To understand the changing nature of Islamophobia, it is necessary to understand it in the plural and to differentiate between its illiberal and liberal forms.
Authors: Aurelien Mondon (Bath) and Aaron Winter (UEL)
To understand the changing nature of Islamophobia, it is necessary to understand it in the plural and to differentiate between its illiberal and liberal forms.
Authors: Aurelien Mondon (Bath) and Aaron Winter (UEL)
It is too early to know all the details, but a picture is emerging in the horrible murder of Labour MP for Batley and Spen Jo Cox in Birstall West Yorkshire on 16 June 2016, of a killer with sympathies for, if not ties to, the far-right. While it was originally alleged that 52 year old Thomas Mair shouted ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain First’ as he shot and stabbed Cox, a prominent Remain campaigner and champion of refugees, he later confirmed that he said ‘this is for Britain’ and ‘keep Britain independent’. The original witness statements led the group Britain First to deny responsibility or links, claiming that it was likely used as a slogan, but an image of Mair campaigning for the group soon emerged on the internet. Britain First is the far-right party founded in 2011 by Jim Dowson and led by former British National Party member Paul Golding. They are virulently anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, white nationalist, and engage in street patrols, militant direct action and have representatives who run for elected office, including Golding who recently lost the 2016 London mayoral race to Sadiq Khan, who was subjected to an Islamophobic campaign by Tory opponent Zac Goldsmith. In addition to links to Britain First, Mair is also alleged to have purchased material including instructions on how to make a pistol from the US based neo-Nazi group National Alliance, infamous it is for being led by the late William Pierce who wrote the Turner Diaries which influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He is also alleged to have ties to the anti-EU Springbok Club, which had supported Apartheid. When asked to state his name in court on 18 June, Mair answered ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.
Too often when a case of far-right violence occurs, politicians, the media and public are quick to paint a picture of an individual who has stepped outside the boundaries of reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice to espouse extremist views and use violence. Often the individual in question is described, as Mair has been by the media, as a mentally unstable loner. Some will claim that this depoliticises the actor and act, particularly if this is the dominant or only framing, but Mair may demonstrate that a psychological and political reading and reality can co-exist. At this stage, he has clear far-right political beliefs and links (even identifying as a ‘political activist’), and both the far-right links and mental illness are lines of police enquiry.
Some will claim that this individualisation (based on mental illness or ‘lone wolf’ designation), deracialises the actor and act, allowing white British people to not have to identify with him or it, distance themselves, provide a collective alibi and even apologise as Muslims are frequently asked and pressured to do after a terrorist attack. This is a fair and important point to make after attacks by Anders Breivik, Dylan Roof and other ‘white’ perpetrators. As Mair’s act was committed in the name of Britain and against foreigners, and he had an association with Britain First, the racist double standard and irony are obvious. So too is the irony when Britain First defensively distanced themselves from Mair and the shooting as if they think collective guilt by association with terrorism is a bad thing, but it might just be when it applied to them. Yet, it is becoming clear that the mental illness aspect does not preclude far-right links, and that this case is being investigated by anti-terrorism officers. But that does not necessarily make all white Britons suspect (beyond those such as Britain First who think they are representatives), as the label of ‘terrorist’ which many, such as The Independent’s Yasmin Ahmed, are calling for is rarely enough to break apart racist discourses and structures. Some will claim that even the focus on far-right extremism and terrorism distracts from the mainstream hate, as well as structural and institutional forms of racism and xenophobia that may not only provides the context for and underlies the attack, but also plays a role in the double standards where Muslims are held to account and white Britons are not.
What is interesting and important about the response to the Mair case is that many commentators are putting the murder in the context of the increasing polarisation, inflammatory tone and racist fearmongering in the EU Referendum debate – from the Brexit Leave campaign – and holding wider social and political forces, beyond the far-right, to account. According to Polly Toynbee, ‘Brexit supporters have unleashed furies even they can’t control’. Adding that ‘This campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics’. Daniel Trilling argues that ‘Far-right politics cannot be as easily cordoned off from the mainstream as people would like to believe. Fascists attach themselves to popular causes and drag the debate in their direction. Populists and parties of the center take note and then try to appeal to voters susceptible to the far right’s messages by taking xenophobic positions of their own’. The tone of the campaign and far-right, and links between them, can also be seen in the context of the wider normalisation of racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, Islamophobia and exclusive racialised nationalism, as well as racialised populist anger, in ‘mainstream’ politics, media and public discourse that have been developing since the financial crisis, fed into the referendum and been intensified by it. What we have seen is the mainstreaming of the extreme, informing an emboldening and radicalisation of the mainstream, and further emboldening and radicalisation of the far-right. Britain has now produced a paramilitary American-style far-right and someone, even if only inspired by it, has already taken a life. There are other, more concrete worrying signs. Just prior to the murder, Britain First ran a training camp in Wales, learning about self-defence, martial arts, knife defence, survival techniques and more, and on 17 June, a day after the murder, Britain First issued a threat against Sadiq Khan ‘all Muslim elected officials’.
