Race, Culture and EmpireThe racialization of discourse is becoming normalized in the UK. The current media debacle over the Home Office’s failure to consider foreign prisoners for deportation has rarely questioned why ‘foreign’ ex-convicts pose a greater threat to society than ‘native’ ones. There has been little attempt to link the media discourses on foreign criminals to the racist trope of ‘dangerous alien’. Indeed, when it was discovered that a foreign suspect in a police murder had previously ‘evaded’ deportation, people across the political spectrum expressed outrage at the Home Office's failure to deport him immediately after a previous spell in prison.
His country of origin is Somalia. It doesn’t matter if the British foreign Office warn people never to visit Somalia under any circumstances. He should have been deported after his previous prisoner term. His crime? Robbery. Are these people calling for the death penalty for ‘foreign’ robbers? It would seem so. And by ‘foreign’, we mean people officially granted asylum. People who have settled in Britain. People who may have families growing up here.
Ever since I finished reading Paul Gilroy’s After Empire, I have been conscious of race in Britain in a different way. Partly, it has made me look again at British culture from a race perspective. Take Harry Potter. It's culture looks so familiar, it's characters so much like the suburbia I grew up in. Very white. And Harry is the white innocent, part of the great white sleep. The white man has no original sin. Colonialism never happened. There is no racism. There is no relationship between our prosperity and global poverty, as confirmed by Saint Bob.
Gilroy has also made me revisit what I had previously taken to be anti-white racism among Muslims against British converts. I sensed this as an issue when an argument blew up between myself and an Asian Muslim taxi driver a few weeks ago. But the problem is one of culture – race’s cousin, and the way all self-conscious cultural groups define themselves in terms of what they are not. South Asian Muslims are not white liberal Europeans.
That’s why Bosnian Muslims living in my home town get a hard time. “How can they be Muslims? Their wives wear short skirts!” Being white, I represent a boundary marker. My claims to being a Muslim have to be verified. “Do you pray?” How many times have I been asked this question, or similarly interrogated? “Do you pray?” South Asian Muslims are Muslims whether they pray or not. It’s in their fitra. It’s in their genes.
Contemporary discourse on fitra is often reductionist, appealing to biotechnical determinism – in the laws of God/nature/binary, only (non-Muslim) nurture deflects human beings from their naturally occurring Muslimness. Reversion is deprogramming, a return to the manufacturer's settings. Islam is ‘the natural way’ (Hamid, 1989). Ironically, ‘naturalization’ was also a technique used by European colonial ideologues in their construction the concept of ‘race’. Now it seems Muslims have co-opted the same racist trope in their quest for postcolonial 'cultural' identity.
Skimming Tariq Modood’s Multicultural Politics, I read how the author’s father defined Islam against the British mores of the 1960s. The Qur’an was kept safe from the 1960s. The Qur’an, unlike the Bible, cannot be interpreted individually and symbolically without rupturing Muslim identity. Marriage cannot be understood as loving commitment. Prayer cannot be understood outside of ritual. You cannot be gay and Muslim. You cannot be a white liberal Muslim. That’s a problem, because I am a white liberal Muslim.
Being a white liberal Muslim only becomes feasible inside race consciousness. Liberalism too often colludes with Empire, either in seeking to disavow cultural diversity or in trying to impose a pacifying liberalism in the guise of a superior cultural understanding. Being a white liberal Muslim becomes one of a multiplicity of possible ‘islams’ only when it unites with other Muslims against the political, economic and cultural Imperialism of Empire.
Why? Because fighting racism means fighting to abolish the essentialising concepts of 'race' and 'culture', and replace them the one that begins so many ayat in the Qur'an: 'O People!'. But unless we wanna be all white, that also means fighting the political culture from whence these essentialising concepts came.