The new McCarthyism

October 29, 2009 — News

Written by IRR News Team

Liz Fekete, delivering the eighth Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture, describes the new McCarthyism against Muslims sweeping across Europe and calls for a campaign against racism and Islamophobia in the media.

‘The legacy that Claudia left was all the more remarkable in that she was hounded, censored and persecuted for her political opinions for much of her short life. The system tried to destroy her, but she endured. It was an amazing achievement.

Let’s be clear, as an internationalist who believed in working class unity globally, as a member of the US Communist Party, Claudia was the subversive, the terrorist of yesteryear. Under McCarthyism, she was tried as an “alien” and a “subversive” under the Alien Registration or Smith Act and subsequently deported to the UK in 1955 under the notorious McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act that allowed for the deportation of immigrants or naturalised citizens engaged in subversive activities.

Let’s be clear, all the things that Claudia was up against are creeping back into the law and into popular culture today. Let me give you just one example. Deportation for “aliens” with subversive ideas, as well as British citizens with dual nationality, is part of British law today – only New Labour, with characteristic subterfuge, substitutes the word “unacceptable behaviour” for subversive ideas.

The deprivation of citizenship part of the UK Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act (2006) is similar to the McCarran Act under which Claudia was deported from the US to Britain. Maybe the law will soon be recast in order to cast a wider net, as European policymakers now want to also deprive naturalised citizens of their citizenship. No wonder the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has been forced to point out that in a representative government (as opposed to the tyranny of the majority) “it should remain the fundamental right of the citizenry to change their government, not the governments to change the composition of the citizenry by banishment of its awkward elements”.

We have come full circle. The principle behind the law under which Claudia was deported from the US is part of European political culture now. As I was reflecting on what I wanted to say today, I realised it was necessary to hold up Claudia’s life as a mirror; that the best way to honour her legacy was to examine our world in the reflection of hers, and to see what light would be thrown back.

Could it be that we, too, are living in a world that is being shaped by a new form of McCarthyism? Only today the “Islam scare” is replacing the “red scare”? Could it be that whereas once Communists were treated as a dangerous “fifth column” subject to “foreign allegiance”, such fears are now being transferred onto those European citizens and residents who happen to be Muslim? Could it be that just as the media in the US carried out its own “hunt for subversives”, the media in Europe are contributing to the “Islam scare”. And that some journalists are becoming embedded within intelligence services, in ways that reflect the way journalists have become embedded in the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan? Could it be that frameworks of much of media discussion are contributing to the rise of far-Right parties like the British National Party?

To understand why these questions should keep us from sleeping soundly at night we need to start with the underlay of counter-terrorism policy. We are all familiar with the surface features of the emergency laws introduced post-September 11 – the suspension of habeas corpus (detention without trial), the undermining of the non-refoulement principle (no return to torture), house arrest (control orders), and the corroding effects of secret evidence is also being put on the agenda.

But there is much, much more to anti-terrorist laws. The creation of a separate criminal justice system for Muslims beyond the ordinary rule of law has arisen out of the expanded EU-wide definition of terrorism which no longer relates to just violent physical acts for political ends, but encompasses speech, thought and even “behaviour”. EU definitions of terrorism start from a position that Islam per se equals such a grave threat, that every young Muslim student in the country needs to be monitored for the tell-tale signs of “radicalisation” – a “condemnation as conveniently precise as the label subversive used in the post-war MCarthyite witch-hunts in America”. (The words are those of Gareth Peirce.)[1]

Gareth should know. She represents hundreds of young Muslims who have come under the scope of three little-discussed sections of the anti-terrorism laws: section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (to be in possession of books or items for the purpose of terrorism); section 58 (collecting information useful to terrorism); and section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006 (indirectly encouraging terrorism by glorification of terrorism).

It is laws such as these that justify the ridiculous instructions placed on universities by the former education secretary Ruth Kelly. When she was education secretary Kelly urged university administrators to look out for symptoms of “unacceptable behaviour” on campuses and to share information about suspicious students with the intelligence services. It was Paul Mackney the then joint secretary of the University College Union who first warned that “members may be sucked into an anti-Muslim McCarthyism which has serious consequences for civil liberties by blurring the boundaries of what is illegal and what is possibly undesirable.” His warning was prescient, as the friends of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir will tell you.

