ODVV Interview: There are links between...
Islam is now the world’s second largest religion after Christianity and the fastest-growing faith tradition globally. Spiraling fear of, and antipathy toward Muslims, which some scholars argue is a historical phenomenon with a pedigree stretching back to the 18th and 19th centuries, has been intensified and elevated to new heights in the recent decades, particularly with developments that have brought the Western civilization and the Muslim world into closer contact, including the rising tide of immigration from Muslim countries to Europe and North America in the late 20th century, and the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing project of War on Terror.
A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found people in Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece and Lithuania have the most unfavorable views of Muslims among the European countries, even though attitudes have slightly improved since 2016 when the public perceptions of Muslims were last gauged by the agency. In the United States, where four years of Donald Trump presidency actively fueled anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant bigotry and widened the religious gaps, Muslims are a minority rated by most Americans disapprovingly. A Democracy Fund Voter Study Group research in 2018 concluded that Muslims received the lowest rating by the American as compared to other major racial and religious communities: only 48 percent of Americans viewed Muslims favorably, while the average rating for Jews was 74 percent.
Across the Western hemisphere and in places where Muslims constitute minority groups, prejudice against them in the form of violence, hate crimes, educational and occupational discrimination, vilification in the media and social disenfranchisement is rife. In Germany, the police recorded a total of 901 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2020. Islamophobic hate crimes in the United Kingdom surged by 593 percent one week after a white supremacist murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019. In France, home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim community, 235 Islamophobic attacks were reported in 2020, showing a 53 percent uptick compared to the preceding year.
Dr. Amina Yaqin is a reader in Urdu and postcolonial studies and the chair of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at SOAS, University of London. She is the co-author of the 2011 book “Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11” and studies the life of Muslims in Britain, Pakistani culture and anti-Muslim discrimination. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Dr. Yaqin to discuss the global rise of Islamophobia, the media portrayals of Islam and the most reliable strategies to confront anti-Muslim intolerance.
Q: Anti-Muslim bigotry has taken on various forms today, proliferating in every corner of the world, from China, India and Myanmar to New Zealand, Britain and North America. As a scholar of postcolonial studies, what do you think are the roots of the current spate of Islamophobia and what are the most effective solutions to confront it?
A: The current spate of Islamophobia has been fed by populist politics from Donald Trump to Narendra Modi who have relied on the media to platform anti-Muslim prejudice during election campaigns. In Europe, far-right anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political parties have fed a white supremacist message. The media has been an enabler of Islamophobia by prioritizing the actions of Muslim militants over ordinary Muslims. Framing and stereotyping cycles when it comes to Muslim stories in the media offers a very closed view of Muslims. A vast range of social media websites and influencers as well as high profile media commentators actively contribute to a hostile Islamophobic environment. Reports have also shown that there is support funding for organized Islamophobia or what is known as the Islamophobia industry. From the lens of postcolonial studies, the roots of Islamophobia are deep and historical.
Civilizational attitudes from the Middle Ages have been uncritically reproduced in the present pitting a Judeo-Christian world against an Islamic one. Historically, cross-cultural exchanges have been at the heart of global interactions and contributions from Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Rushd, Nasir al-din al-Tusi, Muhammad Iqbal and many others present a moral and ethical community that works in harmony with others. We also see this in the work of Muslim women contributing to change both within and outside Muslim societies such as the Begams of Bhopal and present-day Islamic feminists such as Amina Wadud.
In order to contest Islamophobia that racializes Muslims in multicultural contexts, we need to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the behavior of a fraction of Muslims who commit acts of terrorism. We have to build an informed understanding of each other through the process of cultural dialogue and exchange. This is conceptualized in my co-authored book “Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11” with Peter Morey. Interfaith dialogue also has the power to break down barriers and create the space for empathic affinities. In our co-edited book “Contesting Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim Prejudice in Media, Culture and Politics” we offer some solutions to contest Islamophobia through education, arts and youth activism.
Q: According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 30 percent of the global immigrants are Muslim. To what extent have phenomena such as the rise of far-right in Europe, the Brexit referendum in Britain and the ascendancy of Donald Trump, which all contributed to the fomentation of anti-immigrant sentiments, played a role in stoking global Islamophobia? What are the links between anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-Muslim prejudice?
