Prime Minister Imran Khan frequently uses the term ‘Islamophobia’ while commenting on the relationship between European governments and their Muslim citizens. Khan has often been accused of lamenting the treatment meted out to Muslims in Europe, but remaining conspicuously silent about cases of religious discrimination in his own country.

Then there is also the case of Khan not uttering a single word about the Chinese government’s apparently atrocious treatment of the Muslim population of China’s Xinjiang province. 

Certain laws in European countries are sweepingly described as being ‘Islamophobic’ by Khan. When European governments retaliate by accusing Pakistan of constitutionally encouraging acts of bigotry against non-Muslim groups, the PM bemoans that Europeans do not understand the complexities of Pakistan’s ‘Islamic’ laws.

Yet, despite the PM repeatedly claiming to know the West like no other Pakistani does, he seems to have no clue about the complexities of European secularism. 

Take France for instance. French secularism, called ‘Laïcité’ is somewhat different than the secularism of various other European countries and the US. According to the contemporary scholar of Western secularism, Charles Taylor, French secularism is required to play a more aggressive role.

In his book, A Secular Age, Taylor demonstrates that even though the source of Western secularism was common — i.e. the emergence of ‘modernity’ and its political, economic and social manifestations — secularism evolved in Europe and the US in varying degrees and of different types. 

Despite PM Imran Khan repeatedly claiming to know the West like no other Pakistani does, he seems to have no clue about the complexities of European secularism

Secularism in the US remains largely impersonal towards religion. But in France and in some other European countries, it encourages the state/government to proactively discourage even certain cultural dimensions of faith in the public sphere which, it believes, have the potential of mutating into becoming political expressions.

Nevertheless, to almost all prominent philosophers of Western democracy across the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of providing freedom to practise religion is inherent in secularism, as long as this freedom is not used for any political purposes.

According to the American sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau in A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, six types of secularism have evolved. The American researcher Barry Kosmin divides secularism into two categories: ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. Most of Berlinerblau’s types fall in the ‘soft’ category. The hard one is ‘State Sponsored Atheism’ which looks to completely eliminate religion. This type was practised in various former communist countries and is presently exercised in China and North Korea. One can thus place Laïcité between Kosmin’s soft and hard secular types. 

The existence of what is called ‘Islamophobia’ in secular Europe and the US has increasingly drawn criticism from various quarters. According to the French author Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, the term is derived from the French word ‘islamophobie’ that was first used in 1910 to describe prejudice against Muslims. 

L.P. Sheridan writes in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence that the term did not become widely used till 1991. According to Roland Imhoff and Julia Recker in the Journal of Political Psychology, a wariness had already been building in the West towards Muslims because of the aggressively anti-West ‘Islamic’ Revolution in Iran in 1979, and the violent backlash in some Muslim countries against the publication of the novel Satanic Verses by the British author Salman Rushdie in 1988.

Islamophobia is one of the many expressions of racism towards ‘the other’. Racisms of varying nature have for long been present in Europe and the US. Therefore Imhoff and Recker see Islamophibia as “new wine in an old bottle.” It is a relatively new term, but one that has also been criticised.

Discrimination against race, faith, ethnicity, caste, etc., is present in almost all countries. But its existence gets magnified when it is present in countries that describe themselves as liberal democracies.

Whereas Islamophobia is often understood as a phobia against Islam, there are also those who find this definition problematic. To the term’s most vehement critics, not only has it overshadowed other aspects of racism, of which there are many, it is also mostly used by ‘radical Muslims’ to curb open debate.

In a study, the University of Northampton’s Paul Jackson writes that the term should be replaced with ‘Muslimphobia’ because the racism in this context is aimed at a people and not towards the faith, as such. However, he does add that the faith too should be open for academic debate.

In an essay for the 2016 anthology The Search for Europe, Bichara Khader writes that racism against non-white migrants in Europe intensified in the 1970s because of a severe economic crisis. Khader writes that this racism was not pitched against one’s faith.

According to Khader, whereas this meant that South Asian, Arab, African and Caribbean migrants were treated as an unwanted whole based on the colour of their skin, from the 1980s onwards, the Muslims among these migrants began to prominently assert their distinctiveness. As the presence of veiled women and mosques grew, this is when the ‘migration problem’ began to be seen as a ‘Muslim problem’. 

The Muslim diaspora in the West began to increasingly consolidate itself as a separate whole. Mainly through dress, Muslim migrants began to shed the identity of their original countries, creating a sort of universality of Muslimness.

But this also separated them from the non-Muslim migrant communities, who were facing racial discrimination as well. Interestingly, this imagined universality of Muslimness was also exported back to the mother countries of Muslim migrants. 

Take the example of how, in Pakistan, some recent textbooks have visually depicted the dress choices of Pakistani women. They are almost exactly how some second and third generation Muslim women in the West imagine a woman should dress like.

But there was criticism within Pakistan of this depiction. The critics maintain that the present government was trying to engineer a cultural type of how women ought to dress in a country where — unlike in some other Muslim countries — veiling is neither mandatory nor banned. This has only further highlighted the fact that identity politics in this context in Pakistan is being influenced by the identity politics being flexed by certain Muslim groups in the West.

Either way, because of the fact that it is a recent phenomenon, identity politics of this nature is not organic as such, and will continue to cause problems for Muslims within and away.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 16th, 2021

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