For those of you who don’t know, Rizwaan was an MA student at Nottingham University researching radical Islamic groups, while Hicham was a university staff administrator. Now, if you are studying the rise of political Islam, then any good student will start with researching al-Qaida. A copy of al-Qaida’s manual is freely available for download on a US government website. Rizwaan duly downloaded it and asked Hicham to print it off for him. But a university employee, on discovering this, got upset and reported Hicham, who is Algerian, to the university authorities. They, overcome with their responsibility to report suspicious behaviour to the state, called the police, with predictably catastrophic results, not just for Hicham and Rizwaan, who were immediately arrested as major terror suspects, but for the university as a whole. The campus was saturated by police and students and lecturers questioned, for instance, about their activities in the peace movement.

But it is Hicham, who is still fighting against deportation to Algeria to this day, who, having his freedom to lose, suffers the most. “This is not the way I should have been treated”, he said. “In in a country I love, would protect and where I’ve done everything I can to engage with and be a good citizen … I would have appreciated had I been given five minutes simply to answer the questions relevant to the document.”

Unfortunately, the lessons from the Nottingham case have not been learnt, as the Justice 4 the North West 10 campaign tells us.[2] Also, my colleague Arun Kundnani, who has taken a surgeon’s knife to the government’s preventing violent extremism agenda in a recent report, has shown us the enormous pressure being placed on community groups and youth workers to act as the eyes and ears of the counter-terrorist police, undercutting professional norms of confidentiality.[3]

Of course we know about so many of these injustices because of the work of some great investigative journalists. But the media as a whole – especially television – does not challenge the law, but reflects it. How? Let me list the ways …

First, the media gives too much licence to extreme-Right “preachers of hate” to peddle the “Islam scare”. It has, wittingly or unwittingly, internalised counter-terror policy, homogenised Islam, treating Islam per se as constituting a threat.

Some of the more mature members of the audience will remember what it was like to live in the UK at the time of Enoch Powell. Our archive at the IRR shows that it was the Campaign Against Racism in the Media (CARM) that, in its pioneering Open Door programme It Aint Half Racist Mum (and pamphlet of the same name), sought to dissect the particular media frameworks which gave Powell gravitas and credibility. Once Powell, through his “Rivers of Blood” speech and his constant playing of the “numbers game”, had polarised the immigration debate, the media was constantly knocking at his door – he dominated the TV channels, and the questions Powell asked where the questions journalists asked of other politicians. Powell was the only game in town.

The lessons CARM taught then in the 1970s need to be relearnt now. There is absolutely no excuse for television programmes like Question Time or radio programmes like “Newsbeat” to make the same mistakes as programme-makers in the 1960s and ’70s. We won’t let Nick Griffin become the next Enoch Powell, and if this means taking the fight to the BNP – by demanding that they uphold our race laws, for instance – than so be it. Not only that but we have got to take our race legislation out into the rest of Europe, where minorities are fighting on much more difficult terrain.

And part of this difficult terrain is actually the media that provides the extreme Right the oxygen of publicity. The Freedom Party (PvV) in the Netherlands, led by the arch Islamophobe Geert Wilders, may have fifteen seats in the European parliament, but it is not a political party, it has no local branches and exists solely around the personality of its maverick leader and mischief maker Wilders. The PvV is in many respects a media creation and would be confined to the dustbin of history if it weren’t for the media constantly providing an arch racist the oxygen of publicity, with the questions he asks framing all news stories. (Incidentally, Wilders’ latest proposal is for a tax on women who wear the hijab!) We have to take the lessons from our fight to the rest of Europe. We need to show solidarity with those working on much harsher terrain than ours. Claudia’s life was devoted to such internationalism, to such acts of solidarity, she would have approved.

