Islam is a significant faith today with 1.6 billion followers and a considerable section of them living as a minority community in many countries, thereby battling the issues of discrimination, stereotypes and identity crisis.
With the rise of Islamophobic brigades across Europe, Islamophobia as a psycho-social phenomenon has gained momentum across the western world and the waves of hatred even crossed to Africa and Asia. Further the consistent political instability, bloodshed and rise of terrorism in Muslim dominated regions has increased the labeling against Muslims and the escalation of religious violence and emergence of radical brigades like ISIS, Taliban, Al-Qaida and scores of other small groups Islam.
People have began fearing Islam without even knowing about the faith as the mass media, social media, academia, intelligentsia, hate mongers, rumour mills, etc, have played a big role in aggravating the problem of Islamophobia. Unlawful and violent actions have began to be directly linked to their faith resulting in Islamophobia. Such a massive perception has been further strengthened by the socio-political instability in most of the Muslim dominated countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.
The Arab Spring proved the last nail in the coffin. This paper is a conceptual overview of the burden that Muslims face in the form of labels and stereotypes across the world. The paper is mainly based on secondary sources, besides personal experiences, observation and conversations with people on the theme.
Muslim World in Crisis
In the worst humanitarian crisis in Syria, chased to death in Iraq by the violent ISIS, jeopardized in Iran, destroyed aerially and starved in Palestine, in search of identity in India, alienated in Australia, secularized in Turkey, stereotyped in America, segregated in Britain, restricted in France, bombed and impoverished in Afghanistan, killed unaccounted in Nigeria, estranged, disturbed and confused in Egypt, oppressed in Tunisia and Bangladesh, communalized and in identity crisis in Sri Lanka, radicalized and sensitized in Pakistan and Egypt and massacred in Myanmar, every Muslim on the globe is witnessing an existential challenge besides a plethora of socio-political and security issues in the contemporary times.
Apart from these challenges there are even more grave challenges from the community within, such as acute conservatism, identity politics and victimization of vulnerable Muslims like women, emerging new violent youth cultures, extremist ideologies, acute sectarianism, economic crisis and allied issues of poverty, lack of quality education, access to good health care, housing, etc.
Such a situation has led to chaos and is leading to the universality of Muslims feeling insecure and ignored. This feeling or psyche of insecurity has led to the phenomenon of Ghettoization in many parts of the world where Muslims feel safer to live in their own dense clusters and which has contributed to a sense of polarization, a feeling of ‘we’ and ‘them’, and a sense of hatred for others.
The cluster formation/ghettoization has also occurred because of the discrimination against Muslim minorities in many countries of the globe.
Suffering Minority Battling Stereotypes
The plight of being a Minority has been more consciously realized by the members of this community especially due to the repercussions of many factors including biased media coverage, misrepresentation and misinterpretation in literature and cinema, exaggeration of gender violence and other shameful issues among Muslims by writers and academics, the wrath of Islamophobia, characterized by a general understanding of extremism and intolerant nature of Muslims especially in European and American belts.
Also the novel enigmas of interpreting Islam even at the intellectual level, the nuisance of stereotypes ingrained in non-Muslim cultures and communities pertaining Muslims as separated, segregated, extremist, violent etc., the problem of comparison and relativity often by non-Muslims while reading or unfolding on Islam in text books and at once turning relational and comparative of their own cultures, believing and concluding that Islam is the religion of nomads and desert wonderers or warriors. Hence the developing negative perception and multiplying the same while teaching or preaching to young generations, is one of the heinous stumbles Islam has been facing in contemporary era.
Also as discussed by many scholars, especially in Europe, the word ‘new’ is employed to introduce the origin story of monotheistic religions, especially Islam. Every now and then, we come across an array of new and hostile description of Islam and the painting of religions, chiefly Islam, in diabolic colors of radicalism and barbarism. Even the White Collars of western society have added new words and names like Islamism, Islamicate, extremism, and concepts like Islamophobia and Islamic fundamentalism to their common lexicon to express their indifferent attitude towards Islam.
Adversely these words have gained much adoption far and wide, particularly among research and academic circles, some defending it, while others trying to look for perspectives from nowhere and new ventures to go with the theme and proliferate it in different aspects. It seems Islam is being more and more subjected to destructive criticism without any regard to its tenets and without imbibing the total perception of its principles.
