What can be done about West’s Islamophobia?

November 8, 2020

Many Europeans, who saw multiculturalism as an answer to Europe’s social problems, today consider this to be the source of those very problems

Islamophobia as a product of ‘cultural displacement’ in the US and Europe has been stoked by negative stereotypes resulting in biases against and exclusion of Muslims. Ironically, the brunt of prejudice against Islam is often faced not only by Muslims but also other groups who have resembling characteristics like language, clothing or skin color (for example, Arab Christians and Sikhs). Most importantly, however, the dangerous consequences of Islamophobia are a cause for concern not only for Muslims (or those mistakenly perceived to be Muslims), but people all over the world.

In the post 9/11 world, disproportionate media coverage of Muslim-American terrorism suspects made matters worse. In many cases, false perceptions were bolstered that Muslim-American terrorism was more prevalent than it really was. For long, violent acts by non-Muslims, including mass shootings, were characterised as ‘criminal’ acts, whereas similar crimes by Muslims were described as ‘terrorism’. After 9 /11, the American cultural production also witnessed a steep rise in stereotypical misrepresentations of Muslims. It was not just the politicians and military generals but also writers, filmmakers, producers, and photographers who lost their sense of justice – and thereby implicitly sanctioned crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and later Syria and Libya.

Perceptions and narratives

Islam vs the West happens to be a popular trope in public discourse across the Western world. The call for integration or assimilation of Muslims into Western societies, especially in Europe, have resulted in state-driven forced integration programmes. Over time, state policies have imbibed some of these attitudes. These include the ban on the construction of minarets in late 2009 in Switzerland, calls for banning hijab, and the ‘ban’ on Muslims entering the US by Donaald Trump. According to a Gallup surveys’ findings, significant proportions of the French, German, and British publics consider Muslim practices and relationships threatening to the European way of life. For example, 16 percent of Germans, 30 percent of British, and 39 percent of French say that wearing the hijab is a threat to European culture. Similar proportions associate Muslims with terrorism, as 23 percent of Germans, 25 percent of the French, and 34 percent of the British say that Muslims are sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Housing two of the most multicultural and multiracial countries, North America seems to be divided down the middle with respect to public sentiments toward Muslims. 52 percent of Americans and 48 percent of Canadians say that the West does not respect Muslim societies. In the US, surveys have recorded that about one half of nationally representative samples of Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews agree that, in general, most Americans are prejudiced against Muslim Americans.

For over three decades, many Europeans saw multiculturalism—the embrace of an inclusive, diverse society—as an answer to Europe’s social problems. Today, a growing number of Europeans consider this to be the source of those problems, thus abetting the spike in anti-Muslim sentiments and criticism. The demographics of Europe are profoundly different today than they were a few decades ago. As of early 2017, 37 million people were born outside of the European Union. This particular point is emphasised by the right-wing lobby in Europe in support of its xenophobic narratives.

This shift in societal perceptions has fuelled the success of far-right parties and encouraged unscrupulous populist politicians across Europe to publicly denounce multiculturalism and speak out against its ‘dangers’.

Many commentators have said that the mismatch between immigration and insufficient integration results in the erosion of social cohesion. The recent intense response from Muslims over insulting sketches of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and French President Macron’s statement – “Islam is in a crisis” – prompted a worldwide backlash and debate.

Post-Cold War: new arenas of conflict

These questions, like all questions of socio-political significance, warrant a deep look into history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a unipolar world order, with its ascendent ideology of the Western liberal democracy, had become a new reality. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1989) and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1993) shed light on this momentous global development as well as influenced all subsequent public and policy discourses. Fukuyama held that there was no ideological alternative to Western democracy; that democracy had won and humanity had reached “not just... the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such…“ Later we witnessed how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were characterised as liberal wars, in that the former was waged to “liberate” women and the latter to “liberate” people from the yoke of a dictator.

In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington posited that the desire of identity groups for recognition, their political resentment and its manifestations would inevitably become a threat to the new global liberal order. In this vein, the Islamic way of life posed a significant challenge to multiculturalism as it did not comply with the Western liberal values.

Huntington was only half right though. The cultural fault line that divides the West and the Muslim world was not about such fundamentals as democracy. According to recent survey reports, Muslims and their Western counterparts equally want democracy. The Arab spring confirmed that. Yet they are worlds apart when it comes to attitudes on social values and religiosity. In his more recent book published in 2018, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Fukuyama developed his thesis further and said that the demand for recognition was the “master concept” that explained all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order. The resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, and the election of Donald Trump are variants of the same phenomenon.

The paranoia among many Europeans about an “Islamic takeover” is demonstrably extreme: many who hold such beliefs about Muslims have never even come into contact with one. What explains such a widespread prejudice then?

Edward Said’s important work Orientalism rightly noted the depth of Western oblivion, bias, stereotyping and misperceptions regarding Muslims. “Orientalism”, Said highlights, is a way of viewing, imagining, emphasising and distorting the differences between Arab peoples, among others, and cultures on the one hand, and those of Europe and the US on the other, with an objective to render the Arabs as inferior.

The error in Orientalists’ judgement is not in seeing a difference between the cultures. Differences abound, even though there is nothing unique about “Muslims” being different; all identity groups have their own unique sets of characteristics which formulate their identity.

Another facet of this debate is the Muslims’ share in the responsibility for the negative perceptions against them? Muslim majority societies, by and large, are mostly traditional and religious. As minorities in Western countries, such as the US, they are law-abiding, though their values of self-expression — such as social tolerance, gender equality, freedom of speech – are divergent. To be sure, there is bigotry and self-contradiction within Muslim societies, as there is in any other group. It’s also true that they only harm themselves when they complain of the so-called Western “contradictions” and “double standards” when they display the same traits in their own societies. There is some truth to the fact that a good number of Muslims are not accepting of other religions.

However, identifying large communities with violent groups such as Al Qaeda and the ISIS is a manifestly unfounded allegation even as it has become a regular pattern. Failing to distinguish between a handful of fundamentalist extremists from the majority of Muslims and, instead, attacking Islam is turning to the way of the fascists.

The way forward

In a 2011 meeting, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, as well as the League of Arab States, a key partner, identified Islamophobia as an important area of concern. A cross civilisational dialogue is required.

The solution to Islamophobia, lies way beyond such meetings between global institutions suggest. Muslims are not an “exotic” identity group as the Orientalists sought to make them for centuries, exciting to watch from afar, asking to be contained, needing to be protected from. Western publics need better information and independent media sources that do not regurgitate the biases implanted by security states or corporate imperatives of selling sensationalism. Decolonisation is an ongoing, incomplete project especially in the context of Europe and Muslims. Nevertheless, portraying nearly a quarter of the world population as “dangerous” is unbecoming to say the least. Global and regional social movements will have to take up this agenda for the future. Meanwhile, Muslim communities and majoritarian societies also need to introspect as to why adherents of a ‘peaceful’ religion are perceived as violent and a global problem?

Raza Rumi is an author, policy analyst, and journalist. He is also the founding editor of Nayadaur Media.

What can be done about West’s Islamophobia?