Oppression Jousting: Why We Pit Minorities against Each Other

Carrying on from my last post, I want to talk some more about the ICM survey of “What Muslims Think” (in Britain).  First, it looks like the survey is no longer available on ICM’s website; however, I did find a cached version of the raw PDFs of the data here, for anyone who wants to check it out.  There’s also a good discussion of why pollsters pick limited sample sizes and how that skews results over on UK Polling Results.

The survey result that’s gotten the most attention by far is that more than half of respondents said that they disagreed with the statements, “homosexuality should be legal in the UK” and “gay marriage should be legal in the UK” (52% for the former and 56% for the latter).  While it’s certainly an interesting result, in some ways, it’s actually a more interesting question.  It’s one of very few ‘special interest’ questions that doesn’t have any obvious link to Islam or Muslims (there are, by comparison, no questions about inter-religious marriage, despite questions asking how the respondent feels about various religious communities, and a very lengthy section about their opinions on Judaism, which no one seems to be talking about, probably because it’s largely positive).  In a lot of the reporting about the survey, these questions are used to highlight that British Muslims are out of step with British public opinion more generally, but these are also the only questions that mention a specific political opinion, and follow directly after the statement “Britain is a country of bad moral behavior,” making it sound more like the questions on LGBT rights were meant to illustrate examples of Britain’s ‘bad moral behavior.’

Setting aside the issue of small and skewed sample sizes, it’s worth pointing out that by not supporting same-sex marriage, British Muslims are, at best, out of date with British public opinion.  Even as recently as 2004, polling in Britain showed only 52% support for same-sex marriages, and four years earlier, before the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act, it was 50/50. So claiming that non-Muslim Brits love queer people or that supporting LGBT rights is somehow as characteristically British as tea and cricket is seriously rewriting history.

However, I think the inclusion of the questions about homosexuality in a survey focused on “what Muslims think” reveals a larger problem with how dominant communities address oppressed communities; namely, the tendency to want to pit them against each other in order to distract from the real source of their oppression.  As far as I know, there’s no general term for this, so I’m going to suggest “oppression jousting.”  It’s interesting that, in Britain’s case, it’s Muslims versus queer people, as there’s a similar current in American public opinion about LGBT rights, that people of color, and in particular African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to be homophobic than the general population (a belief usually explained by citing the position of these communities’ dominant religions, in particular Catholicism and Southern Baptists).  Interestingly, polling has always struggled to back up this belief, but it’s still pretty commonly held.  The underlying claim seems to be that these communities are dragging down the average, so that the remaining population (and in particular, the white community) should be seen as less homophobic than polling or legal action would suggest.  

In addition to there being very little evidence to support oppression jousting as really making a statistically significantly difference in rates of prejudice for the population as a whole, focusing on the potential divisions between minorities is also a red herring if the ultimate goal is ending prejudice and establishing equality, as, by definition, minority communities have the least political power to apply to this problem.  Even if Britain wanted to focus all of its social and political efforts on ending homophobia in the British Muslim community, that would probably have very little effect on LGBT rights because the British Muslim community is already politically sidelined.

That’s not to say that it’s not worth addressing prejudice within minority communities – it’s worth addressing because prejudice is always worth addressing – but it’s not an effective use of resources to end oppression because the minority communities aren’t the ones doing the oppressing.  Indeed, in some ways, it’s particularly disappointing to see Britain falling prey to oppression jousting when it comes to LGBT rights because there are strong links between British imperialism and the rise of homophobia worldwide.  For better or worse, British imperialism remodeled many cultures’ views on gender and sexuality, including, in the case of many Muslim countries, creating a concept of government-regulated civil marriage.  Closer to home, although there have been Muslims living in Britain for centuries, it wasn’t British Muslims who passed the Buggery Act.  They weren’t the ones who executed men even as late as the 1860s for homosexuality.  They weren’t the ones who sent Oscar Wilde to jail, or chemically castrated Alan Turing.  Prejudice can come from anyone, but oppression can only come from positions of power, and that’s where we need to keep our focus – not on the knights on horseback, but on the king who’s making them fight.

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Survey shows dozens of Muslims think things we’re uncomfortable with!

The Wall Street Journal ran a headline a few days ago that was simply, “Britain’s Muslim Problem,” proving once and for all that the WSJ has be fully integrated into the Murdoch news machine, which is sad, but also a bit hilarious, as it clearly isn’t trying very hard to cover up its bias.

