ODVV interview: Brexit was a symptom of post-imperial melancholy in Britain

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Publish Date : 07/07/2020 17:28
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I believe education has a crucial role to play in helping to bridge racial and religious divides. I cannot stress the importance of religious education as a means of bridging religious and social divides.

The celebrated anti-colonial nationalist and leader of the independence movement of India Mahatma Gandhi is credited with the famous quote “our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” Diversity is cherished as a universal value, and a wealth of academic studies have been carried out substantiating this conviction that proselytizing multiculturalism and inclusion yield astounding results in different political, social, cultural and economic endeavors.


United Kingdom is a nation that has historically benefited from its demographic diversity, getting strength from the cultures and races that go to make up the modern Britain. In 2018, around 13.8 percent of the UK population was surveyed to be from a minority ethnic background, and in its cosmopolitan capital London, 40 percent of the population comprised the Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. At the helm of London is a mayor who was born to a working-class British-Pakistani family. As of May 2019, 8 percent of MPs, 5.8 percent of members of the House of Lords and 14 percent of local councilors are BAME. Despite the accolades the United Kingdom retains as a plural and diverse society, which also attracts thousands of foreign workers, foreign visitors and international students every year, there are inauspicious indications that the legacy of colonial era and vestiges of racism still linger in the 21st century Britain.


The June 2016 EU referendum in which the majority of Britons voted in favor of the withdrawal of the kingdom from the European Union was a watershed moment for debate on immigration and diversity in the UK and the EU. In the leadup to Brexit, anti-immigrant discourse was notably toughened in the UK and ultranationalist parties such as UKIP and right-wing media were buoying up propaganda vilifying immigrants as the main causes of the economic woes of the nation and responsible for taking away the jobs and educational opportunities of the Brits.


The EU referendum is believed to have unraveled much of the progress that had been made in terms of integrating racial and religious minorities and fostering unity among the different sectors of the society. This relapse was mirrored by 52 percent of ethnic minorities saying, according to an Opinium Research poll, that Britain had become less tolerant after voting to leave the EU, including 62 percent of second-generation British minorities who believed so, and 59 percent of British Muslims who felt the UK was less tolerant after Brexit. The number of hate crimes recorded by the Home Office, including those motivated by race and religion, surged by 29% one year following the EU referendum.


Professor Anthony Reddie is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture at the University of Oxford. He is also an Extraordinary Professor of Theological Ethics and a research fellow with the University of South Africa. He is the editor of Black Theology Journal, and the author and editor of 18 books. His 2019 book “Theologising Brexit” sheds light on the intersection of the Brexit phenomenon and the questions of identity, nationalism and xenophobia.


Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Reddie to discuss the spike of racist sentiments in the UK following the Brexit vote, British public’s perceptions of minorities, Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and the government’s response to everyday racism. The following is the text of the interview.


Q: Do you agree that the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the Brexit debate resurrected ultra-nationalism and emboldened white nationalists in Britain? After Britons voted the country out of the 28-member union, it was the conventional wisdom that the Brexiteers, particularly the UKIP politicians, were mostly concerned about Britain’s growing immigrant intake numbers, not the alleged mismanagement of the European Union. What do you think?

A: Absolutely. In my book Theologising Brexit, I argue that the European Union was the symptom of Brexit but not the cause. The cause goes back to British, particularly English nationalism, and the former glories of empire. My most popular tweet I have ever made states “Brexit is the shingles to the Chicken pox of empire.” What I mean by this is that Britain’s major identity as a world power was created and cemented by the age of empire when during the 18th and 19th centuries Britain managed to become the leading maritime power and acquire an empire which was the largest the world has ever seen, approximately, around 24 percent of the world’s surface. That enabled Britain to become hugely powerful and self-important. Crucially, this era saw them colonize millions of people as part of their empire. Empire and colonialism were very much based on Whiteness and notions of manifest destiny and an accompanying sense of entitlement.

White British people had no problem invading other people’s lands but never expected those people to come and live in the UK. So, when the 1948 British Nationality Act gave every member of the British Commonwealth, based on her then fast fading empire at this point, the right to come and live and work in the UK, British politicians never expected non-White immigrants to come and live in the UK. It was assumed that the ideal type of immigrants they wanted to come were White people from the former White colonies of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia and Canada. But for the most part, the people who came to the UK, were not these White people; rather, they were people of African and Asian descent, from what historians now call “The New Commonwealth.” I think it is true to say that Britain has never come to terms with her now post-Second World War multicultural composition. So, from the late 1950s, there have been right-wing groups asserting the need to limit and even end immigration into Britain.