Second, the media is launching its own “witch-hunts” for Muslims who display symptoms of “unacceptable behaviour” as enunciated by terrorism laws. No other communities are so placed under the microscope, constantly questioned about their personal beliefs, their “foreign allegiances”, as the Muslim communities of Europe. It’s Tebbit’s cricket test gone mad. Even here in the UK – where our struggles against racism and discrimination have led to some acceptance at least of a multicultural society – it feels as though history is being rolled back, with new arrivals once again being told to renounce their inappropriate pre-migration cultures – including inappropriate veils and inappropriate beards – in order to embrace the values, norms and behaviour of the so-called “host” society. It’s as though, in Sivanandan’s words, there “is one dominant culture, one unique set of values, one nativist loyalty”.[4]

There is a way that the media frames interviews with Muslims that promotes a kind of “loyalty discourse”, with Muslims constantly being asked “Where does your loyalty lie?” And no individual has suffered more from this than the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadam, who is constantly accused in the media of “doublespeak”, of hiding an Islamist agenda and a “foreign allegiance” behind a seemingly cosmopolitan and European façade. The latest witch-hunt against Tariq has led to him being summarily dismissed from his post at Erasmus Rotterdam University. His crime was to host a programme on Islam and contemporary life on the Iranian 24-hour news network, Press TV. Interestingly enough Andrew Gilligan and Jeremy Corbyn MP also host programmes on Press TV but they have not been driven from their jobs and accused of treachery or accused of being in the pay of the Iranian regime.

Another example of “loyalty discourse” can be found in the “undercover reporter infiltrating of the dangerous mosque” genre. We have had a number of complaints made against these hastily constructed, low budget programmes in the UK. But its worthwhile pointing out that in many European countries the media have actually played an active role in seeking deportation orders against imams on the basis of such programmes. And where no evidence could be found that the imams were encouraging terrorism, the programme-makers merely shifted the goalposts to accuse them of threatening integration. A bizarre case in this respect was that of the Berlin cleric Yakup Tasci whom undercover reporters sought to expose as a preacher of hate. What they actually filmed with the hidden cameras was Yakup Tasci criticising Germans for not being clean enough, because they did not shave under their armpits. The airing of the TV programme caused moral outrage in Germany, and there were renewed calls for his deportation.

Third, the media acts as a gatekeeper – privileging those within the Muslim community whose views on Islam fit the dominant narrative. We see signs of this in the huge attention given to the Quilliam Foundation. But let me give you two other examples. In the Netherlands we had Ayan Hirsi Ali who became a national celebrity in the Netherlands after she derided Islam as a “backward culture” that subordinated women and stifled art, adding, helpfully, that the Prophet was by western standards a “perverse man”. I vividly recall the lavish reception given to Hirsi Ali when she spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Arts here in London, at a meeting organised by English Pen and hosted by Timothy Garton-Ash. He described a woman who was, after all, an MP for a neo-liberal Dutch party, whose policies on asylum seekers were approaching totalitarian, as the “Black Voltaire”. The atmosphere at that meeting was awful. Although there were some elderly Muslim women wearing the hijab in the audience, the intelligentsia and “literati” constantly berated Muslims, derided women who wore the hijab and generally talked about the problem of Muslims as though they weren’t there.

Another example that amuses me is that of the Norwegian stand-up comedian Shabana Rehman. Among other exploits, Rehman has been photographed nude with a Norwegian flag painted across her body while dramatically throwing away her Pakistani clothes. We are constantly told that Muslim women who wear the hijab cannot be fully integrated. But a Muslim woman like Shabana Rehman, who tears off her clothes, has been voted by the media one of the most powerful women in Norway.

Fourth, the media is creating “scare scenarios” through its choice and juxtaposition of images.[5] We tend to underestimate the visual impact of news stories. But cast your mind back to TV programmes and remember how many times when there was a discussion on issues such as terrorism or integration, a news presenter would stand in front of an image of a woman wearing the burqa, or of a mosque, or of Muslim men at prayer.

The media’s choices of imagery pander to the fears and insecurities of the majority; they induce a kind of collective hysteria, and leave Muslim minorities vulnerable to racial violence. One tragic victim of this hysteria was Marwa al-Sherbini, an Egyptian woman living and working in Germany who was insulted in the playground on account of wearing the hijab by a fanatic who called her an Islamic whore and a terrorist. Unlike most women who wear the hijab, and suffer abuse, Marwa gave evidence against her abuser. She was brutally murdered in a Dresden courtroom while giving testimony. Her attacker stabbed her thirty times in the space of thirteen seconds while shouting “you have no right to live”. This awful case was initially reported in the German media as a neighbourhood dispute and ‘murder over a quarrel over swing’.[6]