While in the extreme, it occurs in a context of a debate that has moved so far to the right (in fact, both Leave and Remain are led by the right), that previously unacceptable, dehumanising discourses are the currency. Warnings about the economy if we remain is considered ‘fearmongering’ (with the Remain side designated ‘Project Fear’), and warnings from the Leave side about the threats posed by refugees, immigrants and Muslims, including of attacks in the future, that are dressed up in age old racist language and imagery are seen as honest, true and urgent. UKIP leader and representative of the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaign (the former were not sure he was mainstream enough at first, but eventually let him loose as the debate and electorate moved in his direction), claimed that a Cologne style sexual assault by refugees is likely if Turkey joined the EU and Britain stayed in. The Leave campaign also released an ad in the immediate wake of the 12 June 2016 attack on the Pulse in Orlando, just days prior to the murder of Cox, claimed that an ‘Orlando style atrocity’ could happen in Britain if it stayed in the EU. For a campaign poster, they used an image of thousands of refugees, none of whom are white, crossing from Croatia to Slovenia (not Britain) in 2015 with a banner reading ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’. This led to accusations of racism, a complaint to the police for incitement to racial hatred and comparisons to Nazi propaganda images. The campaign also targeted the far-right on social media and Farage met with English Defence League (EDL) members.
One could ask if Farage, UKIP, Leave.EU and Vote Leave, as well as other Brexit campaigns, could imagine the embarrassment and charges of hypocrisy a British nationalist, such as Mair or others, committed an act of violence or terrorism in the name of Britain, Britishness and Leave? What would they say? While Farage tweeted his condolences like most other politicians, there was no hint of the apology that Muslims are expected to issue for merely belonging to the same religion. While Farage in some way cannot see white Britishness in such negative terms, and appears to consider such groups either a potential support base or representative. He sees people with such politics as victims of injustice, with righteous anger. Farage did not just instigate and fuel hate and anger, but justified and even threatened violence. In a May 2016 BBC interview, he said ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step’. He is describing the populist anger that informed the call for a referendum and which he and others fuelled in their campaign to Leave, but then makes a threat of violence, on behalf of others, should the result not go his way. Returning to the opposition painted earlier between the individual who espouses extremist views and commits acts of violence and the reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice, what is clear in this context and quotation is that not only is the line blurred, but a democratic election or referendum is positioned as a way of preventing or just delaying violence, which will occur should democracy not find in favour of one side. But the plug may be leaking. You cannot stoke the fire and hope to control it. According to Jonathan Freedland, ‘if you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, eventually somebody will get sick.’
It not only harms the targets and damages the social discourse and society relations, it also leaves little space for reconciliation. If we stay, those immigrants, refugees and Muslims scapegoated initially will find themselves on the firing line, as will Remain supporters in the political class and public. If we leave, those thinking that immigrants, refugees, Muslims and the EU are to blame for all the problems, including Tory-led austerity, cuts to public services and unemployment with be sadly disappointed and be looking for a scapegoat they have ready made. According to Chimene Suleyman, ‘Britain has confused social sociopathy for economic debate’.
The people scapegoating and looking for someone to blame for problems whether we are in or out are the mainstream political class, media and voting public. This campaign has made racists emboldened and made others think racism is the analysis of and solution to their problems. The mainstream does not only instigate and fuel this in civil, or now uncivil society, but this move to the right and fear and dehumanisation of refugees and others has already costs lives, as it has become acceptable to deny shelter to those fleeing war (which Britain has often played a role in) and other dangers because the voting public has been encouraged to make humanitarianism and open welcoming arms, which Cox represented, an electoral liability. Labour even sold control immigration mugs to raise money in the 2015 election campaign.
Yes, once in a while the sea spits out a child and refugees get a moment of reprieve from the hate and rejection, but that soon ends. It isn’t only immigrants and refugees who are dehumanised and rejected though. Tory austerity policies have demonstrated that the poor and vulnerable in general are unworthy and disposable. Yet, we are told that even that is the fault of the EU, immigrants and refugees who cost too much and take from ‘our’ own. This racist divide and rule, where ‘our own’ are racialised as white and everyone else is a threatening outsider, is toxic, corrosive and has become the reality for many.
