I think I’ve previously recommended Juan Cole’s blog, Informed Comment, as a valuable source of expert opinion on the Middle East. This week, however, he’s got a guest post that’s of much broader interest.
It’s by Anne-Ruth Wertheim, a Dutch journalist and scholar. She’s trying to explain the “Islamophobia” or anti-Muslim racism promoted especially by Geert Wilders (whom we’ve come across before) in her homeland of the Netherlands. In doing so, she distinguishes between two different types of racism, which she calls (using terms pioneered by her father) “exploitation racism” and “competition racism”.
“Exploitation racism” is the attitude people take to those that they think are inferior, and whom they can use but need to keep in their place. Typical cases are the native peoples exploited by colonialism and the blacks who were victims of chattel slavery. As Wertheim says, “These workers are usually spared mass violence, since they have to be kept in good enough shape to do the dirty, hard labour.”
“Competition racism” comes when people suspect that the target group might actually not be inferior, but might be a threat to jobs and status, making it more important to demonise them. Examples include the Asians in Idi Amin’s Uganda, the Chinese in South-East Asia, and of course the Jews in Europe. “It is not uncommon for their centuries of life in a country to end with expulsion or extermination.”
Wertheim’s argument (which she has been developing for a while) is that attitudes to the Muslims in Europe have been moving from the first category to the second. From initially being guest workers to be exploited, they have begun to arouse more dangerous passions:
As long as they knew their place, it was fine for them to do the work the established population felt was too poorly paid or too unpleasant. But step by step, their descendants are qualified for all the work there is. So they are increasingly formidable rivals, especially with a recession going on.
Characteristic of the shift, she says, is that cultural factors become more important than purely racial ones. This gives a certain deniability to those who are inflaming opinion against the target population. But it also suggests that they are being disingenuous when they claim to support assimilation, since their real goal is the disappearance of the competing group (although of course assimilation can be a means to disappearance).
Do read the whole thing: it’s one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read on racism. I’m not entirely convinced – I’m not sure it’s invariably true that “The driving force behind racism is economics.” (For one thing, the shift to actual genocide against the Jews of Europe was marked by greater rather than less emphasis on strictly racial criteria.) But at the very least Wertheim has an important angle on a serious and troubling issue.