Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal, in an article otherwise dedicated to praise the Royal Wedding of His British Royal Highness Prince William and Kate Middleton, that as “an intern at the London Times in the early ’90s” he was “mystified by oblique references to riots in ‘Asian’ communities in the north of England”. He finally realized, “only after reading Hanif Kureishi’s novella My Son the Fanatic”  » that ’Asian’ » meant ‘Muslim’, and in particular a second generation of British-born Muslims who had convinced themselves that they were living among the infidels”.

The power of denomination is a central device in the organization of what the critical school of sociology calls “symbolic power” and, always according to this school, is at the heart of any potential “symbolic violence”, the violence that imposes on people words to describe their reality in order to deny them from the resources of a legitimate language to defend their own claims.

Bret Stephens’ incidental remark showcases a remarkable illustration for the theory. It is undoubtedly part of the pretension to tell what the “true” meaning of the words is in order to favor a certain perception of reality. For the sake of illustration, let us follow what difference it makes to speak of “Asians” or of “Muslims”.

If you are an “Asian” your fight for recognition is understandable in a world where you have been transplanted. Your fight might not be the right one, but it is understandable by the standards of the community in which you live, a Western, democratic, community that accepts diversity and admits that antagonisms in the public sphere—whether right or wrong—are also part of a thriving democratic culture. Even if the means are illegal and legitimately repressed, it stays within the perimeter of what is workable in a democratic society. It  does not mean that it is tolerable or acceptable, but simply that it belongs to a type of conflicts that is not foreign to the local political and social establishment, when it deals with a discriminated or simply poor and ill-adjusted to its context minority. A supplementary benefit of being qualified as an “Asian” is to soften the whole picture as Asians have a reputation (whether it is deserved or not is another question) for peacefully integrating in their host societies. In other word, it is not all that bad, even if, eventually you face two main options: if your fight is recognized as a right one by collective democratic standards, you will have contributed to a democratic progress; if deemed wrong you will go to jail.

Now, what does the shift from “Asian” to “fanatical Muslim” entail? Obviously, if you are a radical—fanatical—Muslim “convinced” that “you live among the infidels”, well, you are just an enemy, who—quite literally—has no right to express yourself in the context of a public order that you reject. You belong to another cultural context not by the fact that you come from a foreign country but because you share ideals that are foreign to the local culture. Whether these ideals are regarded as foreign because they are radical or because they do not fit the long established Christian tradition, they have no legitimate standing in the context in which you fight. You have no option but being treated as an enemy or rather  only option b (jail) is available as a proper response to your virulence and even a democratic society should not lose time over your problems. You are  deemed to be doomed.

If I were keener on critical approaches, Stephens would offer me a golden opportunity to befriend many critical colleagues who otherwise regard me as a conservative devil. It would just take denouncing the symbolic violence is on poor immigrant populations that struggle to make a decent living in a hostile Western World and are stigmatized as radical Muslims when they dare fight for their rights. I would add that it is well known that qualifying social unrest as “riots” is a frequent way to disqualify class struggle by picturing it as a meaningless disorder, the importance of which is just measured by the energy it takes to calm it down. And I would underscore the fact that the French Extreme Right party has also chosen to switch from denouncing « immigrants » to denouncing « Islam », a quite annoying companionship in terminology. All this written in this epitome of capitalism that the Wall Street Journal is!

I will not go that far though. Ultimately, against both Stephens and his friends, but also against many “critical” scholars, I believe there is no “right way” to describe social phenomena, even if there are ones which can be described clearly as « wrong », i.e. unscientific and falsified ones. Indeed, Stephens’ candor in confessing that his understanding is based on a fictional work is a spectacular admission that replacing “Asian” by “Muslim” is as fictional as saying “Asian” in the first place. Let us face it: what both the London Times of the 90’s and Stephens in 2011 try not to say is that “Asian” or “fanatical Muslim” means in fact “mostly Pakistani” as Pakistanis are both Asian and Muslim and constitute (it is not the case in France where Muslims are mostly North African or in Germany where they are mostly Turkish) the bulk of the Muslim population.

I understand why none would accept the terminology of “mostly Pakistani”. It does not look quite as good in an article as “Asian” or “Muslim”. It seems too vague (it is too vague); it could also be regarded as discriminatory or even racist as it would assimilate a certain type of immigration with violence. Stephens is as right as his former colleagues of the London Times when he avoids such a formulation. He is also right in emphasizing the political dimension of religious radicalization that the qualification as « Asian » overlooks. But he is wrong in pretending that he has the only right version. In reality, substituting “Muslim” to “mostly Pakistani” is a politically correct as to substitute “Asian” for the same expression. Only, it is the conservative political correctness, which plays on our contemporary fear of global radical Muslim terrorism rather than describes the reality of the 90’s Great Britain which was struggling with identity issues where—yes—Asia i.e. Indians were also playing its role far beyond the “riots” and far beyond radical Islam.

Social scientists and journalist should be aware that any designation of any sort is a tricky game as all of our categories have to be permanently reviewed: truth is only in nuances and contradictions. It does not fit well into a newspaper article. It is not a sufficient reason to stay blind as regards to our own language while pretending to be lucid with the one of the others.

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