When I arrived in Britain from Canada as a student in 1997, the country and New Labour, seemed to publicly embrace multiculturalism and immigration (although that would be sacrificed near the end, and was something the right blames them for, and cites as a reason for Brexit). I felt welcomed and have watched as the country has become harsher, more exclusive, intolerant and less welcoming. Hatred and scapegoating has not only become acceptable, but serves as a form of political currency for the media and politicians. Toynbee is correct about ‘How recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned’. For her, ‘This is the sound of Britain breaking. Here ends our “moderate, tolerant” self-image’. But it is not all about the ‘self’. It is something that many of your friends, colleagues and possibly family members, as well as those you interact with but do not know, who are immigrants and refugees (or have been), Muslim, European, Black or Asian, are forced to listen to and endure from their elected officials, television and magazine racks in shops, posters in the streets and on public transport, conversations in the streets, around the water cooler at work and in the pub, coffee shop and restaurant. The message is that we are no longer welcome here, our fate is yours’ to decide, and it matters no more than a power struggle on the right. This island is in serious retreat. Something not seen since Powellism in the 1960s, although now we have small island nationalism with a nostalgia for empire. The danger is already being seen. It is retreating so far inwards (without the benefits of introspection) that it will implode or eat itself, consumed by hate and consuming those deemed a threat or barrier to self-realisation. That is where fascism manifests. For the political elites driving this racist, scapegoating campaign, that is just the cost of doing business.
On February 19th, 2016, the Miami Fraternal Order of Police (MFOP) issued a statement saying that following a vote, it will allow its members to boycott Beyoncé’s Miami concert on April 27. MFOP called on other police departments and bodies to also boycott Beyonce concerts. Tampa and Nashville boycotts soon followed. More recently, on May 8th, there was the announcement of a ‘Coalition of Police and Sheriffs [COPS] protest at Beyonce’s hometown Houston concert’. The reason behind the boycotts and protests is a particular performance at the last Super Bowl half-time show, seen by some police and supporters as being anti-police. In it, Beyonce performed her new song ‘Formation’, during which she was accused of trying “to divide Americans by promoting the Black Panthers”, based on the fact that her dancers were dressed in black with berets and raised their fists in what appeared to be an homage to the group. They were joined by Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice for Mario Woods who was shot over 15 times by police in San Francisco after assaulting another person. Former New York Mayor and supporter of Zero Tolerance policing, Rudy Giuliani also claimed that the performance was designed to “attack police officers”. There was also opposition to the video for the song, which included references to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and includes a black boy in a hoodie dancing in front of police who raise their hands, the words ‘Stop Shooting Us’ written on a wall and Beyoncé lying on top of a police car submerged in water. Beyonce did respond, denying she was anti-police: “Anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken … I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of the officers who sacrifice themselves to keeps us safe … But let’s be clear, I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things.” This Beyonce boycott, followed calls for police and commercial boycotts of Quentin Tarantino and The Hateful Eight after he attended a Black Lives Matter protest in New York and criticised the police. In addition to this, America has seen the formation of Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police organisation that, in addition to supporting police, appears to present a counter point and counter-protest to Black Lives Matter.
Victor Kappeler of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, said that “responses like these were part of a relatively new phenomenon by the police: being ‘politically active.’” Kappeler was primarily referring to criticism of the police, stating that “[a]nyone who tries to tarnish the devotion of the police as heroes or breaks out of that discourse is subject to a lot of police scrutiny or blowback statements”, thus using a very narrow definition of ‘politically active’ and attributing it to social media. In making these claims, Kappeler is incorrect historically. Even accepting this narrow definition of politically active, we have seen this before. In fact, one of the most high profile previous cases was in 1992, when Ice-T’s Body Count released ‘Cop Killer’, which led to CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) calling for a boycott of all products by Time-Warner until the single and album were removed from sale. Police organisations across the United States also called for a boycott. Prior to this, when NWA released ‘Fuck tha Police’ in 1988, The Fraternal Order of Police voted to boycott any group that advocated violence against law enforcement officers. More recently, in 2000, Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo by 41 direct shots by the police, despite the fact that he was unarmed and in the vestibule of his own apartment building in the Bronx, in 1999. Springsteen played the song during his 2000 Madison Square Garden concerts, leading the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to call on its members to boycott his concerts in terms of both attendance and serving as security. In term of the historical links, Springsteen played the song again in tribute to Trayvon Martin and others who were killed and released it on his 2014 High Hopes album. In the case of Beyonce, Tarantino, Ice-T, NWA and Springsteen, the common denominator is not mere criticism of the police, but responses to individual and institutional police racism and specifically police use of force/violence against black people that has ended in many deaths, and few convictions. At best, individuals are indicted and possibly convicted, but the wider pattern and issue of institutional racism are not acknowledged or addressed.
