Islamophobia – Some Common places
Islamophobia is no more than contemporary racism with a strong classist and sexist component, legitimized socially because it is whitewashed by the discourse about the fight for women’s rights, secularismand anti-terrorism.
Just as male chauvinism does not only consist of women being killed by their partners and contemporary racism is not solely defined by attacks on minorities,Islamophobia cannot be reduced to violence against mosques or Muslims.
To invoke an old analogy: only the Nazis implemented the extermination of the Jewish population in Europe as a state policy, but the idea that the Jewish race was a foreign and corrupt one that was exploiting the Germans and deserved to be excluded was widely shared by the German population of the time. The idea determined the action. In the case of Islam, while only a few right-wingers may be out on the streets spearheading the violent opposition to a mosque opening, for example, that action is premised by stereotypes about Islam, assumptions that are shared by most people, regardless of political affiliation: the religion is linked to violence; Muslims are potential fanatics; Islam deprives women of rights. This is Islamophobia, understood as racism against Muslims.
The right and extreme right, the usual leaders of Islamophobic public discourse, drag the left into it. The left, in turn, fears the resulting loss of votes if the electorate perceives a half-hearted response to an issue that media propaganda is increasingly representing as the true spectre haunting Europe:Islam. Islamophobia is based on four commonplaces. This text counters each one of them.
1. “Muslims are…”
There are around 1,570 million Muslims in the world (Pew Research, 2009),distributed among 200 countries and, like the Christian population, extremely heterogeneous from a national and ethnic point of view (only 20% are Arab).
Internally, there is significant diversity, not only the major split between Sunnis and Shiites, but also other divisions that correspond to various cultural, jurisprudential, doctrinal and religious traditions, such as those that differentiate Tunisian (10 million adherents) from Chinese Islam (20 million). The heterogeneity of real Muslims clashes with and overrides Islamophobic reductionisms, which claim that the entire Muslim population shares a set of negative characteristics. In short, the object of Islamophobia is quite poorly defined, given the heterogeneity of Muslims. This is the argument to invalidate the first of the bases of Islamophobia.
2. “Islam leads to violence. Muslims blindly follow religious precepts.”
After the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, only the mayor of the mid-sized city of Badalona (Spain) openly referred to Islam’s purported predisposition to kill, but many people share the opinion that Islam is bellicose. This idea is unsubstantiated. The Qur’an and the other sacred texts are loose ethical codes that can either advocate brotherhood or the exact opposite according to how they are interpreted. By analogy, the Bible contains a number of incitements to violence, but it is not commonly claimed that Christianity is intrinsically violent.
Furthermore, the idea that the Qur’an is essential to the lives of Muslim men and women has its origin in colonialism and the Orientalist industry. The concept of the Muslim fanatic clinging to his atavistic customs fed colonial fantasies and domination: the colonialists were fighting a monster that had to bedomesticated. This is racism. The relationships between Muslims and their religion are diverse, precisely because of the heterogeneity of interpretations and traditions. Moreover, many people counted among Muslims do not even
practice the religion.
3: “Islam violates the rights of women.”
Muslim doctrinal sources contain statements that can be interpreted and used to oppress women. This is not specific to Islam, however; the same holds true for the Bible and the dominant tradition of the Church Fathers, which is strongly misogynistic and patriarchal. In many Muslim countries, Islam is wielded and instrumentalized to legislate against the rights of people, especially women(e.g., polygamy, repudiation, dress codes). It is no coincidence that these countries have significant democratic and civil rights deficits, which is part of the problem. Other non-Muslim dictatorships, like the fascist dictatorship of Franco,also used religion as a basis for political legitimacy and the source for a model of womanhood with legal consequences. In Ireland and Nicaragua, the power of the Church has resulted in the prohibition of abortion. And countries like Thailand and Mexico do not even need religion to maintain a climate of violence and harassment of women.
Islam does not, then, create patriarchal systems; rather, it provides a specific language and form of legitimacy, as do other religions and/or gender ideologies in non-Muslim states and societies.
4. “Muslim women are forced to wear headscarves; therefore this must bebanned in Europe in order to free them from this oppression.”
Leftist militants and feminists often advocate a ban on Islamic attire in Europe –reproducing in reverse the prohibitions that they criticize as oppressive–claiming that this frees Muslim women. Oddly, it is from a progressive position that they accept the state’s right to ordain how women should dress, purporting to “emancipate” them by taking away their civil rights. Even if a society does not share the religious or social background that leads a woman to adopt the head scarf, this does not empower the state to ban them. Wearing a head scar for niqab is not a crime and does not increase the likelihood that a woman will commit a crime or belong to a terrorist network. When clothing is criminalized,the women who wear it (almost always working class immigrants) are stigmatized and on more than one occasion, this stigmatization manifests itself in serious legal problems.
Ultimately, Islamophobia is no more than contemporary racism with a strong classist and sexist component, legitimized socially because it is white washed by the discourse about the fight for women’s rights, secularism and anti-terrorism. Let’s prove these arguments wrong and do away with the “I am an Islamophobe…so what?” position that Brigitte Vasallo wrote about in a previous issue of this journal. Let’s put an end to this impunity once and for all.
The author is an anthropologist, activist and co-author of La alteridad imaginada. El pánico moraly la construcción de lo musulmán en España y Francia, originally published in Spanish in Diagonal Angeles-Ramirez.