Tabish Khair on why a rise in new xenophobia should terrify us

[Book review] The stranger is now allowed to remain a stranger, but prohibited from exhibiting difference.

 |  4-minute read |   07-02-2016
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According to a poll conducted last week, more than four out of five Germans believe that the Angela Merkel government in Germany isn’t dealing with the immigrant crisis well. Most of them think that more restrictive measures towards immigrants and asylum seekers must be in place to deal with the extraordinary situation.

Such is the anger — or should we say the fear for the "other"? — that the very German chancellor who was depicted as Mother Teresa a few months ago is now being portrayed as a hijab-wearing politician.

This, along with the emergence of the Right worldwide, more so in the US, which is currently witnessing a phoenix-like rise of Donald Trump, has brought the issue of xenophobia back on the radar. And in this intriguing times comes a book by Tabish Khair, an India-born writer now based in Denmark, saying that the traditional form of xenophobia may be dead, but a new kind of fear of the stranger has emerged.

Fearing the other

“Today, most Europeans may not be xenophobic in a traditional sense of the term, but they continue to have a strong fear of the stranger. In the past, when power was located largely in bodily structures, one was termed ‘stranger’ for his/her physical, religious or cultural differences. But in the capitalist world order, power has become abstract, so has the new form of xenophobia, which is largely economic, even though it may appear cultural/religious at the first glance, as is the case with Muslim refugees in Europe right now,” says Khair.

But then the author says something which is even more disturbing. “While the old xenophobia had a place for recognising differences, its new version, while allowing the stranger to remain a stranger, prohibits him from exhibiting that difference.

"This is where Islam is a problem for the West,” says the author, as he reminds how migration in the globalised world works only when it isn’t quite obvious. “New xenophobia is all about reducing the strangeness of the stranger. Thus the repeated attempts to ban the burqa in the West. Islam, on the other hand, resists any such move.”

Khair also takes on American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker for using prehistoric skeletons to argue that violence has declined in modern times. “The definition of violence should not be limited to physical violence alone. I often say jokingly that if a skeleton was discovered from our period some 1,000 years later, violence would then be ascertained not by looking at whether bones were broken but whether the skeleton had the right kind of credit card or not,” says Khair with a smile.

xeno_020716072146.jpg The New Xenophobia; Tabish Khair; Oxford University Press; Rs 495.

The author then explains how Islam is fighting a battle within, as Wahaabism is at war to control its soul. “Many Muslims in India don’t realise that Wahaabism, a small cult from a tribal part of Arabia, is absolutely alien to everything that Indian Muslim cultures had. It is, to be honest, a part of the Arab colonisation,” says Khair as he recalls how his great grandfather, “who was the first person to get modern education and became a doctor”, would wear a dhoti. “In those days, I was told that a lot of Muslims would wear dhoti. This explains how the concept of the 'other' is an artificial construct wherein a Muslim is expected to wear a pyjama, while a Hindu would wear a dhoti.”

Power tussle

Khair gives the example of how Kashmiri Muslims find themselves much closer to Palestinians rather than Kashmiri Hindus.

“This is a good example to show how xenophobia really works. A few decades ago, Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims were culturally close. Then over a period of time, because of different reasons, a kind of stranger was created among Kashmiri Muslims, and the Pandits were pushed out of the Valley. If you see it closely, you will find that xenophobia is actually a fight for power,” he says, adding it’s the same with, say, White Supremacists in America. “They would relate with a White German, but not a Black neighbour.”

The other reason, Khair believes, there’s subtle change in the way Indian Muslims see themselves is because of the kind of secularism India has pursued since Independence. “Indian secularism is based on pampering all religious groups. Since Indian political parties can’t pamper secular or semi-religious people like you and me, they focus on fundamentalists. No wonder, it’s the orthodox elements that get coddled in India.”

As the conversation ends, Khair reminds how this book came so naturally to him. “This is the kind of topic which has always exercised my imagination. Partly given the fact that I am an immigrant in Denmark. Also, partly because I come from a country which is made of minorities. In India, for me, there is no majority community. In this sense, Indians have always been aware of this issue and the idea of the stranger.”

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)


Utpal Kumar Utpal Kumar @utpal_kumar1

The writer is Associate Editor, Mail Today.

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