Islamophobia and the West, or Islamophobia and the Rest?

04 Jan

Islamophobia, arachnophobia for Muslims. But is it? Is it hatred for the individual or a deeper rooted fear of lost values, sacrificed ideals, and halal, but tasteless cheeseburgers?

If you can be Anti-Zionist without being Anti-Semitic, then you can be Islamophobic without being Anti-Muslim, or without being Anti-Islam as a religion grounded in moral rightfulness.

Sounds conflictual, but I think I struck a chord with the Anti-Zionist comparison. Hear me out.

Word has it that Islamophobia is the fear of the Muslim murderer, the terrorist who could strike unexpectedly as he reaches over the counter to hand you your milk, or moves in next door from some Stan you’ve never heard of, bearded, niqaabed wife, conjuring images ranging from Osama Bin Laden to the Temple of Doom.

That is what the catchphrases and slogans tell us, 1000 years of Jihad, a religion clinging to medieval principles. Ridiculous though they may be, catchphrases and slogans go viral and cristalize debates in a series of meaningless puns, jabs and paranoid rethoric about security, security, security.  I am all for flying safe, and I am willing to accept that given the nature of international terrorism, Muslims will be targeted, often unneccesarily, even if it is me who is targeted, and I have been.

The focus on security, and perceived threats to the individual and the nation do a lot to stir up a lot of Anti-Muslim sentiment, fear of the individual, but it is not Islamophobia. The fear of Islam as a political/religious compound in the West  and the Rest is different in my opinion, for the following reasons:

The fear of Islam, is not the fear of Muslims, it is the fear that Muslim majority countries inspire in the Western mind. To the casual observer, most Muslim dominated countries, without being official theocracies such as Iran, have appaling Human Rights records, whether rich or poor (UAE or Yemen), and are for a large part autocracies if not outright dictatorships. Nevermind that there are democracies in the Muslim world as well (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Senegal), especially since the Arab Spring, but those are fragile democracies, not systems where a clean line has been drawn between popular freedom and government, repressive, interventionism, where there is still an unclear divide between individual freedoms and religious precepts (look at recent changes in education in Indonesia). In that light, to most Westerners, the threat of Islam as a political power, which would undermine the hard acquired rights and freedoms of the West, is the reason why there is a fear of large scale immigration, of cultural incompatibility, not because the individual is a threat, but because he carries with him societal values that are antagonistic, or perceived as such.

Be cautious not to fall into the trap of making historical references, yes Europe has a colonial record, yes there is a great period of medieval Islamic culture and liberalism, but it has no incidence on what you see on television, it has no bearing on the impressions given by Muslim majority states today. Reminiding people that Muslims are also cultured and educated people is necessary, but it doesn’t change the image given by the political reality today. It’s akin to saying that you can’t judge Egypt today by Mohamed Morsi but by Ramses II. It’s very pleasant, but unbelievably stupid.

When people say, or don’t, that they are Islamophobic, they also look at political Islam, and the confluence between political interests and terrorist groups, at regional stability and instability. And that is not just the West, it’s the West and the Rest. Islamic fundametalism is a much larger threat to African stability than it is to American or European stability in the immediate future. The rise of Islamophobia in Nigeria recently, can be directly tied to Boko Haram’s actions in the north, and has been mentionned as such by Nigerian Christians. You could argue that northern Nigeria has always been a hotbed of factionalism and the annual machete slaughter competition, but it had not taken the form of an organized group, Muslims and Christians were riled up to clash over land, now a Muslim group is targeting Christians with political intent. In a country where the presidency rotates religiously out of courtesy, Boko Haram is throwing a wrench in the region’s largest, richest, and most populous powderkeg. Thailand deals with Malay muslim factions in the south of the country (funny enough, General Sondhi told his officials to inform deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawath that he was in the south dealing with the uprising, while he was preparing to depose the Mr. Shinawath in a military coup), the ever lasting conflict in Mindanao in the Philipines is barely coming to a close. It is much the same when a young English boy from Birmingham is arrested on terrorism charges, and proves to be of Pakistani origin. The menace of political Islam, of radical proselytism finds its proof in fact.

Another factor is cultural incomprehension. The West is willing to let Muslims in, on the same basis as everyone else, we all suffer the same rights and responsibilities regardless of religion. Westerners have struggled with the church for this, in such a light, clashes over religious humor make the population feel hostage and Muslim immigrants ungrateful, and it is only natural: you’re welcome but don’t threaten us and our society. You can’t want to share in peoples’ rights and responsibilities and ask for special treatment “or else”, otherwise you are just proving what everybody fears, that Muslims can’t adapt to moderninsm, and highjack our hard fought for freedom of expression. You know your neighbor wasn’t demonstrating, but once again the individual is hardly ever the problem.

From a Western perspective, European, Islam has always been Europe’s traditional ennemy, the domineering power at its borders which, not so long ago, encompassed sizeable sections of Europe (Spain from the 8th to 15th centuries, by 1550 the Ottoman empire reached to Budapest), and let’s not get started on the crusades. The point being: Islam and the West have made terrible historical bedfellows, to ignore the importance of this legacy in the European cultural psyche is to misunderstand how relations between people are cristalized in culture and legacy, and is not the same as cutting and pasting historical references to support your argument.

Is Islamophobia only Non-Islamic?

You bet it’s not. People think that Islamophobia is related to the West, to Fox News pundits and Marine Le Pen, but it’s not. Or to Christian and Budhhist nations at odds with their minorities. It’s not. Turkey, arguably the most functional and modern Muslim country on the planet, is at odds between secular generals of the old guard and the flamboyant AK party. AK has proven a better guarantor of Human Rights, and economic development than the secular military dictatorship, but many Turks today, are opposed to AK on the same basis as the West and often the Rest, and they are Muslims as well, even though AK has proven its moderation in practice. Recent demonstrations against constitutional changes in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood talk to this as well, all Muslims don’t want Islamic principled states, and are ready to hit the streets and fight against it.

The Arab Spring had given hope to the West that democratic transition away form religiousness was afoot in the Middle East and North Africa, some places have proven so, others have fallen back. But the West supported those Muslims in their endeavors, what it worried about were the Islamic political parties.

The individual and their values will always suffer from broader cultural and political misunderstandings. But regardless of how you feel on the issue consider this, radical Islam, is more of a threat to Muslims than to the West, and is reflective of the inner struggle within Islam to define itself in the modern world. It is a clash of civilizations only on the surface, only the spoils affect us, the core of the debate, the heart of it, is Muslims trying to define who they are in a changing world, how to establish and sustain the just community, the Oumah Islamiyah. We need to appreciate that, and help this transition as best we can, but we need to rethink how we do it.

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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Uncategorized


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