Maligning Muslims: The Propaganda politics
Some of the common perceptions that strengthen Islamophobia even in Asian societies are that Muslims are naturally violent, killers, terrorists, inhuman, fundamentalist unhygienic, and even immoral. Their veil reflects their orthodoxy and backwardness. Muslims produce more children for Jihad and violence; therefore they remain educationally backward, etc. Such stereotypes later culminate into an identity consciousness of Muslims of their being minorities.
People’s perception of the Muslims remains unchanged amid the continuing religious violence, such as the violent Islamic State (ISIS) killing thousands in the name of Islami. Ghannoushi (2014), while discussing the contemporary Muslim scenario and Islamophobia writes, “In spite of the deluge of images and narratives of Islam that has flooded the public space since September 11th, knowledge and understanding of the subject has remained limited”ii.
On Islam being one of the most misunderstood, rather misinterpreted, religions of the world, scholar Ilyas Ba-Yunus in his paper, ‘Ideological Dimensions of Islam-A Critical Paradigm’iii, argues, “Islam has become all things to all people, many non-Muslims don’t seem to know it by its real name, it has been called Mohammedianism, Mohamadism, Islamism, Moslemism or the Muslim religion and many relate it with esoteric Sufi thought”.
Some scholars like Susan Dougles and Ross Dunn (2003) writing on ‘Islam In American Text Booksiv’ argue that, “In chapters devoted to 20th century Islam figures mainly in connection with the themes of world war, modernization, oil politics, women’s roles, and Islamic resurgence. New generations are given an abhorrable portrait of Islam as anti western, often as merely militant and extremist”.
They further write, “The pity is the majority of the non-Muslim writers on Islam fail to paint a consistent or thoroughly accurate picture of the faith or its adherents history as there has always been a widespread flow and confusion and bias in western scholarships in their reflections about non-western cultures especially beliefs and faithsv”.
Edward Said on the inherent bias of the western scholars on Islam argues “the representation of Islam in western scholarly writings is deeply implicated in the power relations between researchers and researched and is partly constructed not so much by independent observations and evidences as by the pre-existing biases of the scholars themselves” (Orientalism, 1978).
A plethora of preconceived notions and self constructed false dogmas of Muslims have been carved out in non-Muslim minds, which again is a big burden on Muslims because their religion is solely taken and understood as the criteria of their actions and social behavior. Also the hateful outlook and violence against Muslims has started against all the three identities of being a Muslim, be it Islam or being Muslim as ascribed identity; as chosen identity; or as declared identity and all the three are ridiculed and looked hatefully especially by western eyes which is termed as White Man’s Burden in sociological lexicon.
The increasing hostility against Muslims is witnessed and observed in two aspects, some confrontations and activities are carried out against Muslims as direct targets be it ridicule and even teasing of veiled Muslim women, the use of slurs, abusive language against Muslims, or even violent attacks. Another aspect is the carrying out of hateful activities directly against Islam and in this category could be included false writings against Islam, anti-Islam websites, the Terry Jones’ Qur’an burning threats, blasphemies, Denmark cartoons, etc.. All present a distorted view, but are treated as authentic opinions on seeing Islam and the political violence among Muslim communities correlative or political instability in Muslim countries solely to be described and theorized as Islamic violence or Islamism has been quite a growing trend.
One such example is the use of a lone prism by scholars and writers to see the internal chaos and political instability in Pakistan as mere Islamic terrorism or violence because the country is a Muslim state, etc, — seeing the growing radical transformation of non-Muslim views against Muslims and this has even infected a section of Muslims who are not aware about Islam and therefore prefer to call themselves secular Muslims.
Understanding the rationality and dynamics of terrorism, from violent attacks to suicide bombings, it is seen that all too often the first speculation and unproved blame is thrown upon Muslims, which rationalizes and routinizes Islamophobia among non-Muslims especially western ones.
Additionally, while the media memorializes the killing of the 9/11 victims and treats it as the largest massacre that has ever happened on the globe, coupled with a journalistic style of discussing civilian killings either in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, it is often maintained that such events are justified and something normal in the war on terror. Those 19 suicide attackers are highlighted everywhere, but the mayhem of open licensed killers in the guise of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are justified along with drone attacks on tribal villagers.
