Demonising the ‘Other’: Tackling the Rise of Racism and Xenophobia


Andy Worthington speaking at RAF Menwith Hill at a CAAB (Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases) protest on July 4, 2013.Please support my work as a freelance investigative journalist and commentator.


Last week, I took part in a fascinating event, the Brockley Festival of Ideas for Change, just a few minutes’ walk from my home in south east London, which was organised by two local organisations, the Brockley Society and the St. John’s Society. This was the talk I gave, which I wrote in a 90-minute burst of concentrated creative energy just beforehand. It distils my feelings about the current rise of racism and xenophobia in the UK, the narrow victory for leaving the EU in the referendum in June, and the terrible indifference to the current refugee crisis, which is taking place on a scale that is unprecedented in most of our lives, and I examine the dangers posed by an “us” and “them” mentality, laying the blame on cynical politicians and our largely corrupt corporate media, whilst also asking how and why, on an individual basis, people are becoming more and more insular, and what, if anything, can be done to counter these dangerous trends.

I was asked to join this event today because I’ve spent the last ten years — nearly eleven now — researching and writing about the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, telling the stories of the men held there and working to get the prison shut down, because it is, to be frank, a legal, moral and ethical abomination that should ever have existed.

Discussing Guantánamo here today wasn’t of particular relevance to most of the problems facing people in Britain right now, as the last British resident in Guantánamo — a rather lovely man named Shaker Aamer — was released over a year ago. I could have talked about Britain’s complicity in the existence of Guantánamo, and how we replicated part of its lawlessness here in the UK, holding foreign nationals without charge or trial, on the basis of secret evidence, and subjecting British nationals to a form of house arrest and/or internal exile, but I thought it would be useful to look at a key aspect of Guantánamo that has relevance to so many of the things happening in Britain today that are so deeply troubling to so many of us; namely, the rise of racism.

It doesn’t take a genius to look at Guantánamo and to realise that everyone held there since the prison opened in January 2002 is a Muslim. And because of all the disgraceful rhetoric about terrorists and the “worst of the worst,” Americans have been encouraged to accept that. But imagine if there was a prison run by the United States where people were held without charge or trial, and subjected to torture, and everyone held there was a Christian, or Jewish. There would be an unprecedented uproar.

So Guantánamo represents somewhere that a particular form of racism — Islamophobia — has been normalised since the prison opened nearly 15 years ago.

And that Islamophobia has not only taken root in the US, where the lesson of how Japanese Americans were treated in the Second World War should always be a salutary warning about overreacting, but also here in the UK, and it is at least as disgraceful as the situation was in the 1970s and the 1980s, at the time of the Troubles, when Irish people were treated much as Muslims are nowadays because of the IRA’s bombing campaigns against British targets.

In both cases, demonising an entire population because of the actions of the few was unacceptable — and, noticeably, doesn’t apply to “our” own actions. Terrible actions committed by white westerners don’t lead us to tar ourselves with the same brush.

But that, of course, is how racism works, and I’m profoundly disappointed to now be living in a country that I don’t recognise from the one I grew up in at the end of the 1970s, when Rock Against Racism became a huge movement, part of three major movements for social change that took root primarily in the 1960s and 70s and into the 80s, the others being the struggle for equality for women, and the struggle against homophobia.

As well as everyday Islamophobia, modern Britain has also seen the steady rise — over the last ten years, in particular — of racism towards other ethnic groups, and also, more broadly, of xenophobia, which includes other white people, primarily from Eastern Europe.

And this has led to talk of “us” and “them” coming out of the shadows, no longer whispered, as UKIP (the UK Independence Party), under the leadership of Nigel Farage, a former commodities broker and racist who has had the nerve to portray himself as a “man of the people,” gained in popularity, railing against the EU and immigration. And, disgracefully, Nigel Farage has been courted by the mainstream media in a completely unacceptable manner. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, for example, a visitor from Outer Space tuning into the British TV news — including the BBC — would have concluded that he was actually the Prime Minister, as he was given so much time to spout his thinly-veiled racist filth.

Of course, it’s not just Farage and UKIP. The media’s failure to stem the growing tide of racism and xenophobia, and politicians’ failure to address it has also been matched by a more broad failure of moral leadership in the country as a whole. People like Jeremy Clarkson and Katie Hopkins have huge audiences, when they should be shunned, and the decent Christian values I grew up surrounded by are almost mute by comparison.

