InsightJanuary February 2005

Islamophobia after September 11

S. Nadeem Kazmi

Islamophobia is a new and vile form of racism. You are hated because of the way you dress. You are hated because of the views you might hold. You are hated because of the religion you follow. You are hated not just for what you are but for what you, in the eyes of others, might become.

A colleague said to me a few days after September 11 that this is where civil rights gets thrown out of the window. I retorted that Civil Rights is precisely the point of all this. As indeed are humanitarian rights. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said: “I unreservedly condemn any attacks on Muslims or Muslim communities. Every right thinking person in our country are united in our defence of democracy. I have made it absolutely clear to the police that protecting those under threat or attack is an absolute priority and I will continue to monitor this closely”. He also stated that protecting those under threat or attack was “an absolute priority”, and that one cannot despair or retreat from protecting civil rights. Yet, in the aftermath and hysteria of the attacks, whilst governments spoke of states that harbour terrorists, civil rights was being flouted by ordinary people who felt all Muslim people harboured terrorist tendencies. A Sikh friend of mine was approached on a train not long after September 11 and asked what religion she was by two angry white youths. “Not yours”, she replied.

The Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR), in an analysis of the Channel 4 Islam season over the summer, defines Islamophobia as, “unfounded hostility towards Islam”. This should be sharply distinguished, according to FAIR, from legitimate criticism that excludes phobias and prejudices but includes disagreement or disapproval of Muslim beliefs, laws and practices.

The writer, Karen Armstrong, correctly argues that it was from the Crusades that “a highly distorted portrait of Islam, and thus Islamophobia, entwined with a chronic anti-semitism” became “one of the received ideas of Europe”. Islamophobia, or anti-muslimism, is a phenomenon that cannot be viewed separately from the more familiar phenomenon of anti-semitism. The roots of both lie in the formative event of the Crusades which brought Europe – at the time dwelling in the Dark Ages – into the light of day and onto the world scene. But coming out of the Dark Ages brought with it an historical baggage all its own, a culture of negativity, religious puritanism, exclusivism, intolerance, extremism and violence. The Crusades were driven by the darkness of the Dark Ages from which they arose – a period Muslims would refer to as jahiliyya, the period before the advent of an enlightened religion capable of absorbing scientific ideas and having an inclusivist approach.

There has been no shortage of reports and studies since September 11: the rate of attacks on British Muslims since the terrorist atrocities in America is more than 13 times higher than in a typical year, according to figures compiled recently by Islamic organizations. More than 400 attacks since 11 September, ranging from nuisance calls to fire-bombings, have been logged by a team of 300 field workers from Muslim organizations across Britain. A dossier recently compiled by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, shows that Britain’s Muslims continue living in an atmosphere of heightened hostility and mistrust.

Downing Street commissioned a study from the Performance and Innovation Unit recently which concludes that, “Racial harassment and discrimination have negatively influenced the achievements of both first – and second – generation ethnic minorities in the labour market”.

The study also noted that racist attitudes are “prevalent” across the UK, though they are concentrated in the north and among older, poorer and less educated white people – Old Labour’s constituency.

A report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia blames British media for using negative stereotypes of Muslims and portraying asylum seekers as terrorists and the “enemy within” after September 11. In the survey, the Vienna-based EUMC said Britain had seen a “significant” increase in violent assault, abuse and attacks on Muslim property, some “very serious”. Rises were also reported in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, where common incidents involved verbal abuse of women wearing the Hejab. The EUMC singled out the UK media for “disproportionate” coverage to “extremist Muslim groups and British Muslims who declared their willingness to join an Islamic war against the west”. Less sensationalist Muslim voices were mainly overlooked while “very basic Islamophobic stereotypes” shaped the popular image of young British Muslim men, it said.

And most recently, Amnesty International published a report, Racism and the Administration of Justice. Unchecked racism can lead to tragedy on a massive scale. The law and its administration, which should uphold the values of justice and equality, are among the primary forces in opposing the effects of racism. Yet justice systems all too often fail in this purpose and instead mirror the prejudices of the society they serve. Racial discrimination in the administration of justice systematically denies certain people their human rights because of their colour, race, ethnicity, descent or national origin.