What UKIP was able to do, is to make anti-immigration a mainstream social and political agenda rather than a controversial, racist and nationalistic political fringe idea supported by political extremists as was the case with the old National Front or its successor, the British National Party. The main subtext of Brexit was concerned with anti-immigration. Most British people didn’t know much about the EU save for the fact that they felt being in this body robbed the nation of their inalienable right to feel and be special. Being in a common organization with common rules that apply to every nation equally, many felt that this runs against the British sense of entitlement. Even in our current COVID-19 pandemic, when the work of the National Health Service has shown itself to be very much dependent on migrants, we have seen the hypocrisy in that many citizens have clapped the heroes working in the health service and yet still supported a right-wing government that is committed to removing low-paid key workers who are still considered detrimental to the country despite the essential work they have done in the health service and in old people’s homes and nursing homes.


Q: The idea of an invasion of Britain by the immigrants, particularly those coming from the Middle East and North Africa in search of employment and better lives, had been casting a massive shadow over the public sphere and the media for many years in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 2016. Even the former Prime Minister David Cameron had warned a “swarm” of immigrants were reaching Britain, which had drawn the ire of his critics. As the UK is out of the EU now, is it realistic to say the discourse on immigration has changed and attention has shifted to issues such as the future of relations with the European Union, the defects of NHS and the problems of transportation sector nationwide?

A: I am not convinced that our obsession with immigration has ended. It may be deflected because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, but the subtext of our 35,000 deaths from the Coronavirus is one that is still impacted by notions of race, as a disproportionate number of deaths has been comprised of people from migrant communities. So, even post leaving the EU, we are still witnessing a debate about the importance of immigration to the nation. In my book that I mentioned earlier, I show how Christianity and churches, the National Health Service and the London Underground have been the main beneficiaries of post-Second World War immigration, against which a significant proportion of the country has voted. So, the issue of how the nation sees non-White Anglo-Saxon people will not disappear. The critical issues against the EU included the freedom of movement and the fear that this body would be the means by which non-White immigrants and ethnic groups from Eastern Europe would come into the UK via the backdoor, so to speak, through the EU. So, I would contest the notion that our obsession with immigration has shifted. The other issue we are seeing now is the critical issue facing us in the area of farm laborers, people who work for minimum wage picking crops on the eastern side of the country. This work has been done by casual, poorly-paid workers who were invariably migrants. Now that the rules have changed limiting the numbers of migrants able to enter the country, farm owners are complaining about the lack of manpower to pick these crops. Once groups of low-paid immigrants are prevented from entering the country, we will still have an issue around the significance and usefulness of immigration, as there are jobs within the British economy that are often only done by migrants and not by White indigenous people, who often feel that such work is beneath them.


Q: Racism is believed to be a serious challenge in workplaces in Britain. The findings of a research by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford show applicants belonging to ethnic minorities have to send 80% more job applications until receiving a positive response from prospective employers than their white peers. This has been the case since late 1960s. The University of Manchester scholars have found out that 70 percent of ethnic minority workers have experienced some sort of racial discrimination in the past five years. Are the British employers determined to resist discrimination and racism, considering the plethora of legislation existing that outlaw race and religion-motivated inequality at work?

A: I don’t know the answer to this question to be honest, as I am not an employer and don’t know anyone who has close proximity to those that are in such roles. There is a lot of evidence to show that the legacy of slavery and colonialism is that White people still have embedded negative perceptions of non-White people that are often so deeply ingrained and embedded in the psyche of the people who employ others, that these perceptions inform the decisions that are made as to who gets jobs. In my area of academia, I know that the numbers of Black people employed as lecturers, professors and administrators is tiny. Academia, for example, will identify itself as being possessed of a liberal or even a progressive outlook in terms of being committed to affirming equalities, diversity and inclusion.

A plethora of reports have been written, in order to address and redress the structural imbalance and disparity in the demographics of people who are working within universities in the British higher education system. And yet, despite this plethora of reports, the paucity of Black and Asian people in academic posts remains. This is even more so in my area that is theology and religious studies. So, the issue is not whether British employers are determined to resist discrimination and racism. I have no proof to suggest that they are doing so; rather, I would point to the figures, which show that for all their supposed good intentions, nothing remarkably has changed in terms of the demographics. In one of my early books, I talk about “a theology of good intentions.” This comes from my 2003 book Nobodies to Somebodies in which I explore how White churches in particular – but it is equally applicable to other social institutions and systems – use apologetic rhetoric as their only means of responding to discrimination and racism. When they are challenged for the low numbers of Black and Asian people employed in their respective organizations, they apologize, say they are sorry and then continue as they did before. When challenged about the subsequent lack of action, which has led to any meaningful and structural or systemic change, they apologize once again for the failure of the previous apology and still nothing changes. This, I believe, explains the low percentage of Black and other minority ethnic people in senior posts or in prestigious professions in the UK. People apologize, promise change and there is rarely any initiative that follows through to change the previous state of affairs for which the organization apologized in the first place.