For example, the article starts by saying, “at least 800 British Muslims have left the country to wage jihad with Islamic State. Another 600 were caught trying to join the group.” Setting aside for a moment that it gives no citation for those numbers, that’s a total of 1400 people. The population of British Muslims is roughly 2.7M, as of the last census. That means that the WSJ is warning us that 0.052% of Muslims have been radicalized (which is approximately 0.013% of the total population of Britain). Even if they want to claim that this is an annual rate, that means that it would take 1,929 years for the entire population of Muslims to be radicalized, assuming the rate and population remain stable. Presumably by the time the entire Muslim population of Britain is radicalized, they’ll be ‘waging jihad’ over those shiny, aluminum jumpsuits we all wear in the future.

Unfortunately, startling statistics about 0.013% of the British population isn’t all they have. They’re also citing a survey conducted recently by ICM for a Channel 4 documentary, entitled “What Muslims really think,” to air later this month.

First, for the uninitiated – “documentary,” when attached to the words “Channel 4” doesn’t really mean what you’re thinking. Channel 4 is well-known for producing scandalizing documentaries, often exploiting minorities and vulnerable populations to do so, producing what often amount to modern-day freakshows. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the satirical version produced by That Mitchell and Webb Show a few years back, called “The Boy with an Arse for a Face” (trigger warning for language that would match something with that title). So that the survey is for Channel 4 is already not a vote in favor of its even-handedness. Moreover, the survey included only 1,047 respondents, and as several people have pointed out, focused on neighborhoods that had at least 20% Muslim population, which are also some of the poorest neighborhoods in Britain. The survey is corrected for socio-economic status, but only within the sample group, meaning they didn’t find additional respondents to balance out the difference, they just weighted the responses from the existing pool of middle and upper class participants more.

There’s a lot to talk about with the survey – most reporters have focused in on the result that half of the participants said that they did not support the legalization of homosexuality or of gay marriage, which I think I want to treat in a separate post – but I think one of the most overlooked aspects is the issue of sample size.

For example, the WJS notes that the survey found that “7% of respondents support the establishment of an Islamic state.” To start with, only 1% of respondents, or 12 people, said they would support “a fully-separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to Sharia Law and government.” Another 17% percent, or 187 people, supported integrating in some ways, but maintaining a Islamic lifestyle as much as possible. The overwhelming majority (49%, 532 people) said they would like to “fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life.” While that suggests that the majority support integration, we’re still only talking about the opinions of 1,047 people for a population of 2.7M (that’s 0.039%, for those playing along on our home game).

Survey sizes obviously have to be smaller than the full population, but when you get down to survey populations that small standing in for actual populations that large, it leads to the interjection of way too many alternative variables. For example, it’s entirely possible that all 12 of those people who claimed to support a Muslim state in Britain were far-right nutjobs pretending to be Muslims. You could easily convince 12 people to do that. Or they could all be from the same family, or have studied under the same Imam, or they could have all just made some weird pack to answer the survey in as extreme a manner as possible. When it’s only 12 people, there are just way too many other options for how those answers might have come about.

Plenty of other people have talked about the problem with humans’ difficulty in understanding the relationship between large numbers, but when it comes to population-wide observations, we really do need to train ourselves to see these things in context. A less than 0.1% sample size is just not significant, unless you can provide some really compelling evidence for how this cohort was assembled. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same as me just stopping people on the street, asking their opinion, and then claiming that that’s “what Americans think” or “what white people think.” It’s not just not informative, it’s actually mis-informative, because it’s presenting something essentially anecdotal as statistically significant.

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White Supremacy and Global Capital

Sort of related to what I was talking about earlier with regard to the wSieci cover, here’s a great discussion of how global capitalism has strengthened the far right and white supremacy in North America and Europe:

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Defending Europe: Part II

Welcome to Part II of my discussion of wSieci’s “Islamic Rape of Europe,” where I talk a lot about maps.  Part I is all about the racism and white supremacy represented in the cover – check it out before you comment, please!

So aside from being a terrifying expression of the re-emergence of white supremacy in Europe, the wSieci article also brings up one of the major problems with any discussion of protecting Europe from the rest of the world – Europe and European aren’t special categories of people that need to be protected against all other peoples.

To start with, we need to ask, what is Europe?  The obvious answer would be “a continent,” but actually even this isn’t really true.  A continent is defined in geography as “any of the world’s main continuous expanses of land,” by which definition, Asia is a continent of which Europe is a subregion, same as the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent.  

