By Syed Shahabuddin,
Phobia means fear, the fear of the other. Any phobia has a psychological basis, which is a combination of historical memories, blended with myths and legends, complicated by social separateness, generated by the consciousness of economic and political rivalry, not to speak of persistent religious hostility and indifference. In the case of Europe, it can be truly said that it has not yet gotten over its memories of the Muslim conquest which took Islam to the heartland of France, on one side, and to the gates of Vienna, on the other. It has been truly said that had the Muslim won the Battle of Poitiers or taken Vienna, Europe would have been Islamized and a majority of its people today would be Muslim.
Aspects of Islamophobia
The economic aspect is obvious from the fact that after having stopped and eventually forced the Muslims out of Spain, Europe tried and succeeded in finding an alternative route for trade with the Indies in order to bypass the Muslim world which separated it from its major sources of supply and markets. This economic competition has taken a new form in the 20th century with EuropeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s realization of its dependence on Arab oil to run its industrial machine. Even the increasing use of nuclear power depends to a large extent on the Uranium ore deposits in Muslim West Africa. There is also an economic interest in recycling petro-dollars which Europe was forced to shell out but which has eventually provided additional market for surplus manufactures by the West including massive sale of arms and luxury goods. Apart from selling its goods to Arabs and the Muslim countries along with a whole spectrum of projects including, some totally misconceived and egoistic which would consume their current surplus in payment for design, technology, manpower and constabulary and thus prevent their translating into self-sustaining economic power.
Centuries ago, the West tried to wage the Crusades to win the Holy Places and they failed. So it planted Israel over the last 100 years or so in the heart of the Islamic world when the Ottoman Empire becomes the sick man of Europe. Israel constitutes a permanent threat to the security of the Arab and the Muslim world, stimulating sale of arms by the West. With rising migration particularly from the Maghreb and Turkey, a continuous trickle of conversion to Islam without any perceptible reverse flow frightens Europe about its prospects in the ongoing battle between Christianity and Islam.
Europe no doubt is way ahead of the Muslim world in the field of science and technology which was dominated by the Muslim world for nearly 500 years. It is another expression of Islamophobia that by and large, with some exceptions Europe has totally forgotten the role of Muslims in the transfer of science and technology from China and India and in the restoration of the heritage of Greece and Rome, which cumulatively resulted in the scientific and technological leap by the West.
A deepening shadow on the relations between Europe and Islam manifests itself not only in state policies and government strategies but in the persistent bias in administration and public space. Not surprisingly, its mass media gives a negative twist to any development in the Muslim world and projects Muslims as later-day barbarians.
Let me add that phobia is not particular to the psychology of the majority but extends to minority groups who also entertain bias, distrust, hatred and hostility against the majority and sometimes even against each other, coming from different regions speaking different languages and living in their own cultural worlds.
Phobia operates not only at the collective plane but also among individuals. Individuals who are sometimes afraid of darkness or closed space or of some little insects or some passing shadows but they are socially unimportant. What affects relations of nations and peoples are the collective phobias like the Islamophobia which now dominates Europe to the extent that it readily confers a crown to anyone who vilifies Islam in print or in the electronic media or through films or cartoons, and projects writers like Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who bear Muslim names. Indeed, in the West if you vilify your own religion you are regarded as liberal and secular.
What is important from our point of view is that the contemporary world is committed to a democratic way of life. Unfortunately, in a plural society which is multi-ethnic, democracy invariably takes the form of majoritarianism. Majoritarian phobias against the minority indeed have the potential to disturb social peace, erode rational thinking, and end up in conflicts of cultures and civilizations, even in physical hostilities. Such violent phobias can cause social breakdown because of economic deprivation, social marginalization and constitutional pressure on the minorities.
Phobias of a minority can be self-destructive but cannot affect overall social peace except in situations of active conflict.
Islamophobia also emanates in Europe, as in India, by the recollection of Muslim invasions and the fear of re-conquest!
It misinterprets the idea of the Caliphate and even of conversion to Islam. Such historical memories are always misinterpreted and exaggerated and passed on not only through books and literature but by word of mouth. Islamophobia also results from the fear of falling into dependence on the Muslim world for some essential supplies as oil is for Europe. It also aggravates a feeling of religious inferiority when it imagines the trickle turning into stream of conversion to Islam. On the other side of the coin, Western Islamophobes believe in their technological superiority and scientific advance and their own persistent propaganda that Islam is not compatible with democracy and that the Muslims peoples still live in the 7th century! This encourages constant vilification, a culture of mockery and taunt, abuse and castigation of the Holy Prophet and the Holy Quran and misrepresentation/ misinterpretation of Islamic history.