“McCarthyism”, according to US academic Daniel Bell, was more a tendency of the times than a political movement. It led to the large-scale introduction of “moral indignation” into public debate. What we are witnessing, in society and in the media today, is a nasty tendency towards scapegoating and lynch-mob justice that bears all the same hallmarks of the processes unleashed by Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

But all is not bleak. There are plenty of good initiatives out there – and plenty of lessons we can build on. We have fought media racism before and we can do it again. Maybe tonight is the time to relaunch CARM as the Campaign Against Racism and Islamophobia in the Media. The situation in the 1970s for CARM was pretty bleak – all young Blacks were “muggers” and all Asians suspected “illegal immigrants”. But CARM got together an alliance of media workers, Black organisations, anti-racists and the labour movement to challenge the frameworks favoured in the media. It was a time, too, just like today, when the National Front (NF) was on the rise and journalists on local papers in particular were first to take a stand. Hackney Gazette journalists, for instance, struck for three days after an advert for the NF went into the paper.

We also need to support a whole new wave of exciting alternative news media, many of which are generated by young Europeans and are very much in the spirit of Black History Month, Claudia Jones and her pioneering work on the West Indian Gazette (WIG). In 1964, Claudia described the Gazette to readers in the USA as having served as a “catalyst, quickening the awareness, socially and politically, of West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, for peace and friendship between all people.”

Donald Hinds, who had been a young reporter on WIG recently said “The Gazette never really paid its way. Whenever I read some of the Black papers now I am seized with envy and jealousy at the amount of money they seem to have. We were so short of cash!” I travel around Europe trying to build networks between groups and what I am witnessing today is the development of new media outlets by projects also short of cash but they are acting as very important catalysts for young people to get engaged. Such new projects take their role models from some of the great movers in Black History and are inspired by Black and Third World radical traditions. Just like Claudia Jones, they believe that the only way that young people can make sense of their lives is through connection with a wider liberatory politics.

I am thinking of newspapers and magazines like L’Indigène de la Republic in France, which takes its perspective from the writings of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Malcolm X, Angela Davis. I am thinking of Der Wisch in Austria, produced by the Kanafani inter-cultural initiative which takes its name from the great Palestinian novelist and pan-Arabist fighter, Ghassan Kanafani, who believed that students’ education needed to relate to their immediate surroundings. There is even a media website produced by young Muslims in Netherlands which takes its name “We are Here to Stay” from the slogan thrown up by the British anti-racist movements’ campaigns against the immigration laws. There is the IRR’s Independent Race & Refugee News Service, which my colleague Harmit Athwal edits, and is always strapped for funds. And last but not least, there is Ceasefire, the current edition of which was entirely edited by Hicham from his cell in Canterbury prison (he is fighting deportation for so-called immigration irregularities). Ceasefire is entirely sustained by reader contributions and all proceeds go towards covering its costs and paying Hicham’s outstanding legal bills.

Let’s be clear. All the things that Claudia was up against – censorship, repression, deportation of non-nationals – are creeping back into law and into popular culture today.

Claudia, founder of the Carnival, was incarcerated four times on Ellis Island between 1951 and 1955. Claudia was a prisoner too. There would be no more fitting way to remember her tonight than to contribute financially to an exciting new magazine that is fighting to preserve Hicham Yezza’s right to remain and study here in the UK “in a country he loves, would protect and where he has done everything in his power to … be a good citizen.”‘

Related links

Black Members’ Council

Ceasefire magazine

[1] Gareth Peirce, 'Britain's own Guantánamo', Guardian (21.12.09). [2] Frances Webber, 'J4NW10', IRR news service (11.6.09) and also the Justice for the North West 10 website. [3] Arun Kundnani, Spooked: How not to prevent violent extremism, IRR, October 2009. [4] A. Sivanandan, 'Attacks on multicultural Britain pave the way for enforced assimilation', Guardian (13.9.06). [5] The term 'scare scenarios' is used by Sabine Schiffer in her pioneering work on the media. See Sabine Schiffer, 'Muslims, Islam and the Media: Taking the Initiative Against Scare Scenarios' (29.7.05). [5] The trial of Alex W, accused of the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini, is currently underway in Germany. For regular updates see www.hijabmurdertrial.com.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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