Europe is still considered one of the seven continents, mostly because it was Europeans that designed the maps we all use today.  Indeed, since the 15th century, we’ve been literally inflating Europe in our view of the world.  Even if we want to accept Europe as a distinct subregion, we run into the same problem as with defining where is the Middle East or where is Central America – we can all make a vague gesture to the right region on a map, but defining the precise borders is much harder.  In some ways, it’s ironic that the wSieci cover comes out of Poland, as Eastern and Western Europe have experienced considerably different histories in the last two centuries, and Eastern Europeans actually face considerable zenophobia in Western Europe as not being ‘really’ European.  From my own experience living in Britain, I know plenty of British people who would be horrified by the idea of Poland ‘protecting’ what it is to be Europe.

Even if we can define what “Europe” is, we’re faced with another problem in trying to treat “Europeans” as an endangered species.  The wonderful irony of Western imperialism is that both Europeans and white people genuinely are going extinct.  One of major reasons why Europe should accept the incoming tide of refugees (besides, you know, basic humanity) is that the EU has some of the lowest birth rates in the world, and without either a considerable increase in their birth rate or an intake of new citizens, their population will just continue to decline, dropping by roughly half by 2060.  For centuries, white populations have conquered and intermarried on other continents while trying to maintain strict exclusionism for their own countries, the end result of which is that “being white” is dying out.  

But that doesn’t make white people an endangered species because race is not the same thing as species.  There are plenty of humans in earth, and the distribution of physical characteristics is in constant flux, due in part to their tendency to migrate around the world.  Indeed, Eastern Europe has already gone through several centuries of migration from eastern Asia, particularly from the Mongolian plateau.  The influx of Mongolian tribes accounts for some of the differences in appearance between Eastern and Western Europeans – people who “look Eastern European,” a facial structure made famous by Mila Kunis and Milla Jovovich, look like the result of centuries of intermixing between Scandinavians, Germanic tribes, and Mongolian tribes.

And those tribes didn’t understand themselves as invading some sacred city on the hill by settling in Europe – in fact, for most of the Middle Ages, Scandinavian, Germanic, and Mongolian tribes were all viewed as equally barbaric by the people of the Mediterranean, both in southern Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East, which had remained the center of culture for a millennium.  The idea of Middle Easterners “contaminating” Europe would have made no sense to Europeans in the Middle Ages – although they considered Muslims the enemies of Christianity, they were desperate for the luxury goods and ancient knowledge found in Constantinople and ‘the Orient,’ and parts of what we call Europe today were under Muslim rule throughout the Middle Ages, including Sicily, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, and at various points, parts of Southern France.

There’s no real scholarly agreement as to when the idea of “Europe” began – there is limited evidence for the use of the term in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it seems to be predominately a post-Napoleonic idea.  To put that in perspective, there’s been a United States longer than there’s been a “Europe” as we use the term today.  While we’re at it, Tiffany & Co. is older than the united Italy we see on a map today, and there’s only been a united Germany for 99 of the last 150 years.  All of this is just to say that while we think of “Europe” as a constant thing that goes back centuries, it really isn’t, and the fact that “European” as an identity is still evolving should not be surprising – it’s always been evolving, and will continue to do so no matter what, either becoming a new hybrid society or dying off and making way for something new, whichever comes first.

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Yet another reminder that we should all be afraid of white supremacy.

Trigger warnings for discussions of racism, sexism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, and rape.

So a Polish ‘far-right’ magazine wSieci published its most recent edition with a picture of a woman, wrapped in the European flag, clearly in pain, being roughly grabbed by several dark-skinned arms, under the title “Islamic Rape of Europe.”


The cover actually prompted me to want to talk about what the concept of “Europe” even is, and whether it’s still useful today, but I wanted to start off with some caveats that are already proving longer than expected, so I think I’ll break this into two posts.  First, the super depressing discussions of racism and political correctness.  Tune in next week for part two, which will mostly be pictures of maps.

First, the cover is both racist and sexist.  Not open for debate.  Islam is a religion, not a race, and European is not synonymous with white.  That woman could be Muslim and all of the arms grabbing at her both European and non-Muslim.  Also, women are in constant danger of rape and sexual assault, but these attacks are much more likely to come from their own communities or even from direct blood relatives, and non-white women face a higher risk of sexual assault and rape than white women [depressing stats].  Limiting immigration is no more effective for reducing the rates of sexual assault as it is for reducing our carbon footprint or rebalancing the economy – it’s possible it might make some very small difference, but there are definitely better places to start.

