Review: Race & Class

Race & Class 48(2), 2006.

One of the most alarming and dangerous consequences of the post-9/11
world and the ‘war on terror’ has been a tendency in the West to present
illegal immigration and terrorism as joint threats to national security.
This trend has reached particularly strident and hysterical proportions
when such migrants come from Islamic countries. In the US, ideological
supporters of the war on terror, such as Daniel Pipes, Robert
Spencer and Oriana Fallaci have depicted Islamic immigration to the
West not merely as a potential terrorist fifth column, but as another
‘weapon’ in an Islamic war of religious conquest, aimed at subjugating
western civilisation by changing the demographic balance. Various
pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed that this process is
already well under way in Europe and that, by the end of the twenty-
first century, European civilisation will be irrevocably absorbed into
an Islamic entity known as ‘Eurabia’. According to this presentation,
Europeans have become blinded by political correctness from facing
up to the ‘time bomb’ posed by Muslim immigration.

In one sense, this presentation of a new Islamic invasion is a
contemporaryvariant of older fears of ‘Saracens’ and ‘Moors’ that can
be traced back to the long centuries of confict between Islam and
Christianity that preceded the colonial era. At the same time, the
incorporation of Muslim immigration into the sinister stereotype of the
Islamic enemy is a blatantly ideological manoeuvre, which strips the
migrants it describes of their humanity and converts some of the
most vulnerable and powerless people on earth into the foot-soldiers
of a new Islamic offensive. Governments in Europe and the US have
generally avoided the kind of overtly Islamophobic rhetoric espoused
by Spencer, Melanie Phillips and others, who have called for Islamic
immigration to be ‘re-thought’. Nevertheless, politicians on both
sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly evoked the threat of terrorism
to justify draconian immigration controls and forced deportations.
Given that terrorism is almost universally regarded in the West as an
‘Islamic’ product, there is no need for such governments to spell out
the nature of the enemy.

If ‘bogus’ asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’ tend to be portrayed
as a parasitical breed of humanity, migrants from Muslim countries
are always potential carriers of the terrorist virus, even when they
come from the newly ‘liberated’ countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. The
presentation of Muslim immigrants as an incipient terrorist fifth
column is powerfully rebutted in this Farsthand investigation of Islamic
migration to the West by the Iranian journalist and academic Behzad
Yaghmaian. A political exile from the Khomeini regime now based in
the US, Yaghmaian set out to examine the phenomenon of Muslim
immigration in the aftermath of September 11. Deciding that library
research was inadequate for such an undertaking, he travelled from
Turkey and Europe to New York, with a tape recorder and notebook,
in order to track some of the thousands of people making their way
from Muslim countries to the West and record their stories.

The result is a deeply moving piece of reportage, which sheds light
on a collective story of Muslim migration that has remained largely invisible or submerged in stereotypes and ideological fabrications.

Yaghmaian is an astute and compassionate observer, skilfully establishing
the context for the stories he describes, while drawing the men
and women he encounters to reveal their personal experiences of
poverty, tyranny and violence in their own words. Some of these stories
are unbelievably tragic, providing poignant glimpses of the largely
undocumented and unrecorded epic of migration that defines our
era. There are gay men fleeing persecution in Iran. There is a young
Afghan whose entire family were killed by American bombs, an Angolan
man named ‘Roberto’ who fled his village at the age of nine after his
family were wiped out during the civil war and has grown up with the
single, overriding ambition to enter the US. In one of the most terrible
episodes in the book, Roberto describes how the rickety boat in which
he and other African men and women were travelling was deliberately
rammed by the Greek coastguard in June 2002. Twelve passengers
drowned, while others clung on to the wreckage for hours, their cries
ignored by passing fishing boats.

Other stories are equally horrific. Whether Iraqi Kurds from the
gassed village of Halabja, Iranian women fleeing the oppression of
their conservative families, Afghan teenagers or Sudanese women in
flight from civil war and the brutal Islamisation campaigns of the
Tourabi regime, Yaghmaian’s subjects tell similar tales of danger and
hardship, of migrants frozen to death on mountain journeys or
drowned at sea, of beatings by border police in various countries, of
stateless, marginal existences in cities and transit camps, at the mercy
of corrupt police and people smugglers as they try to find ways of
breaching the European ‘fence’ and fulfilling their desperate dreams
of a new life in the West.

To his credit, Yaghmaian does not merely present his interviewees as
faceless victims. The men and women he interviews all emerge as
individuals, with their own hopes and dilemmas, and a powerful sense of
personal dignity which transcends the often unbelievable hardships
and obstacles placed in their way. The majority have abandoned lives
of poverty and oppression for the desperate dream of a new life in
the West. Few of them succeed in their quest. Whatever the individual
circumstances that compelled them to leave their countries, all of them
are forced to inhabit the transient, sub-world of the refugee, whose
predicament is summed up by an Iranian poem:

I must leave tonight
Pack a suitcase the size of my loneliness
I must leave tonight.

This is the world that Yaghmaian depicts so brilliantly. In rendering
these stories into print, he has provided an unforgettable portrait of
the human reality behind the demonisation of the Muslim enemy.

Like Gu¨nter Walraff and other practitioners of the dying craft of
investigative journalism, Yaghmaian has given a voice to people whose
tales have not been told before. In doing so, he has written one of the
essential documents of our times and shown once again what journalism
can do when it chooses to speak for the powerless, instead of reproducing
the lies and fantasies of the powerful.

Matlock, Derbyshire MATT CARR
Reviews 109

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