Beyond this narrow definition of ‘politically active’, as University of Baltimore Criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross tweeted in response to Kappeler’s argument, ‘Since when have law enforcement in the United States NOT been politically active?’. The argument appears to only include organised self-declared forms of political activism, which pre-exist recent examples as I have illustrated, but also has a conservative interpretation of the position and role of the police, as one of objective neutrality serving a law which is neutral (or naturalised) and apolitical, in a social context that is not riddled with unequal relations of power, among social groups as well as in relation to the law and criminal justice system. The police are agents of the state, and in the United States, even serve different political jurisdictions and authorities, be they local, state or federal (which themselves have differential relations of power). But more to the point, the police have always represented and served laws which come into being through political channels and serve political aims or interests, and the violation of these laws inform political responses that the police execute. Examples include enforcing racial segregation, racial profiling, stop and frisk, enforcing restrictions on public assembly and political protest itself, be it attempting to stop civil disobedience protests against desegregation and those marching for voting rights marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 or cracking down on and arresting Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis in 2015. In addition to policing protests opposing what are widely seen as unjust and racist laws, law enforcement also played a role in investigating and suppressing political groups and activists, including The Black Panthers, which were largely destroyed as an organisation by the FBI’s countersubversion/counterintelligence programme COINTELPRO, through which the government attempted to neutralise subversive political movements/activists, left and right, black and white (including the Klan and Weather Underground) in the 1960s and 70s. This was also the era in which the Nixon administration’s crackdown on protests led to deaths at Kent State, captured in ‘Ohio’, by earlier politically active musicians Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).
In the case of unjust laws, while individual police officers and unions may disagree and protest (something closer to the narrow definition of ‘politically active’), the shift in position is more likely to happen when the laws or practices are changed, which occurs largely because of political activism, protest, pressure and criticism of laws and police practices, as well as court decisions. Continuing with the issue of racism, one of the best examples would be desegregation. In this case, the police find themselves on the opposite side of an issue than they were previously, but still on the side of representing and enforcing the law as a duty as if it is not political or a product of politics and political activism. Police officers and sheriffs and their deputies have also not only been enablers, associates and members of political organisations, but ones with a stake in political and legal conflicts in which the police represent one side and enforce the law and position of the state, such as the Ku Klux Klan. This occurred in the 1950s when the Klan and other white supremacist groups were defending the same legal segregation that the police were enforcing, and opposing federal desegregation, as well as serving extrajudicial punishment under the blind eye and protection of the state, to black people who crossed the colour line, threatened the racial status quo or looked at a white woman the ‘wrong’ way. In some cases, there was also clear overlap and a relationship between the Klan and law enforcement. One example was that of Bull Connor, City Commissioner and in charge of the Police Department for Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s and famous for ordering the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights protesters, also colluded with the Klan. When buses of Freedom Riders arrived in the city in 1961, the Klan were waiting, but Connor provided no police protection and were on the receiving end of an attack by the Klansmen. In another case, James Gardner Clark, Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, famous for his aggressive tactics against marchers at Selma, recruited Klansmen to prevent voter drives in 1964-65. Perhaps the most notorious case was the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. The accused were members of the Klan, and employees of both the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department. Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County Cecil Price was convicted of violating the civil rights of the three men. The reason for the civil rights charge, which fell under federal law and jurisdiction, stemmed from the fact that murder was only punishable under state law and they refused to pursue it. The ‘Mississippi Burning’ case caused much outcry, not only because of the murders, but the alleged complicity of law enforcement in the act, and the state law enforcement and criminal justice system for not pursuing it, the latter of which happened all too often where the law of the land was white supremacy and racial segregation.
This does not indict all law enforcement officers, nor preclude police from engaging in progressive politics or being critical of unjust laws, but is important to note in a context where the issue is police treatment of black people, and the fact that the criticism of Beyonce concerned her being divisive by ‘promoting’ the Black Panthers, an organisation that, in the social media and right-wing media storm that followed, was compared directly to the Ku Klux Klan. While intended to disparage the Black Panthers, Beyonce and criticism of the police by Black Lives Matter and others, there is something both odd and wrong about the comparison and equivalence with the Klan. In one sense, it is saying, we agree the Klan was bad, and the Panthers were the same, but for black people (anti-white racist), as opposed to for white people (anti-black racist), but this ignores several issues. Firstly, are those critics actually saying that the Klan represent or represented white people, or even wanting to allow that association? This happened in another attempt at comparison and equivalence during the 2008 presidential election, when GOP nominee John McCain attempted to call out Obama on his alleged links to so-called anti-American radicals and terrorists, such as former Weather Underground member William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, by claiming “[i]f there was a tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit, I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different”. Secondly, the Panthers being referenced were a response to state, police, institutional and socio-economic racism and are gone, largely due to state and law enforcement opposition (e.g. COINTELPRO). This may have been the first step in creating a false equivalence between movements with radically different relationships to power. Unlike the Black Panthers, the Klan reflected and represented official state and legal white supremacy (which the Panthers opposed). The Klan also not only survived COINTELPRO and HUAC Klan hearings following civil rights, which had the effect of scapegoating them as the convenient face and hate figures for a deeply rooted structural racism that never went away (in the criminal justice system and elsewhere), but are currently undergoing a revival in response to Obama, the economic crisis and racial fault lines which emerged and have been exploited. In fact the Klan have found a cause in defending police, such as Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, and have found a representative in Donald Trump, who was endorsed by former Grand Dragon David Duke, as well as other Klansmen and white supremacists.
