- The writer is a reader at the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies at the University of Leeds and also co-editor of the Decolonial Studies, Postcolonial Horizons Book Series.
Dr. Salman Sayyid
LEEDS (AA) - Almost 30 years ago, Edward Said followed up his path-breaking book Orientalism with another pioneering account that looked in detail at the way in which Western media portrayed Islam and Muslims. The context of Covering Islam was provided by the upheavals associated with the Islamic revolution in Iran. Said showed how much of the coverage on Muslims and Islam was either ill-informed or hostile. His analysis generated considerable impact both academically, culturally, and politically. Not only was Said one of the early pioneers in the analysis of Islamophobia ((re-)coining the term in 1985), but he was also one of the most prominent global figures in advancing the case for Palestinian justice. His interventions helped expand a space where it was possible in the West not only to sustain criticism of Zionism as a political ideology and of European colonialism, but also to view the subjugation of the Palestinian people as a continuation of the logic of European colonial rule.
It is important, however, to acknowledge that Said’s achievements were not just the result of an individual’s heroic endeavor. The current spread of Islamophobia is not down to the fact that there are now only a few public figures that have sufficient moral authority and intellectual integrity to be able to challenge this tide of hatred against Muslims and those associated with Muslims. The ability to challenge the dominant discourse of Orientalism was a product of a complex conjectural development and not just the result of a contingent coalition of a number of like-minded public intellectuals. It is this conjecture that we have to examine if we are to respond to the campaigns of marginalization and denigration that have been unleashed in the West against most expressions of Muslimness.
Islamophobia is being institutionalized throughout the world, and any way of expressing Muslim demands for justice is treated with hostility and suspicion. So much so that being a Muslim in a banal sense is almost becoming a criminal act, e.g. wearing a headscarf, wanting to eat halal food... Governments – including stalwarts of liberal democracy such as the British government – have launched clandestine propaganda operations against their own Muslim citizens. This semi-criminalization of Muslims is not altogether a new phenomenon. European colonial states, communist countries, and, alas, Muslim tyrannies have all, at various points in their histories, sought to make it a virtual crime to be a Muslim in a meaningful way. However, what is a new and disturbing development is the way in which Islamophobia is being openly embraced by self-declared contemporary liberal democracies. The evidence of this embrace is manifold: it can be seen in media representations, in government policies ranging from bans on headscarves to the passing of laws that take children away from Muslim parents suspected of being extremists, to getting healthcare workers and educators to spy on Muslims for signs of extremism... The question is why, given the media resources now available to a Muslim public opinion, is it so difficult to check the ceaseless propaganda against Muslim expression. Why is it that Muslims continue to be harassed and demonized? Why is there a collective silence among so many public intellectuals who are willing to speak about “Islamofascism” but are unable to mention Islamophobia? Why is it that Muslims, who publicly assert themselves as Muslims in Western liberal democracies, are accused of being either violent extremists or anti-Semites?
To understand this turn of events, we need to get away from conventional categories of analysis which are often the part of the problem. In particular, we need to temper the belief that this is all the fault of Western media. The media is not an independent agent. It reflects not so much the views of those it is beholden to – either financially or administratively – but rather the culture of its constituency.
Western media certainly peddles Islamophobia, and does this by the way it frames its coverage. This framing is partly the result of the way in which the editorial process reflects not just professional journalistic standards, but also ideological and cultural values. There is a grammar of media representation of Muslims. This grammar is not openly announced but it is largely accepted in silence. This is despite the fact that even though there is a large and growing Muslim presence in many major European cities, there is a general ignorance about Islam and Muslims among European elites. This general ignorance remains forever frozen in the nineteenth century tales of when Europe was on a mission to civilize and Muslims were considered to be “fanatical” and irrational because they dared to resist this colonial mission. This ignorance is not merely empirical but also conceptual: Orientalism gets in the way of understanding Islam and Muslims. It blocks any sustained attempt to know them which is not seeped in prejudice and suspicion.