I was brought up a Methodist, from a  northern working class background, and although I’m not a practising Christian, having lost my faith as a teenager, the moral values I learnt through Christianity have never left me. Above all, I have spent my life concerned by injustice, and concerned for the underdog.

Christianity, I believed, teaches us that we must look after those less fortunate than ourselves, but everywhere I look in modern Britain, people who are nominally Christian, if not regular church-goers, betray their faith — senior political figures like Iain Duncan Smith, for example, who was in charge of welfare in the last Tory government, who believes that poverty is caused by dysfunctional families, and not because of larger economic trends that sweep individuals along like flood tides. Duncan Smith’s beliefs are, unfortunately, those of the unenlightened Victorians who believed there were two types of poor — the deserving poor and the undeserving poor — and that kind of twisted perspective also helps to foster the racism and xenophobia that is now so prevalent.

So what has happened in particular to stoke the racist fires that are currently blazing, and what can be done about it?

It is clear that, in the last decade, all the rich countries of the west — and some of the poorer countries of the EU — have faced an influx of refugees and migrants on a scale that is unprecedented in most of our lives. The reasons are many. Number one is the war in Syria, where all the great powers seem to be engaged in a proxy version of World War III in which the poor Syrian people are being sacrificed. Millions have fled the country, joined by other victims of our post-9/11 wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — as well as those fleeing horrendous regimes — in Eritrea, for example, which currently has the world’s worst human rights record.

We are supposed to care for refugees, to welcome those fleeing death and destruction, to welcome those fleeing for they lives, but our empathy has become corroded, or choked, and, with the help of much of the media, we have been encouraged to think of refugees as migrants, and to view them as undeserving of our support.

This is a betrayal of our obligations towards refugees, enshrined in legislation in the 1950s, when, appalled by the collective bloodbath of the Second World War, the great powers came together to create new rules designed to make the world a better and fairer place. Britain had a leadership role in that process, but it is one that our current leaders have no interest in whatsoever, as they strive, like Theresa May, our latest Prime Minister, chosen by just 199 of her fellow MPs, to stop as much immigration as possible, even of skilled workers whose contribution to our society is immense.

And in all the talk of the deserving and the undeserving, of migrants (i.e refugees) and economic migrants, we are forgetting that the economic migrants are coming to the west because of the poverty of options in their home countries, which, in most cases, did not end up poor in isolation, but because of interference — economic exploitation — by the west.

The truth is that immigration has been rising across the west, and we should all take on board the demands of a new world, in which those of us who are trying to be decent human beings, and who recognise that we come from countries that, for too long, have waged war on so many other countries and devoted ourselves to their economic plunder, must take our fair share of those suffering.

There are, it seems to me, broadly speaking two groups of disaffected people in the UK currently who are dangerously obsessed with racism and xenophobia — those who have very little, and a recent survey established that a quarter of British people have savings of less than £100 — and those who are actually considerably better off, but have become blinded to the reality of their own competitive wealth.

With regard to the first group, we need to be able to demonstrate that it is neoliberalism that has caused their poverty and unemployment, and not immigrants. No immigrant ever held a gun to a potential employer’s head and forced them to pay them less than a British citizen; it is always the employers who do that — but more importantly, it is western companies and governments who have been outsourcing jobs to other parts of the world for the last quarter-century, entrenching unemployment in the west.

Politicians and the media now routinely blame the unemployed for being unemployed, when they are not stirring up hatred against immigrants, but we now need to find a way to create new jobs here in the UK — through a Green economic revolution, for example, unimaginable under the current clowns who pretend to be our leaders — and to open a discussion about what used to be called protectionism, which has been eradicated by neoliberalism.

The second group — the complaining rich — I confess I have little sympathy for, except for how they are also, in some sense, the victims of a totally unsavoury aspect of modern life who malignant influence is growing — a culture of relentless self-obsession and a disproportionate and unwarranted sense of entitlement. There are many, many people in this country — ordinary people, not the privileged by birth — in well-paid jobs or on unaffordably generous pensions, rattling around in homes that are too big for their needs, complaining that there is no room for immigrants, that the country is full.