There is another, connected, issue, with the equivalence between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter – or between critics, be they Black Lives Matter, Beyonce or others, and the police – in terms of black deaths. One cannot see Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter in equivalent terms for a number of reasons. Black Lives Matter is a protest movement expressing their legal rights and with no legal or moral obligations to the public and police, whereas the police involved in these cases and wider law enforcement, are in a position of authority with the full force of law and the state behind them, with a duty to care and duty to serve and protect all, and not a special interest or aggrieved social group as Blue Lives Matter implies. Moreover, the loss of police officers in the line of duty and at the hands of criminals is treated with outrage, respect and honour by the public, politicians and media, in addition to being investigated, tried and punished by the criminal justice system. Blue Lives do matter. That is partly why, even if political activism amongst the police is not new, Black and Blue Lives are not equivalent in the wider society. All Lives Matter merely neutralises the politics, following the logic of colourblind equality to its ends. Such equivalences flatten out power and history.
What has changed in terms of political activism, for both the police and protesters, is not merely the use of social media, as Keppeler cites, but the ‘post-race’ context. It is a context where ‘colourblind racism’, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it, and a false logic of what Sociologist Miri Song refers to as ‘racial equivalence’, prevail. It is a context in which racial equality is alleged to have been achieved (beginning with civil rights and realised with the election of Obama) and ‘we’ are all colourblind. Explicit forms of racism and racist violence from the ‘bad old days’ are the standard by which to judge. More subtle, coded, institutional forms (such as the racialisation of crime and police risk/threat which inform a justification for the use of force) are rationalised, legitimised and not included. In this context, when of person of colour mentions race, they are accused of making it an issue, and when a person of colour accuses someone of racism, the accusation is deemed as bad or worse than racism itself. It is illegitimate and possibly derogatory. Grievances by those accused of racism are either accorded equal standing (but legitimate) since ‘we’ are equal, or more serious and more legitimate because the structure of racial power is perceived to have been overturned. According to right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh, the problem in Ferguson is not the deaths or racism, but protests: “I think that there is a grievance politics in this country, that’s tearing the country apart.” On the eve of Obama’s election, Rudy Giuliani said “we’ve achieved history tonight and we’ve moved beyond … the whole idea of race and racial separation and unfairness”. While this post-race statement appears in stark contrast to those he made about racism and policing in an exchange with Michael Eric Dyson in 2014, they turn the tables and flatten power in a manner enabled by post-race: “Ninety-three percent of blacks are killed by other blacks, I would like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.” “What about the poor black child that was killed by another black child?” “Why aren’t you protesting that?… Why don’t you cut it down so that so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?” “White police officers wouldn’t be there, if you weren’t killing each other.” In this statement, the problem of violence against black people is identified as that committed by other black people, with the police merely putting themselves in the line of fire to stop it and being subjected to criticism and protests for it. Such an argument, and the police activism which opposes Black Lives Matter and Beyonce, fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the relationship of power between the police and black communities, and the job profile, function and responsibility of the police vis a vis civilian communities. It also misunderstands and misrepresents the meaning of political activism which, although not new for the police, should be about challenging injustices, structures of power and inequality, not defending, preserving or pursuing power and authority (even if it is deemed to be equal or under threat by those holding it). It is anti-racist political activism that fought for black rights and against individual and institutional police racism and force/violence against black people. The result was not a post-race America where racism no longer exists, nor equality or an inversion of power between the police and black communities, but an understanding that power needs to be kept in check, racism must be challenged and political activism is important to do these. What seems to be occurring is that the police and conservative counter-protesters are assuming or claiming the former (post-race, equality or even inversion) and delegitimising checks on power and police racism, and appropriating a form and style of political activism to do so.