A: As I noted earlier, there are strong links between anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-Muslim prejudice. One of the most visible ways in which this is narrativized is through the debate over the hijab, the cartoon controversy, targeting of refugees and immigration policies that provoke a clash of civilizations debate. Legislation over the hijab in European nations has wedged a permanent divide between Muslim communities and their host nations.
Refugees are seen as a threat to European identity in the discourse of an increasingly active far-right. The rise of the anti-right in Europe and anti-immigration policies go hand in hand with a culture war that has been unleashed on critical thinking on the back of anti-Muslim rhetoric by groups such as the English Defence League, Danske Folkeparti and Pegida. Anti-immigrant attitudes are also fostered through securitization programs. For example, in the United Kingdom, the implementation of the Prevent duty in educational institutions comes out of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. It asks those in education to report and spy on students who are open to radicalization. This surveillance culture contributes to rising Islamophobia and the racialization of Muslims. We have examined global Islamophobia in relation to anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-Muslim prejudice through our work in the Muslims Trust and Cultural Dialogue project and collaboration with Professor Akbar Ahmed and the Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity documentary.
Q: In European countries, particularly in Britain, France, Germany and Belgium, members of the public hugely overestimate the population of Muslims. A 2016 Ipsos Mori study found that for example, in France, the general public believes Muslims comprise 31 percent of the country’s population, while in fact the Muslim minority makes up only 8.8 percent of the population. What do you think nurtures this sort of mentality? Does it have to do with the fear of Muslims and a demographic anxiety that Muslims are likely to conquer Europe in the future?
A: The media has a big role to play in this and it feeds into the misperceptions and misrecognitions of Muslims in Europe. The myth of “Eurabia” is something that has influenced politics and enabled white supremacists. Misinformation sites such as the Gates of Vienna provide a platform for this kind of mentality through what is represented as the “counter-jihad.” It legitimizes the politics of the far-right.
In our book “Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11” we set out how agenda-setting and framing narratives have helped to normalize a religio-ethnic Muslim identity that is at odds with the lived experiences of Muslim citizens by emphasizing the stories of a few exceptions who are not the norm. This research led us to the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue project that interrogated the breakdown of trust in politics. We examined this through the lens of multiculturalism in Europe in our co-edited volume, “Muslims, Trust and Multiculturalism: New Directions.” In our book we suggest that the institutionalization of multiculturalism as a state-led vehicle for tolerance and integration requires a certain type of trustworthy performance from minority groups, particularly Muslims. Even when this performance is forthcoming, existing discourses of integration and underlying patterns of mistrust can contribute to Muslim alienation on the one hand, and rising Islamophobia on the other.
Q: A significant majority of the general public in the West believes Islam and the Western values of democracy and freedom are not compatible. They make reference to crisis-hit nations in the Middle East and North Africa and the terrorist attacks of recent years in France, Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere as examples of the challenges pitting the Muslim world against the West. Do you believe these arguments are reliable? Can’t the same assertions be made about other faiths?
A: The secular religious divide is a common perception between Islam and the Western world but researchers have shown that this is part of a false consciousness based on a Eurocentric understanding of modernity. We can’t deny the fact that the Muslim world faces challenges within Muslim nations from the Middle East to North Africa relating to citizenship rights, gender identities, freedom of expression and minorities and there are groups within those places that will happily comply with the idea of Western democracy being incompatible with Islamic nations. But we need to look beyond the binary to unpack violent histories of European colonialism and territorial nationalism, militarization, inequalities and poverty.
We have to look beyond the surface of terror attacks to see what are the structural forces at play including inequalities. And yes, this assertion can be made about other faiths, but we are talking about a faith connected to a problem minority which allows for connected arguments to be made about MENA countries ignoring the violent history of colonialism and the acquisition of land.
Q: In the past decade, social media have undergone a striking evolution, and the number of the users of social networking platforms quadrupled from 970 million in 2010 to 3.81 billion in 2020. What is the role the social media play in distorting the portrayal of Muslims and normalizing violence against them?
A: This is a huge question and I am not sure that I can answer it fully, but I offer my thoughts. We have seen how social media has been used in election campaigns, the role it played in the Arab Spring and many other revolutionary moments. Countries from China to Iran all have different relationships to social media so to think of it as an equalizer or leveler would be inaccurate. I think is important to underline the virtual reality of social media. For instance, not all users are real users, influencers are given platforms, it is a space that is fairly unregulated, hence Donald Trump as the former representative of a world leading democracy could abuse his power on a regular basis and not be checked for it.