Q: The Race Relations Amendment Act 1968 prohibits discrimination against minorities in employment, housing and provision of public services. Are the terms of the legislation being implemented scrupulously today?

A: I couldn’t say, to be honest. Given the disproportionate levels of unemployment amongst Black and minority ethnic people in the UK, clearly there is some mismatch taking place between what employers say they are doing and what is happening in reality. I wonder whether the developing work in unconscious bias, that has come from the US, has something to say to this – namely, that people in positions of power and authority have a set of frameworks in their head that lead to them acting under the influence of forms of unconscious bias that work against Black and minority ethnic people in Britain. I don’t know if that is the case. This is my surmising.


Q: Over the course of his political career, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has on different occasions used disparaging terminology and offensive references to identify African-Caribbean people, ethnic minorities and Muslims. In an annexation to his 2006 book “The Dream of Rome,” Johnson alleged Islam has caused the Muslim world to be “literally centuries behind” the West. Considering his mentality and this background, can the premier be expected to place combatting xenophobia and racism on his agenda?

A: I honestly doubt it. It is often said that a leopard cannot change its spots. The Prime Minister has a long history of peddling a form of populist, White English nationalism that is happy to play to the gallery of what many term “dog-whistle racism.” So, his comments about Muslim women wearing veils, comparing them to “letterboxes,” were not only insulting, they led to a surge of anti-Muslim hate incidents, in the form of abuse and attacks. Despite repeatedly being asked to apologize for such comments, he steadfastly refused to do so, I think believing correctly, that a significant section of the British public would support him in such views, which no doubt played well to his core electorate of disaffected and unhappy White people. Given the racist comments he has made in the past calling Black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” and once again, refusing to apologize when asked to do so, it is clear to me that one cannot expect any serious commitment to combatting xenophobia and racism anytime soon.

Johnson is an English nationalist, whose raison d’etre is the ideological reassurance of a form of neo-imperialism that is deeply etched into the fabric of the Conservative Party, particularly that of his hero and role model, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Johnson’s view of the world, filtered through the prism of English exceptionalism – his so-called appeal as a popularist is largely lost on the Scots and to a lesser extent, the Welsh or the Irish – is one that is steeped in a nostalgia for the grandeurs of the British Empire, within which non-White bodies are inevitably seen as inferior. This is the basis of all forms of neo-colonialism. I simply do not see him fighting xenophobia and racism to any great extent.

Reports into Islamophobia within the Conservative Party have come to nothing and many of us, such as myself, who would describe ourselves as anti-colonial and anti-racist activist scholars are not expecting anything much in the change of social attitudes regarding minorities from a Johnson-led administration.


Q: Based on what you just said, does the Conservative Party, in power for nearly a decade now, suffer from the plague of racism? Is antipathy against minorities, particularly the Muslims, part of their ideology that cannot be remedied?

A: From my reading of history, the Conservative Party has always been the right of center political organization committed to conserving those “traditional values” of Britishness, ideas and themes often rooted in empire and notions of White English exceptionalism. A part of the historical development of the Conservative Party is the relationship between the landed gentry, the traditional aristocracy and the Church of England. The Church of England is often spoken of as the “Tory Party at Prayer.” I mention the Church of England, because the defense of “Christian Britain” and the Judeo-Christian heritage of the nation is often enshrined within the very modus operandi of the Conservative Party, via her relationship with the Anglican Church. I say all this to say that Muslims have always been seen as the “other,” the perennial problem that needs to be curbed or even removed.

I was born and grew up in the northern industrial city of Bradford, in the county of West Yorkshire. Due to its industrial roots in terms of textiles and heavy engineering, the city became home to immigrants from the so-called New Commonwealth, in this case, meaning the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, primarily India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bradford has developed into a city that has become defined by the large community of migrants, particularly Muslims. Bradford has the largest community of Muslims in the country. I remember hearing the casual racism directed at Muslims as I was growing up. One of the local traditions amongst the White youth was that of “Paki-Bashing,” the intimidation and physical attack on Muslims.

