What’s the point of anti-Islam bigotry?

It is striking that, since the federal election, the discussions in official politics have been dominated by talk about Pauline Hanson’s favourite agenda item: Islam. 

Scarcely two years ago, politics was dominated by the backlash to the Abbott government’s first budget. The Liberals wanted to drastically cut the age pension over time, cut unemployment entitlements, throw hundreds of thousands more off disability support, deregulate universities to make them exclusive clubs for the children of the rich and smash Medicare. 

They cut tens of billions of dollars from health and education and had plans for increasing taxes on the income-poor and decreasing them on big business. And they wanted to work with the bosses and the courts to crush the best trade unions and push down wages. Some things they got away with. The things they didn’t, they still want and are trying to figure out how they can get them without provoking mass public protest.

Enter One Nation and “the debate we have to have” about Muslims. What a gift for the Liberal Party and the rich and powerful in society. If there ever were a case study about how racism and bigotry are used to distract people, here it is. Hanson and her band of fruit bat senators make Liberal MPs seem almost reasonable. Even Sam Dastyari, powerbroker in the NSW right of the ALP, the party that reintroduced the systematic torture of refugees, appears like the world’s greatest progressive when he sits next to the One Nation leader.

This is not simply an Australian phenomenon. Anti-Muslim sentiment has become key to dividing, distracting or intimidating Western workers and enabling the rich to get richer while holding down living standards for everyone else. Today we have fortress Europe and the rise of large far right political organisations that demonise Muslims and immigrants, and the rise of Trump, with his promises to build a huge wall to seal the US-Mexican border, to deport millions of migrants and to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Creating the enemy within

It has taken less than a generation to build up the anti-Islam forces. The political mainstream likes to present the far right Islamophobes as loons and crazies. They are, but the political mainstream conjured their forces as it devastated populations, both domestic and around the world, as it attempted to cement the power and influence of Western capitalism.

Take Condoleezza Rice, former national security adviser to the US president. She told an audience at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2002 that the Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks presented an “enormous opportunity”. “Before the clay is dry again”, she said, “America and our friends and our allies must move decisively to take advantage of these new opportunities”. In 1990, president G.W.H. Bush had also spoken of immense “opportunity” – at that moment afforded by the collapse of the Soviet Union. He outlined the objective of creating a “new world order” in the aftermath of the fall of the Stalinist Eastern bloc. Not long after, the US military was testing the water by rolling into Iraq in the first Gulf War. 

After the shock of 9/11, the US moved decisively; the moment was akin, Rice said, to 1945-47 – when the Western bloc was constructed in the lead-up to the Cold War and the onset of McCarthyism. The government had already exploited the anger and grief at the loss of life in the terror attacks to launch the “war on terror” and invade Afghanistan. The barrage of anti-Muslim propaganda in the media helped to build domestic support for (or at least acquiescence in) the disastrous slaughter in Iraq, which was seen as a stepping stone to regime change in a number of states aligned with Russia or China – an attempt to cement US military and economic domination of the world.

Yet there was a contradiction in the project. In the decades after the Second World War, the US built up its military while working class living standards rose significantly. But the war on terror came after two decades of decline in US living standards, the destruction of once mighty manufacturing industry and the fracturing of urban and rural communities. In the 21st century, US supremacy could be secured only through US capitalists increasing the misery of the US working class while at the same time gaining its support – or at least disrupting its resistance. 

One of the most effective ways of disrupting resistance is by atomising and dividing workers, turning people in on themselves and against each other by generating guilt and distrust. Islamophobia played (and continues to play) a role in this, stoked by the apprehension of an enemy within – a fifth column with a foreign base intent on causing carnage – and channelling economic and social anxieties into a project that only diverts resources from attending to existing social wounds. 

Trillions of dollars, which could have been spent providing universal health care and rebuilding crumbling infrastructure and communities, has instead been funnelled into a killing machine that has made the world less, not more, secure. Less secure because millions of people have been killed, displaced, raped or humiliated – or have family and friends who have. That has, understandably, created enormous resentment among Muslims, some of whom are now drawn to political violence against Western targets.

Less secure because tens of thousands of returned soldiers suffer PTSD and cannot get support because the state that they served doesn’t give two shits about their valour. Less secure because the endless wars and military spending take resources away from shattered communities. Many Black ones now resemble occupied countries, with militarised police forces gunning down innocent people. Many white ones might avoid occupation, but they are just as likely to be flooded with Oxycontin or other prescription opiates. 

Dividing Australia

The story finds an echo in Australia. More than three decades of neoliberalism have placed greater pressures on the income-poor and generated high levels of anxiety and alienation. Inequality has increased while many people’s economic prospects have declined. Economic stress, however, isn’t an accident of nature – it’s made by design. Laws and state institutions to hold down minimum wages and criminalise acts of union resistance, and taxation and spending policies ensure that the wealthy keep the bulk of their exploited riches.

So the terrorist attacks in the US and an increase in refugee arrivals in Australia in 2001 were seized on by politicians to make “border protection” and “anti-terrorism” central and enduring slogans to this day. There is a never ending barrage of propaganda to hide the source of social ills and turn distrust and anxiety into potent hatred of so-called outsiders. Over time, successive governments have created, with significant public support, a network of torturous concentration camps into which refugees are thrown. 

The brutality has become normalised. The military budget increases while social services are cut. The fascists find their greatest support in outer suburbs with high youth unemployment, selling tales of cultural greatness. The white bank CEOs grow fatter and fatter ripping off the young people’s parents, while the working class Muslim, ripped off by the same system, becomes the target of the youths’ abuse.

Some people argue that the bigotry, or the indifference to the suffering of Muslims, comes down to “ignorance”. If only Hanson and the right would understand what Islam “really teaches”. If only Trump would understand the real benefits of immigration. If only the media would understand and show the stories of “mainstream” Muslims. We hear the pleas again and again from Muslims: “Come to my mosque, come and eat with my family and friends, come find out what we are really like”. 

Sounds nice, but that’s not what all this is about. They might indeed be ignorant, but conservative columnists, military leaders and right wing politicians know exactly what they are doing, why they are doing it and who they are doing it for. They can take almost any legitimate grievance that someone might hold, make an argument about why the problem is caused by people with a different skin colour, culture or religion, and use the resulting anger to their political and economic advantage.

They spew hate and promote fear because they want to keep the rest of us divided. After all, the wealthy are a tiny minority of the population; their privilege is conditional on the working majority not uniting against them but instead fighting among ourselves.