In the wake of the Bundy Militia occupation of a federal building in Oregon at the start of 2016, US Uncut published the piece ‘Don’t Call Them Patriots. They’re Terrorists Occupying Sacred Native American Land’. While an important piece on double standards in labelling, white privilege and native rights and marginalisation (historically and today, including in this very case), like many other pieces and tweets (eg #whiteterrorism) that immediately follow examples of right-wing extremism and terrorism, it uses the issue of labelling as a hook and starting point that can obscure the serious issues that underpin or accompany it. In this blog post, I will critically address the issue of labelling as highlighted in this piece, but also more widely where it becomes a substitute for an analysis of racism and political violence. Although that is not the case in this piece, even if the two parts are not effectively brought together. Yes, you can call them ‘terrorists’ – if they plot or commit acts of terrorism (which militias do), otherwise it is just ideological point scoring that does nothing to address Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hate and the suspicion, profiling and securitisation of Muslims, nor native land rights or socio-economic conditions. But the opposition between ‘patriots’ and ‘terrorists’ does not make sense. ‘Patriots’ is the term used for/by right-wing anti-federal government movements since the 1980s/90s (many in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, along with white separatists). As is ‘Militia’, which is the historical term and form such groups take (since the Revolution and in their current form from the 1990s). These are not labels which obscure meaning or represent positive descriptions, so it was odd when Tell Mama tweeted: ‘Militia? Kind word for people insurrecting against the State?’). Do those who challenge the use of ‘patriot’ (or ‘militia’) in favour of ‘terrorist’ want to preserve some positive meaning of ‘patriotism’ (a true benevolent kind misrepresented by right-wingers?), I suspect not, as it’s not a racial or religious identity or community that is being misrepresented and most anti-racists and those on the left have a healthy suspicion of the term and those who claim it. Do they want to perpetuate the use of the term ‘terrorist’ despite its ideological and often racist usage? I suspect not. No, they are attempting to both counter discourses and representations (as well as treatment) of Muslims as terrorists and the lack of such labelling and treatment of white ‘terrorists’ as a product of racism and white privilege (and the relationship between them). In addition to this, highlighting the apparent relative lack of caution demonstrated by law enforcement when it is Black people who armed or unarmed (eg in the case of a Black Lives Matter protest or the shooting of Tamir Rice). Yes, there is whiteness inscribed in the militias’ politics, ideology, resentment and anger, and white privilege in the apparent caution in the official reaction, in not being labelled terrorist/terrorism from the get go (but that is always wrong) and in the failure to call all white people to apologise and explain, but this is more specific than white privilege, it is right-wing white privilege. This is something extended by the right-wing press who are the ones not calling the right ‘terrorists’ and’extremists’, but calling all Muslims this (although they are pretty comfortable calling white environmentalist, anti-war and anti-globalisation activists ‘terrorists’) and extended by the federal government in terms of labelling and action because: A. right-wing anti-federal sentiment lies with voting constituencies (white populist anger, anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-welfare, pro-free market, etc.) and lobbies (re taxes and gun rights) that they feel that they cannot ignore even if only because antagonising them may mean votes for the GOP if a Democrat or for more radical right-wingers if a centrist Republican (Black Lives and votes don’t seem to matter). It is worth remembering that the second amendment worshipped by gun rights activists contains that little bit about citizen militias being allowed to combat government tyranny … albeit a misinterpretation: ‘A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’; And B. The last time the federal government (in the form of the ATF and FBI) went in hot, with Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993, people died, it led to the growth of the militia movement and eventually the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, on the anniversary of Waco. It allegedly bred extremism and terrorism. For those who insist on saying ‘they never call it terrorism when white people do it’, post-Oklahoma, the government held five subcommittee hearings on: Combating Domestic Terrorism, The Militia Movement in the United State, The Nature and Threat of Violent Anti-Government Groups in America and, knowing the relationship between the growth of the militia movement, the bombings and the government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco, they also held hearings on: The Federal Raid on Ruby Ridge, ID. And The Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians. The bombing also provided Congress with the impetus to pass the 1995 Antiterrorism bill, which became the Antiterrorism and Effective Death penalty Act of 1996. It was this Act that Dwight and Steve Hammond were charged and convicted under for setting fires on federal land, and it is this case that is being protested by the Bundy Militia (in addition to their longer history of opposition to the federal government). This history and the legacy of Ruby Ridge are discussed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article ‘Ruby Ridge Carved a Niche in History’ published August 2012, but reposted and retweeted in the context of the Bundy occupation. The Bundy occupation, it has been alleged, is also an attempt to create another Ruby Ridge or Waco type confrontation with the federal government and mobilise the wider movement.
As I said in my Open Democracy piece ‘White Terror’ (also here at Word Press) following the #Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood attacks in 2015, it may be more effective to challenge racism (re Islamophobia, anti-Black violence and Native rights and legacies of colonialism) AND the racialisation of terrorism and violence. Where this piece in US Uncut differs is that it offers as an analysis of native issues and, connected to this, a concluding suggestion: ‘The Bundy militia occupying the Maiheur National Wildlife Refuge should seriously reconsider their use of the word “tyranny,” and how the land they’re claiming as theirs rightfully belongs to the indigenous tribes that armed white men illegally stole centuries ago. If they really want justice, they should dedicate their cause to helping Native Americans have their stolen land returned’. There are several problems or issues with this. One problem is that such a militia anti-federal ideology is built on a white setter frontier manifest destiny ideology that constructs antagonisms: white man vs nature and American white settler/revolutionary vs British elite/colonist, that displaces and erases the native presence (except for that which can be appropriated by the settler or his stand-in that allows him to construct himself – yes, a man – as the ideal subject: rational but not elite European and at one with nature, but not savage and sub-human like they see – through their racist colonial eyes and discourses – native aboriginal populations. Another problem is that such an argument makes the assumption that this is a movement that really opposes tyranny and supports rights, as opposed to being right-wing, privileged, possibly racist (even if just in terms of their white privilege and negation of native history, oppression and rights) and self-interested. No, it’s not just ideological mis-recognition, not all social movements are inherently progressive, just in need of some correction and clarification on the issues. Sure, the original revolution era militias were anti-colonial, but by no means anti-racist considering the context, not to mention the legacy in the 1990s and today. The final problem or question (although there are more), is whether we should be encouraging right-wing militias to fight for native rights or focusing on native peoples activism. Calling right-wing militias ‘terrorists’ may not help those who do not have white privilege and are labelled ‘terrorists’ from the get go, and it certainly will not help getting the militias on side in this fight (if that is the misguided objective). Challenging the use of the term and its racialisation – as well as connecting it to wider, historical and structural forms of racism and injustice – may have a better chance of challenging racism and injustice in and beyond the war on terror and protecting activists who challenge racism and are labelled ‘terrorists’ for it, thereby denying them their agency, opportunity, legitimacy and freedom (eg AIM or #Black Lives Matter).
