The idea of free speech is being deployed as a fig-leaf for privileged white commentators to justify the abuse of their ‘legal’ right to demonise people of colour writes Nafeez Ahmed
Do people of colour, do Muslims, do migrants, do minorities, do people on the sharp end of racism, discrimination and white supremacism have the right to speak out?
Do they have the right to challenge, to oppose, to withdraw, to resist, to speak, to debate, when they see powerful institutions, often dominated by white people, promoting and rewarding individuals that serve to mainstream, legitimise and normalise hateful narratives?
Narratives which malign people of colour, Muslims, migrants, minorities and people suffering from racism, discrimination and white supremacism?
The crime of boycotting white bigotry
By challenging The Comment Awards’ shortlisting of Melanie Phillips under the ‘Society & Diversity’ category, journalists Nesrine Malik and Gary Younge exercised their free speech rights to not participate in an institution promoting bigotry and divisiveness.
But for Matthew d’Ancona writing for GQ magazine (several of whose writers were also shortlisted), Malik and Younge’s withdrawal was a form of “censorship”. Their withdrawal, he warned, represented the worst form of ‘identity politics’ based on mere “feelings” of offence; by capitulating to feelings rather than “facts”, this was the sort of thing that could pose a mortal threat to liberal democracy itself:
“Give the growling mutt of censorship a taste of blood and watch it tear through the flesh of democratic discourse.”
The implication was that Malik and Younge should not have spoken out. They should not have withdrawn their names from the award. They should have entered into a contest of “ideas” with Phillips.
D’Ancona then offers a curious comparison to demonstrate why they were hypocritical in withdrawing. He points out that Younge once conducted a powerful face-to-face takedown of Richard Spencer, the notorious wife-beating, neo-Nazi ‘alt-right’ leader, for Channel 4 – then chastises Younge for refusing to enter into a similar contest of ideas with the far more palatable Phillips.
But Richard Spencer wasn’t in line to receive a prestigious award granting him recognition and honour by a respected institution of journalism. In confronting Spencer, Younge wasn’t engaging with him as a peer, he was doing his job as a journalist – by exposing on camera the fraudulent nature of his bigoted views.
Phillips, in contrast, has already received an accolade for her commentary by making The Comment Awards shortlist. Her persona, body of work and brand of writing has been given a hearty clap on the back from her peers, whether or not she wins the final award.
But if certain concentrations of white power want to see the objections of people of colour to such rewarding of bigotry as undermining their own free speech, then who really is being driven by hysterical “feelings” of “offense”?
The ‘free speech’ card is being deployed as a fig-leaf for privileged white commentators to justify the abuse of their ‘legal’ right to demonise people of colour. But if you want to reward those who malign us, we’re not going to sit here in silence.
Because time and time again, Phillips shows herself to be the acceptable face of the ideology that Richard Spencer represents. She has year after year written repeated dangerous mythologies that are the staple of far-right extremist ideology. The new far-right masquerades its racist bigotry as a securitised – but still racialised – fear of all Muslims; it remains inspired by anti-Semitic ideology, even though it disavows anti-Semitism; and it promotes stereotypical negative tropes about Muslimised foreigners and minorities, depicting them as a threat to civilisation, as rapists, child molesters, murderers and terrorists. And people of colour are still on the sharp end.
In April 2018 – within The Comment Awards’ one year period of consideration for writing – Melanie Phillips wrote an extraordinary article encapsulating this ideology. In it, she threatened that the entire Muslim world would be “destroyed”.
The piece, written in the form of “an open letter to the Muslim world” (archived here) addresses all Muslims and ‘Islam’ as a homogenous bloc of barbarians comprising a wholesale obstacle and inherent threat, by its innate nature, to Western “progress and modernity” – by which the Muslim world will eventually be destroyed.
In this regard, there would be little if anything in the letter that Spencer and his ilk would disagree with (even Phillip’ staunch pro-Israel line would be endorsed by Spencer who supports Israel’s new nation-state law and sees Israel as an example of the kind of ‘ethno-state’ he wants to create in the US).
But Phillips’ writing is careful. Like Islamist hate preacher Anjem Choudary, whose public pronouncements meticulously incited to hatred but only barely within the letter of the law allowing him to continue for decades, Phillips’ language seems designed to be vague enough to slip into legal ‘acceptability’.
You people like killing Jews
The letter begins, “Dear Muslim world”, and moves rapidly into arguing that the entirety of the latter is engaged in a conspiratorial war on Western modernity aimed at destroying “the Jews”, particularly those trying to live in Israel. Phillips blames not Hamas, but the “Muslim world” as a whole for killing 26,000 Jews, including military casualties:
“More than 26,000 dead—with most of the military casualties consisting of Israel’s precious young who must be conscripted to defend their country—purely because there are people determined to prevent the Jews from living in their own ancestral homeland. But you know all about that because you are the people killing them.”
Note the language. The “Muslim world” is equated with a whole “people”, who are de facto culpable in trying to destroy the Jewish people:
“You are the people who have been trying to destroy the Jewish homeland for the better part of a century. Look how hard you’ve tried. You’ve used war. You’ve used terrorism. You’ve used the Palestinian Arabs as pawns. You’ve used the diplomatic game. You’ve used economic boycotts.”
