorated. We can therefore be confident that the barrage of attacks will continue into 2016. The Stand Up To Racism protest on 19 March must be a priority for everyone who wants to defy it.