In the wake of the November 13 2015 attacks by IS in Paris, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 7th before them, we heard the increasingly familiar accusations that most Muslims are supporters of terrorism, if not terrorists themselves, and demands for Muslims to prove the opposite by apologising, denouncing terrorism and terrorists, locating their moderates and fixing their communities and religion. In the wake of the shooting of five African Americans at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota by alleged white supremacists on November 24, like the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17 by Dylann Roof before it, we heard many ask why is it not called terrorism when white people do it? This was reiterated, with ‘Christian’ replacing or added to ‘white’, following the attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic by Robert Lewis Dear in Colorado Springs, Colorado on November 27th. This claim/question and attempts to identify ‘white terrorism’ has been the focus of memes and the #whiteterrorism hashtag on Twitter, and developed in posts from Tim Wise, and articles such as Big Think’s ‘Why does the media refuse to call white murderers terrorists? and Salon’s ‘Why is it always the white guy’ and ‘Let’s deport the white males?’. One Senator, Sherrod Brown (D-OH), also added his voice, saying about terrorists: ‘Normally, they look more like me than they look like Middle Easterners … [t]hey are generally white males, who have shot up people in movie theaters and schools.’ While often rhetorical (although some are demanding terrorism charges be laid immediately in each case), it is an important response that attempts to highlight the hypocrisy and double standard, as well as racism and Islamophobia, of such accusations against, profiling of, and demands placed on Muslims from the public, politicians and press. It also serves to correct perceptions about where the greatest number of terrorist threats and attacks come from. Yet, there is a limit to the hypocrisy or double standard ‘what about’ argument, particularly that predicated on the assumption or claim that no one uses the term ‘terrorism’ in such cases. One limitation is that it may be too early to determine and is an ongoing ‘active shooter’ situation. In one case of this approach backfiring by being used immediately in every case, following the December 2nd San Bernardino shootings, Gawker ran the article ‘FBI: San Bernardino Shooting Suspects Are Probably Americans, Not “Terrorists”‘ by Ashley Feinberg. It claimed that when David Bowdich, Assistant Director of the FBI, stated that ‘we do not know if this is a terrorist incident’, he meant: ‘“we do not know if this is related to Islam from overseas” (or an ‘American’). Not only did he not say this, but when it was revealed that the alleged shooters were Muslim, it looked like the FBI was being cautious and not rushing to judgement, while the article was demanding the immediate reactive use of terrorism as a label, as opposed to exposing the Islamophobic use of it as intended (assuming that the shooters were ‘white’ and/or Christian).
The second limitation is that it may only be selected news outlets, pundits or politicians of a particular political persuasion refusing to use the term. There is no denying or hiding the history of terrorism committed not only by whites, but actually in the name of whiteness, or more accurately white supremacy, as well as Christianity in the case of the Klan and abortion clinic bombers. In fact, the US federal government and FBI have identified white racist violence as ‘terrorism’ historically. Terrorism was a factor in the FBI COINTELPRO investigations and House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) hearings into the Klan in the 1960s. In terrorism statistics from 1954-2000, #1 with 31.2% of terrorist incidents and 51.6% of fatalities were ‘White Racist/Rightist’ perpetrators (1). These included the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15th, 1963 and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19 1995. The FBI and security services have also focused on terrorism committed by whites but not on behalf of whiteness (e.g. environmentalist or left-wing such as the Weather Underground) and by Christians, including that in the name of Christianity (e.g. anti-abortion). In 2009, Homeland Security, formed in the wake of 9/11, issued the report Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, and in 2014 the far right Sovereign Citizen movement was identified by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) as the number one terrorist threat to America. One of the Minneapolis shooters allegedly identifies as a Sovereign Citizen. Ironically, many of those who claim that no one uses the term ‘terrorism’ when a white person or Christian actually use such examples. They also clearly forget the case of the IRA and profiling of Irish Catholics. Does that mean that the claims of hypocrisy and double standards, as well as racism and Islamophobia, are unfounded? No, it just starts with an inaccurate claim – that no one uses the term for white people – and, more significantly, a problematic proposition – more use of terrorism as a label and more racialization of terror. These are the more significant limitations of this approach. Pushed further, it would uncover the fact that racism, hypocrisy and double standards, and the solution to them, do not lie in the label, but an analysis of the wider and more complex system of racism. This presents challenges on the level of analysis and identification. In terms of analysis, while some of those who make the label argument also engage in an analysis of white supremacy, they often not only ignore structural and systemic white supremacy, but actually distract from it by associating it with such extreme manifestations. In terms of identification, the question is not what they are called, but why white people are not implicated in such acts, particularly as they are often predicated on a white supremacy that, despite claims by the far right that it is under threat or lost, maintains a hold in American institutions and socio-economic structures? It may be that the continuing existence of structural hegemonic white supremacy and lack of challenges to this, helps prevent identification with the extremes. It is also true that it is easier to associate a group of people or community with terrorism than get them to believe it, particularly in the absence of the power and a system to enforce it.