The Muslim communities of America and Europe have been outspoken in their condemnation of the attacks of September 11. Yet they are still treated as if they constitute some sort of monolithic entity, a fifth column against whom McCarthyist propaganda is somehow justified by virtue of cosmetic linkages and faulty assumptions.

It is not only the self-confessed islamophobes that refuse to acknowledge Western civilization’s symbiotic, organic relationship with Islam: I have argued for years, as have many others, that Europe shares a Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage, and Islam in America has been around almost since the settlement of the first founding fathers. In the latter case, one might go further and argue that Islam as a political force was central to the eventual success of the Black civil rights struggle, with Malcolm X renowned as one of the first civil rights advocates to bring to the fore of the struggle the issue of human rights of African-Americans. Thus, the teaching of the history of Europe and America must take account of the West’s Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage, not merely its Judaeo-Christian traditions, which has been the case so far. One cannot argue for integration without changing the terms of the contract into one of inclusion as opposed to exclusion and integration as opposed to alienation. Prime Minister Tony Blair ought, in this context, be congratulated for speaking about the “common heritage” of the west and Islam at a critical time.

Unity of creation, compassion and mercy, inclusiveness and universality, nobility in word and deed, positive social change, empowerment of marginalized communities and sectors, social justice, racial equality, honesty, integrity and sincerity. This is my Islam. Islam commands Muslims to be good citizens wherever they live and leave the place a better one because they lived in it. Muslims protect the rights and liberty of others. Islamic values are the values all humanity share.

Yet we continue to confuse the coffee-house resentment of Muslim public opinion with the hardcore calculating wrath of the terrorist.  And this leads us further into Islamophobic assumptions. Indeed, to most practising Muslims, Usama Bin Laden, the al-Qa’eda kingpin credited with masterminding the September 11 attacks, is nothing less than a deviation from Islam, the product of a self-justifying puritanism radicalized by his own extreme wealth and his ability to use that wealth to pursue a distinctly personal agenda – an agenda in which the hijacking of important issues, such as disparities in wealth, social inequalities, post-colonial socio-economic realities, and the continuing exploitation of the developing world by the industrialized world – would be central. Bin Laden emerged as a response to specific conditions.  He has never had a popular mandate and even less a legitimized place in the dynamic maelstrom of contradictions that is the Muslim world today.

Islam as a faith-based system teaches the enjoyment of sex without guilt. Not a lot of people know that. It also taught the equality of men and women, black and white, rich and poor. It makes the pursuit of knowledge an obligation on every Muslim, male or female. This pursuit was once the main driving force of Muslim society. It gave the world algebra and logarithms, the concept of zero, spherical geometry and trigonometry. Not only did the West adopt Arabic numerals to pursue the new learning, it embraced Muslim practice by working addition and subtraction sums from right to left. Five hundred years before Galileo, a Muslim astronomer calculated the length of the solar year (he was 24 seconds out), measured the specific gravity of various metals and discussed the rotation of the earth on its axis. Other Muslim scholars developed the science of optics, invented test tubes and surgical instruments and pioneered universities – giving us such terms as ‘chair’ and ‘reader’. Public libraries, mass publishing, bibliographies, the compass, the guitar, mysticism, gardening and eating pudding after dinner can all be traced to Islamic civilization.

Yet contemporary Muslim societies have, as commentators suggest, been largely shaped by the more recent legacy of their colonial subjugation. The social reality in these societies is, in many cases, poverty, illiteracy or lack of access to education, elitist maintenance of the status quo through military muscle, environmental degradation, lack of rule of law and civil liberties. Bin Laden knew what he needed as attachments to support his cause. One such attachment was Afghanistan, and the convenience of another deviational system unrecognized by the international community; another was Islam, a fluid, flexible, simple faith that is open to interpretation and misinterpretation by those who claim to follow it. But you cannot judge the religious faith of almost one-fifth of humanity by the actions of one madman and his cohorts.

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