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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Modern Islamophobia

Everyone who knows me knows that one of the causes I am most passionate about is fighting Islamophobia. I've blogged about this before, most notably with a post I wrote called "Draw Muhammed Day". Islamophobia is a trend that ebbs and flows in the Western world. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there has been a very visceral attitude of secular and religious Westerners to Islam, one that can be turned on and off with virtually the flick of a switch.

The most recent episode has been one of such frenzies of media attention. A low-budget production called "The Innocence of Muslims" was launched onto youtube, seen countless times by countless people around the globe. To not have heard about this controversy, you'd have to have been far removed from any media or anyone with access to media. My post this time around has to do, predominantly, with the media coverage of this event and, secondarily, with the general attitudes of the West toward Islam.

As I mentioned a second ago, 9/11 played a mammoth role in politicising Muslims as others. There has been a long history in the West of vilifying Islamic peoples and their cultures, but the climate after 9/11 brought a new perspective, with Islam threatening not Christianity, but democracy, capitalism, individualism, freedom of expression, secularism, pluralism, and other pillars of a modern Western society.

The film itself is something that I won't really comment on much. I think it's an atrociously poorly produced piece, but it's full of hate, stereotypes, and ignorance. The film, according to its producers, is designed to point out the hypocrisy of Islam and its prophet, Muhammed. The film has been viewed by hundreds of millions of people in countries all across the world. The response to it has been mixed, with many promoting the right to freedom of speech and others indicating that this is blatant hate speech. The debate is a challenging one, as striking a balance of censorship and expressive license is a major issue in most modern democratic states.

The film aside, the majority of the media coverage has centred around the rather noteworthy reactions in the Islamic world. Throughout the Middle East there have been significant protests since the middle of September. Groups of Muslims, largely urban youths, have gathered to express their anti-American sentiments, offended at the defamation of their god. These protests, which are an authentic expression of their religious fervour, have been augmented by a growing resentment in the Middle East toward American politics and culture. While the vast majority of these protests were peaceful, some protestors turned to violence, notably in Libya, where the US ambassador was murdered.

These events prompted the standard arguments. Islam is violent, or Muslims are uncivilised, or any other Islamophobic drivel. These presumptions and stereotypes are not at all new. These constructs are part of over a millennium of contact between Christianity and Islam, often marred with violence. The Islamic world is presented as brutal and savage while the Christian world is characterised as peaceful and ordered. There is a false sense of superiority on the part of Westerners that our societies are more advanced than those in the Middle East. Overwhelmingly, proponents of such a worldview are totally failing to understand Islam and are not deconstructing their privilege as Westerners.

The first part of this is not understanding Islam. Few realise that Islam is very close in content to Christianity. Because of the unfortunate history of conflict between the Christian West and the Middle East, Muslims have overwhelmingly been constructed as untrustworthy, immoral, unintelligent, foul, and aggressive. These characterisations were based on selected interactions with Muslims and ignore the significant contributions that Muslims have made to art, math, philosophy, and science.

The second element is the blatant hypocrisy. Muslims are thought to be intolerant and violent, which of course is contrasted with Western pluralism and agreeability.  This is absolutely incorrect for two reasons. Firstly, it suggests that there are not high rates of intolerance and violence in Western societies. This is clearly untrue, given the amount of discrimination and aggressive crime in places such as the United States. Moreover, in the historical context it is quite evident that Christians have been terribly aggressive, such as the sectarian violence of the Thirty Years War, the persistent persecution during the Reconquista, the brutal colonisation of Africa, and the Holocaust. Secondly, it holds Muslims to the same standards as the West, where different social, economic, and political factors have produced a vastly dissimilar realities. It's forgotten all too quickly that not only have Christians committed atrocious crimes against humanity all through the twentieth century, they continue to do so now.

I find this troubling because Westerners think that Islamic societies are backwards compared to North America or Europe. The reaction of Westerners to the protests and the murders has been predictable: Muslims are characterised as reactionary and blinded by their religious attitudes. This is quite clear in examining news media, but it's also a trend on the internet. The two best examples of this are an article published by the Onion, and a meme comparing Islam to atheism. Both of these are offensive because they treat Muslims as immature fanatics, incapable of operating in a pluralistic world like "everyone else".

It is particularly frustrating because Westerners are not deconstructing why Muslims are angry. Few Americans, for instance, realise that residents of the Middle East don't understand American-style individualism. The protests have been vociferously anti-American, and this is primarily because Muslims living in rather collectivist undemocratic societies presume that the video was produced or disseminated in part by the United States government. And it seems to make perfect sense from the perspective of Muslims that Washington might be participating in this given the terrible suffering that Muslim populations have experienced as a direct result of American foreign policy, particularly since the end of the Cold War.

There is much more to say about this topic, but I'll leave you with a final comment. The film and its reaction have highlighted what I believe is the new Islamophobia. It's not about attacking people's religion directly, it's about attacking all the items affiliated with it (terrorism, oppression of women's rights, lack of religious freedom, dictatorships, immigration) in order to discredit the religion and its culture. I'm very worried for the future of relations between the West and Islam given the incredible tension that is produced between government and between cultures.

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