In contrast, the truth, I believe, is that there is no room for this sort of selfishness, and it needs tackling with a reiteration of what morality is, what empathy is, and why, without it — as with the reasons we face a pressing need for a post-neoliberal return to decency and fairness — we face an ever-darkening future in which demonisation of the “other” doesn’t remain abstract, but eventually leads to discussions of how certain unwanted people can be disposed of. And that, of course, is somewhere that no one should ever want to go again.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article – the transcript of a talk I gave last Sunday at the Festival of Ideas for Change in Brockley, where I live, in south east London. As I describe my talk, “It distils my feelings about the current rise of racism and xenophobia in the UK, the narrow victory for leaving the EU in the referendum in June, and the terrible indifference to the current refugee crisis, which is taking place on a scale that is unprecedented in most of our lives, and I examine the dangers posed by an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, laying the blame on cynical politicians and our largely corrupt corporate media, whilst also asking how and why, on an individual basis, people are becoming more and more insular, and what, if anything, can be done to counter these dangerous trends.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Your interest is greatly appreciated! Any feedback will also be welcome!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Sven Wraight wrote:

    Just as racism and bigotry never quite go away, so people of compassion and wisdom are hibernating now, waiting for the right time. We may only see small gestures of decency, and resources will only buy time, but your helping the victims of Guantanamo is a benefit the stupid won’t realise unless it’s gone. Please hang in there!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the supportive words, Sven. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on giving up. I was interested in your description of how “people of compassion and wisdom are hibernating now, waiting for the right time.” I generally think of it as a kind of enforced silence, because of the prevailing power of the media to maintain silence from anyone trying to rock the boat of intolerance, but your mention of hibernations struck me as an interesting take on the subject. Whatever is happening, though, I do hope that at some point there will be an awakening. We are in desperate need of a new direction!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Jan Strain shared this, she wrote:

    From my friend, Andy Worthington – Sing it, brother!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan – and I was also actually singing last night with my band The Four Fathers at a well-known music pub in south east London, the New Cross Inn. It was very loud! Very rock and roll!

  7. damo says...

    we are in the age of f..kenomics and the mass curse of the me me……….f..k every one everything i want it all i want more i want need all the money all the wealth all the earth resources i need them everyone else can die f..k them ……thats fuckernomics …………….me what about me…….no…….not them…….they dont understand i know ive got millions but there crowding…….me……..out…….no……me…me…meeeeeeee…thats the curse of the me me……people are saying ….the worlds fucked up….no the animals the plants the mountains the rocks there not fucked up its people that are fucked up and were fucking them up…the tipping point is nearly here the witching hour there are more people on the planet who want a green sustainable future for all the cretures plants rocks but were under the thumb of the nihilists the fuckernomists and the me mes……and the haters……why

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I think there’s always been struggle between the dark and the light, Damo. We can see the power of t eight everyday – every child loved by their parents, all the little gestures and kindnesses that make up civil society, the kindness of strangers.
    The darkness is always there too – the war, the hunger for war, hatreds from the micro to the macro, the competitiveness, the oneupmanship, the petty rivalries, the obsession with status …
    The question right now is how the decent people can seize back the initiative from the destroyers – and that’s not easy. From the delusion of Brexit and how people are preyed on by the media and politicians, to the celebrity culture and the endless fawning over dysfunctional individuals with gross appetites (check out the super yachts, look at Donald Trump), the decent worldview is under threat. We can only keep on doing what we do and being who we are, and hope that someone can think of a great way of shifting perceptions on a big and unexpected scale. I do always think it’s possible, however remote it seems.

  9. damo says...

    it is cheeper to live in a green sustaining is cheeper to live in a world free from war it is cheeper to make sure every child born is loved taken care of educated it is cheeper to have a world free from poverty and want to live in a harmonius balanced world……..its cheeper and sustainable…so whats the problem

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I came up with a partial A to Z in response, Damo:
    Apathy. Belligerence. Capitalism. Disdain. Environmental denial. Fatuousness. Greed. Hatred. Indifference. Jealousy. Misogyny. Nepotism. Oppression. Prejudice. Racism. Self-obsession. Torture. Vanity. Warmongering. Xenophobia.

  11. damo says...

    people have allways displayed the behavor and behaveours you have listed they were seen as shortcomeings unpaletable behaviour …it seems today those behaviours seem to be seen as virtues by some people…….what has happened

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    We have lost our spiritual compass, Damo. All the time that Richard Dawkins has been debunking religion, it turns out that ordinary people – i.e. those not very consciously embracing atheism – end up, when left to their own devices, replacing God with shopping and celebrities, and abandoning a moral code. There’s a need for moral leadership, but it’s being filled by charlatans and self-seeking deviants.