Routine killings of Palestine civilians by Israel are given a different connotation, and retaliation by Muslims to safeguard their lives and dignity is labeled as terrorism. The hijacking of a westerner somewhere on earth is given more hype than the hijacking and grabbing of a whole nation such as Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Tibetvi.
It is simply conveyed that rich people’s opinions, policies, propaganda and lives are more dignified, dearer and important than non-western voices — slogans for justice and the killing of the poor are justified with a vicious and venomous, but powerful and polite expression. Those who argue that Muslim alienation around the world is mere rhetoric need to have a rethink of the moral travesties against Muslims, especially by the western block.
Debating Iran’s nuclear program and to impose bans and threats of attack (simply to gain supremacy in the region) is a great concern for America, but being the world’s largest pollutant is a sign of industrial development and debating its own nuclear program is forbidden for all. It seems beyond cognition to understand why terrorism, despite being a form of political violence and an offshoot of political instability, is always labeled as Islamic and painted as militant Islam or pan-Islamic terrorism. It is, as per subjective perception to paint Islam as radical and indoctrinate those especially in western masses who are converting to Islam, as the political powers deem Islam’s growth as a future threat.
Also it is to impose acute suffering upon its followers, backed by Islam’s core enemies be it Zionists or other communal elements. Muslims are now bearing the brunt of being Muslims, as even post-9/11 born American Muslim children are teased and called by their non-Muslim peers as terrorists because of the socialization at home and structure of curriculum and the approach of portraying of Muslims’ history in text books. Also instead of looking into the background of violence or confrontation, non-Muslim psyche readily blames Muslims, not for anything but because they are Muslims. The burden upon Muslims for being Muslims is gaining intensity as the gulf between the multiculturalism, intercultural dialogue and pluralism is increasing mainly because of the western political discourses and the over repeated rhetoric of Muslims as intolerant, violent and a threat to peace and the different interpretations of Islam in the west and speculated down to the rest of the globe. Inter-faith dialogue a solution, I keep thinking.
Islamophobia: A Social Tsunami
Fear or hatred of Islam or of Muslims is now generally understood as Islamophobia. Its origin and causes may be debatable, but particularly after 9/11 the phrase gained much popularity and proliferated across the globe with the trend of dislikenness toward Muslims, calculated discrimination, illicit labeling, negative stereotyping, violence in the form of ban on veil (Hijab) in France, physical assault and passing of insulting remarks on Muslims in many other countries, apprehensive and distrustful outlook especially toward beard wearing Muslims as anti-social elements, increase in arrests, captivity and incarceration rates of Muslim youth, tortures and other physical and psychological violence and cinema of and on portraying Muslim cultural or religious features or demeanor like traditional dress patterns, beard wearing as terrorist symbols in films, serials, etc. Even now more often than not, terms like Islamic fundamentalism, militant Islam, radicalism, pan-Islamic terrorism, Talibanizationvii, extremism, orthodoxy, etc., are used synonymously with Islam.
Of concern also is the anti-Muslim stance of the west with regard to Islam being a growing trend in Europe and a big schema of communal hate mongers and their unswerving failure to keep masses away from embracing Islam or being influenced why it — like Tony Blaire’s sister-in-law’s accepting Islam and her statement of feeling more secure in pardah, after converting to Islam, etc.
Their consistent, but futile attempts of maligning it, such as by Kurt Westergaard’s blasphemous cartoons in Jyllands-Posten (Danish daily), the Gujarat Massacre and a series of anti-Muslim riots in India, Rohingya Muslim carnage in Myanmarviii, Terry Jones’ Qur’an burning threats on the 9/11 anniversary in Florida (forgetting that it will in turn magnetize more people to read and be influenced with the holy revelation) and America’s speedy role and quick partaking of its cronies against the war on Muslims, attacks diverse Muslim ethnicities under the garb of the so-called ‘war on terrorix. The worst is that the countries of Europe are now even contending and competing among themselves on Islamophobia actions.
Western media’s redefining Islam in the context of dividing Muslims into self-formed groups like secularists, liberal Muslims, democracy-loving Muslims, fundamentalists, pan-Islamists, Islamic militants, terrorists, good Muslims, bad Muslims, broad minded and free thinking, etc., simply is an aim to befool innocent Non-Muslims and simultaneously to create divisions and flourish hatred and abhorrence among Muslims of diverse backgrounds and regions across the globe.
