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On racist parties and racism

International TV interview with Fariborz Pooya and Bahram Soroush
July 19, 2004

Maryam Namazie: We've heard a lot in the news about the British National Party's racism and fascistic comments and attacks on immigrants, asylum seekers and Muslims. Should a party like the BNP be banned?

Fariborz Pooya: If these parties incite violence against anybody, there is a law against that and the law should be enforced. At the same time, you need to be able to build your defences against nationalist organisations and movements in Britain, France, Germany and other European countries. When you start dividing society on the basis of religion, race, colour and nationality, you are effectively creating a recipe for religious and racial wars. So in order to remove the basis and foundations for the growth of these movements, you need to deal with the divisions within society; you need to uphold universal rights, civil rights, refugee rights, rights for women and so on. By creating religious schools, a separate educational system for different groups and people, different standards and norms for various people, you create a situation where opportunist and racist groups like the BNP can take advantage. And this will, unfortunately, continue, unless society as a whole upholds universal and fundamental rights for everybody, irrespective of race, colour, gender and background.

Maryam Namazie: If banning a party like the BNP is not the solution, then how can you stop racism and parties like this from gaining votes in elections, as you see, for example, throughout Europe, and from becoming mainstream political parties?

Bahram Soroush: These parties should be stopped and marginalized as far as possible. For a long time, these forces had been marginal forces in society, but unfortunately they have gained some strength recently. The way to stop them is to confront them as what they are, as racist and fascist organisations. In the UK, for example, and throughout Europe as well, there used to be strong anti-racist movements which wouldn't give any possibility for this reactionary movement to raise its head. The governments in the West are to a great deal responsible for creating this environment that allows for such organisations to become as active as they are. Stopping them is both a political and a legal issue. I don't believe - and I agree with Fariborz Pooya on that - that banning them is the solution. You may have to do that, but at this moment, I think you should confront them both politically, push them back, and mobilize the people against them. Part of that is fighting against the anti-immigrant and anti-asylum policies of governments themselves in the West. You see, when you reduce the worth of a human being as a refugee, when you demonise asylum seekers and refugees, then in effect you are giving a green light to such fascistic organisations to go on the rampage and attack immigrants, as they have been doing. Secondly, you could stop them legally if you could show that they have committed criminal offences, and that is a legal process. But if somebody even threatens that they are going to carry out, for example, arson attacks against immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, then that calls for a criminal investigation. I think it's more a political struggle to discredit these organisations and to stop them from trying to assume the appearance of a mainstream organisation.

Maryam Namazie: In the discussions that we have heard, the BNP has spoken out very strongly against Islam. So when you see this, you hear arguments that arguing against Islam is racist. What would you say to that?

Fariborz Pooya: John Tyndall, the founder of the BNP, attacked Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative Party, and called him an 'interloper', and 'the son of an immigrant'. Does that effectively allow people to argue that you cannot criticise the Tory Party in Britain? That you can't argue against its free market policies, against the anti-immigrant policies of the Tories, because the BNP has attacked them? No. I think it's the same way with the Islamic movements. Clearly that has given an opportunity to the right-wing parties, to fascist and far-right movements, to use the division that the cultural-relativist movement has created within society, by dividing people on the basis of religion, to use that to advocate their own policies.

In fact, criticising religion is extremely healthy. It helps society to protect itself. It helps it to uphold universal rights, because religion is poison for society, because it divides society. Particularly Western society has been the subject of constant attacks by the Islamic movement. So core principles, universal rights should be defended. Unfortunately, in the last 15-20 years, we have seen the erosion of universal rights and the upcoming of the cultural-relativist movement which argues that people have different rights, that different groups have different sets of rights. So I think it is important to criticise religion. It's quite healthy and we need to uphold that.

Maryam Namazie: Some might argue that one should stop criticising Islam because then one may become too closely associated with fascist and racist parties like the BNP. What would you say to that?