  13. damo says...

    your right people have lost there moral code even if you dont belive in the mainstream religeon theres still the universe do right by the universe … causeing no harm showing kindnesses ect haveing a moral code and you will be taken care of and become a part of the universe …..the native americans believed in a creator and spirits i like that…..were in the age of blind vision and faithless distractions

  14. damo says...

    i couldnt help but notice one the most sad and grotesque pr stunts ive ever seen …the russians handing out blanketes and food to thease poor civilians trying to flee the liveing hell…..and it must be hell…thease poor sods bloodied covered in shit driven mad by terror ……being barrel bombed by assad and the russians theres footage of a weeping teenage boy who had just lost his entire family. with the exeption of ch4 news all the foul stinking bbc could talk about was sly torie properganda ..brexit this..economy that…your right andy people have lost there moral compass…what is the answer

  15. damo says...

    21first century homosapiens………the biggest suicide cult in history…………………..but we could all stop it

  16. damo says...

    i have a very elderly mongrel dog its her last day today shes dying shes i hope had a great life with me ..but over the years she has shown such …..guts and courage and fearlessness and bravery and valor and honor …kindness and generosity of spirit and unquestioning love support and devotion and loyalty……….and class……we humans have thease qualitys ……why arent they shown by everyone

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, remember when we were young, in the mad 1970s, Damo – people were questioning, searching for meaning, transgressing, picking up on mad theories, experimenting. It was the time of Erich Von Daniken, the Bermuda Triangle, the revival of leylines. People were turning to paganism, Native American traditions, Buddhism, the pantheon of Hindu gods, transcendental meditation, the universe (as you note), in a search for answers. It was a time of promiscuity. The model of the nuclear family was repeatedly interrogated, broken down – often with disastrous results, it should be noted – but it was all part of the restlessness. It was exciting.
    Now, I struggle to see the passion in anything. Selfishness, self-obsession, being endlessly diverted by novelty like slightly brain-damaged children – and below the surface, obviously, a violence that every generation has to deal with, but this one erupting with an old-fashioned racist, xenophobic, jingoist, isolationist bent – straight out of the 30s, or the 50s, before the rise of the teenager and the counter-culture and the self-made working class lads and lasses of the 60s. So here we are, in a reimagining of the 50s, with smart phones, social media and oh so many more things to buy, but with the same stilted, stunted, dull worldview that made George Melly despair that, in the 50s, the only interesting place in the whole of Britain was Soho.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s such a disaster in Syria, Damo – like the world powers are playing out WWIII, with the Syrian people as pawns on their chessboard, running with blood.
    From my friend Sarah Kay on Facebook (citing an article in the Washington Post – – by Louisa Loveluck, who she calls “an outstanding and courageous journalist, who, yes, is a young and female war correspondent (apparently none exist; their voices do matter)”:

    Aleppo is not being “retaken”. Aleppo is not currently in a battle, asymmetric or otherwise, that can pave the way for one side’s “victory”. This is wanton destruction. This is entire annihilation of a centuries-old city that still harbours civilians, starved and without medical assistance for months. Those same civilians have been stuck here following the destruction of the insurrection ranks, exploited by armed extremists, ISIS, and the punitive regime forces assisted by Russia on the other. There is no way out; the corridors aren’t being safeguarded. I have said it before and I will say it again: a failure to intervene constitutes a grave human rights violation under international law. “Depopulation” is nothing short than a strategic term for mass killing. Few here can assess whether the charred, mangled bodies that are piled up in Aleppo were legitimate targets or not. No one has tried to make that effort in Afghanistan or in Iraq; pre-emptively, without qualification or sanction, claiming the dead of Aleppo were never and could never be civilians could possibly be a grave violation of humanitarian law. And this is on all of us for reaching that level of dehumanisation and dissonance in the face of a massacre that will come to define warfare for the generations to come. There is no decency nor glory that lies in a preventable carnage.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    So sorry to hear about your dog, Damo. I’m sure she had a great life with you.
    People seem unable to grasp any of the higher functions, the possibilities. Perhaps it’s materialism, the commodification of everything that’s done it; also the alienation caused by technology and the deliberate depoliticisation of the culture.
    I was just reading Ian Dunt’s new article for The Erotic Review, ‘The new authoritarianism’, where he blames liberal complacency for the rise of the authoritarians. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I think hatreds can fester with only spurious targets rather than real ones – in which case the corrupt media are to blame – but I was interested in his assessment that the only way to defeat the authoritarians “is to stand up for the rights of the individual: to live where you like, to do what you want, and to say what you damn well please.”
    We need to be noisier!