The phobia in Islamophobia reduces the complex set of institutionalized discrimination against European Muslims to a psychological state in the minds of Christians and secular Europeans. Dictionary definitions refer to phobia as an intense, abnormal, or illogical fear. Yet Muslim relations with Christians in Europe involve much more than fear of the former by the latter. Recent research in the United Kingdom demonstrates that Muslim residents have the lowest levels of income and the highest levels of unemployment, receive the fewest health care services, do poorly in the school system, and have the worst living conditions (E. Ozyurek, 2005)x.
Way back in November, 2009, John Esposito, a professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and a renowned writer on Islamic issues, wrote in his article, titled, ‘Are Swiss Alps Threatened by Minarets?’ that the Swiss people voted and urged to approve a move to ban the construction of new minarets in the country. He further argued, “Last year (2008) at a European meeting of intelligence officials from the US and Europe, a Swiss participant commented on this referendum on minarets. He was sure it would go nowhere since, as he said, Switzerland is a very pluralistic society, its Muslim population is relatively small (about 400000) and there were few mosques with minarets. However, this stunning Swiss vote (57 percent) approving a referendum to ban minarets, was really not all that surprising, considering the growing power of Islamophobia. In both Europe and America right-wing politicians, political commentators, media personalities and religious leaders continue to feed a growing suspicion of mainstream Muslims by fueling a fear that Islam, not just Muslim extremism, is a threat’.
The term Islamophobia has now become popular more or less everywhere particularly in Europe, where the Islamic threat is considered the enemy within, where as another nomenclature for it is, Islamic terrorism, which is on the rise in the United States, where the new enemy is perceived to be external.
Defining and explaining political relations in terms of religious categories is the new trend. Similar to Islamic terrorism, Islamophobia also assumes a homogenous religion and culture. Furthermore, it conceals that real people, rather than an abstract category of religion or culture, are being discriminated against. Matti Bunzl, a European anthropologist in his paper, ‘Between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Some thoughts on the new Europe’, (American Ethnologist, Vol. 32, No. 4, November 2005) argues, ‘anti-Semitism was invented in the late 19th century to police the ethnically pure nation-state. On the other hand, Islamophobia is a recent formation that seeks to make the supranational European Union a fortress against migrants. He goes further: traditional anti-Semitism has run its historical course with the end of the nation-state, and, consequently, Islamophobia is becoming the defining condition of the New Europexi.
This goes without saying that the relations of Muslims with others, be that in west or anywhere else in the contemporary era, are based primarily on a fragile calm, false sense of mutual respect and silent distrust to the core. It is wrong to assume that non-Muslims are anti-Islamic or anti-Muslim, but the fact of the matter is that the idea of Muslimness has been wrongly portrayed and interpreted by the media, the repercussions of which are manifest in the ongoing anti-Islamic propaganda, blasphemies against Islam every now and then, stereotypes against Muslims as violent, terrorists, fundamentalists, etc. leading to the acute, polarization, marginalization and Ghettoization among them. Such a perpetual chaos has affected their psychology and sociology as well.
Hallow and blind labeling against them amidst the issues of insecurity in minority belts has restricted them to their own communities, affected their social mobility, social demeanor, education, career prospects, women emancipation and empowerment, etc. Today they are the prisoners of their own consciousness and spatial restrictions and clustering has reduced them to nothing but a herd of species that purely goes together for they profess a common faith.
Islam means peace, but its enemies like Zionists and secular Europeans never let its actual meaning to flourish — instead much of the world’s terror activities are labeled as Islamic and people who are not familiar to the Islamic ethos are made to believe that it is the religion of terror.