Bahram Soroush: It depends from what point of view you are criticising Islam. It's very clear that the two are not mutually exclusive. You can be both against Islam and any religion for that matter and at the same time be an avid anti-racist. It's not that you have to be one and you can't be the other. Also, the people who have been at the forefront of the anti-racist struggle, in defence of the rights of people, irrespective of their background, where they come from, what their religion is, what their colour is, a lot of those anti-racists have been secularists, people who themselves have not believed that religion should have a prominent position in society and who have been critical of various religions. I can understand how someone might say that they have this fear that if they criticise Islam they might be labelled a racist. But I think this is a blackmail that we are confronted with. I think people who want to defend Islam and to save it from attacks, try to use that to blackmail us, saying don't criticise Islam because you are criticising a race. But Islam is not a race. It's a religion, an ideology, that everybody has the right to criticise, just as everybody has the right, in a free society, to defend Islam if they want to. If we look at it, the BNP is not just an anti-Islamic organisation. What characterizes the BNP is that it is a fascist and racist organisation; it believes in white supremacy; it supports the Nazis; it's against the Jews. So reducing the whole of the BNP and their activities to an anti-Islamic one is, I think, a trickery that is being used by the Islamic lobby in the UK to try to save Islam, and political Islam as a movement, from criticism, which we have talked about on other occasions in this programme.

Maryam Namazie: You can understand why people feel worried to criticise Islam or the political Islamic movement. They are worried that they would be perceived as racists when you do have statements like what the BNP is saying. Would you agree with that?

Fariborz Pooya: As I said previously, it is important that the angle from which you criticise religion comes out very clearly. You have to show that you are for the benefit of humanity; you don't want to separate people; you want to uphold universal rights, and that this is a progressive and socialist movement. Various movements criticise each other and fight over issues within society. You have, for example, refugee issues. Everybody makes their point clear on that: you have the Conservatives, the Labour Party, Social Democracy, you have fascists, and you have socialists who argue and fight on the issue of refugees and refugee rights. At the same time, you have an issue in society, which is the Islamic movement. Everybody takes part in this battle, trying to justify their standpoint and uphold certain principles and values. The socialist movement wants to uphold universal rights. I think it is absurd to say, when you start criticising religion, that that's a no-go area. I don't think that sort of no-go area should exist, and it's important for the advance of humanity to defend rights and human values. You need to criticise religion because it's wreaking havoc in the Middle East and we don't want that to happen in Europe.

Maryam Namazie: If I can just add as an example to this. I once went to a discussion on the BBC about a detention centre for asylum seekers that was going to be established in an area in Britain. I was speaking against the detention centre, and so was someone else living in the area. But she was speaking against it from a perspective of 'not in my backyard', whereas I was speaking against the detention centre because I don't believe asylum seekers should be detained whatsoever; I think it's criminal to detain asylum seekers. Again it shows where you can have two people coming from maybe Right and Left perspectives on an issue, but it depends what your principles are, what you are trying to defend, and if you are defending humanity, progressive and universal values, I think you can connect that with what has happened here.

Bahram Soroush: If I may also add another example. The Iranian regime, the Khomeini regime that came to power in 1979 was anti-American. But it doesn't mean then that you are not allowed to criticise the US government, its bombings, the genocide in Vietnam, etc., because you would be identified with the Islamic camp. That fear has been instilled by certain political and social groups. It's the way they look at it, even within the Left itself, like the Socialist Workers Party and part of the Left in the UK. I think the problem is that they look at Islam as if it is a 'Third World' religion, an 'oppressed' religion, that somehow you should have a more lenient approach towards it. I think they don't differentiate between the social forces in those countries. They don't differentiate between the government and the people; they see it as one. And partly maybe it's the post-colonial guilt that if you criticise a weak and small country from the Third World, then you are siding with your own government. To oppose the policies of your own government is fine and splendid, but please make common cause with the people in those countries who are fighting against their own reactionary governments. That's the line of thinking that's dominating part of the Left and they are seeing the world in terms of small countries against bigger ones. I think that is where the problem lies.

Fariborz Pooya: I would like to add that if you create a vacuum, a space, and you do not allow the progressive movement to fill in the gap, naturally right-wing, extremist groups will take the opportunity and use that. My message to the progressive movement, particularly the Left in Europe, is that it's important, it's a historical moment, that the Left needs to find its place in the fight against religion, because this is not an academic discussion; this is a serious, reactionary movement, a political movement, and we need to make sure that we fill in the gap. By having a progressive criticism of religion and defending universal rights, you effectively remove the ground from under the feet of right-wing and extremist movements.

The above is a TV International English (www.anternasional.tv/English) interview dated July 19, 2004.

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