Second, the racism and sexism depicted here are part of a much broader tradition in white supremacy – the claim that racism is necessary to protect white women (there’s a good primer on the subject for the American context here).  Again, not open for debate and also complete nonsense.  Firstly, as a white woman, I don’t exist to serve as an baby incubator for my race.  Secondly, again, presenting rape culture as a race issue is just straight up false – rape and sexual assault occur predominantly within existing power structures.  Indeed, the race component of rape runs the other direction – as we’ve seen time and time again in the relationship between ‘fratboy culture’ and the frankly terrifying rates of sexual assault on college campuses, the *more* privileged a group is, the more likely they are to assault someone, probably because they’re not used to having their choices questioned.

Finally, the cover is not just politically incorrect, although a truly shocking number of websites and news outlets have called it just that.  It’s worth pointing out that the term ‘politically correct’ doesn’t even really mean anything – or more to the point, is often used to harken back to a period of ‘forced’ multiculturalism that never actually happened.  As discussed here, the term started out as a literal description of the potential political outcome of personal choices, particular consumer choices, akin to the modern concept of buying free-trade goods or ‘buying local.’  The adoption of the term by mainstream media and the American right more or less parallels the very limited attempts at increasing multiculturalism and reducing public displays of racism and sexism in the late 80s and early 90s – basically the most ‘politically correct’ we ever were as a society was Captain Planet and Sesame Street.  

The use of the term by mainstream media also did much to pollute the distinction between censorship (that is, a government action that serves to silence dissidents) and backlash (ie responses from people or organizations that have no government backing).  People can be offended by racist language and, as a group, decide to ban it from workplaces or educational institutions – that’s still not censorship because the government wasn’t involved.

The problem with labeling something like this magazine cover as ‘just politically incorrect’ is that it both diminishes this image’s connection to the history of white supremacy and *way* raises the bar in terms of what isn’t ‘just politically incorrect.’  So long as we have this middle category of ‘diet racism’ (to steal a term from College Humor), it makes it easier and easier for us to desensitize ourselves to racism.  After all, no one wants to be ‘too P.C.’  By couching the discussion in these terms, white supremacy is able to make itself the victim, that making it seem as though being disgusted by this image and what it represents is a personal choice or a sign of hypersensitivity, or, worst of all, censorship of free speech (which again, it could only be if I were a government and I were banning this image).

The power that white supremacy has in cultivating the narrative in this way is exactly why we should all be scared by its continued strength in North America and its re-emergence in Europe – by its very nature, white supremacy already has considerable social and cultural privilege defending it, and by co-opting language of victimhood and oppression, it cuts off the last remaining outlets to dissent we had to address it.

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Homosexuality in the Medieval world

Carrying on from my last post, I came across this brilliant comic by Humon about definitions of sexuality in Medieval Christian monasticism, which really nails what I was talking about that our terminology just doesn’t make sense when talking about sex in a historical context.  Obviously this is talking about Christianity, but the idea of lust and sexual acts as being points of concern, rather than kinds of sexuality, definitely applies to Islam, as well.  Check it out!










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Homosexuality in Islam

Umar asked:

Hey Jessica,

I was wondering if you could make a post about homosexuality in Islamic history, i.e how open has it been, what were the reactions, etc.


Okay, I guess to start with I should warn everyone that this post will have discussions of sex, including sex between same-gender and non-gender-sex partners.  I don’t intend to go into any particular detail, but if you’re squicked out by sex in general, or by the existence of homosexuality and queer identity, you should probably stop reading.

Also, for the sake of clarity, I’m going to use gender to describe the division between homosexuality and heterosexuality – heterosexual people prefer to have sex with non-same-gender partners, homosexual people prefer to have sex with same-gender people.  It’s not a perfect division, but I strongly dislike the term ‘same-sex,’ as I find it really transphobic.  I use ‘queer’ as a blanket term for all non-straight identities, although for the sake of the current discussion, I’m not really going to talk about asexuality.  Queer studies is the academic field that considers the role of non-straight identity in the humanities and social sciences – it should be point out, it’s not my field, and so I’m coming into this predominantly as a historian whose done a bit of extra reading.

Also, as a historian, I should point out that any discussion of homosexuaily in history needs to come with a couple of caveats.  Firstly, there have been times throughout history and around the world when non-straight behavior was considered a sin, a crime, or a mental illness, and so understandably, non-straight people have often tried hard not to be identified.  Moreover, one of the major periods for believing homosexuality was a sign of mental illness was the 19th century, when many of the standards for editing, translating, and interpreting Medieval texts also date from, so many of the works that come down to us have been re-interpreted through a Victorian mindset.

