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If you live in the U.K., you’ve no doubt been following (or have at least heard about) the controversy surrounding the far right British National Party’s appearance on Question Time. If you don’t, or you haven’t, allow me to explain: following the election of two British National Party (BNP) MEPs in the 2009 European elections this summer, a representative of the BNP was invited onto one of the BBC’s flagship political debate television programs last Thursday. The panel included Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrats Home Affairs spokesperson), Jack Straw (Secretary of State for Justice), Sayeeda Warsi, Baroness Warsi (Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion), Nick Griffin (Leader of the British National Party), and writer/playwright Bonnie Greer. The topics of discussion ranged from Churchill and the second world war to Holocaust denial and immigration. The matter has received a lot of coverage in the press, a surprising amount of it dedicated to saying that the BBC is giving too much publicity to the BNP.
Sayeeda Warsi, introduced as “the most powerful Muslim woman in Britain”, has often been referred to as the most successful panelist in dealing with Griffin, or the one least afraid of overstepping the bounds of political correctness to counter the BNP rhetoric with her own ideas about immigration, or–more rarely–a sign that the Conservative party is partaking in affirmative action in press coverage.
Warsi attempted to turn the debate away from race and multiculturalism and towards class and resources, against Griffin’s attempts to evoke the “clash of civilizations” (specifically when he alludes towards reaching a ‘truce’ with Islam, which is evidently as monolithic and homogeneous as he wishes Britain and the British to be). She also mentions that in times of economic hardship, it is easy to blame “the other”: while historically the British Nationalist movement has focused on the British Jewish community and later focused on the West Indian and South Asian immigrants from Britain’s former colonies as threatening British ethnic purity, currently the danger to this purity includes all non-whites and all Muslims. Warsi addressed fears that the white, working class Brits are being overlooked in favor of immigrants and ethnic minority Brits in the allocation of housing, benefits, education and employment, rather than cultural fears of the other. She talked about the need that Britain has for the “brightest and best” of those immigrating here, but at the same time speaks of the need to limit and control immigration.
The entire immigration debate was rendered ridiculous by the fact that, despite all of the talk of everyone being afraid to discuss immigration as anything but wonderful, the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives discussed immigration in almost nothing but negative terms, with talk of caps and limitations–which, taken to their logical conclusion, not only risk violating the U.N. convention relating to the status of refugees (in fact, refugees were curiously absent from the discussion, aside from a mention of “bogus asylum seekers”), but set the template for a frighteningly totalitarian regime, where the government has (greater) involvement in who marries whom and how many children people are allowed to have. Even the Liberal Democrat representative, Huhne, talked about “getting control back over our borders” rather than arguing for free movement across borders.
Interestingly, when called on his description of Islam as a “wicked and vicious faith”, Griffin portrays Islam as a negative image of his Britishness, which is being fundamentally Christian and all about “free speech, democracy and equal rights for women”. Here, Islam and the multicultural Britain it is part of represent the political correctness to his free speech, the rule of the minority to his democracy, the “second class citizen[ship]” for women to his equal rights. This tendency towards defining one against the other is a part of any nationalism. Nationalism stems from the idea of an “imagined community”: shared history, shared language and shared culture. So the BNP are attempting to validate the idea of an indigenous, white nationalism by creating this history. Nationalism depends on the imagining and maintenance of “finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations”. There can be no one sovereign nation without other nations for it to define itself against.
Much as Griffin sets up Islam as his other, the other panelists set him up as their own opposite: while theirs is reasoned non-reactionary political debate, his is a racist, Islamophobic and unreasoned ideology. While there is no doubt that this is true, the mainstream political voices seem to provide no real alternative either to each other or the BNP, as they present themselves. Jack Straw’s (who, three years ago began a debate about Muslim women wearing the niqab) defense of the Britishness of British Muslims rang hollow against his divisive arguments against the right of British women to wear the niqab, and attacks against Griffin’s description of the inherent anti-British nature of Islam rang hollow coming from the representatives of a government and opposition that have backed British involvement in two wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims, where at least one of the proffered reasons for taking said military action was the poor, unequal, treatment of women.
The unequal treatment of women elsewhere acts both to deflect questions regarding the rights of women here, wherever here may be, and in order to justify claims of moral superiority. Ultimately, despite the use of women and their rights as political capital or for scoring points, there seems to be no real concern for the rights of women, particularly Muslim women, so much as a desire to reduce them to objects, and create a (falsely) desirable image of the self.