You people have a culture of honour and shame
Phillips goes on, attributing to the “Muslim world” as a people an inherent anti-Semitism rooted not in violent extremism, but in core Islamic teachings—a view held by the likes of ISIS and endorsed by far-right zealots such as Spencer and Tommy Robinson. Not only that, but she insists that the Muslim people suffer wholesale from a “culture of honor and shame” which further reinforces this deep-rooted “hatred of the Jews” (for now, we will merely remark in passing that this flies in the face of the historical record and Islam’s most authentic theological readings):
“We understand why you hate Israel. Paranoid hatred of the Jews is embedded in your religious texts. Moreover, since you believe that any land ever occupied by Muslims becomes Muslim land in perpetuity—and since the very idea of the Jews being your equals in ruling their own land is anathema to you—your culture of honor and shame means that you cannot accept a Jewish state in a region you claim as your own.”
You people know that your religion is not about peace
Phillips goes on to equate her barbaric readings of Islam with a “holy war” being waged by the Muslim world on the West:
“For all the terrible violence and mayhem you have unleashed in the cause of Islamic holy war, your purpose is ultimately defensive. You realize that, in its freedom for the individual and particularly for women, modernity poses a mortal threat to Islam. Unlike the ignorant West, you know that Islam does not mean peace. It means submission. Modernity means submission can no longer be enforced. Which is why, in its seventh-century form at least, Islam is on the way out.”
You people want to destroy the Jews
She does pause to acknowledge that there are an “increasing number of the Arab young, who are on Twitter and Facebook” who “don’t want to fight the unending battles of the seventh century.” But she then goes on to racialise the Israel-Palestine conflict and demonise all Palestinians wholesale:
“Of course, none of this means the Palestinian Arabs are about to abandon their war to destroy Israel… But the unstoppable force of modernity is meeting the immoveable object of Islam, and modernity will win.”
The problem here is not with Phillips’ critiquing Islam. Even if she is completely wrong, which arguably she is, the problem is that she racialises her barbaric depiction of Islam by constructing Muslims – literally addressed as ‘you people’ – as largely intentional vehicles for this inherent barbarism:
“Which is why you believe you have to stop modernity. Which is why you are at war with the West. And which is also why you see the Jews as your enemy of enemies because you believe they are behind absolutely everything to do with modernity. Destroy the Jews, you imagine, and you will defeat modernity.”
But it’s okay because you people will be destroyed by Israel and Western modernity
She closes her piece with the following genocidal double threat:
“If you finally were to decide to end your war against us in Israel, finally decide that you love your children more than you hate us, finally decide that instead of trying to destroy Israel you want it to help you accommodate to modernity, you will find our hands extended in friendship. But if you try to remove us from the earth, we will destroy you.
Dear Muslim world, wake up and smell the coffee. The Jewish people has defied all the odds over and over again, and will continue to do so. You may break our hearts by killing our loved ones, but you won’t break us. Progress and modernity will destroy you instead.”
One threat is conditional and tangibly military (if the Muslim world doesn’t end the war on Israel, it will be destroyed by Israel); and the other is unconditional (either way, the Muslim world will be destroyed by Western progress). Read plainly, Phillips’ reference to both physical and cultural forms of destruction of the entire Muslim world has deeply unnerving and seemingly genocidal connotations.
Imagine if I had written similar words as an ‘open letter to the Jewish world’, threatening that either Muslims would ‘destroy the Jewish world’ if it did not cease its war on Muslims, or ‘the Jewish world’ would be inevitably ‘destroyed’ by the advance of superior Muslim culture. I would be seen, rightly, as a not-so-closet Nazi.
For those that like to assume there are no consequences for such language, this is worth bearing in mind when considering that far-right terrorist Anders Breivik was an avid fan of Phillips, and quoted her approvingly in his manifesto.
Phillips is not doing journalism with pieces like this. She is simply spouting the same brand of bullshit that gives the Spencers, Robinsons and Breiviks of this world a hard on.
I’m not “offended” by this bullshit – I am maligned, marginalised and demonised by this bullshit.
And yet The Comment Awards saw fit to reward Phillips as a leading diversity commentator, a writer whose chief output is to portray me and other Muslims as a terrorist, a murderer, an Islamist, a Jew hater, a West hater, an impediment to progress; that I’m coming for modernity, and anyone or anything that it touches.
D’Ancona is unaffected by this. He doesn’t have to endure the consequences of such a narrative, and neither do the organisers of The Comment Awards.
But yeah, free speech: a concentrated network of privileged white opinion formers celebrates the writings of a person whose entire career is built on maligning minorities. People of colour object, resist and speak out. Supposedly, the free speech of white people is now in mortal danger.
Give me a break, snowflake.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of INSURGE intelligence. Nafeez is a 17-year investigative journalist, formerly of The Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social, economic and environmental crises. Nafeez reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard, and on regional geopolitics for Middle East Eye. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic applying complex systems analysis to ecological and political violence. He is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute.
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