Two weeks ago, a white Canadian man in his mid-20s killed 10 innocent people in Toronto. Before the police could establish the identity of the attacker and his motivations, the Alt-Right commentators, some of them of Muslim descent, started spreading lies that he was of Middle-Eastern descent, brown and hence Muslim.
It later turned out that the attacker was an ‘incel’, or involuntarily celibate, rebel – a misogynist group of young men who have grievances against women because of their inability to have a romantic relationship with the opposite sex. Earlier in the month, Islamophobes had also similarly jumped on the opportunity to spew hatred against Muslims when a woman attacked the YouTube headquarters in California, because of her grievances against the tech company. While she was of Iranian descent, her nationality or religion had nothing to do with her motives to commit that act.
There is a clear line between propagating Islamophobia and challenging religious extremism. Islamophobia mainly manifests in Western societies in the form of paranoia and irrational fear of Islam and Muslims. Capitalising on the spectre of Muslims taking over the West, white supremacist groups have been gaining traction in Europe and America. Some commentators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have made lucrative think-tanks and media careers out of their self-proclaimed expertise in Islam and extremism. Islamophobes are very similar to the extremist groups that operate in Pakistan. These groups demonise our religious minorities, be they Christians or Ahmadis, and instigate people to wage war against the West. They hold the entire Western world responsible for the wrongs of a few of their governments.
Anti-extremism advocacy is commendable, and more power to those who do it, whether it is against the extremism stemming from white supremacy or it is countering an ideology using Islam as a pretext. Progressive counter-narratives are needed in both the Muslim-majority countries as well as the West, so that the twisted and wrong interpretation of Islam – which groups like Al-Qaeda, Isis and Taliban follow – can be defeated. But at the same time, it is really important to distinguish between Islamophobia and anti-extremism advocacy. Some Islamophobes pretend to be anti-extremist activists and some anti-extremism campaigners are wrongly accused of being anti-Islam.
The job of anti-extremism thinkers, writers and activists is fraught with dangers. Malala Yousafzai is a prime example of the dangers that anti-extremist activists face. Malala’s work is well-known globally, but we know that many less well-known progressive Pakistanis, whether they are journalists, members of progressive political parties or writers, in their daily lives, challenge religious extremism in all its forms and manifestations.
Religious extremism also exists in Muslim diasporas in Western countries, motivating individuals who have gone on to commit acts of terrorism in the UK, France and the US in the last decade or so, in the wake of 9/11 and the London bombings. However, the majority of Muslims do not support these extreme versions of religion and politics, or else individuals like Anjum Choudary, a convicted extremist ideologue in the UK, would have had tens of thousands of followers in a country where Muslim population is significant. But contrary to this, Muslims have reported extremist individuals to authorities in the UK and elsewhere.
However, the paranoia against Islam and Muslims has reached such inflated proportions in some sections of Western societies that it is Muslims who are blamed after every terrorist attack, notwithstanding the attacker’s true identity or motivation. Even if the attacker is a Muslim, spreading hate against the whole community is outrageous. After all, nobody holds Christianity responsible for the Holocaust because it was perpetrated by a Christian majority country and because Nazis were Christians.
One may understand a Western white person becoming an Islamophobe – because of his lack of exposure to Islam and Muslims and a distorted media coverage of terrorism, but one cannot fathom how someone coming from a Muslim-majority society but living in the West would develop such antipathy towards Muslims.
Religion is interpreted by human beings. However, using one’s rejection of religion for the political agenda of demonising those who follow it is problematic. Throwing the baby with the bathwater, some bigoted neo-atheists spread Islamophobia and join right-wing groups in the West to further their own political ambitions and economic incentives, believing it would help them integrate better.
Muslims are a tiny minority in the West. In the US, Muslims make up for only one or less than one percent of the total population of over 320 million people. When Islamophobes demonise such a small minority, there is something fundamentally wrong with it, and it must not be tolerated in a multi-cultural and pluralistic society. That being said, we as Muslims have an equally important responsibility of challenging the ideologies of hatred rampant amongst us and protecting our own minorities. Unless we do that, many will continue to challenge our moral grounds to question Islamophobia.
The writer is a social developmentconsultant and researcher.