The current wave of Islamophobia in Europe must be seen in a global perspective. Sometimes, it takes the form of a free-for-all and sometimes of reciprocity, everyone is attacking the other and everyone lives in fear of attack. Naturally this fear mentally dominates the minorities who live in physical or cultural ghettos in non-Muslim majority countries.
In Muslim majority states, there are, apart from non-Muslims, groups which belong to minority sects, and who have their own culture. But there is a difference. In no Muslim states, is there any organized attempt to convert the other sects or the non-Muslims to Islam or to attack them physically. As a matter of fact at the height of the Palestinian crisis the Jews lived peacefully in the Arab world. If one goes back to history one finds that when the Jews were expelled from Spain along with the Muslims they took refuge in Muslim countries.
Today, nearly 40% of the world Muslim population lives in Muslims-minority states. The most important are India, Russia, China, Europe and USA. Islamophobia affects them directly. They have to be constantly on their guard to monitor and correct misinformation, misperceptions and misunderstandings. When they wish to live according to Islamic norms they are treated as unworthy of their host culture. They are expected to adopt its norms & get assimilated. The incidence of divorce and polygamy are exaggerated beyond limits and they are accused of avoiding secular education for their children.
A new development of what has been called Islamic terrorism places them on defensive. The Muslim youth are particularly harassed & even detained & prosecuted in order to erode the civil rights of the Muslim community and to push them into ghettos when they live in a state of siege. The Muslim minorities, thus, bear the brunt of Islamophobia and are denied justice and equality and the benefits of modern education, even in states which believe in justice & equality.
What is the remedy? Constitutional mandates cannot penetrate horror psychology and erase bias and prejudice. Laws, judicial orders, even policy statements cannot reach out and protect the members of the community who face marginalization, deprivation and humiliation on a day-to-day basis. But there are other minorities in the world like the Jews who are well organized to monitor even a hint of criticism and counteract it through rebuttal, correction and protest. One wishes that Muslims had an organization like the Anti-Defamation League in the USA, which has ensured that not a word may be spoken against the Jews and acceptance of Zionism has become part of the liberal agenda.
How Muslim minorities can take on Islamophobia
History cannot be written. But the Muslims whether they are in a majority or a minority must accept that there is no right of conquest, no right of invasion, no right of terrorization or separatism or secessionism, the vices of which they are accused at every turn. Muslim minorities have every right to maintain their religious identity. But they have to be loyal to the state they live in, join the national mainstream and participate in national causes and movements. They cannot make themselves invisible or keep a low profile for fear that they lose their sense of identity. At the same time, they have to refrain from exhibition of orthodoxy or expression of fanaticism which provides the majority an excuse. A recent referendum in Switzerland was won by those who opposed construction of minarets in mosques. They should realize that a minaret or a dome is not an essential part of the Islamic architecture of a Masjid. Similarly, the Burqa is not universal or mandatory in Islam. They cannot gain in a face-to-face confrontation. They have to learn to be less contentious and reduce the level of cultural display. But sometimes a line needs to be drawn.
Apart from what the community may do, in terms of political initiatives, as citizen & permanent resident and human being, to respond to the western media and monitoring its bias, Muslim states along with the support of other members of the world community must promote a global standard of mutual acceptance and tolerance in terms of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Minorities, 1992, the International Covenants and the UN Convention against Religious Intolerance and Discrimination and the recent UN Declaration against Discrimination based on Faith. None shall eliminate but persistence may reduce the level of Islamophobia to a manageable extent over a period of time. These are the tools in the hands of religious minorities, national or global, which can change the tone of modernization but both sides have to avoid conceptual bottlenecks when it comes to defining the limits of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Slowly it shall strike at the roots of the basic accusation which promote Islamophobia in Muslim-minority states, that Islam does not accept democracy, that Muslims reject national culture and are not loyal to the state they live in or the Constitution which provides their basic rights and that they are as a collectivity conspiring to take over the world and re-establish the Caliphate!
The world is changing and the pace of change is very fast. The cultural and even physical demarcation between peoples and states are getting dissolved in what is considered to be the climate of the age, Democracy and Secularism. Muslims in different parts of the world have to move with the time, accept that Islam lays down principles for living Islamically but does not identify Islamic culture or Islamic economy or Islamic political system. Islam can live comfortably with multiple political and economic structures and the Muslims should be prepared to accept any system & any culture which recognises their religion, guaranteed them identity and freedom and protects them from cultural absorption and assimilation.
(Syed Shahabuddin, ex-diplomat and MP, is president, All India Muslim Majlise Mushawarat)