  20. damo says...

    looking back now the peoples and era of the 70s seem like an advanced civilisation allmost looking thru my rosy tinted specticles like a utopia people seemed more inteligant they coudnt rely on technoligy they had to think and come up with solutions come up with ideas they were open seems like the lost nirvana i remember watching a doc on bette midler talking about the early 70 playing gigs at the continental baths in ny……..yes it was the time of watergate …but it seemed a sunnier …happier..time….people were comeing together………..watching the boreing question time last night all the wretched people could talk about was immigration…brexit…the economy…and on and on and on….blah…blah…blah…the media fueling and feeding this…we need as bette midler put it…sunnier and happier times

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    I think the rose-tinted spectacles have the effect of blinding us to the misery that was also a part of the times, Damo – and really not so different to now. There’s always been a mass of miserable people here, with their island mentality (“island apes”, northern Europeans call us), their historical oppression and their dismal Puritanism. Racism was rife (it was just after Enoch Powell), the isolationists didn’t want us to join the EU in the first place, and sexism and homophobia were rampant too.
    That said, the sunny uplands were indeed filled with people who could think and who were open to thinking – whereas now the culture really does appear, on a huge basis, to be style over content, irritatingly conformist, and lacking in genuine passion.
    We do not, collectively, believe in the future anymore. The neoliberal machine we live in despises us, and is concerned only with capital. We have moved beyond a world of employers and workers, into one of pure profit – and when the world itself despises its human components, apart from those who are rich – we really ought to not only worry, but also to act to change it.
    So we’re back to square one, aren’t we? How to wake our fellow citizens from their slumber. I don’t think it’s too late, necessarily, but the petty hatred we see everywhere post-Brexit is a horribly all-consuming thing, as Question Time made clear with its dull bigots who don’t understand that they’re cheerleaders for a result that doesn’t have a single tangible benefit for the UK. On the other hand, the people who are permanently stifling themselves in a world of dull materialism ought to be able to see the magic they’re missing, shouldn’t they?

  22. damo says...

    there has allways been horror and cruelty and racisum…discrimination and hate and the 70s were no exeption…….exept there seemed to be something in the air ….movements…that started in the 60s from civil rights and martin luther king to stonewall and the birth of gay lib it seemed to me like people were fighting back against all the horror and hate they wanted change ……..i dont see much of that fight back at the moment and if there is its being ignored …….the haters like that vile little man from the riddiculas…brexit means brexit…if hes a bussiness man as he claimes then he knows brexit is a disaster and i wonder just wot his real agenda is…..thease haters are useing up all the oxygen

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think it becomes clear how much has changed when you make that contrast between the 60s and 70s and now, Damo. There’s Standing Rock in the US, but here in the UK there’s so little dissent – where people are prepared to shift out of their comfort zone, or even derail their lives for a worthwhile cause – that I think it proves what you say, and I find it very sad – the triumph of a straightjacketed worldview, silencing meaningful dissent.
    As for the Brexiteers like the businessman you mention, do they have another agenda, or are they just economically illiterate? I actually suspect the latter, despite their supposed business prowess. The blind faith of so many Brexiteers seems impervious to common sense.
    Interesting poll in the north east, by the way, suggesting quite a large shift in people’s attitudes towards Brexit – ‘North East now wants to stay in the European Union according to our Brexit poll’, from The Chronicle, “the North East’s most popular daily evening newspaper [which has served Newcastle and the surrounding area since 1885”:

  24. damo says...

    thank christ people are maybe starting to wake up there seeing that the tories and ukip were nonescence and full of shit with no plans that all brexit will do is f..k peoples lives up but saying that there was a ch4 news special on romford and white working class people like us were still screaming brexit brexit brexit they were market traders and that market looked pretty quiet to me. brexit destroys our economy and that market will be even quieter …its not rocket science…i think your right about the bussiness men shrieking and screaming for brexit …they must be economicaly illiterate or just completely thick …lol….lol…championing the failier of the economy and potentialy your own bussiness …………but its the will of the people…i dont want to hear that……..i think and hope that as time goes on people ………are …starting to see brexit as the disaster it is.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, let’s hope so, Damo. The biggest damage to the Leave campaign, however, would be if the BBC stopped promoting it all the time, and if the corrupt mainstream media, mostly pro-Leave, also stopped their malignant coverage.
    This is a good article I read recently, about EU citizens who live and work here, following further revelations that our racist Prime Minister considers them no more than bargaining chips in our negotiations – “EU citizens in Britain post Brexit vote: ‘I feel betrayed, not at home, sad’”:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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