Given the Conservative Party’s commitment to preserving British values, including the Judeo-Christian heritage, which is also enshrined in Whiteness, I have always felt that as a party they are more susceptible to an anti-Islamic stance than say the British Labour Party. So, whilst the Labour Party, partly due to its stronger support of Palestinian rights is susceptible to anti-State of Israel views – which is not the same thing as anti-Semitism, although vestiges of anti-Semitism do exist within the Labour Party – the Conservative Party is more susceptible to anti-Islamic views. Sadly, there has never been any parity within the media to the existence of Islamophobia when compared to anti-Semitism. Prior to the last general election, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated that due to the presence of anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party, he advised Anglicans not to vote Labour. Yet, the even clearer manifestation of Islamophobia within the Conservatives – I say clearer because to the best of my knowledge, there is no documented evidence of the former Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn making anti-Jewish statements, yet Boris Johnson has, as stated previously, made anti-Muslim statements – did not arouse any comparative condemnation by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I would assert that Muslims are for many people in UK now, seen as the “natural enemies within.”
They are seen as the problem, by people from across the political spectrum, but for the historic reasons I have given here, I believe that the Conservative Party is more prone to exhibiting anti-Muslim perspectives.


Q: In the 2018-2019 period, a total of 130,379 hate crimes were recorded in England and Wales by the Home Office, of which 76 percent, that is nearly 79,000 crimes, pertained to race and ethnicity, and 8,566 crimes were motivated by religion. The numbers show a 10 percent increase as compared to the 2017-2018 period. This is while in a study carried out last year, seven out of 10 respondents said they never reported hate crimes to the police. What is triggering the rise of religious and racially motivated hate crimes in the UK? How is it possible to preclude them?

A: I believe the rise in racially motivated attacks in the UK is part of a larger phenomenon across the world in terms of the rise of various forms of nationalism, in which particularly, White people in the majority are turning against minorities. One can chart the rise in White nationalism in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary and across the Atlantic, in the US in the shape of Donald Trump. Especially within the EU, the “White Christian EU Club” has been determined in rejecting the inclusion of Turkey, a non-White nation that is also Islamic. So, one has to put the rise of racially motivated attacks into a wider context in which there is a reaction to the globalization, the wider homogenization of neo-liberal capitalism and human flows in terms of migration from poorer countries in the global south to industrialized countries in Europe and also the United States.

A reaction to the aforementioned, can be seen in the resurgence of nationalism, in which there is a marked reaction to ethnic minorities, as White majorities seek to respond to a prevailing sense of dissatisfaction and alienation, often identifying minorities as scapegoats for the collective social ills many White people are feeling in their respective nations. As I stated previously, Brexit was a symptom of post-imperial melancholy, in which post-war multiculturalism in Britain was being met by a resurgent form of White English nationalism, in which migrants and minority ethnic people are targeted as the problem. It is this rising tide of English nationalism kickstarted by UKIP and joined by the Conservative Party, that has become the wider context in which there is a rise in racially motivated attacks in the UK. I have also noted the hypocrisy in those on the right who believe in the neoliberal economic diktats of the market and the unfettered movement of goods and services across national boundaries, but not the free movement of people, which comes as a natural consequence of the former. So, one can happily seek trade and investment from nations, such as India, whilst still holding to a racist ideology that doesn’t want people from this nation to come and live in your nation. This is the underlying reason for the rise in racially motivated hate crimes in the UK.


Q: It was nine years ago when the Conservative member of House of Lords Baroness Sayeeda Warsi stated that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test” in Britain. Statistics confirm that Muslims continue to be otherized in the British society, evidenced by 18 percent of the population of the country who hold extremely negative views of Muslims, while 31 percent believe Islam is at odds with the British way of life. Can Islamophobia be expected to be stamped out in a diverse and developed society such as Britain, followed by the introduction of reconciliation between the British Muslims and the non-Muslim majority?

