Ireland and the Inconsistencies of Anti-Muslim Racism

The following piece was written for a forthcoming edition of the journal of Anti-Racism Network Ireland

The Irish experience of modernity has been rather unlike that of many of the other states with which we share our geographical location. Across most of North Western Europe, the period has been characterised by a sharp decline in the power of institutionalised religion, with nationalism largely taking its place as the era’s prime force of social control, cohesion, and destruction. Ireland, however, has followed a different path. While nationalism was clearly the engine driving the struggle for independence, it did not correspond to a decline in the role of religion. Indeed, from the mid-nineteenth century up until quite recently, the Catholic Church was in the ascendancy, acting as an unrivalled force of both political dominance and social regression. This highly unsettling interplay between systemic abuse and institutional nepotism has imbued contemporary Ireland with a well-founded distrust of organised religion.

So what might this trajectory imply today in terms of susceptibility to the most recent incarnation of European racism, namely anti-Muslim bigotry, particularly considering the liberal, secular veneers of legitimacy that it so often adopts?

On the one hand, a history of Irish anti-imperialist politics has left a legacy of anti-racist discourse and international solidarity within Republican quarters, which has at times seeped into broader public sentiment. This may partially explain the comparative absence of any serious far-right nationalist presence on the Irish political landscape, or at least the admirable determination to ensure that this remains the case. On the other hand however, a new domestic context of fervent anti-religiosity has fused neatly with an international climate that is overtly hostile to Islam and Muslims. Hence the high volume of instances of racist aggression on the streets of Ireland against those visibly identifiable as Muslim, as documented by Dr James Carr of the University of Limerick.[1] Despite the fact that the Muslims he interviewed for his research come from a diverse range of ethnic and national backgrounds, the vast majority (81%) of those that had been targets of racist hostility were made to feel that their religious identity was the primary reason for their abuse. The racialisation of Muslims familiar from other Western contexts is thus also alive and well in Ireland.

The ongoing case of the Irish youth Ibrahim Halawa offers a further insight into how this new form of racism in Ireland masquerades behind a rhetoric of cultural superiority and secular values. If the comment sections of Irish media outlets are anything to go by, there are many who are less than sympathetic to the plight of this Irish citizen who has been subject to cruel and degrading treatment while imprisoned without trial in an Egyptian jail. When the point is made in such fora that the public reaction would be rather different if he were a white Irish citizen, the response will often entail an indignant rejection of any insinuation of racism, focusing instead on Halawa’s family ties and the fact that he had participated in a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in Egypt prior to his arrest.

The justificatory argument then is often that this has nothing to do with skin colour and everything to do with his and his family’s religious and political beliefs, and the assumed threat that they pose to ‘our’ way of life. Sadly, the fact that it is no longer fashionable to publicly identify oneself as racist does not mean that racists have ceased to exist. So it would be folly to believe that ethnicity does not have an insidious role to play in influencing the tone of such discussions, not to mention diplomatic priorities. However, even if we are to accept this premise, we are still left with an irrational hysteria that is completely divorced from, and effectively obfuscates, the facts and context of Halawa’s case.

It is worth briefly recalling this context, as it may cast the aforementioned discussions in an interesting light. In July 2013, the Egyptian army ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, following a series of popular protests against Islamist rule and moves made by Morsi to consolidate his power. What followed was a wave of repression widely acknowledged to be the worst in the country’s history, entailing mass death sentences, arrests, torture, and state-sanctioned murder of political opponents.[2] On 14 August 2013, the week prior to Halawa’s arrest, the Egyptian security forces carried out what the UN Human Rights Council described as the worst mass killing in Egyptian history,[3] when they massacred more than 800 largely peaceful supporters of the deposed president. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, described the Raba’a massacre as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”[4] Halawa was arrested a few days later, after having attended a protest against this atrocity. He has been in prison awaiting trial ever since.

Whatever one feels about the Muslim Brotherhood (and this writer certainly is not a fan), it is clear that in this instance, the principal violator of such values as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly has been the Western-backed secular authoritarian Egyptian state. There is no doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood’s status as a right-wing conservative movement, and there is a legitimate debate to be had about its potential to act as a regressive force in society. But whenever this discussion arises online in the context of the Halawa case, it will typically be completely unconcerned with, or else openly approving of, the brutal repression and mass murder to which Brotherhood supporters have been subject. In the words of one Journal.ie commenter: “I don’t wish this particular guy any ill will, but I certainly understand Egypt’s stance on keeping MB underfoot.” This disregard for human life seriously undermines the assumed position of cultural superiority that informs the stance of the online commentariat who oppose Ibrahim Halawa’s release. These people are clearly far more concerned with opposing the fiction of an encroaching Islam than they are with applying the values that they imagine to be threatened by it.