We do need to question the ownership, funding base and ethics of social media to critically assess the value of politicians using Twitter as a space to articulate instant opinions and leaking information without checks and balances. On the other hand, social media has definitely played a part in raising the profile of campaigns that may not have been heard otherwise and as one of my students likes to say it is where the masses can voice their opinions but from where I’m looking, it is a place that allows bullies to thrive and the masses don’t have access to it in the same way. The Islamic State used social media for a global campaign and they played a big role in distorting the portrayal of Muslims and normalizing violence.
Q: In the United States, from 2010 till this day, some 200 anti-Islamic laws were passed by the Congress and state legislatures. Across Europe, a panoply of laws restricting Muslim women’s hijab, prohibition on the construction of minarets and immigration restrictions targeting Muslims have come into force particularly after the 9/11 attacks. Doesn’t this sort of legislative strategy widen the rifts between the Muslim communities and the non-Muslim majorities? Won’t the capital of social trust be undermined?
A: Trust has been eroded between and across communities for a number of reasons including the ones you mention. We have to ask the question how is trust understood within these societies and if it is an ethical or a moral question. In the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue project research we established that multiculturalism was one of the societal conditions for trust-building and Islamophobia that of distrust. We discovered that within political representation, there is a lack of social trust within groups themselves. It highlights the problem of representation in multicultural societies when it comes to minority rights. And yes, the law is a place that people look to for justice but as you’ve noted the law can also be discriminatory and deny social justice. We see this in citizenship policies, stop and search policing powers and the issue of Muslim marriages in the UK.
In Europe, the hijab has become a flashpoint and a signifier of the woman question as the biggest divide when it comes to citizenship. At the same time, we have seen the rise of modest fashion as a counter resistance to this type of stereotyping.
Unfortunately, legislation widens the rift between the state and its Muslim population and sets up structural racialization. In our project we found organic models of social trust are forged through music, theater, and the creative arts between interfaith communities contesting stereotypes about Muslims resisting other cultures. But there is a long way to go before these connections have an impact on legislation. The culture of securitization, surveillance and the enemy within is the dominant theme of politics and it creates a toxic atmosphere of distrust. This argument is at the heart of our co-edited book, “Muslims, Trust and Multiculturalism: New Directions.” One of the challenges that representative politics also presents is that of mutual trust across Muslim groups themselves.
Q: There are different studies corroborating that Islamophobia, as you mentioned earlier, is a lucrative and money-making industry. As reported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the University of California Berkeley, only between 2008 and 2013, a total of 74 agencies, foundations, organizations and think tanks in the United States spent USD206 million on fueling hatred of Muslims. Is there similarly a proportionate investment on tackling white supremacy, which is turning out to be a serious trouble for the United States?
A: We’ve seen a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and a structural resistance to the demands for social justice, equality and reparations being written off as wokeness and political correctness. White supremacy has enjoyed big league supporters such as Trump and it is quite telling that his second impeachment has failed. It demonstrates the power of an Islamophobia industry to mobilize working-class and middle-class voting publics in their favor to gain political ascendancy.
I don’t think there is a proportionate investment tackling white supremacy. In the UK we’ve seen worrying trends and a culture war being unleashed that shuts down the questioning of white privilege, the teaching of critical race theory and research on Britain’s wealth from the slave trade. We will have to see what happens under Biden’s leadership in the United States. I think there is a very limited time in which he has to effect change to tackle white supremacy not just through short-term identity politics but long-term transformative structural change.
Q: How can the Islamic nations and their leadership contribute to confronting the global tide of Islamophobia and dividing the civilizational gap between the Muslim world and the West?
A: Islamic nations and their leadership have to confront the global tide of Islamophobia by tackling their own media, addressing the women question, sectarian conflict and investing in an education model that offers an informed understanding of Islamic political thought and philosophy. By investing in education and working with the arts and sciences to counter the Islamophobia industry, a long-lasting cultural exchange can be integrated within the broader political environment. My research on Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani’s women’s writing offers an alternative lens highlighting how women’s political and community activism can contribute a better understanding between the Muslim world and the West.
By: Kourosh Ziabari