Between ‘we’, ‘they’ and strangers

As Tabish Khair returns to book shelves with “The New Xenophobia”, the author says he sees sexism as a form of racism

January 17, 2016 06:46 pm | Updated September 23, 2016 12:47 am IST

Tabish Khair Photo Jesper Voldgaard

Tabish Khair Photo Jesper Voldgaard

When you speak to Tabish Khair, he comes across as such an affable guy. Ready with smiles, polite with his words, warm with his hand shake. He is so cordial that he could be the friendly guy next-door, not a much-feted author, novelist and an academic. If he surprised a few with “Muslim Modernities”, he shocks us with his latest “The New Xenophobia”. The book, talking of structure of power, politics of exclusion and a perceived superiority of the economically empowered calls for careful attention. At one level, it takes you back to a history lecture, at another Khair provides you with the insight of an economist. In between, you wonder if you had wandered into a sociology classroom. All along, Khair nudges you to think afresh, get rid of convenient stereotypes, and understand that the dynamics of the world are constantly changing. Once he had said that to be born into a minority is both a blessing and a curse; here he uses it as a blessing in the most handsome of ways.

Excerpts from an interview:

Dynamics of economy rather than culture define the new ‘other’. How far do you agree?

I totally agree. But economy, I suggest in the book, is not sufficient on its own as an explanation, because in terms of ‘economy,’ high or late capitalism differs from classical capitalism. Capital has changed shape; it is no longer largely a medium of exchange and a social relation, as old-fashioned money used to be.

The new xenophobia, as you say in the book, is determined by structures of power. Isn’t it all then American-Europe driven concept?

I try to show that new xenophobia is pronounced in those circles that reap the most benefits from neo-liberal high or late capitalism, where capital mostly does not exist as cash but circulates as numbers and where most of capital is not even invested in any material production or trade. As one of my points of departure is to see xenophobia as a matter of power – it is used by in-groups to exert their power over out-groups – it follows that the forms of xenophobia will change in societies where power has grown more numerical and more abstract than ever before. This will even effect what we see and don’t see as violence. As such, it is true that new forms of xenophobia are easier to observe in high capitalist states – though these, especially if they have uneven economies, like the US, will also contain old forms of xenophobia. Similarly, small elite high capitalist circles in developing states like India can also display types of new xenophobia, while the rest of the country shows older forms of xenophobia, such as racism, sexism and casteism.

How do you look at the concept of ‘difference’ and ‘xenophobia’, a case where a local stranger could be considered hostile in comparison to a man from another land?

There are many examples of this. For instance, a white racist in USA might be hostile to his Black American neighbour but friendly to a white Dane or German. One can argue that his black neighbour would share more with him – language, national history, culture, eating habits, etc – than the foreigner, but in this case one difference (colour) is sufficient to evoke a xenophobic stance. And the many differences of the Dane or German are overlooked at the same time! It is partly in this sense that I say – and show with wider examples – that the stranger of xenophobia is always a construct of some sort. See, the point is not whether X differs from Y or not; we all differ from one another. The point of xenophobia is that a particular difference is used to permit X to discriminate against, control or even eliminate Y.

In India we deal with the equation of ‘we’ and ‘they’ at various levels. While there is always that exclusion or condescension of people of other faiths or regions, within one faith there is politics of exclusions towards the minorities. Like say in the case of Dalits or Bohras and Ahmediyas. What are the points of similarities and difference that you perceive in such cases?

If you see xenophobia as having to do with power, then you understand why some people – internal to a community or external to it – are created as detested strangers. When you select a people within a so-called community – be they Bohras, Ahmediyas or Dalits – and define them in such a way as to exclude them from the benefits of your own group, you are indulging in xenophobia. Of course, you can do this to people belonging to other so-called communities too. Or you can do it to women – I see sexism as a form of xenophobia, by which women are defined in terms of a real or perceived difference that is used to exploit, attack or control them.

Finally, is new xenophobia the new way of exclusion on the lines of caste system in the days of yore in India or racial exclusion/deprivation elsewhere in the world?

I am afraid that it is, except that the markers are less bodily and material and more abstract and economic. Sometimes these new and abstract forms of xenophobia impact on peoples who were afflicted by old forms of xenophobia too, and sometimes they might find new victims. Sometimes, some versions of old xenophobia – for instance the sad and despicable anti-Semitism or homophobia of many Muslims – can be used to justify new forms of xenophobia, as is happening with some forms of Islamophobia in developed states of Europe. It is complex. I wrote this book as a warning, both against old forms of xenophobia which have persisted, and also as a warning to people who feel that they automatically cease to be xenophobic just because they avoid, ostensibly, old patterns of xenophobia. All of us need to look more closely at our privileges in order to understand our prejudices.

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