Finally, it is also worth recalling that this discrepancy between what is preached at home and practiced abroad is nothing new. There is a long colonial history of a nominally democratic core supporting and depending upon profoundly anti-democratic practices beyond its periphery. These inequities and double standards would often also penetrate the colonial metropole, where the presence of colonial and post-colonial migrants was concerned. And racism has historically been the tool used to rationalise such inconsistencies. Given the pivotal role played by radical anti-colonial politics in Irish history, it would be utterly logical and consistent for our progressive elements today to break with this legacy, rather than contributing to its perpetuation by ceding to anti-Muslim racism.

[1] James Carr, “Experiences of Anti-Muslim Racism in Ireland,” June 2014

[2] Michelle Dunne, Scott Williamson, “Egypt’s Instability by the Numbers,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 24, 2014

[3]Human Rights Watch, “UN Human Rights Council: Adoption of the UPR Report on Egypt,” March 20, 2015

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Raba’a Killings Likely Crimes Against Humanity,” August 12, 2014

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Notes from Calais

Last week a friend and I traveled to the Calais Jungle, where the brutal and chaotic process of evicting the 10,000 or so migrants who made the camp their home had just begun. This account he has written of what we saw and did while there perfectly echoes my own recollections and sentiments. Hopefully it will serve to redress what has been some shameful media coverage of the eviction.

Fragments — فتات

On Monday, October 24th, the French government started implementing its plan to evict the migrant camp known as “the Jungle” on the outskirts of Calais. Prior to the eviction, the camp hosted around 10,000 migrants from countries like Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and Eritrea. Almost all of the migrants in the Jungle wanted to reach the United Kingdom, where they would then be eligible to apply for asylum. The Jungle drew these migrants because of its proximity to trucking routes through the Channel Tunnel. The camp had long been the site of serious contestation between migrants, who created their own forms of organization for survival and political action, and European activists like the No Borders groups on one side, and the French police and local government on the other. The French government decided to resolve this problem by offering migrants a choice: either register for asylum in France and get…

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A Brief History of Fortress Europe

The following piece was originally published in Jadaliyya on 18 July, 2016

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Three days into 2016, the European border crisis claimed its first victim: a two-year-old boy who drowned off the coast of the Greek island of Agathonisi. Compared with the public outcry that the photos of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach provoked the previous August, the reaction to the fact that European border policies had killed another innocent toddler was tepid to say the least. While it may be the case that the lack of a tragic image attesting to the fact served to insulate many from the visceral reaction that such stark visual realities often stimulate, it is also true that a broader shift had occurred across Europe in the interim. While there was—and still is—an outpouring of independent civil society initiatives in support of refugees across the continent, the xenophobic far-right perspective on the “refugee crisis” has ultimately proven significantly more influential in the policy and electoral arenas. This influence can perhaps best be seen in the manner in which Germany’s initial open door policy as a model of response eventually gave way to a cynical deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. This deal shifted the task of upholding the 1951 Refugee Convention to the unlikely candidate of President Erdogan’s despotic authoritarian regime. Another illustration can be found in the British referendum decision to leave the EU, the outcome of a campaign whose most vocal right wing elements sought to conflate widespread societal grievances and popular political disillusionment with the distinct issues of EU migration and the influx of refugees to Europe.

Meanwhile, however, the European border crisis has anything but dissipated, with the number of those having lost their lives at sea this year now standing at 2,868, meaning that the total number of people that have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 has reached above 10,000. The unprecedented scale and urgency of this manufactured human catastrophe stands in stark contrast to the inertia that characterizes the collective European response. This situation reveals that any remaining claims of the universal founding ideals of the European project are now nothing more than a morbidly ironic façade. That the favored approach of restriction and deterrence represents a perversion of these founding ideals is oft pointed out, as is the fact that this approach is demonstrably counter-productive. Yet, it remains the only option that has thus far entered the realm of serious policy consideration. While a lack of consensus across EU member states is the clear surface explanation for this situation, could the present static juncture also have deeper historical and structural roots?