Secondly, sexual identity and sexual preference are ultimately abstract concepts that only exist inside your head.  No matter what people think, there’s no outward evidence to mark someone as queer (any more than there is for marking people as straight).  The best we can do is interpret what people said about themselves, what they’re reported to have done, and what other people say about them.  The key word here is ‘interpret’ – even in cases where we have reports in historical texts about people who seem to understand each other as the same gender having sex, plenty of people have argued that we’re ‘reading homosexuality into the text,’ and technically they’re right – it could be a literary device, it could be a literary invention, it could be meant as a compliment (during periods when homosexuality was seen as a positive) or as an insult (in times when it was considered a negative).  These problems with interpretation even arise within the queer community and in the field of queer studies – for example, for much of the late twentieth century, it was common to say that figures like Marlon  Brando or Kate Hepburn were gay and in the closet because they were reported to have had sexual relations with both men and women – the claim being that the relations with same-gender partners revealed their homosexuality and relations with non-same-gender partners were them keeping up appearances.  More recently, more and more people have started to argue that we should see them as bi or pansexual, interpreting the relations with both same-gender and non-same-gender partners through the same lens of queer identity.  Ultimately we can’t really know the truth – for living people, we can just ask them and they can tell us, “Oh, actually I identify as pan and aro” (and once they have told us, we should believe them!), but for historical figures, we’re stuck with all of the limitations of interpretation.

That being said, there is significant evidence that non-straight behavior was common in Medieval Islam.  To start with, it’s banned in Islamic law, and in general, you only write laws to ban things that are actually happening.  As outlined in a great article (in Variety of all places?) by Jonathan Brown at Georgetown, non-straight sex legally falls under sex outside of marriage (although potentially would have been legal between two married couples, except in the case of anal penetration, which was specifically prohibited), and so was illegal because all sex acts outside of marriage were illegal.   That there are occasional references specifically to non-straight sex acts in the legal literature, including giving suggested parallels for appropriate punishments, implies that cases involving non-straight sex acts arose often enough for jurists to need a standard and precedence for judging them.

In terms of attitudes towards homosexuality, the best example I can think of is Medieval wine poetry, a genre of Arabic poetry popular in the ninth and tenth centuries, a period which coincides with the emergence of a distinct urban culture, particular around the caliphal court in Baghdad.  Court poets, the best known being Abu Nuwas, would write of the court’s exploits, sneaking into the monasteries in the Christian quarter of the city to drink wine and make love to the young monastic novices.  Again, many people have argued that the imagery in these poems is purely literary, and it is the case that several court poets were executed, in some cases supposedly for heresy, although there is every reason to think court intrigue played a role, as well.  Nevertheless, the popularity of this poetry, including its continued circulation for several centuries after the genre itself died off (along with the Baghdadi court, which started to lose power after the tenth century) all suggest that the imagery of the poems played a genuine cultural role in Muslim society.

There are also several cases of major Muslim leaders who were reportedly queer – for example, ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III, one of the Nizari Isma’ili Imams, and al-Hakam II, caliph of the new Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia, but again, since homosexuality is sometimes used as an analogy for positive or negative behavior, it’s hard to judge if these accounts are historically accurate.  ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III in particular was a hated ruler who was eventually overthrown, so it’s tempting to see accounts of his homosexuality as part of a broader smear campaign.  Similarly, Western accounts of the Ottoman court include claims of homosexual behavior, going back as far as Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, but again, it’s hard to know if those accounts speak to any reality, or simply represent Western interests in portraying the Ottomans as decadent and corrupt.

I have to admit, as a historian, I’m always struck by the same feeling in researching homosexuality in the past, namely, that people just didn’t care.  There is historical evidence to suggest that queer people have always existed and faced varying levels of resistance or acceptance by society more generally, but I think one of the problems in any discussion of homosexuality in a historical context is that the modern age is way more focused on the individuality and individual behavior than the pre-modern world.  For the most part, the pre-modern world just didn’t care what people did at home or what they thought or felt.  As noted by Professor Brown, “the focus on actions in the Shariah means that desires or inclinations have no legal substance.”  The idea of investigating people’s ‘identities’ just doesn’t really make sense in most times and places historically – leader’s identities were important because they played a special role in major decision-making, including, in the Muslim world, in serving as a representative of God’s Will on earth, but the identity of ordinary people just wasn’t something anyone thought about or wrote about.  That a poet would write about the beauty of a man’s lips and that another man would enjoy that poem just didn’t mean anything to them the way it does to us (or, at least, not in a way that’s been preserved in written sources).

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