When 9/11 happened, I was living in America and became increasingly distressed, alarmed, and angered by the rise in Islamophobia, and disgusted by the general apathy of ‘good’ people’s response to the ‘war on terror’. I chose to move to France when the opportunity arrived as it was the one western country that was resisting the US/UK axis of evil nonsense. So when, after some time in France, I decided to a degree, it felt right to study religions at SOAS. There I focussed on the histories of the religions of the near and Middle East, and I chose that subject at that university so that I could arm myself with knowledge and expertise to argue against Islamophobic people. This same motivation to counter discrimination underscored my decision to do a masters in Iranian Studies (one of the most misunderstood countries in the world), and formed the crux of my PhD thesis on ‘race’ and racism in the UK.
So I have formally or critically thought about discrimination for a long time, in different ways, and across different groups. I have read the language of discrimination in a multitude of ways. The language used to describe hated or ostracised groups is never quite the same: parasites and baby killers (Jews), terrorists (Muslims), muggers or rapists (black men), thieves and con artists (Roma and traveller people), pedophiles (gay men), and so on. The language is different but what all of these descriptors point to, is the alleged dangerousness of each group. And once the danger has been constructed, the corollary is that ‘we’ must keep ourselves safe from ‘them’ at all costs.
People who do not study this phenomenon often reflexively opine: ‘how could the Germans have done that to the Jews?’ How was it possible that Europeans enslaved African people and subjected them to such degrading, devastating, dehumanising, barbaric treatment for centuries? How could segregation have been enacted and accepted for so long in the USA? Or, on a more mundane note, how could people have voted for Brexit when the campaign was ‘clearly’ built on lies? And how could people have voted for Trump when he was ‘clearly’ a maniac who would say anything to get what he wants?
In each instance, ‘we’ think we don’t understand how, to take the Holocaust as an example, virtually an entire country could have gone along with genocide. Are entire groups, peoples, nations, and/or civilisations evil? The uncomfortable truth is: no. Very few of the people in the group/s you don’t understand are/were evil. Very, very few. Why? Because, evil is an anomaly, not the norm.
What people fail to understand is the power of fear and propaganda; or rather, they fail to notice when and why they are inoculated against it in certain moments and for certain groups. For instance, my inoculation against Islamophobia was my memories of a very warm and welcoming domestic form of Islam at my best friend’s house when I was a kid, and the many culturally and/or religiously Muslim friends I have had since. My proximity and familiarity helped me recognise the propaganda for what it was and in doing so, I was immune to the fear it was designed to generate in me.
Last summer, the summer of Black Lives Matter, saw not a few black people I know ask in utter distress: why do they hate us? The truth is, they don’t hate you, they fear you. And they fear you for very rational and logical (to them) reasons; reasons that have been provided to them by the media, the state, their friends, family, and possibly even personal experience. The same way they fear Muslims, because they do not know enough (or any) to be able to distinguish individual human beings in amongst the dehumanising rhetoric of danger. In both instances, what ‘we’ know as propaganda, ‘they’ know as a truth which has been presented to them with an abundance of evidence from a dizzying array of experts.
An example: ‘we’ may say that the disproportionate representation of black people in British prisons is due to systemic racism and the overpolicing of black communities around the UK. ‘They’ will say it is evidence of black criminality. Of course, both positions are right, but the corollary to ‘their’ position, is the fact that the police co-produce crime. Were white communities policed the way black communities are, that disproportionality would be removed.
So the Germans did not go along with genocide because, as a nation, they were all evil. Just as Europeans did not enslave Africans because the entire civilisation was/is evil. Similarly, nor is every Brexiteer or Trump supporter evil or stupid. Each one of ‘them’ were ordinary people making rational decisions on the basis of the evidence presented to them. They believed what they were told about the dangerousness of the other. They believed the loss of control over their own lives that the other represented was real. And in accepting these beliefs, they constructed a world-view with a line of demarcation which kept them safe on one side, and allowed for the dehumanisation, destruction, death, and/or ostracision of all those who dwelled on the other side.
One of the reasons people reject examining their prejudices is because of the good/bad paradigm. No one wants to think of themselves as bad, so they will rationalise and seek out ‘evidence’ which matches their perspective, to demonstrate that their wildly discriminatory behaviour is actually the right thing to do. These people would say that it is proper that a young, Muslim Englishwoman should be stripped of her right to come home because she ‘betrayed the nation’. They will say that it is right that young black men are disproportionately stopped and searched because ‘so many’ are violent and unruly.
‘We’ may say that Shamima Begum did what she did because she was young and grew up in a post-9/11 Islamophobic world which demonised her, her friends, and her family. A world in which Palestinians are paying the price for what the Germans did, and so she stood up. Similarly, a young black boy may act out because he grew tired of the way white people stiffened as he walked by, or because he was violated by stop and search for the fifth time when all he was doing was walking home from school with his mates. What each of these examples speak to, are the different origin points used by people on each side of the fence. Where history begins in each act. When you are part of the ‘we’, there is always a before, is there not? ‘We’ always understand.
People engage in what, to ‘us’, looks like irrational, hateful, and discriminatory behaviour not because they are bad people, but because they believe a narrative. It is literally that banal. They are making decisions based upon their own rationality, one which helps them achieve a goal: to keep themselves safe, to excise danger, to control their surroundings, keep their world pure. They desire safety and an erosion of risk for themselves and their loved ones. Their discrimination is therefore justified as it protects them from a dangerous other. Thou shalt not come in. All the while, we look on in anger, confusion, or with the pain of betrayal and wonder how people could believe such abject and obvious lies.
I am not writing this for Shamima Begum, even though she must come home. I am not writing this for young black boys, even though they must be believed and allowed to flourish. I am not even writing this for Palestinians, even though I am still haunted by the atrocities I witnessed which are daily, hourly, eternally inflicted upon them by the Israeli state. I am, in fact, finally writing this for me; me and all those people who are now seen as unclean, dangerous, and a threat to the lives of others who have drawn new lines in old sand. I am writing this because even though I know all of the above, I am dismayed by how easily people can be induced to discriminate and how they haven’t even noticed or don’t even care. I am writing this because I have realised that people I formerly thought were just aren’t actually opposed to discrimination per se, they are just opposed to discrimination against themselves. I am writing this because I am shocked by how easily I have been jettisoned by people whom I once sat comfortably with on every other ‘we’. I am writing this because I am now they.
I will never let go of a woman’s right to choose. Question is, why have you?