A: As I have stated earlier, within the context of British history and the conflation of the Judeo-Christian heritage, empire and Whiteness, I think there will always be a sense in which Muslims are pigeonholed as the “other” and a problem within the body politic of the nation. So, I don’t honestly think it will be possible to eradicate Islamophobia. I think the best we can hope for are two complementary moves that can be undertaken by the British state and schools. In terms of the state, we need robust prosecutions against those engaging in Islamophobic behavior and rhetoric. It may not be possible to change the attitude of some in society, but we can prosecute those whose attitudes may not change, but whose actions will be modified by strict prosecutions that may curtail such extremist actions. Alongside the rise in prosecutions, must be increased education on the values and theologies of Islam. Much of the extremist attitudes and behavior against Muslims is due to the abject ignorance and ideological demonization of Islam. The connection of ordinary Muslims to Islamic-influenced violence and terrorism is no more a strong one than is Western imperialism and globalization to most people who identify as Christians in Britain. We need increased opportunities for non-Muslims in Britain to recognize the wide variety of Islamic thought in Britain and realize that lazy stereotypes, assuming that all Muslims are the same, is no more tenable and reasonable an idea than the expectations that all White British people are racists. The latter isn’t true, but neither are all stereotypes about Muslims. Muslims in Britain are as varied in terms of issues of class, political ideology – there are Tory voting Muslims and Labour ones, as well – and an appreciation of Britishness as there is in any other ethnic, cultural or religious group in the nation. So, we need better education on understanding and appreciating the varied nature of Muslims in Britain and that the variety of views and social and religious outlooks they hold are often no different to how say Christians, Sikhs, Jews, and other cultural or religious groups think or act.


Q: Can education serve to bridge the racial and religious divides? Do you believe universities and academic institutions have a role to play in reducing racial and religious bias by promoting tolerance and raising public awareness of the detrimental impacts of racism on the public life and individuals? How effective can they be?

A: I believe education has a crucial role to play in helping to bridge racial and religious divides. I cannot stress the importance of religious education as a means of bridging religious and social divides. A greater attention to a “world religions approach” to religious education will educate, what are hopefully, still impressionable minds, into understanding the variety of religious perspectives in the major religions that exist across the UK. The necessity of increased religious literacy is essential for us all to understand that the radicalization of people has very little to do with theological ideas, and have more to do with political ideologies that are often conflated with religious identities. As I have said in a good deal of my community work, people who are happy, contented and have strong goals and positive social networks do get radicalized. Conversely, those who are socially alienated, disaffected, frustrated and angry, are much more at risk. So, rather than focusing solely on theological views, one needs to look at the age-old problems of social deprivation and economic poverty. My work in the University of Oxford is concerned with overseeing a research center that specializes in exploring the interrelationship between religion and culture. Within my own specific research work, such as my book Theologising Brexit, I am exploring how the conflation of the Christian faith with English imperialism has given rise to notions of White exceptionalism and notions of manifest destiny, which gives rise to the asymmetrical ideas of Britain colonizing other people’s lands, as being legitimate, but it being illegitimate when those people come to live in the UK. This sense of entitlement and jingoism is fueled by the same Judeo-Christian tradition that has been intertwined with British colonialism and empire. Too little theological work has been done to educate the British population on the hidden dangers lurking in British history. The Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition from 2010 to 2015 sought to bring a greater emphasis to the teaching of British history. Although I have suspicions at what version of British history they sought to teach, namely, reaffirmation of the age of empire and colonialism, I would still argue that a greater understanding of the eclectic nature of British history is necessary. But in the version that I was to see being taught, I would emphasize the significant contribution Black and minority ethnic people have made to the development of Britain, such as thousands of Muslims who volunteered to fight for Britain in World War One. We need a better understanding of the British history to show the connection between the British Empire and the peoples from all over the world who now count Britain as home because of colonialism. So, we need better and more pluralistic education, particularly in history, religious education, religious studies and a postcolonial approach to Christian theology. I was very much looking forward to speaking at an international conference for higher education chaplains from all over the world that was going to be held at the University of Sheffield in June this year. The conference was an opportunity for chaplains from universities from all over the world to be in conversation with leading academics, in order to explore how the work of chaplaincy can be source for encouraging greater intercultural and religious dialogue between people, helping us to learn from and affirm our differences, within our common humanity. In my work as the Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, we are also developing links with the Islamic “Dialogue Society,” the latter committed to fostering dialogue between British Muslims and non-Muslims around what it means to be better neighbors and citizens living within the UK. I am proud to be a part of this work. I was asked to take part in a Zoom community event in Oxford that was hosted by the Dialogue Society to mark Ramadan. We had an enjoyable 90-minute sharing short inputs from people from a variety of political, cultural and religious perspectives, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for greater unity and solidarity across our various differences. I know that many people found this to be an inspirational event and it is my hope that the unprecedented times in which we presently live will give rise to more events and sentiments of this kind, as we move forward as a nation.



By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV interview: Brexit was a symptom of post-imperial melancholy in Britain ”