How Muslims should deal with bigotry and hate

It is not in the interest of Muslims in the West to have laws protecting them as a separate group.

Addressing the hatred against Muslims that the extremist far right is encouraging should be done in the context of a rejection of all forms of hatred, regardless of its source or target. That is why the call by Arab writers to Western countries following the attack against Muslims in New Zealand to enact laws criminalising “hatred against Islam and Muslims” does not sound logical or understandable.

What that suggestion amounts to is an invitation to confront racism with a racist logic, combat hatred by inciting hatred and fighting discrimination by establishing discrimination. If such laws were passed, they will lead to the consolidation of the crisis of coexistence between Islam and the West and create an atmosphere of mistrust and revenge.

Such legislation implicitly says the existence of Islam in the West is a “crisis,” that the integration of Muslims is intractable and that they will forever remain an isolated group looking for special treatment because they lack cultural flexibility and are unable to adapt to Western culture.

It is not in the interest of Muslims in the West to have laws protecting them as a separate group. Such laws would consolidate defining them politically and legally based on their religious and sectarian identity and define their presence in their societies in religious terms.

The result of the moves would be the erection of cultural and psychological barriers between Muslims and society at large, isolating and alienating them from the rest of the society, creating a climate that feeds Islamophobia.

What is needed instead is to strengthen the integration of Muslims in society and to consolidate their definition as citizens based on the common identity that brings them together with the other diverse identities.

What Muslims need to do is activate their role in confronting hatred and racism and to leave the mentality of cultural entrenchment. That mentality converges with the ideas of the extreme right that views the presence of Muslims in the West as an exceptional situation rather than part of the cultural diversity and natural development of societies.

As Muslims, we can protect ourselves from hatred only by engaging in a global project to counter it and by adopting a universal concept of tolerance rather than demanding that anti-hate laws be elaborated and tailored to a specific class or ethnicity.

Denying one’s cultural self does not mean abandoning one’s identity. It means living in harmony with others and accepting them as partners in the public sphere. This comes through considering their cultural specificities as legitimate lifestyles and social and behavioural choices if they do not conflict with the law and human rights.

The wrong thing to do is to look at differences and choices through an aggressive and judgmental angle and make exclusionary and extremist moral judgments about them.

The best way to preserve one’s identity is to free oneself from its limitations and burdens and realise that identity gains its vitality through positive interaction with other identities rather than through isolation.

Many customs, traditions and fashion choices have been labelled “Islamic” and have become part and parcel of the concept of “Islamic culture” while they are controverted issues in Islam and there is no religious proof supporting them as “Islamic.”

Therefore, now more than ever before, Muslims need to make cultural concessions so they can become more effective in interacting with other cultures at the global level. These desired cultural and behavioural transformations make us more integrated with the times and the world and are far from being an affront to Islam or an attempt to deform its teachings.

Having the will to make cultural concessions is a sign of self-confidence, trusting others, openness and tolerance and not a sign of cultural defeat.

Palestinian academic Khaled al-Hroub said: “Flexible cultural specificities have produced civilisations and cultures capable of assimilating and benefiting from the experiences of others.” He pointed out that the historical experience of the Arab-Islamic civilisation provided an understanding of the Islamic cultural specificity based on openness and self-confidence, unlike what prevails in contemporary Islamic discourse, which is looking at cultural specificity from the perspective of isolation and stagnation.

Every human being has the right to cultural specificity but he or she also has the responsibility to manage this specificity in a civilised and interactive manner in a multicultural society. Interactive communication between individuals and groups and across cultures is characteristic of this age. One’s cultural specificity can only be maintained through interaction with other cultural specificities in one’s society and the world.

To live together in harmony, we need to tame and suppress feelings of religious and ethnic superiority and to show modesty and objectivity in recognising and accepting differences between cultures. We need to liberate ourselves from the discourse of placing too much pride in our identity and in refusing to be flexible regarding our religious and cultural constants.

A human being’s cultural identity is fluid and constantly changing, forming and reforming itself through contacts with other identities, both in harmony or by clashing.

The concepts and policies of globalising tolerance, global citizenship, cultural flexibility and interactive cultural specificities are transforming the world into a pluralistic, open, large and interconnected society with a common human identity. It fits the definition of a cosmopolitan society given by British-born philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah as “a society whose members belong to different places and have relations of mutual respect regardless of their religious beliefs or political views.”

Humam Taha is an Iraqi writer.

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