by Abduljalil Sajid
“And they ill-treated them [believers] for no other reason except that they believed in Allah” (Al-Qur’an 85-8).
The term “Islamophobia” was first used in print in 1991 and was defined in the Runnymede Trust Report (the Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, 1997) as “unfounded hostility towards Islam, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” The word has been coined because there is a new reality which needs naming — anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed so that it can be identified and acted against.
The term “Islamophobia” is, admittedly, not ideal. It was coined by way of analogy to “xenophobia” and can be characterized by the belief that all or most Muslims are religious fanatics, have violent tendencies towards non-Muslims, and reject such concepts as equality, tolerance, and democracy. It is a new form of racism whereby Muslims, an ethno-religious group, not a race, are, nevertheless, constructed as a race. A set of negative assumptions are made of the entire group to the detriment of members of that group. During the 1990s many sociologists and cultural analysts observed a shift in racist ideas from ones based on skin color to ones based on notions of cultural superiority and otherness.
In Britain as in other European or Western countries, manifestations of anti-Muslim hostility can be seen to include such features as verbal and physical attacks on Muslims in public places,1 and attacks on mosques and desecration of Muslim cemeteries. It can be seen in widespread and routine negative stereotyping in the media and everyday discourse in ways that would not be acceptable if the reference were, for example, to Jewish or black people; or in negative stereotypes and remarks in speeches by political leaders, implying that Muslims are less committed than others to democracy and the rule of law — the claim in Britain, for example, that Muslims must choose between “the British way” and “the terrorist way.”2 It can also manifest itself in discrimination in recruitment and employment practices and in the workplace; in delay and inertia in responding to Muslim requests for cultural sensitivity in education, in healthcare, and in protection against incitement to hatred; and in curtailment of civil liberties that disproportionately affect Muslims.
September 11, 2001, and the days that followed produced strong feelings amongst non-Muslims as well as among Muslims. When people feel powerless and frustrated they are prone to hit out with violent language: “You don’t belong here,” or “Get out of my country now; England is for white civilized English people!” are examples of the kind of violent language that was used in e-mail messages to the Muslim Council of Britain immediately following the attacks. These messages are significant, for they expressed attitudes and perceptions that are widespread amongst non-Muslims and that are recurring components of Islamophobia.
An alleged factor, some argue, that fuels Islamophobia is the rise of anti-Western Islamist movements, which have either come to power outright in some countries (Iran, Sudan, post-Soviet-era Afghanistan), or else exert a strong influence on government policy in others (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Many people mistakenly believe that most Muslims are Islamist, when in fact the Islamist movement is only a minority position. Perhaps the most important factor shaping the present wave of Islamophobia, though, is the extremely large and disproportionate media coverage given to Islamist-inspired terrorism, like the September 11 attacks, while relatively little media coverage is given to equivalent acts of terrorism by other groups or nation-states.
Islamophobia is heightened by a number of contextual factors. One of these is the fact that a high proportion of refugees and people seeking asylum are Muslims. Demonization of refugees is therefore frequently a coded attack on Muslims, for the words “Muslim,” “asylum-seeker,” “refugee,” and “immigrant” become synonymous and interchangeable in the popular imagination. In this case, the common experiences of immigrant communities of unemployment, rejection, alienation and violence have combined with Islamophobia to make integration particularly difficult.
This has led Muslim communities to suffer higher levels of unemployment, poor housing, poor health and higher levels of racially motivated violence than other communities. For example, in 2003, when the Home Office produced a poster about alleged deceit and dishonesty amongst people seeking asylum, it chose to illustrate its concerns by focusing on someone with a Muslim name.3 An end-of-year article in the Sunday Times magazine on “Inhumanity to Man” focused in four of its five examples on actions by Muslims.4
A second contextual factor is the skeptical, secular and agnostic outlook with regard to religion that is expressed in the media, perhaps particularly the left-liberal media. The outlook is opposed to all religions, not only to Islam. Commenting on media treatment of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that the Church in the eyes of the media is “a kind of soap opera … It is both ridiculous and fascinating.”5 Ridiculing religion by the media would appear to be even-handed, but since Muslims have less influence and less access to public platforms, attacks are far more undermining. Debates and disagreements about religion are legitimate in modern society and are, indeed, to be welcomed, but they need to take place on a symmetrical basis.
A third contextual factor is foreign policy in the UK and most Western countries, in general, regarding various conflict situations around the world. There is a widespread perception that the war on terror is in fact a war on Islam, and that the UK supports Israel against the Palestinians. In other conflicts too the UK government appears to side with non-Muslims against Muslims and to agree with the view that the terms “Muslim” and “terrorist” are synonymous. These perceptions of UK foreign policy may or may not be accurate. The point is that they help fashion the lens through which events are interpreted — not only by Muslims but by non-Muslims as well.
The cumulative effect of Islamophobia, exacerbated by the contextual factors mentioned above is that Muslims are made to feel that they do not truly belong in their respective host countries — they feel that they are not accepted, let alone welcomed, as full members of society. On the contrary, they are seen as “an enemy within” or “a fifth column” and they feel that they are under constant siege.6 Take in Britain for example, a whole new generation of British Muslims is developing, feeling increasingly disaffected, alienated and bitter.