In the Time magazine issue on the Oklahoma City bombing, the cover image was of Timothy McVeigh’s mug shot with the headline ‘The Face of Terror’. In the related article, Elizabeth Gleick argued that ‘a sense of guilty introspection swept the country when the FBI released the sketches of the suspects, distinctly Caucasian John Does one and two’. In his essay ‘Can Whiteness speak?’, Mike Hill argued that more than guilt and introspection, the image and headline were terrifying to Time’s implied white readers because it rendered whiteness distinct or particular, as opposed to universal, and implicated whiteness in the terror (2). Yet, this did not occur. The hegemonic universalism that renders whiteness invisible and non-racialized (to itself) is not challenged by the act of an individual (or even a suspicious pattern of individuals, who happen to be aligned with a movement), because the opposite of white universalism is not particularism, but individualism. When a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, he or she is seen as representative of the faith and community, while a white person who commits an act of terrorism is represented as an individual with a biographical, political and psychological narrative that causally explains him or her away as a ‘bad apple’, aberration, deviant or psychopath. In the cases of Birmingham, Oklahoma City, Charleston and Minnesota, he is a racist and/or right-wing terrorist as opposed to a racial subject (3). That system has yet to be broken and is unlikely to, even with acknowledgement and naming. The Oklahoma City bombing did lead to five senate subcommittee hearings into, amongst other things, Combating Domestic Terrorism, The Militia Movement in the United States and The Nature and Threat of Violent Anti-Government Groups in America, and the passing of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The original Bill had been controversial and resisted partly because of potential negative implications for Arab-American and Irish-American populations. It is ironic that an attack by white right-wing terrorists made that an acceptable price to pay (4).
One of the more curious criticisms about the Charleston shooting was that law enforcement decided to pursue it as a hate crime, as opposed to a terrorism case. Much of the history of ‘white terrorism’ was racist and because of a racist system and absence of federal hate crimes legislation, attacks against African Americans were not often pursued by law enforcement, particularly those state and local law enforcement agencies that were enforcing Jim Crow and opposing civil rights activists. Instead, the federal government used the violence and terrorism of the Klan and other far right white supremacists to combat them. While such violence, most notably the Birmingham bombing and murders of voter registration workers Michael Schwerner, James Clancy and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi on June 21st 1964, led to greater urgency to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Klan not only presented a challenge to its safe implementation, but were also viewed as the unacceptable face of a racist system of laws and practices that could be exorcised. This led to the FBI investigations into the Klan in 1964 and the HUAC hearings into Klan activities in 1965-7. This was followed by the 1969 Federal Hate Crimes Law which allowed for the prosecution of actions which injure or intimidate people based on their race colour, creed or national origin, but only when the victim was engaged in federally protected activities It was only in 2009 when Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. (1998) Hate Crimes Prevention Act, that the federally protected activity prerequisite was dropped. While the use of the label ‘terrorism’ can be appropriate and useful in certain cases, it would seem odd to oppose the application of the hate crime legislation that has been fought for in favour of terrorism, as if the former conceals racism and the latter exposes it. It would also seem dangerous to reject hate crimes in the face of increasing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism justified by terrorism, as well as the racist violence committed against African Americans that Black Lives Matter stands against and for which it is targeted.
It is important that people are highlighting not only the racist profiling, double standard and demands placed on Muslims, but also correct perceptions about the identities of terrorist threats. Yet, I am not sure that the answer is greater (reactive) use of terrorism as a label (particularly considering the ideological use it has been put to thus far) and more racialization of terrorism. Shouldn’t we be talking about movements, ideologies and acts and not races and religions? The terms of debate need to be challenged, not accepted and reproduced, as this strategy does not actually remove the labels of terrorism and extremism attached to Muslims and the effects of profiling and securitization. Nor does it really challenge the racism and prejudice that lies behind the labelling of Muslims as terrorists and extremists or racist violence.