Although It May Be Idiotic, Hypocritical and Wrong
A ban on Muslims is not racist. Nor is raising concerns in New Zealand, as elsewhere, about immigration – or indeed questioning the very idea of "multiculturalism". For many liberal-minded people these very statements could themselves seem racist. But the term "racist" no longer has concrete meaning, beyond being simply a slur for anyone who questions the progressive consensus on culture or race.
And yet in this period of "post-truth" and "alternative facts" it is doubly important that we apply real meaning to the words we use in political debate. And with our own Race Relation Commissioner demanding review of legislation on acceptable and unacceptable forms of speech, we need to draw a clear line between "hate crimes" and "thought crimes". The accusation "racist!" is all too often used to simply silence debate.
Yes, Donald Trump's attempted travel ban on citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries is irrational, idiotic, hypocritical and wrong. And yes, it's undoubtedly designed to pander to his more xenophobic supporters, many of whom almost certainly hold racist views. But the proposed ban itself isn't racist, at least not if this word has any true meaning.
To make an obvious point, "Muslims" are not a race (although many of the travel embargo's supporters probably don't realise this).
The seven countries originally singled out in Trump's executive order are home to a wide range of "races", and for his actions to be truly racist, he'd have to single out a particular people – Arabs, for example. Needless to say, a ban on all Arabs would also include American allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, where – surprise, surprise – the USA (and its President) have strong business interests.
To the average xenophobic bigot, of course, this is just hair-splitting – the fact that "they" have a different language, religion or culture, plus a different skin colour, is enough to distinguish "them" from "us".
Unfortunately, this simplistic conflation of culture and race – of mistakenly assuming that people's behaviour and beliefs are somehow linked to the colour of their skin – is not the sole preserve of narrow-minded right-wingers. Although they don't realise it, many anti-racist liberals think and argue in the same way, especially when they dismiss any criticism of "other" cultures' practices as racial prejudice.
But by being too ready to slap the term "racist" on anything that challenges their own admirable (but often naive) beliefs about multiculturalism, liberals inadvertently play into the hands of populist demagogues. "Racist" has become a vacuous term – one that is now treated as just so much white-noise by the right.
It is not racist to ask how people from different cultural backgrounds, with potentially widely differing beliefs and attitudes, should be expected to co-exist in a given society. Nor is it racist to disagree over the best means of creating a harmonious multicultural/multiracial society.
The furore surrounding the ban on Muslims, for example, has served to further cloud the genuine and much-needed debate about how countries should best integrate or assimilate large numbers of immigrants who may hold vastly different religious, political and social beliefs.
The mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015, and the perceived official cover-up of the incident, which involved groups of men predominantly of North African origin, graphically illustrates this issue. However, an initially more trivial-seeming example from Christchurch better makes the point about clashes in cultural attitudes – and of how well-meaning but simplistic liberal beliefs can result in illiberal outcomes. In 2015, the so-called "Port Hills Groper" was sentenced for a number of indecent assaults on women exercising on Christchurch's hills. The man, originally from the Middle East, avoided a jail term in part because, in the opinion of the judge, "cultural ambiguities" may have influenced his behaviour.
The man had obviously committed an offence, one that left the women distressed or humiliated. But let us accept the idea that cultural "misunderstanding" may have played a role. Does this in anyway mitigate his crimes? Moreover, what does this say about attitudes to women in the offender's home culture?
Much modern multiculturalist belief eschews criticism of "other" cultures. In the Port Hills case, and the much more serious Cologne one, this leads to a tragic irony – that what is unequivocally wrong in one culture may in fact be acceptable in another. In other words, that sexual assault is only a crime against "our" women but not "their" women. This is a genuinely racist attitude, one brought about by the unwillingness of many progressives to think deeply about their self-proclaimed anti-racist beliefs.
Patrick Whittle has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, and Kazakhstan, and has travelled widely in other Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Jordan, Malaysia, Indonesia and pre-civil war Syria.