A further negative impact of Islamophobia is that Muslim insights on ethical and social issues are not given an adequate hearing and are not seen as positive assets. “Groups such as Muslims in the West,” writes an observer, “can be part of trans-cultural dialogues, domestic and global, that might make our societies live up to their promises of diversity and democracy. Such communities can … facilitate communication and understanding in these fraught and destabilizing times.”7 But Islamophobia makes this potential all but impossible to realize.
“The most subtle and, for Muslims, perilous consequence of Islamophobic actions,” a Muslim scholar has observed, “is the silencing of self-criticism and the slide into defending the indefensible. Muslims decline to be openly critical of fellow Muslims, their ideas, activities and rhetoric in mixed company, lest this be seen as giving aid and comfort to the extensive forces of condemnation. Brotherhood, fellow feeling, sisterhood are genuine and authentic reflexes of Islam. But Islam is supremely a critical, reasoning and ethical framework… [It] or rather ought not to be manipulated into ‘my fellow Muslim right or wrong’.”8 The writer goes on to add that Islamophobia provides “the perfect rationale for modern Muslims to become reactive, addicted to a culture of complaint and blame that serves only to increase the powerlessness, impotence and frustration of being a Muslim.” 9
Open and Closed Views
Race equality organizations and activists over many years have failed to include Islamophobia in their programs and campaigns. For instance, why did the Race Relations Amendment Act fail to refer to anti-Muslim prejudice? In order to begin to answer this question, it is useful to draw a key distinction between closed views of Islam, on the one hand, and open views, on the other. Phobic dread of Islam is the recurring characteristic of closed views. Legitimate disagreement and criticism, as well as appreciation and respect, are aspects of open views.
* Whether Islam is seen as monolithic and static, or as diverse and dynamic
Closed views typically picture Islam as undifferentiated, static and monolithic, and as intolerant of internal pluralism and deliberation. They are therefore insensitive to significant differences and variations within the world of Islam and, in particular, they are unable to appreciate the existence of tensions and disagreements amongst Muslims. For example, they ignore debates about human rights and freedom in Muslim countries and contexts, about appropriate relationships between Islam and other world faiths, and between Islam and secularism. In short, debates and differences which are taken for granted amongst non-Muslims are neither seen nor heard when they take place within Islam.
Sweeping generalizations are then made about all Muslims, in ways which would not happen in the case of, for example, all Roman Catholics, or all Germans, or all Londoners. Also, it is all too easy to argue from the particular to the general in the case of Muslims — any episode in which an individual Muslim is judged to have behaved badly is used as an illustrative example to condemn all Muslims without exception.
Diversity within Islam, like diversity within other religions, is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. Some of the differences that tend to be ignored or over-simplified in much Islamophobic discourse pertain to those between Muslims of various countries, such as between the Middle East and South Asia, or Iranians and Arabs. Other examples include the difference between Muslims who are profoundly critical of the human rights records of certain Muslim countries and those who maintain that such criticism is merely a symptom of Islamophobia. Other differences that tend to be overlooked are the ones found between the perceptions and experiences of women and men, or the older and younger generations, particularly in the Muslim communities of Western Europe; or the ones between members of different social classes or the wide range of political movements and parties. Another important difference is that between the diverse interpretations of terminologies, doctrines and injunctions in the Qur’an and Islamic traditions, and between major strands and paths in the twentieth century, such as Sufism and Islamism, or movements known as modernism and revivalism.
A recurring phrase in the Western media nowadays is “fundamentalism,” This is not a helpful term. A brief history of the term recalls that it was coined as self-definition by a strand within Christianity and only much later, almost as a metaphor, to criticize aspects of Islam. It is emphatically not a term which Muslims themselves ever use for purposes of self-definition, and the “fundamentals” in Islam to which it claims to refer are of a different order from those to which it refers in Christianity.10
* Whether Islam is seen as other and separate, or as similar and interdependent
Closed views see a total difference between Islam, on the one hand, and the non-Muslim world, particularly the so-called West, on the other. Islam is the “other,” with few or no similarities between itself and other civilizations and cultures, and with few or no shared concepts and moral values. Further, Islam is seen as hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, with no common roots and no borrowing or mixing in either direction.
The alternative, “open” view sees similarities and shared values, as also incidentally shared problems and weaknesses, and many kinds of interaction. In the open view it is impossible to assert that, for example, Islam is “East” and Europe is “West” (or Judeo-Christian), with no inter-connections or commonalities. On the contrary, the open view stresses that there are close links between the three Abrahamic religions. At the same time it acknowledges that there are significant differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and that each has its own specific outlook on what these differences are, and on how they should be managed.
* Whether Islam is seen as inferior, or as different but equal
Claims that Islam is different and “other” often involve stereotypes and views about “us” (non-Muslims) and “them” (Muslims), and the notion that “we” are superior, civilized, reasonable, generous, efficient, sophisticated, enlightened, and non-sexist. “They” are primitive, violent, irrational, scheming, disorganized, and oppressive. An open view rejects such simplistic approaches. It acknowledges that Islam is different in significant respects from other religions and from the West, but does not see it as deficient or as less worthy.
