By Tabish Khair
September 14, 2016
By short-circuiting all internal critiques of societies, the liberal Left has played into the xenophobia of politicians like Trump.
The issue is not whether Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump will lose or win. The issue is that he is even in the running. And something similar can be said of populist politicians in other countries such as the leader of the Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, of the Netherlands.
The leftist and liberal reaction to the rise of such politicians has been ineffective. It seems that politicians like Mr. Trump and Mr. Wilders have no agenda, except that of xenophobic belligerence and demagogic half-truths. And yet they are surprisingly popular. The liberal Left can only blame it on a culpable system (such as a sensationalising, complicit media) or on the ignorance of the masses. While there is some truth in both the explanations, they do not cover the main reason.
The main reason is a failure of much of the Left to take a stand on some very real issues. People like Mr. Trump and Mr. Wilders succeed because they seem to take a stand on issues that worry ordinary people in their countries. Their answers might be all wrong, but at least they face up to the questions.
I recall talking to a cab driver outside London a few weeks before Brexit. The driver, a grizzled white man in his sixties, wanted me to understand why he was going to vote for Brexit. He said, “I am not a racist, but I am worried about losing my culture. I want my children to speak and hear English in my own country. I want to have my ale.” Or as his English sounded to my ears: “Oi wan’ ter ‘ave me ale.”
Issue Of Immigration
Before we on the Left laugh away such fears, we need to ask ourselves: would we dismiss similar fears expressed by an aborigine in Australia or Africa? Very few would. If so, what is it that makes us downplay the fears of this white London cabbie about losing his tribal identity? Yes, it is true that the current focus on immigration is basically an attempt to avoid the main problem, which is the totally free movement of international capital, and the criminal lack of curbs and taxes on it. But let’s accept the London cabbie’s fears as genuine to begin with — and offer credible solutions.
It does not help to keep reiterating that immigration is good, because, honestly, immigration, like almost every other human matter, is neither good nor bad on its own. A lot depends on what is done with it. It is because the liberal Left is usually too blasé about such issues that rightist politicians take them up — and peddle volatile non-solutions.
The liberal Left also has a tendency to short-circuit all internal critiques. It thus abandons that entire space to the ‘othering’ xenophobia of politicians like Mr. Wilders. For instance, in most liberal Left circles, it is very hard to critique Muslim societies as containing gender inequality. The moment an Indian Muslim aims such a critique at interpretations and practices within his religious formations, he is accused of catering to the West and indulging in ‘re-orientalism’.
One can see where this argument is coming from. We know that Orientalist discourses constructed the reality of ‘othered’ spaces under colonisation. For instance, by focussing on the minority practice of sati, Hinduism was defined in a certain way. Similarly, by focussing on matters like multiple wives, Zanana and veiling, Muslim societies were defined in a certain way. Such definitions — in the above cases, Muslim and Hindu societies were stereotyped as oppressing women — could then be employed to justify colonisation, and obscure the many other realities of such colonised societies.
Yes, such colonial Orientalist discourses still influence the way Oriental societies are seen in the West today. To this extent, the argument is valid. But to use it to degrade all internal critique of such societies is another matter.
The Reverse Side of Orientalism
Let us say that some Muslim (or Hindu) circles do not give women full freedom to choose their profession, education, or attire. Does it mean that any bid to write about this is, automatically,‘re-orientalism’? Isn’t such a prohibition just the reverse side of Orientalism — that is, we cannot talk about our cultures as we encounter them, but only in opposition to Orientalist discourses? By doing so, we allow Orientalist discourses to take over our complex realities, and hence reduce the complexity of our realities to simplified discursive formulations (which was Edward Said’s main objection to Orientalism). If Orientalism reduced the spectrum of our realities to black, we reduce them to white — in opposition.
To put into place an Orientalist discourse that stereotypes Muslim (or Hindu) societies as oppressing women is a reduction of the rich complexity of such societies on the ground. But to react to this by decreeing that one cannot talk of gender inequality or oppression in Muslim (or Hindu) societies is to do something similar: put in place a discourse that denies the complex realities on the ground. This also enables reactionaries in our societies to claim that we are just perfect — or would have been so, but for ‘foreign influences’!
Interestingly, the liberal Left is quite critical of the flaws of Western societies (and rightly so): for instance, it strongly (and correctly) condemned the ‘French’ bid to ban Burkinis. But for the French equivalent of my London cabbie, this looks lopsided: after all, only some far right mayors (who came to power largely on the back of Islamic State atrocities in France) tried to ban the burkini.
To generalise about the ‘French’ by using these far Right examples is surely not that different from generalising about Hindus by using sati as an example? Moreover, my imaginary French cabbie heckles: it is good that you oppose the burkini ban in France, but how about also opposing the imposition of the Hijab in Iran and Saudi Arabia?
I can hear my French (and London) cabbie, but much of the liberal Left has chosen not to do so. And hence we get Trump, Wilders and Co.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.