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Racism: Break the bounds of liberal outrage!

The sectarian state sponsors racism

Leaflet distributed at anti-racism rally in Belfast. 

7 June 2014

Peter Robinson’s public “apology” to local Muslims for any offence that was caused by his comments on Islam and Muslims may have taken the heat of the racist controversy that has been raging over the last couple of weeks.  However, it has not changed the nature of the society or of the political system that generated it.

The initial spark for the controversy - the rant by evangelical preacher James McConnell in which he denounced Islam as "heathen" and "satanic", linked Muslims to terrorism and said that none of them could be trusted - is not something that is unique to the north of Ireland.  Such racist viewpoints (and given McConnell’s praise for Enoch Powell there can be no what he said was racist), are widespread throughout Europe.  We see this in the success of anti-immigrant parties in the recent elections.  

But what makes the situation here different, and the reason why McConnell’s rant took on such virulence, is that within the northern state these viewpoints receive official endorsement from political leaders and government ministers.  It is not so long ago that Robinson was challenged about his silence on racist attack by the UVF and responded with a tirade of abuse. So by the time of Robinson's first intervention the pastor had already received the backing of DUP MPs Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell and also the of the health minister Edwin Poots.  It should not have been surprising that Peter Robinson followed his colleagues in defending McConnell.  Indeed, he went even further by layering class hatred over the racism in his now infamous comment that he would allow a Muslim to run a message for him.  These initial responses of Peter Robinson and his party colleagues, which have not been withdrawn, can be taken as the authentic view of the DUP.  The subsequent non-apology and photo opportunities with Muslim leaders are efforts to repair the damage done to the international reputation of the state, and to reassure potential investors and tourists, rather than a rejection of racism.   

This controversy exposes the illusion that the peace process and political settlement are liberalising the northern state.  The reality is that in the most recent period reaction has been strengthened. The bedrock for this, as it has always been, is sectarianism.  But because the political structures have normalised sectarianism to such a degree it often takes other issues to highlight how rotten this society remains.  And while racism, sexism and homophobia are on nowhere near the same level as sectarianism, they do have a close association and they do share a common root - which is the rejection of equality.  For you can’t have an equality of sectarianism - to operate it requires that one group be privileged over another and their advantage be publicly demonstrated.  It is this principle of inequality which motivates the agitation around parades and flags.  And it is the same principle which motivates racism and racist attacks.  It is therefore no coincidence that the loyalist groups involved in sectarian incitement are also engaged in racist intimidation. It is also no coincidence that unionist parties provide political cover for both.

While there has been a strong public reaction to this racist controversy – as witnessed by the rally that drew thousands of people to Belfast City Hall - it is being pointed in a political direction that offers no challenge.  People are being asked to support a sectarian political system that actually encourages racism, sexism, homophobia and every other strand of bigotry.  The main demand is for the Executive to publish a Racial Equality Strategy.  That this has been forthcoming for nearly seven years gives some indication of the lack of seriousness with which this issue is being treated.  Even if something is produced it will likely be to more than a gesture within a system in which its implementation is dependent on the most right wing elements of unionism. 

The fact that none of the organisations (the trade unions, NGOs, political parties) giving voice to the reaction against racism haven’t even called for the resignation of Peter Robinson as First Minister shows the degree to which they are hopelessly compromised.  Their overriding concern is to dampen down any issue that could be potentially destabilising. 

Another concession to reactionary ideas has been the promotion of identity politics around this issue.  This can be seen in how the leaders of the Belfast Islamic Centre, who are probably the most conservative element within the local Muslim community, are advanced as the representatives of all Muslims.  What this actually does is reinforce the stereotype that Muslims are a monolithic community that defers to religious authority.  Despite its liberal gloss this is not so far removed from Pastor McConnell’s view that all Muslims are the under control of Sharia Law.   It ignores the many points of diversity amongst Muslims whether that is nationality, race, religion or political opinion.   

What this also ignores is that the Muslim community is divided into different classes.  This was illustrated in the reaction to Peter Robinson’s comment about allowing Muslims to run a message to the shops for him.  It was considered to be offensive to middle class professionals. Yet there is more to the Muslim community than lawyers, doctors and academics.  This assumption totally ignores the working class section of that community – many of whom may be messengers or shop assistants.  Are Robinson’s comments any less of an insult to them?   

The public outcry to this latest racist controversy is welcome.  But if it stays within the bounds of liberal outrage – and the political and class viewpoints that go along with that – its impact will be very limited.  We can see how quickly things have moved on after Robinson’s public “apology”.  If we are to build a movement that can pose a serious challenge to sectarianism and racism we have to recognise that these aren’t just ideas in people's heads but rather have real material and political foundations.


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