A perception of the inferiority of Islam includes such examples as the belief that Muslim cultures mistreat women; that Muslims co-opt religious observance and beliefs to bolster or justify political and military projects; that they do not distinguish between universal religious tenets, on the one hand, and local cultural mores on the other, and that they are compliant, unreflective and literalist in their interpretation of scriptures.
* Whether Islam is seen as an aggressive enemy or as a cooperative partner
Closed views see Islam as violent and aggressive, firmly committed to barbaric terrorism, and implacably hostile to the non-Muslim world. Islam was once, said Peregrine Worsthorne in the early 1990s, “a great civilization worthy of being argued with, but now it has degenerated into a primitive enemy fit only to be sensitively subjugated.”11 Thus, Islam is perceived as a threat to global peace:
Muslim fundamentalism is fast becoming the chief threat to global peace and security as well as a cause of national and local disturbance through terrorism. It is akin to the menace posed by Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and then by Communism in the 1950s. 12
* Whether Muslims are seen as manipulative or as sincere
Islam means “submission” (not “peace”) and it is the aim of Muslims (“those who have submitted”) to make the whole world submit. The teaching seems not to envisage the idea of Muslims as a minority, except as a temporary phenomenon. The best that non-Muslims — in Britain that means Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Jews and Christians — can hope for is that they be treated as “dhimmis,” second-class citizens within the Islamic state.
It is frequently alleged that Muslims use their religion for strategic, political and military advantage rather than as a religious faith and as a way of life shaped by a comprehensive legal tradition. The Observer article which first popularized the term “Muslim fundamentalism,” asserted that Islam had been “revived by the ayatollahs and their admirers as a device, indistinguishable from a weapon, for running a modern state.” Muslims are assumed to have an instrumental or manipulative view of their religion rather than to be sincere in their beliefs, for their faith is “indistinguishable from a weapon.” 13
* Whether discriminatory behavior against Muslims is defended or opposed
Islamophobia in Britain is often mixed with racism — violence and harassment on the streets, and direct or indirect discrimination in the workplace. A closed view of Islam has the effect of justifying such racism. The expression of a closed view in the media, for example, gives support and comfort to racist behavior. Islamophobia merges with crude color racism, since most Muslims are perceived to have black or brown skins, and also anti-immigrant prejudice, since Muslims in Britain are perceived to have alien customs, specifically Asian.
* Whether anti-Muslim discourse is seen as natural or as problematic
The expression of anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments is getting increasingly acceptable. They are natural, taken-for-granted ingredients of the everyday world of millions of people.
It is not only the tabloid newspapers that demonize Islam. There are routine derogatory references in all the press, in pamphlets and books. Even organizations and individuals known for their liberalism and anti-racism express prejudice against Islam and Muslims. As one correspondent put it: “A deep dislike of Islam is not a new phenomenon in our society. What is new is the way it is articulated today by those sections of society who claim the mantle of secularism, liberalism and tolerance… They preach equality of opportunities for all, yet turn a blind eye to the fact that this society offers only unequal opportunities for Muslims.”
How Can Islamophobia Be Fought?
To answer this we must examine its causes. Firstly, there is prejudice; unfortunately, education is not enough to dispel it. Secondly, there is the smear of terrorism. The third cause is ignorance of which the hijab issue is a classic example. I wonder how far Muslims realize that non-Muslims have little understanding of Islamic distinctiveness. Only grass-roots contact can combat this. I recently spoke in a mosque at a Christian-Muslim “Meeting for Better Understanding.” The priest and I presented the position of our respective religions on a specific topic, and these meetings have proved immensely helpful in building mutual understanding.
Finally, the fourth cause is the lack of democracy in the Muslim world. Here is the one issue where critics of Islam have a point. Most Muslim states are repressive and only a minority are genuine democracies. In addition, far too many non-Muslim minorities there are marginalized if not harassed. Even if the average Briton rarely darkens a chapel door, traditional British sense of fair play will cause him to view negatively the denial of religious liberty and/or equality to non-Muslims, especially to Christians.
It is sad that some of the greatest enemies of Islam can be found in the dictators of Muslim countries. The best solution to the stagnation of the current Muslim ummah (global nation) and to Islamophobia itself is to apply true Islamic principles based on the Holy Qur’an and Hadith. According to the great Muslim thinker, Muhammed Qutub, the best way to counteract hostility to Islam and Muslims is through faith. A secular and non- religious approach will not solve the current crisis, but a solution can be found with new and brave ideas, regardless of their source, as long as they follow and adhere to Islamic principles.
Muslims need to rediscover the art of generosity. They should think of Islam as a garden. The thing about a garden is that all this truly monumental variety of life exits in symbiosis: nourishing each other and ensuring the overall survival of the garden. Of course the garden has to be tended: the weeds have to be cleared, plants have to be pruned, and we have to make sure that nothing over-grows — that is, no single interpretation becomes an overarching, totalitarian ideology so much so that it ends up suffocating and endangering other plants. It is not for nothing that the garden is the central metaphor of the Islamic paradise.14