Islamophobia is by no means a new phenomenon. Rather, it goes back to the earliest period of Islamic history. A massive storm of anti-Muslim hatred emerged and spread across large parts of the then Christian world with the expansion of Muslim political rule, from the early eighth century onwards. It was this that, in large measure, propelled the Crusades, which played a major role in propagating and perpetuating deeply-held negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in the West. A major role in this regard was played by the Church and Christian polemicists. They spread such erroneous propaganda about Islam which today many Christians themselves feel embarrassed about.
The legacy of this medieval Christian Islamophobic propaganda lives on even today. Thus, according to a recent survey conducted by an American Muslim organization, Council for American Islamic Relations, a fourth of Americans hold extremely negative views about Islam, and half of all Americans see Islam in a negative light. Only two per cent of Americans have a good knowledge of Islam. It can thus be said that despite the centuries of Muslim-Christian relations, most Westerners have no proper idea of what Islam actually is.
From the late eighteenth century, an increasing number of Western scholars and travellers began taking an interest in studying Islam and Muslim societies. This soon took the form of a veritable movement or a specialized discipline, known as Orientalism. From its inception, Orientalism was deeply influenced by the Christian missionary agenda as well as by Western imperialism, both of which it served. Although, in this way, Orientalism had a very stark negative dimension, it played a crucial role in seeking to bridge the divide between the West and the East. Orientalists produced a massive amount of literature on ‘Oriental’ societies, including on Muslim societies and Islam. According to Edward Said, in the period between 1800 and 1950 alone, Orientalist scholars penned some 60,000 books, mainly in different European languages, on West Asia.
Following the Second World War, Western and Muslim scholars began moving in the direction of seeking to understand each other in a more balanced and serious fashion. A major cause for this was the migration of a sizeable number of Muslim scholars to the West. Another reason was the emergence of serious initiatives to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue and harmony. However, the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 led to the rapid upsurge of Islamophobic sentiments in the West. And, after that, it appears that carefully-organized attempts are being made on a menacing scale in the West to further fan these hatreds by seeking to project, through very poisonous propaganda, the image of Muslims as allegedly bloody monsters. The attacks of 9/11 gave a tremendous boost to this Islamophobic discourse, the ideological groundwork for which was done by self-styled Islamic ‘experts’ such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis.
The Present Context
The present context, following the events of 9/11, has proven to be horrific as far as Muslims are concerned. Islamophobia has now taken the place once occupied in the Western imagination by Anti-Semitism, and aggressive efforts are underway in the West directed against Islam and Muslims. Earlier, this was the handiwork mainly of certain extremist Christian evangelical groups, but now key political and social groups and forces in the West are also engaged in it. In fact, these groups and forces are, in a sense, even more virulent, and their propaganda and actions more hard-hitting, than that of fiercely anti-Muslim Christian organizations because, particularly in Europe, the latter do not enjoy overwhelming public support. It is clear that these forces are directly opposed to Islam as such, acting on the advice of the likes of Samuel Huntington, who argues that the underlying problem of relations between the West and Muslims is not ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, but, rather, Islam itself.
The anti-Islamic project and propaganda in the West can be attributed, then, to two basic forces: ‘Secular Fundamentalists’ and ‘Religious Fundamentalists’. The former have a huge influence in Western governments, bureaucracies, multinational corporations, the media, universities, strategic think-tanks, charitable foundations and branches of the United Nations. These forces can, as suggested earlier, be regarded as a greater challenge and threat to Islam and Muslims than Western Christian and Jewish religious fundamentalists, because they have a much greater influence and say in their own societies as well as globally. They have a decisive role in moulding the opinions of governments and peoples. Unfortunately, Muslims focus all their attention and ire not on these forces but on Western religious fundamentalists instead.
Christian evangelicals and Christian Zionists in the West, Jewish Zionists in the West and Israel and Hindutva ideologues in India have worked to create a climate of Islamophobia throughout the world. There are now a vast number of fiercely anti-Islamic Christian preachers who receive the open support of American imperialists. They call themselves ‘Doctors’, ‘Professors’ and ‘Reverends’, and this gives them and their stridently anti-Islamic propaganda greater legitimacy among their flock.
Causes of Contemporary Islamophobia:
Islamophobia can be traced to multiple causes. One of the most salient of these is the fact that Islam represents a particular ideology and way of life which is fundamentally opposed, in several crucial ways, to Western liberalism, consumerism and capitalism. Of course, and lamentably so, the Islamic ideology and system have nowhere been in existence in their full or proper form for centuries. Yet, the West regards these as a threat and challenge to the dominant Western world-view. To add to this, the West needs an enemy to seek to justify its global hegemony and its imperialist designs, particularly in poorer countries of the global South. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has conjured up Islam as its new opponent to serve this role. This has been facilitated by the obvious fact that today, with the decline of Communism, the only potent challenge that Western Imperialism and Capitalism face is from Islam.
Yet another factor fuelling the Islamophobic rage in the West is the alternative posed to the West by the Islamic moral code and its growing the emotionally-driven methods that were sought to be used to enforce this code in Iran and Afghanistan by Islamic groups have further antagonized the West. To add to this is the issue of the strong relations between the West, particularly America, and Israel. In these countries, especially America, Jewish Zionist forces enjoy considerable economic and political clout, and Israel itself, which is at the forefront of global Islamophobia, serves as a major tool for American imperialism and for keeping the Arab world under American control
What the Muslim Response Should Be:
In this context, the crucial question to ask ourselves is how Islamophobia, being so aggressively pursued and promoted by powerful forces in the West today, can be effectively responded to. Unfortunately, Muslim scholars and activists have not given this question much serious consideration, being guided mainly by feelings of revenge and reaction, mainly at the political level. They have not worked out any effective intellectual, instead of simply physical, response. Many of our intellectuals live in their own secluded ivory towers, doing nothing at all practical. To make matters worse, they are generally divided among themselves on narrow sectarian lines and seek to promote sectarian interests. Many of these people are actually working with, or being used by, Western anti-Muslim forces for their own ends.
Muslim scholars from South Asia have a particularly important role to play today in countering Islamophobia, because, unlike in several countries in the Arab world, there is much greater intellectual freedom in this region. South Asian Muslim scholars must devote adequate attention to studying and understanding the psyche, worldview and ideologies of various Islamophobic forces, their methods of working and the consequences of their activities and propaganda.
South Asian Madaris (seminaries) could have taken up this task more effectively than other Muslim institutions. Unfortunately, however, much of their syllabus is badly outdated and they have as yet developed neither the consciousness of the need to study the challenge of contemporary Islamophobia in a serious, scholarly fashion, nor the necessary intellectual tools needed for this purpose. For this to happen, Madaris must include such subjects in their curriculum as would enable their students to gain a proper understanding of modern social, political, economic and cultural conditions and challenges. This is indispensable for them to be able to provide effective and appropriate guidance to Muslims and to others as well in response to the phenomenon of mounting Islamophobia worldwide.
[A graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, and the Nadwat ul-Ulema madrasa in Lucknow, Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based Urdu journal Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa’s Graduates’ Association. This article has been translated by Yoginder Sikand]
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