The historic achievement of Aimé Césaire’s generation was that, in the course of the anti-colonial struggle, it established the agency of the developing world and the right of its peoples to make their own choices, so much so that, today, when we read dusty texts in which the functionaries of the Raj argue for a permanent British presence by contrasting parliamentary traditions with the savagery of native custom, we recognise at once the racial dynamic at play. By contrast, the historic achievement of goodism lies in the removal of the colonial stigma from the twenty-first century’s neocolonial wars, the normalisation of violence and despotism in the name of social reform, and thus the enablement of a new kind of bigotry.
More specifically, goodist-style contrasts between the civilised mores of the imperium and the incorrigible barbarism of the natives are as old as colonialism itself. The gunboat in the harbour always arrived for the ostensible benefit of the ‘new-caught, sullen peoples’ rather than the East India Company. Suttee in India, human sacrifice in the Americas, cannibalism in the Pacific, foot binding in China and so on: these (undeniably horrific) phenomenaon were all used, at various times, to rationalise conquest and to justify dispossession.
Césaire made the point particularly eloquently in Discours sur le colonialisme. Surveying Western accounts of the evils worked by native peoples, he wrote:
The conclusion is inescapable, compared to the cannibals, the dismemberers, and other lesser breeds, Europe and the West are the incarnation of respect for human dignity. But let us move on, and quickly, lest our thoughts wander to Algiers, Morocco, and other places where, as I write these very words, so many valiant sons of the West, in the semi-darkness of dungeons, are lavishing upon their inferior African brothers, with such tireless attention, those authentic marks of respect for human dignity which are called, in technical terms, ‘electricity,’ ‘the bathtub,’ and ‘the bottleneck.’
Today, Algiers and Morocco have been supplanted by Iraq and Afghanistan, and ‘the bathtub’ replaced by ‘the waterboard’, but the argument remains unchanged.
In an oft-quoted passage, [Cesaire] declared:
We must study how colonisation works to decivilise the coloniser, to brutalise him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilisation acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a centre of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and interrogated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
To update the argument, you need only ask what political and cultural consequences you’d expect internationally from, say, the Bush administration’s normalisation of torture against Muslim detainees; the construction of Guantanamo to house Muslim prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial; the launch of a pre-emptive invasion, a war declared unlawful by most legal scholars, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Muslim; the routinisation of assassinations and other extrajudicial killings of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen; and the persistent refusal to hold anyone accountable for any of these. Is it not likely that such measures would establish throughout the industrialised world certain ideas about Muslims and their place, certain notions about how they might be legitimately treated?
Let’s look, as Césaire suggests, to Europe.
In Holland, Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, seems set to play kingmaker for a new government. Wilders advocates banning the Koran, prohibiting immigration from Muslim nations and forbidding the construction of mosques. In Switzerland, a historic centre of tolerance, the state has constitutionally banned the building of new minarets. In Austria, the Freedom Party (yes, it’s a popular name), which polled 17.5 per cent at the most recent election, wants to do the same, while also outlawing face veils. France has already prohibited the burqa; similar laws are mooted in Italy and Belgium. The English Defence League marshals shaven-headed hooligans to chant ‘Muslims out!’ in towns across the nation. In Germany, former finance minister Thilo Sarrazin sold, in a month, 600 000 copies of a book claiming that high fertility rates among the Muslim community have diluted the country’s collective IQ.
Crucially, this rising tide of prejudice and hatred correlates not with anything Muslims might have done but rather with what is being done against them.
It is difficult to hear the ugly clamour of the new Islamophobia and not recall the traditional slurs against Judaism during Europe’s darkest days. Jews, said the bigots of the early twentieth century, were eternal foreigners, disloyal interlopers who bred uncontrollably and immigrated in swarms. They kept to themselves, they ate strange foods, they wore odd clothes, and their sinister religion mandated their involvement in criminality and political extremism.
Yes, today’s discourse against Islam marshals an identifiably pogromist vocabulary and, in Europe at least, it swells the ranks of groups with historic ties to the far Right or even neo-fascism. But Islamophobia also represents something new, since it deploys the ancient tropes of bigotry not in the form of blood-and-soil racialism, but in the politically correct vocabulary of contemporary liberalism.
The anti-Islam ideologues might be feminist (Ayaan Hirsi Ali), atheist (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) or even assertively homosexual (Pim Fortuyn famously denied being a racist on the basis of his penchant for Moroccan boys) but their formulations invariably contrast secular modernity – multicultural, tolerant of women’s rights, etc. – against Islamic backwardness and totalitarianism. Thus the group Stop the Islamisation of Europe can use as its slogan: ‘racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.’
In a curious fashion, then, the anti-burqa feminists (we might also have mentioned Elizabeth Farrelly and Virginia Haussegger) become that which they oppose. In the name of combating a garment that, they say, silences women, treats women as objects and excludes women from the public sphere, they … silence women, treat women as objects and exclude women from the public sphere. Ostensibly championing freedom, in practice they seek to deny it.
The connection between goodism abroad (humanitarian war) and goodism at home (burqa bans) becomes, then, clearer. The ideologues of Islamophobia are, as they repeatedly ensure us, impeccable liberals – doughty defenders of progress and enlightenment and rights for all. They are, however, liberals who have concluded that ‘free and equal discussion’ doesn’t apply to Muslims, the ‘barbarians’ of our contemporary age. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with such people, and the same immaturity of Islamic faculties that legitimises military occupation overseas also mandates coercion at home.
‘An equation,’ said Césaire. ‘Colonisation = “thing-ification”.’
You can’t tell people what clothes to wear but you can do whatever you want to things, even those in human form.
To date, Islamophobia has not, within Australia, become the mass political force it is in Europe and, increasingly, the US. But the basis has been laid. The war in Afghanistan will not deliver liberal reforms to the people of Afghanistan. Rather, the longer it continues, the more it will foster anti-Muslim bigotry throughout the world, a bigotry promulgated under the rubric of liberalism.
From the campaign to civilise barbarism, said Césaire, comes ‘the negation of civilisation, pure and simple’. The tragedy of Afghanistan illustrates precisely what he meant.