Islamophobia concerns us all

Published October 1, 2019
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE UN General Assembly session is over and the prime minister is back but the debate over his speech is ongoing. Was it good or not? Too long? India-held Kashmir was discussed at length — or did it need more emphasis? Was the Valley mentioned too far down in the speech or did the substance and sincerity of that part make up for it being brought up last? If India was condemned, why not the others? Perhaps the only thing left to discuss was his choice of clothes.

But few, at home at least, have highlighted what he said about Islamophobia. That lack of interest is itself illustrative. And it’s about more than our general insularity — Pakistanis, or at least the press in the country, take little interest in world affairs.

Read: 'To combat Islamophobia, Imran Khan bridges East and West'

Islamophobia should not simply be an issue for ‘others’ or the rest of the world. It should be of concern that 20 years after 9/11, the phenomenon is not just around but getting worse. And it should also be of concern why the leadership of Muslim countries, in particular, does not speak of it enough. Perhaps the reasons may not be too different for why Muslim societies, and especially, Pakistan ignore it.

Twenty years ago, when the Twin Towers in Manhattan crumbled on a September morning, it seemed as if Muslim countries were on the defensive. It was hard to explain away the religious identity of the attackers entirely or the worldwide networks that facilitated those who had such destructive ideas. No easier to answer were the questions about why followers of one religion appeared to have so much hatred for the West. Undoubtedly, the answers to these questions implicated states beyond the Muslim world but still the latter was on the defensive and not without reason. However much we denied it (or even if it was unwarranted), there was some sort of collective guilt.

The question is why more Muslim leaders aren’t talking about Islamophobia.

The next decade was mostly spent in crisis management — in the Muslim world. From Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, there were attacks from within and in Afghanistan and Iraq, from outside. In our own home, we spent over a decade struggling with, confronting and then battling terrorism — home-grown it may have been but it was put down at considerable cost, human and material.

Perhaps this internal crisis was one reason the Muslim states were unable to see the growing Islamophobia in the West. The stricter visa regimes; the finger printing; the profiling at airports for security checks; the stories of Muslims being offloaded from planes and worse — the signs were there but little was made of them ‘East of Suez’. Was it because most citizens of Muslims countries already found it so difficult to get visas and travel to the West that a few more hassles passed unnoticed? Or was it the collective guilt that kept them quiet? Had more been said, I may have known what to say here.

In the West however, the ‘othered’ Muslim minority felt the impact and spoke of it. From plays on Broadway to debates to stories, it has been highlighted. If Pakistanis feel it’s an unimportant issue for the prime minister to have brought up, they should simply turn to news websites. From Guardian to Al Jazeera, most have a page titled Islamophobia which links to their various stories on the issue. A quick glance at the Guardian page shows headlines such as: ‘Detention of Muslims at UK ports and airports ‘structural Islamophobia’; ‘Detained migrants children must have access to soap and toothpaste, court rules…’; ‘Sajid Javed puts rivals on the spot over Tory party “Islamophobia”.’ The Al Jazeera link takes us to stories headlined: ‘US Republican group apologises for racist “jihad squad” post’ and ‘UK media’s portrayal of Muslims ‘misleading and negative: study’.

Also read: ‘Negative portrayal of Muslims in western media igniting hatred’

And here, we are debating whether it’s even an issue or not.

It is an issue — given not only the increasing frequency of attacks such as the one in New Zealand but also the increasing popularity of political parties which push xenophobia and racism. It doesn’t just affect those Muslims who live in the West; it affects the rest as well as they travel or work. And in this interconnected world, where most of us have family or friends settled elsewhere, it should be of concern also. It should matter to us when the opponent of Sadiq Khan (who is of Pakistani origin) attacked his faith during the election for London’s mayor.

To speak of Islamophobia is not to absolve Pakistan of its own past mistakes or its treatment of minorities; but neither are these enough reasons to not recognise Islamophobia as a serious phenomenon which concerns Muslims. And heads of state should speak of it.

The question should not be why Imran Khan spoke of it; the question is why more Muslim leaders aren’t talking about it. And to say this does not mean that one adheres to the idea of a larger Muslim political entity!

However, it can be said that the prime minister could have couched the issue in more political terms than civilisational. He focused on how differently the West and the Muslims treat religion, asking for sensitivity and respect.

But there is more to it. If some people now associate Islam with violence — which is one reason for Islamophobia — the answers have to be found in the politics of and around the Muslim world in past decades; and not religion or its texts or by treating the West and the Muslim world as different civilisations.

For in any religion, it is possible to find interpretations that sanction violence (whether the victims are of a different sect or religion). What needs to be understood is why and how these interpretations come to dominate; and this is not specific to Islam. Across the border in India, if one needs to understand why the non-violence of Gandhi has been replaced by the communalism of the BJP, the answer lies in recent history and politics. Or if one has to trace the history of Europe from the time it was engulfed in religious wars to the present day where they can make Monty Python’s Life of Brian, one has to turn to the continent’s history and not the Bible. It is no different for the Muslim world.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2019

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