Muslims need not be provoked be what Zionist’s aspire for Esra Ozyurek writes in her article, ‘The politics of cultural unification, secularism, and the place of Islam in the New Europe’ (American Ethnologist, 32:4, 509-12). ‘The post-Cold war understanding of Europeanness in cultural and religious terms transformed the cluster of exclusionary and oppressive practices directed toward the Muslim populations of Europe. Activists and intellectuals who wanted to attract attention to and fight against these practices coined the term Islamophobia. Although this neologism is gaining popularity in Europe, I believe that the term is itself indicative of the exclusionary place envisioned for Muslims in the New Europe. Hence, I want to problematize several assumptions underlying the choice of this term for a large set of interrelated practices. I suggest that the term reveals how people reduce complex relations of power between majorities and minorities to issues of culture and psychology. Particularly for this reason, use of the term Islamophobia limits the otherwise well-intended efforts of those fighting against racism, xenophobia and discrimination in Europe.xii
Academically speaking, several authors have emerged on Islamophobia like Asad Talal (Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, 2003), Balibar, Etienne (We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, 2004) Mamdani, Mahmood (Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, 2004) Taylor, Charles (Modes of Secularism. In Secularism and Its Critics, 1998), Matti Bunzl (Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe, 2007), Gordon Conway (Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, 1997) and Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy by Peter Gottschalk in 2007 and the most recent one, ‘Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims’ by Stephen Sheehi, 2010, who have written on the theme by and large thereby unraveling some of the interesting socio-political realities strengthening Islamophobia in the contemporary era.
The need of the hour is to address the issue of the enlarged societal hostility towards Islam as a belief system and towards Muslims and the issue of Islamophobia, the fear of Islam along with the stereotypes, prejudices and intolerance that are building up against Islam and its followers. In an era when many Americans wonder whether Islam and the West inherently must clash, Islamophobia explores how this view in part derives from centuries-old stereotypes of Muslims as violent, oppressive, and intolerant. America’s casual demonizing and demeaning of Muslims and Islam is multiplying. Peter Gottschalk, the author of ‘Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (2007), argues that Islamophobia-a racist like bias against Muslims based on stereotypes, is very real, manifesting in some cartoons that are obviously biased and others that appear on the surface to be more sympathetic. Cartoons, symbolic of wider feelings and fear about Islam, reflect misunderstandings and prejudice among Westerners and, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, often serve to widen cultural rifts particularly between Muslims and American Christians. Symbols and cartoons, like the veil, the mosque, scimitars and large-nosed profiles, can be misused or conflicting.
A fundamental misunderstanding of the Muslim world in general has led to a chaotic situation and the brand of Islamophobia has fostered a sense of insecurity among all people on the globe — Muslims fear that they will be besieged by non-Muslims, and non-Muslims are scared of Muslims for they (Muslims) have been labeled as fundamentalists, hardliners, religious fanatics, non-secular, irrational, orthodox, old minded, undemocratic, pre-modern, backward, uncultured terrorists and finally violent. This repeated lie has creating panic among all and a clear connection between the fear and hate exhibited towards Muslims and Islam has contributed to an unfriendly nature among people toward each other. Also the way Muslims are represented in the media, though primarily in political cartoons, irreverent statements and cartoon pictures of the prophet Mohammad, offensive and hateful comments against Islam, etc., reinforces the common stereotypes for Muslims, which often adds fuel to the fire by simply breeding hatred, violence, chaos and confusion among each other.
Muslims undoubtedly are today living a life of chaos, dilemma and alienation. Where the west has been showing increasing trends in Islamophobia, the east has impoverished and linked them to terrorism if not branded or attacked their faith directly. Massacres and carnages against them go unaccounted and unreported like the recent slaughter of Muslims in Rohingya of Myanmar. Today they are living the life with a burden of poverty, marginalization, spatial and security issues. Right from the west and the Horn of Africa to the Arab block to South Asia and in all other zones of the globe, Muslims are faced by labels and issues living a life of apprehension or poverty or insecurity or oppression. Muslim exclusion needs an immediate redress and the United Nations must play a key role in this.
Muslims need to be understood and the culture of blind stereotyping must go by de-linking terror from religion. This alienated section of the world populace needs both opportunity and a sympathetic platform to express their views. Islamophobia needs a intellectual solution via debating Islam and the blind linkage of violence to it. Also implicating Muslim youth in heinous charges, mostly of terrorism, as a trend must come to an end. The representation and reality of Muslims round the globe has to be done for the sake of justice and human rights.
[This article was first published by Journal of Society in Kashmir (2015 issue) at University of Kashmir, and has been edited from the original]
i. Focus group interview with researchers at Jamia Millia Islamia Campus, December 17, 2014.
ii. Soumaya Ghannoushi. (November 27, 2014.) The Battle for Islam. London: The Huffington Post.
iii. See Interpreting Islam edited by Hastings Donnan.2002.P. 99
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