Misinterpreting Islam in the West
Islamophobia is a problem that simply will not go away. It is not easy to find a positive word about the Middle East in Western media, even less so about Islam.
News about Muslims in the European media is rarely positive. In some countries, not least the United Kingdom, no other community receives such bad press. There the likes of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Times can be relied on to pour scorn on anything Muslim.
Not only is Islam portrayed as systematically inimical to liberal values and in conflict with British, US or French identity but many public intellectuals disseminate discourses that Islam is monolithic.
On the left, particularly in the United States, an eclectic litany of Islamophobes weaponise atheism as an ideology that not only discredits the spiritual dimensions of Islam but demonises it in line with longstanding orientalist terms.
For such atheists, Islam is illegitimate because it is a religion but, unlike other religions, is distinctly threatening because it is inherently at odds with liberal values. They join hands with the intellectual father of modern Islamophobia, historian Bernard Lewis, in saying that the very doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilisation.
A mainstay of the American left can argue on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” that “the Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS” and “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will kill you if you say the wrong thing.” Conflating 1.6 billion believers with a terrorist network no doubt meets with US President Donald Trump’s approval.
Popular French intellectual Eric Zemmour can be relied on to misrepresent any news from the Muslim world and, more important for domestic politics, the millions of French who are Muslim. Zemmour once claimed that bearing an Arab first name in France suggested the person in question refused to integrate into French society, oblivious to the fact that one of his given names is “Moise.”
When Trump said on the campaign trail three years ago that war-torn Syria “could be ISIS” and that “Islam hates us,” he was pandering to his conservative audience but Liberal Islamophobia is on the rise.
The rise of populism and nationalism across Europe can only fuel Islamophobia. It also fuels vandalism; there was a 56% increase in reported anti-Muslim vandalism in 2017 when compared with 2016 in the United Kingdom and six-out-of-ten victims of hate-crime attacks were women, eight-out-of-ten perpetrators were men, official data indicate.
There seems little doubt that Brexit has fuelled this rise but so have terrorist attacks, including the suicide bombing of the Manchester Arena.
A recent Runnymede Trust report in the United Kingdom argues that “referring only to ‘anti-Muslim’ hate maybe getting things back to front. Prejudicial attitudes about a group develop to justify the economic or political disadvantages experienced by that group.”
That 37% of people in Britain said they would support a political party that would reduce the number of Muslims in the United Kingdom and half the British Muslim population lives in the 10% most deprived areas of the country are facts that fit under this broad umbrella of Islamophobia that is normalised in many sections of British — but also French and US — society. Its usage spans the globe beyond academics and researchers to include police, the media and political leaders.
In 2011, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, then-co-chairwoman of the Conservative Party, argued that bigotry against British Muslims was becoming increasingly acceptable in polite society. In 2016, Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for London mayor implied that his opponent Sadiq Khan had links to Islamic terrorists. The latter was elected mayor. Islamophobia does not always work.
Many agree with former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich that “stealth jihadis use political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools; violent jihadis use violence and both are seeking to replace Western civilisation with a radical imposition of sharia.”
His visceral hatred of Muslims/Arabs and Islam seems to be shared by the former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who is now standing as a right-wing candidate in Barcelona’s municipal elections next spring and argues that sharia leads to the “enslavement of women.”
Historically, sharia is not law in the sense the West understands it but a body of Quran-inspired guidance that points Muslims towards living an Islamic life. Neither is it notably anti-woman. Yet, in the minds of rigorist fundamentalists, sharia has mutated into a set of rules that must be implemented here and now, including the most barbaric forms of punishment.
The media like lurid stories and not just where Islam is concerned but they fail to reflect that Ku Klux Klan tactics are no more representative of Christian practice than the barbaric behaviour of the Islamic State is of Islam. That said, were those countries that lapidate adulterous women to abolish the practice, it would improve the perception of Islam in the West.
Another often overlooked reason for the West’s negative view of Islam is the ignorance many educated Europeans and Americans have of the history of the Middle East and Asia, not least of the life of the religion’s founder Prophet Mohammad.
In a recent book, “Muhammad, Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires” (Perseus books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc. 2018), Juan Cole sets out to explore the historical background and the nature of the peace message, as he sees it, of the founder of the third monotheistic religion.
Cole challenges aspects of Muslim tradition and contemporary depictions of early Islam. He does not say Mohammad was illiterate. He argues that the Quran’s familiarity with Jewish and Christian scriptures as well as with Greek thought coupled with the fact that the Prophet was a long-distance trader, suggests Mohammad would have been fluent in classical Arabic, Aramaic and possibly Greek.
Such academic books are read by too few people to hope they might promote a better understanding of Islam. Meanwhile, the heavy hand of the censor across much of the Middle East denies Arab academics and journalists an intelligent counternarrative on the West.
The key element that would reduce Islamophobia in the West is less violence in the Middle East but that is unlikely to come any time soon.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.