Lindsey German describes how aggression overseas drives racism at home
How do governments who want to wage war on another country win at least the acquiescence and at best active support of large sections of their own population for a process which is going to kill large numbers of people, injure and traumatise many more, and turn millions of people into refugees?
One way is to suggest that the “enemy” population is somehow not like us, and that therefore the kinds of horror they face during war is less deserving of sympathy than it would be otherwise.
Wars all too often become a source of racism as military domination leads to treating those on the other side as less than human.
We have seen this time after time. During the first world war there was an upsurge of anti-German sentiment, encouraged by government and media, to justify carnage on a previously unknown scale.
The same process was used in every belligerent country to demonise the enemy population. In the US dachshunds were renamed “liberty dogs,” and sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.”
More recently, the “war on terror” has contributed to a great increase in racism. This was against anyone who opposed the war — so French fries became “freedom fries” in the US in response to France’s less than enthusiastic response to the Iraq war.
But its main consequence was the growth of Islamophobia, or hatred of Muslims. The war led to interventions in majority-Muslim countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, plus a constant state of tension with Iran.
Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded and occupied, major operations which lasted decades and which involved the siege of Fallujah, the repeated bombing of civilians, evidence of torture, and the mass displacement of millions of people for reasons of war.
The scandal of US treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where they were tortured and filmed in degrading positions by military guards, demonstrated the extent of dehumanisation of the local population and the way in which it was labelled as terrorist for daring to resist the invasion (something which is allowed under international law).
The prisoners in the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay were kept without trial and treated in the most barbaric way.
George W Bush and Tony Blair’s war — launched after the September 11 attacks — depended on a narrative which saw their enemies as variously dictators, terrorists, fanatics and lacking all humanity.
It is a short step from this to justifying the sort of treatment outlined above, and another short step to designating all those of similar backgrounds and religion as terrorist sympathisers who are hostile to “our way of life.”
This has been the experience of the Muslim communities here in Britain and elsewhere, especially in the countries directly involved in these wars.
They have been subject to physical attacks on individuals, on mosques and community centres, have been targeted by the Prevent system and abused by politicians.
We should remember that our Prime Minister referred to veiled Muslim women as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” — statements which led to a big rise in attacks on those wearing hijabs and burqas.
This Islamophobia has fuelled the far right. There has been an increase in far-right terrorist attacks, only belatedly acknowledged given the equation of Muslims with terrorism.
It has all too often fed government responses to migration and to refugees. The refugee crisis of 2015 across Europe led to increased repression against precisely those who suffered so much from the 21st-century wars in which our government has been so complicit.
Refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere are in their majority victims of war and should be treated accordingly.
Instead, fortress Europe has denied most of them entry, forcing them to attempt dangerous and often fatal journeys to get to safety.
Britain’s refugee and migrant policy is one of the most racist, refusing access to many of the victims of war, claiming there is no money or room for more refugees, while justifying increases in military and arms spending which help fuel future wars.
We are in the middle of a horrendous war, which has already led to the deaths of thousands and an estimated three million refugees from Ukraine.
This war is also seeing an increase in racism, this time directed at Russians. Sportsmen and women, concert pianists and dancers on Strictly have all been told that they must denounce Putin’s war before they are welcome to perform.
Performances of Tchaikovsky have been cancelled, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace put on hold, and even Russian lessons for primary schoolchildren ditched.
But Putin’s invasion is not the responsibility of most Russians, many of whom clearly oppose it. The peace movement there has been courageous and defiant.
No such calls met Britain’s invasion of Iraq, for example. We were not told to denounce it (although many of us did organise against it).
Nor were Jane Austen adaptations or Shakespeare plays boycotted in other countries. Such actions not only seem like hypocrisy and double standards — they also lead to racism against Russians and the justification of discriminatory behaviour towards them.
The refugee crisis from Ukraine has also raised questions of racism, with black and Asian people being discriminated against and prevented from getting the same treatment.
While Poland has taken in over a million refugees, its refusal to admit those fleeing war in the Middle East and Afghanistan who tried to enter from Belarus last year displays the double standards at work here.
A wave of sympathy for Ukrainian refugees has forced the British government to backtrack on some of the most racist elements of its policy, which is good, but its policy is at its root racist, and wants to deny responsibility for the victims of its wars.
Peace and anti-war campaigners want to stop wars in themselves, and to stop the militarism and imperialist competition which leads up to them.
However, success in that goal would also mean treating people from different nationalities and races equally and would therefore reduce racism and the violence and repression which accompany it.
On this celebration of Anti-Racism Day, we should never forget how closely connected war and racism remain.
Originally published in Morning Star
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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