“Every bristling shaft of pride/Church or nation/team or tribe/every notion we subscribe to/creates a borderline.” – Joni Mitchell.
We’re all racists. All of us. Deny it if you will, but whether we admit it or not we have all at some point, whether fleetingly or in some shameful cases habitually, treated an individual or even a country (that isn’t our own) with suspicion, perhaps because of a cultural difference that we have either perceived or observed, or even just imagined of the people in front of us. It could be that someone from a certain place unwittingly solicits a glimmer of caution in you – there’s nobody on the planet who has studied European history who hasn’t at some point had to consciously override the instinct to recall WWII when they’ve met a German. Don’t waste your breath trying to deny it.
The good news is that when faced with these moments of disgusting idiocy, most of us employ that mechanism in our brain that filters out nonsensical thinking, called rational thought, and we consciously choose not to actually be a complete racist. Most of us, but sadly not all.
A massive billboard hung opposite a major hospital in London post-the invasion of Iraq, when anti George W. Bush sentiment was at its (entirely sound) height, saying ‘Who said nothing good ever came out of America?’. Ironically, it was advertising some disastrous American drama that did indeed turn out to be terrible, but I remember being horrified by the idea that anyone would denigrate an entire civilisation because of the actions of its constituent extremists and lunatics – as if every citizen were a clone copy of the small group of whack jobs that were blowing countries up. Did anyone propose not letting Americans into our country because of Bush-ist tyranny? Did anyone arrest yanks on the beach as they lay down on their car-sized towels or splashed around in the water, shrouded in their distinctively transatlantic veils of fat? We didn’t, because the majority of Americans look like the majority of Europeans – white and diabetic.
The rising levels of Islamophobia in Europe and the US have been amplifying gradually ever since 9/11, and have reached a rousingly choral level since the attacks in France, Belgium and Florida – menaces to which Muslim communities have never been immune themselves, yet for which they are being held solely accountable. The one nation nationalist tone of the Brexit campaign and the rise of Donald Trump have served little more than to legitimise racist suspicions and project racial tensions entirely onto the shoulders of minorities, and the increasing stronghold of the right wing of the media, who are engaged in their own war against the Russian propaganda machine has shown a complete disinclination towards calling a bigoted turd a turd. France, whose empire bequeathed automatic French Citizenship unto the native Muslims of her colonies, is allowing mayors and other petty bureaucrats to single out Muslim women in public, simply for wearing essentially a wet-suit with a headscarf, even though the highest courts in the land say there is no legal basis for stopping them. As if these women weren’t even citizens.
While this turn towards intolerance in Western Europe surprises me – those of us who grew up in the late twentieth century witnessed glass ceilings, cultural barriers and iron fences literally being torn down and we thought it would just keep going – what is depressingly familiar in the current wave of Islamophobia is that the people being nailed to the cross are women. And that’s not even counting those of the developing world, whose struggle for survival we not only continue to ignore, but who some argue should be disregarded entirely through the withdrawal of Foreign Aid if it is not in our own domestic interest to give it.
The reason for the burkini ban is simple. The West has no cohesive or effective strategy for tackling ISIS, it has been impotent in creating stable regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and in Erdogan’s Turkey we are seeing a previously non-aligned but secular-friendly Turkey go rogue. Russia is successfully ignoring what the outside world thinks of its increasingly militarised authoritarianism, and through Kremlin-edited news programming that is distributed globally, it is spreading the narrative that the West is the real-life inspiration behind Westeros, and that the EU’s progression towards closer integration is the extension of Hitler’s Third Reich, in spite of a few pesky cogs in the allegedly-fascist wheel, like the ECHR and the greatest array of equal rights for its citizens that our species has ever created. Misguided public policy of previous administrations across the globe have seen families go from being able to survive on income, to two incomes being insufficient. Wars have been fought in the name of freedoms that are most readily enjoyed by the wealthy elite and the arms industries. The forces of marketing have convinced the many that they need milk from China instead of the fields surrounding their town because it’s cheaper, the interests of competition have seen public services auctioned off to the highest international bidders and money can just be manufactured by bank employees without being tied to any tangible asset or exchange of goods.
So when men who know the limitations of their little stash of power realise they’re barely even plankton in the sea of the Big Fish, the easiest way to show teeth to the untouchable predators of the world that they can’t control, is the time-honoured tradition of asserting control instead over their own women.
The burkini-clad Muslim womenfolk of Southern France are being made to pay the price of the Bataclan massacre, the Bastille Day murders, and the humanitarian crisis at the hands of ISIS as if they are directly linked, even though the perpetrators of those crimes were neither wearing burkinis nor were they women going for a swim. Their only connection to those guilty of such homicides is their religion, and linking all Muslim women who look a certain way to Islamic extremism is as racist and absurd as blaming the Backstreet Boys for the Ku Klux Klan. To call these women unhygienic, un-French or terrorists because of their attire, all of which has been said, is pure and utter racism. Declarations of a minority identity are making the majority feel uncomfortable? Good! The majority are almost always unquestionably comfortable with the privilege they have but never acknowledge.
Political Correctness, for all it is maligned by populist commentators at present, used to be a mechanism for keeping racism and intolerance in check, or at least behind closed doors so that citizens didn’t live in constant fear of harassment in the streets, or of being refused a meal in a restaurant because of their religious identity, as happened in France this weekend. It could also just be called human decency, or respect. In its absence all we are getting are more hate crimes, racial profiling and women undressing in public at the insistence of the police. And these are exactly the kinds of divisions that extremists of all colours and creeds feed on and use to recruit others.
Surely, if we can come to accept that Conchita Wurst isn’t responsible for the Holocaust, that Maria Sharapova is not an exponent of Stalin, and that Judi Dench and Jane Fonda aren’t conspiring to invade and carpet bomb the Middle East, then we can remember what we knew not so long ago when we made an effort not to be bigots: that brown women with baggy clothes and their heads covered are not all Osama bin Laden in disguise. If we can’t be ‘bovvered’ to think beyond our irrational fear and gutter-steeped prejudice anymore, using the colour of a person’s skin or what clothes they wear to determine whether or not they belong to our societies, then I guess we really are all racists. And racists à la ISIS, at that.