Deciphering Islamophobia

March 19,2019

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The killing of 50 people at the Christchurch mosque has raised serious questions on how to translate these events – as white supremacist extremist acts, Islamophobia, terrorism or an issue of social emerging out of immigration problems.

These are critical questions and need an in-depth understanding of this act which seems to have combined social anxiety due to the presence of the ‘other’ in society with inspiration from white supremacist ideology, a global targeting of Muslims and their faith due to the ‘war on terror’, and the place of historical discourses (as writings of certain historical moments on the gun of the killer depicted).

The empathetic response of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who termed the attack an act of extremist violence and terrorism, has made Islamophobia part of the discourse. However, the response of other world leaders, though condemning it, falls short of using a specific term for this act. The inability of world leaders including American President Donald Trump (termed as an inspiration by the killer) to specifically term this act as either terrorism or violence by white extremists brings the world to a new reality in global politics, after the much-publicised ‘global war on terror’ and sifting terminologies of violent Islamic radicalism.

This new reality in world politics is still seen through the lens of Islamophobia, a term which came into global political usage after the publication of the 1997 ‘Runneymede Report. Islamophobia is usually termed as a social anxiety towards Islam and Muslim cultures. This anxiety relies on a sense of otherness, despite many common sources of thought mostly emerging out of immigration problems as mentioned by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his speech condemning the Christchurch attack.

Islamophobia is not a homogenised discourse and was present at different historical moments and is still visible today. Over the years, it has developed as a discourse based on Orientalist knowledge of Muslim societies and following the imagery of Islam that was produced during the colonial era. The plurality of the Islamophobia discourse suggests that the contemporary characteristics of Islamophobia are linked with historical ones, but are not totally dependent on history. And it reaches high levels of prejudice during and after certain events, sparking controversy and reviving historical memories. The events of 9/11 presented an opportunity for an adequate critique of Orientalism and Islamophobia.

To start with, one of the basic issues concerns the place of critique of Islamophobia in the larger transformation of Muslim-Christian/Western relations, resulting in questions regarding the epistemological premises on which it is based. An important question in this regard is: why is this debate over Orientalist influence on Islamophobic tendencies crucial in the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’? This is what Edward Said’s description of Enlightenment and its influence on Orientalism depicts, with Enlightenment as a project of control and racial implication for history. Islamophobia is thus based on a racial theory of denigration.

The discourse of imperialism not only was to control and dominate the non-West through a text and context approach, but the resultant impact was on European culture and the epistemological influence on political Islam and its various forms. Thus, not only literary text but also historical and cultural context is important to understand in order to get what’s going outside the text. This brings into discussion the social construction of a phenomenon, instead of deconstruction. Therefore, historical Islamophobia is informing contemporary Islamophobia, which, in turn, is affecting individuals, communities, and nations by sowing the seeds of future conflict and instability.

Islamophobia, although not a homogenised discourse or an ‘epistemological knowledge construct’, takes on emerging dynamics from anxieties and histories, which itself is a result of collaboration and resistances of Muslim-Christian historical relations.

In short, Islamophobia is a form of injustice done to a religious community through a very selective understanding of history and events. In this lies a transnational connection of injustice as there is a transnational connection of terrorism. Thus, in order to have a better understanding about Islamophobia, it is important to deconstruct the European intellectual constructs of Islam. The discourse of Islamophobia has been normalised in Western society, which mentions Islam in the media and in daily life with anxiety and apprehension. The story which began with an historical fear of Muslims in the Christian-European mind turned into a fear of Muslims in contemporary societies, depicting two different sides of the same coin; Islamophobia and terrorism.

In light of the Christchurch attack and the confusing response from across the world, it is pertinent to mention that all forms of xenophobia should be treated democratically and equally. The critical analysis of Islamophobia should be a comfort zone and not a non-comfort zone in both Western and Muslim societies. It requires normalisation in historical writing and representation. It is also important to have a self-critical memory, which needs to be grounded in the Western culture. Moreover, the study and understanding of Islamophobia needs a transnational interpretive framework and self-reflective memory practices, as it is an issue-related to collective memory, which needs to be thoroughly interactive.

Concerning the historical discourses affecting Islamophobia, there has always been a fear connected to counter-factuality. While discussing Islamophobia, it is very critical to engage the right wing and not isolate them. Islamophobia memory should work well to change self-consciousness and the violation of human rights connected to it. While examining Islamophobia and its history, one thing is of critical importance: realities are always very complicated and difficult to comprehend – and truthful history can be reached only through participation. Which is why there is a need for a ‘paradigmatic’ change in Islamophobia studies.

The writer is a research fellow at Harvard University.


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