What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of any of the time periods discussed, but rather, a broad analytical overview of how the relationship between the European continent and human mobility has evolved over time, with a view to tracing the continuities and divergences between Europe’s migratory past and present.Read More »

On the Aftermath of the Attacks in Cologne

It was somewhat difficult to process the combined feelings of disgust, shock and confusion at the reports that slowly emerged regarding the spate of sexual assaults, theft and anti-social behaviour that occurred in Cologne and other cities across Germany on New Year’s Eve. Disgust, for the obvious reason that any display by a man of entitlement to a woman’s body without her express consent serves as a revolting reminder of the prevalence of sexism and misogyny in everyday life. And this is the case whether it is done by migrants and asylum seekers ‘of Middle East and North African origin,’ or by the likes of Dominque Straus Kahn and his ilk, and whether it occurs within the confines of nightclubs, college campus parties and workplaces, or among crowds of protesters during the Arab Spring. And shock and confusion, simply because the scale of the events and the political context in which they have occurred raise so many bizarre questions. If many of the perpetrators were long-term German residents, why pick now to embark on this brutal spree? And if recently arrived asylum seekers and refugees were involved, how could they be so stupid and selfish as to jeopardise not only their own prospects in Europe, but also those of the vast majority who had nothing to do with the assaults, and – worse still – those of people still fleeing war and dying at our borders? And even more perplexingly, were these attacks really coordinated, as German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has indicated? If so, by whom? And why?

These questions will not be answered anytime soon, if ever. And in any case the debates around cultural incompatibility and the implications for Germany’s refugee policy have already gotten into full swing, so it is more worthwhile to address these here.Read More »

What should underlie our response to the refugee crisis?

The fact that the shocking image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore has jolted so many people in Europe out of apathy toward the refugee crisis can only represent a positive development. That there are now increasing numbers of people who are either pressuring their governments to do more or are taking matters into their own hands is a welcome departure from what has up until recently largely been cold indifference.

However it goes without saying that Aylan Kurdi was not the first child to die at sea having fled Syria in search of refuge. Many more had perished prior to the global circulation of a harrowing image encapsulating the collective failure of Europe. And the structural reasons for all of these deaths have remained more or less constant. So while the emotive response on the part of ordinary European citizens is both laudable and necessary, it is also crucial that this response takes into consideration these structural factors, if it is to avoid ultimately compounding the very process whose outcomes we now seek to minimise.

What follows is not in any way intended to diminish the importance of the recent outpouring of initiatives in support of refugees. On the contrary, I put together this brief, non-exhaustive list of propositions and guiding principles with a view to suggesting how our response, whatever form it may take, can be as effective and emancipatory in the long-term as possible.

In order for this to be achieved, this response, at some level or another, should involve:

Recognition of the central role played by border policies in the misery and suffering that so horrify and outrage us

Awareness of how Western governments have created, maintained and exacerbated situations in the Middle East and North Africa that produce refugees in the first place

A desire to alleviate the extent of our own complicity in other people’s suffering rather than a materially detached moral obligation to help reduce that suffering

A willingness to apply the same standards and values to others that we historically and presently apply to ourselves

A challenge to the notion that one’s life must be at risk in order to ‘earn’ the right to travel freely from one country to another

The knowledge that universal values, such as freedom of movement, apply to everyone or else they do not apply at all

An interrogation of what this observation might imply for our contemporary border regime and all of the discriminatory and exclusionary practices that it entails

An examination of the logic of a system that dogmatically insists upon the unconditional mobility of capital and goods while strictly regulating and restricting the mobility of human beings

A view of refugees as being agents of progressive change rather than helpless victims

Solidarity rather than pity

Criminalising asylum-seeking in Ireland: the case of Walli Ullah Safi

The following piece was published in openDemocracy on 21 August 2015.

Girls in front of murals in belfast. Flickr-Anna %26 Michal. Some rights reserved
On 13 July, a 21-year-old Afghan man by the name of Walli Ullah Safi was discovered on the side of the M7 road in Naas, Ireland. He spoke no English and had no knowledge of what country he was in. He ended up there after leaving his home country three months previously and allegedly travelling across Europe in a container as a stowaway. His ordeal was not to end at this point however; two weeks later, he would find himself imprisoned, taken hostage and subjected to brutal mental and physical violence. His experience is the product of an inefficient, ineffective, and inhumane Irish asylum system, and it embodies Europe’s collective failure to respect basic human rights in addressing the issues of migration and asylum.