Western media’s denigration of the expression of Muslimness has become so focused and so intense as a result of three main factors. Firstly, the end of the Cold War meant not only the demise of the Soviet alternative to Western hegemony, but it also destroyed the idea of the “Third World”. The Third World was not only a geopolitical category in which it was possible for issues of concern to the global South to gain leverage by adroit maneuvering between Washington and Moscow. It was also a cultural and philosophical space in which to launch an epistemological challenge to the continual shaping of the world by uncritical Eurocentrism. The existence of the Third World provided an infrastructure of resistance which spanned continents and included men and women not only from former colonized countries but also, to a limited degree, some of the marginalized and dispossessed in the developed world. In this regard, the convergence of anti-colonial struggles with anti-racist struggles, pioneered by civil rights in the U.S., was crucial. The critique of Orientalism gained whatever traction it had because it appeared in the context of these networks and associations which formed the Third World. In many ways, one could argue that the Islamic revolution in Iran was the last “Third World” revolution.
The second factor is that Western elites have not emotionally adapted to the post-Western world. This is why so many of them have rushed to embrace policies that seek colonial solutions to what are postcolonial predicaments. Thus, the hostility towards expressions of Muslimness is a means of shoring up the West’s sense of its own destiny. The choice of Islam and Muslim as the antagonistic-other, i.e. as the figure that subsumes, in itself, the traumatic kernel that prevents the West from being a fully realized harmonious and prosperous whole, is not purely arbitrary. The figure of the Muslim encompasses all the attributes of what the West likes to think it is not: misogynist, racist, violent… That is, Western narratives of itself are increasingly reliant on articulating the Muslim as the figure which represent the very impossibility of the West being equal to itself. The inability of the West to live up to its own version of what it should be is explained by the scandal of the Muslim presence – both geographically and temporally. The crisis of social cohesion in the West has become explicable by reference to the existence of a Muslim presence which prevents the full closure of these societies around core liberal values. The failure of liberal values is externalized to the surface of Muslim bodies rather then something intrinsic to liberalism itself. This externalization cannot cause but bewilderment, grief, and unsettlement as well as resistance from Muslims.
The final factor that I want to draw attention to is the crisis of Islamism itself. Islamism has been successful in asserting itself throughout the Islamosphere; it has broken the secularist-nationalist hegemony. However, it has not been able to provide an alternative pathway to establishing a stable infrastructure which could replace the loss of the “Third World” network. Evidence of this comes from the way so many media enterprises owned by Muslims (many Gulf potentates and their progeny) are no less involved in the peddling of Islamophobia. For example, News Corporation and 21st Century Fox – which owns Fox News – is one of the main disseminators of Islamophobia despite the fact that a Saudi prince, Al Waleed bin Talal, has been one of the company’s largest shareholders for over a decade and has shown unwavering support for the Murdoch family throughout the recent scandals. Islamophobia is not something that only exists among non-Muslims; it is also found among Muslims and not just those who think they are secularists. Islamism has had to operate through civil society as, with a handful of exceptions, state structures have remained hostile to it and have been active in efforts to depoliticize issues by enveloping them into an agenda of moralization, and as a consequence, Islamist capacity for analytical and strategical reflections is stunted.
The result of these three factors (the demise of networks and infrastructures of resistance occasioned by the loss of the “Third World,” the crisis of Western identity in the wake of the coming of the post-Western, and the attempts to de-politicize Islamism) have meant that Muslims are more visible, but also less able to exercise any coordinated control over how they are being narrated. Dominant currents within Western societies are denying Muslims the possibility of being actively engaged in articulating their own identity and therefore are also denying the possibility for Muslims to generate other possible futures. Islamophobia is not just the fear and loathing of Muslims but denial of their ability to project themselves into the future.
A new international order is emerging based on the normalization of the logic of the “war on terror”. Central to this order is the regulation and subordination of expressions of Muslimness. Unless Muslims are able to mount and sustain coordinated efforts to counter these developments by building inter-sectional and transversal infrastructures of resistance, Islamophobia will continue to flourish, and Said’s critique will become not only passé but simply disappear from our collective consciousness.
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