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Myriam Francois-Cerrah

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Islamophobia: Orwellian 'Doublespeak' ?‎

Posted: 11/07/2012 18:01

Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent ‎comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, designed to ‎shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject ‎the term on grounds of the 'freedom to criticise' Islam.‎

Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in ‎denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. British ‎novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously ‎stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties and Guardian ‎columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and ‎decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well - Gospel. ‎Paul Hockenos argues that "the left and liberals have largely capitulated, ‎unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a ‎constructive way."‎

Despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, ‎countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. ‎It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically ‎disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further ‎marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.‎

A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran 'says' - Islam ‎doesn't speak - people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts ‎through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. ‎Islamophobia is when influential figures like Toynbee define Islam in a ‎public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over ‎and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other ‎words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. This ‎reification of faith assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is ‎monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can't. ‎To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the ‎world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in ‎a depraved hate cult.‎

What's more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and ‎religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized ‎minorities - South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. ‎When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial ‎group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, ‎the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail's ‎choice to use the term "muslim gang" to refer to rapists, is one such ‎example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion. ‎While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed "imported ‎cultural baggage", commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly ‎interpreted that to mean Islam.

Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority ‎country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behaviour ‎of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism. ‎

Islamophobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where ‎the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands ‎for based on their being identified as Muslim. New forms of discrimination ‎avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been ‎replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to ‎rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups. ‎

The assumptions is that honour killings and forced marriages are ‎reflections of a backward 'islamic' culture, which through the presence of ‎Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Despite ‎Muslim objections to these practise, such assumptions are then reflected in ‎people's attitudes and behaviour towards Muslims. ‎

The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, ‎uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam - assumed to be a ‎hegemonic influence on people's behaviour- is responsible for virtually all ‎social ills, from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity ‎is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all ‎religions have plural expressions.‎

The concern is that the racist essentializing of "Muslimhood" is ignored on ‎the grounds that the term 'islamophobia' isn't clear enough. I would wager ‎the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end - such as when ‎Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a ‎‎"moderate cockroach". Or when the American writer Laila Lalami 's ‎husband was asked by an immigration officer "So, how many camels did ‎you have to trade for her?" ‎

Islamophobia is only unclear to those who seek to obfuscate its meaning. It ‎is the tendency to reify Islam - that is to assume the behaviour of given ‎individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the ‎principles of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, ‎Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behaviour is a consequence of ‎that essentialised identity.‎

Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we ‎claim the 'muslimhood' of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular ‎culture when the men themselves refer to the victims using the popular ‎playground put down "slags". We regularly see 'Islam' used as a catch-all ‎phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues.‎

Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting stereotypes are ‎accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily ‎Mirror, that Zain Malik of boyband One Direction, was "pimping Islam" on ‎young girls through "boyband jihad". Or the use of imagery to fan the ‎flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday did by superimposing the image of a ‎woman in a burka against a caustic anti-immigration article. ‎

Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising that far from ‎being a lone sociopath, Breivik's actions were grounded in an all too ‎common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column and a threat to ‎Western values. A consequence of this 'theoretical' islamophobia, the ‎intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in ‎Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions. ‎

According to a report from Amnesty International, "European Muslims are ‎regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of ‎widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination ‎against them." ‎

Just as minarets or or face veils have become imbued with a significance ‎beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination ‎against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the ‎fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in ‎a way people don't choose their ethnicity. We don't choose the significance ‎people attribute to our symbols - especially when we have so little access ‎to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and ‎assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have a ‎choice in those stereotypes concerning the symbols which people interpret ‎according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural ‎incompatibility. ‎

John Mullen of France's radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has ‎argued that "opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive ‎values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism." It is time the ‎Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop ‎giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with ‎Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about Islam ‎and Muslims.‎

The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and ‎contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept ‎that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to 'Islam' ‎and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian ‎about that.‎

 

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