After being found on the M7, Walli was arrested and charged on the grounds of being a ‘non-national’ without any documentation. He was subsequently sent to Cloverhill prison, before briefly being released and then immediately rearrested for the same offence. In spite of clearly being a candidate for the asylum process, no such application was made on his behalf, with authorities opting to treat him as a criminal rather than a potential refugee. In a radio interview, his solicitor argued that the Gardaí (Irish police) had no choice other than to place him in custody. He also stated that Walli’s personal story of how he ended up in Ireland was of no professional interest or value to him, unwittingly reflecting the degree of official concern with accommodating asylum seekers in Ireland.Read More »

After the Charlie Hebdo Attack: A note on the ‘freedom of speech vs. Islam’ debate

Ever since the attacks in Paris and the predictable debate that has emerged around ‘freedom of speech vs Islam,’ I’ve felt like I’ve been straddling somewhat of a divide.  Having spent far too much time immersed in online articles and Facebook debates when I should have been doing more productive things, I decided to root out a short train of thought I wrote in 2012 about what was then known as ‘the Danish Cartoons controversy.’  At the time of writing I was living in (the Islamic Republic of) Mauritania.  Having grown up in a thoroughly ‘Western’ context with very little everyday contact with Islam, I was all of a sudden fully immersed in the culture, language and ways of thinking of a Muslim country.  So naturally I experienced a degree of culture shock while trying to reconcile and absorb some rather wide gaps in certain norms and practices.  I wrote down the following thoughts at one point for my own clarity of mind, but its content unfortunately seems to be of relevance once again so I thought I would post it here in case others are interested in reading.

By way of a brief but necessary preamble: the attacks last week in Paris were a despicable and unjustifiable act of terrorism carried out by dangerous reactionary extremists.  From the point of view of those who coordinated it, the cartoons themselves were a mere pretext.  As Juan Cole has explained, the goal of such an attack is the polarisation of European society between ‘Westerners’ on the one hand and Muslims on the other; the logic being that the consequential stigmatisation and isolation of Islamic  communities would open up a huge untapped pool of potential ideological affiliates to Al-Qaeda.  So to frame the entire situation in terms of ‘Western values vs Islam’ (or even in the somewhat more nuanced terms of ‘freedom of speech vs. Islamic extremists’) is to hand the very outcome Al-Qaeda had envisioned to them on a plate.  This seems plainly obvious.

However in spite of myself there has still been a lingering tension implanted by this very framing of the debate that I cannot shake off.  I initially dug up the following paragraphs with a view to skimming them to see if they could contribute in some way to resolving this tension now.  But given the personal context that they were written in, and the manner in which I wished to address ‘both sides,’ I think it might be more appropriate to just re-post it verbatim and leave it at that, even if my thoughts might have developed somewhat since. I’ll let anyone else who happens to be reading decide whether it comes across as an exercise in cognitive dissonance:

I’ve been thinking about the Danish cartoons issue, the reactions to the cartoons and the justifications for them.  Two possible responses come to mind: one within a liberal Western perspective and the other within an Islamic one.

Regarding the first, the standard justification for producing such material is the right to freedom of speech, and that any censorship of such cartoons would be an impediment to one’s exercising of this right.  However in exercising any right, it only makes sense to weigh the possible positive and negative outcomes of such an action.  Saying that one has the right to do something by no means implies that doing it will necessarily be of any benefit at a societal or individual level.  Often implicit in the demand for the right to say or do something is the assertion that such an action carries with it a positive result.

So for example, in Denmark someone draws a cartoon of Mohamed with a bomb on his head; where is the benefit of such an action?  Knowing how such an image will be received by Muslims, that it could even potentially put lives in danger, that it will inevitably polarise people and cause cultural misunderstanding, one should surely ask – before getting carried away in theoretical debates about freedom of speech – what is the actual point of printing such an image in a newspaper?  What purpose does it serve?  Questions about responsible journalism or what efforts could be made to improve intercultural understanding are overshadowed by the sole question of whether or not one has the right to propagate an ignorant stereotype.

From an Islamic perspective, I’m drawing upon something I heard said on the matter by an Islamic scholar that was speaking on the television a few days ago.  While such images are no doubt a disgrace to Muslims, a single image printed in a newspaper insulting the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) is not a drop in the ocean compared to the praise he receives every day by more than a billion people around the world.  To attack embassies, to issue death threats, even to organise demonstrations, only empowers and keeps the spotlight on people whose knowledge of Islam is evidently zero, and therefore don’t hold any authority on the matter.  To react in such a way is to imply that such people are actually capable of insulting the Prophet (PBUH), and inadvertently adds weight to their point of view.

