Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the preface to The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, by Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, published by Zed Books on July 14, 2011.
On February 15, 2006, in Strasbourg the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, delivered a stout defense of freedom of speech, democratic values and modernity on the continent. With the embers from heated exchanges over a Danish newspaper’s decision to publish cartoons of Muhammad still glowing, Barroso laid out the consequences of privileging sensitivity towards “others” over core values that define “us.” If Europe failed to defend its principles in the face of such an onslaught, he argued, “we are accepting fear in our society.… I understand that offended many people in the Muslim world but is it better to have a system in which some excesses are allowed or to be in some countries where they don’t even have the right to say this.… I defend the democratic system.”
On the very same day in the House of Commons the British government employed fear of terrorism to limit existing freedoms, expanding state power to make “glorification” of terrorism a criminal offense. Laying out the consequences of privileging freedom over security, then prime minister Tony Blair later explained that the law “Will allow us to deal with ‘those’ people and say: Look, we have free speech in this country, but don’t abuse it.” For certain groups the price for belonging and conditions for banishment have shifted dramatically in Western nations, particularly but by no means exclusively in Europe, in recent years. Citizenship is no longer enough. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the way you worship, have all become grounds for dismissal or inclusion. These terms are not applied equally to all—they are not intended to be. The intention of this series of edicts (popular, political and judicial) is not to erase all differences but to act as a filter for certain people who are considered dangerously different.
To achieve this, certain groups and behaviors must first be pathologized so that they might then be more easily particularized. The pathologization has been made easier over the past decade by the escalation of terrorist acts or attempts in the US and Europe in the name of radical Islam. “Terror is first of all the terror of the next attack,” explains Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. “Terror…opens the possibility that anyone may be a soldier in disguise, a sleeper among us, waiting to strike at the heart of our social slumber.”
But in truth terrorism, and the wars and conflicts that exacerbate terrorism, sharpened this social pathologization and focused it on Muslims and Islam—but terrorism did not create it. The notion that the presence of certain groups represents an existential threat to a mythological national cohesion was present in Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech in which he prophesied violent consequences to non-white immigration in the UK: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” It was there in 1979 in Margaret Thatcher’s sympathy with Britons who feel they are being “swamped by an alien tide.” And it was front and center in Jacques Chirac’s 1991 “Le bruit et l’odeur” speech. “How do you want a French worker who works with his wife, who earn together about 15,000 francs and who sees next to his council house a piled-up family with a father, three or four spouses and twenty children earning 50,000 francs via benefits naturally without working…If you add to that the noise and the smell, well, the French worker, he goes crazy.”
For these threats to gain popular traction, however, these “others” have to be distinguished in the popular mind from other “others.” So when black people attack other black people it is no longer crime but “black-on-black-crime;” if a young Muslim woman in killed over a romantic relationship it is not a murder but an “honor killing.” In a country like England that has been embroiled in virtually continuous terrorist conflict for the last forty years in Northern Ireland, the notion that there are “home-grown” Muslim bombers is supposed to represent not just a new demographic taking up armed struggle but an entirely new phenomenon. Even as the Catholic Church is embroiled in a global crisis over child sexual abuse and the Church of England is splintered in a row over gay priests, Islam and Muslims face particularly vehement demands to denounce homophobia.