Migration, Fisheries, and the Supremacy of European Interests in Mauritania

The following piece was published by Jadaliyya on 19 November 2014.

Image of a ships graveyard in Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Image by slosada/Flickr
Image of a ships graveyard in Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Image by slosada/Flickr

breakdown recently occurred in negotiations between the European Union (EU) and Mauritania over a new fisheries protocol; the protocol is a cornerstone of relations between the two, albeit a contentious one. The previous partnership agreement (expiring at the end of 2014) contained somewhat progressive measures, thanks to the lobbying efforts of local fishermen and activists. However these measures may now be at risk of reversal due to the breakdown in recent negotiations. Having been the most vocal opponent of the equitable steps contained within the previous agreement, Spain has once again voiced its discontent following the latest collapse in negotiations, alleging discrimination against the Spanish fleet.

This is not the only area of cooperation between the EU and Mauritania that Spain has had an active role in shaping: Mauritania is currently in the process of implementing a national migration strategy to establish a long-term policy for dealing with irregular migration. The need for such a strategy became a public issue in 2006 following a Spanish media frenzy around a sudden increase in the number of sub-Saharan migrants arriving in the Canary Islands from Senegal and Mauritania, and the strategy was developed in 2010. Although effectively a non-issue in Mauritania before that time, the fact that irregular migration constituted a problem for the EU, and for Spain in particular, meant that it was soon to be treated as a problem in Mauritanian discourse and policy as well.

As a thought experiment, what might a juxtaposition of the progression of these two areas of cooperation reveal? Is there any consistent underlying logic that might be teased out?

On the one hand, the EU has succeeded in exporting “migration” as a policy issue to Mauritania. In treating Mauritania as “a transit country” from 2006, the EU ensured that all of the restrictive and preventative measures that this classification is seen to necessitate have been firmly embedded in Mauritanian policy considerations. On the other hand, since 1987, EU-Mauritania fisheries agreements have granted European national fleets privileged access to Mauritanian waters. These agreements often have devastating consequences for local artisanal fishermen whose fishing canoes have been no match for the large industrial trawlers.Read More »

Expression of dismay at Irish abstention on Gaza war crimes inquiry vote

I sent the following to the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, and Irish Permanent Ambassador to the UN, Patricia O’Brien regarding Ireland’s abstention from a UN vote on the establishment of a commission of inquiry into war crimes allegations in Gaza. I decided to post it here as well in the event that it goes unacknowledged.

 

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to express my deep dismay with the decision to abstain from the UN vote on establishing an independent commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes committed during the ongoing crisis in Gaza.  The reasons given for this position do not seem tenable and lead me to believe that it was the result of the exertion of pressure to adopt a stance of artificial ‘neutrality.’

The explanation offered by the EU stated that the draft resolution “fails to condemn explicitly the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israeli civilian areas as well as to recognize Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself.”  Evidence of the spurious nature of these alleged flaws in the draft resolution can in fact be seen in Patricia O’Brien’s statement (23rd July) outlining Ireland’s position on the situation in Gaza.  She accurately points out that “the continued absence for people in Gaza of any political or economic perspectives for the future is a breeding ground for extremist action,” before proceeding to reaffirm Ireland’s acceptance that “the Government of Israel has the right to defend its people.”

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Slavery and internships: a reflection on privilege and injustice

It would be impossible to spend any time between Ireland and Mauritania without making some observations about the vast differences in living standards, conditions and life prospects that exist between the two countries.   To someone who has lived in both countries and taken an active interest in movements campaigning for progressive social change in each context, such contrasts can be particularly striking. In particular, the different forms that state-sanctioned labour exploitation take in Ireland and in Mauritania rather succinctly crystallise certain global hierarchies of privilege.

To point out that such a hierarchy exists is certainly not to trivialise or demean the struggle of any group that happens to find itself on one of the higher rungs of the ladder of global privilege; labour exploitation in any format is appalling, one could argue all the more so when it occurs under the auspices of a democratically elected government.  However,  it is my intention in this post to urge against any inadvertent trivialisation of the struggles of the least privileged through false equations of context, or through the discursive airbrushing of these hierarchies.  One manner in which commentators and movements in the West might unconsciously do this, is through the labeling of unpaid internships as being a form of modern-day slavery.

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