After 9/11 many Muslims began saying “Islam is a religion of peace.” An intellectually dishonest and vapid response to the equally intellectually dishonest and vapid statement that “Islam is a religion of violence.” Any religion, comprised of a wide variety of believers, is a complex and nuanced system that cannot be defined by categorically statements. In fact, it must be comprised of contradictions and tensions as believers act on what they believe to be the Truth.
Moments of blatant public Islamophobia are becoming less frequent, in part because the reality of Muslim life in the US serves as a good antidote to negative narrative stereotypes, and in part because journalists are discovering Muslims that do not fit the narrative that they are trying to construct. However, as discourse around Muslim life is becoming more nuanced, so too is Islamophobia; it is not as blatant as it once was, and that is the threat. We are now seeing the emergence of an “intellectualized Islamophobia,” much in the same we have an “intellectualized racism.”
“Intellectualized Islamophobia” (II) appears in respectable publications and appears as objective writing, combining first-hand observation, history, and occasionally, theory. While disagreements about what observation and facts mean should be encouraged, what II does is reinforce a narrative that all Muslims are violent by definition. People who write in the II style may even concede that not all Muslims are violent, but it is in spite of their religion, not because of it.
A favorite trope of mine is the “man on the street” or “bookstore survey.” Apparently, one can go into a bookstore in the Muslim-majority world and find objectionable material. This means that all Muslims are nefarious. However, if you go into a bookstore in New York and see Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto on the bookshelves, no thinking person would argue that New Yorkers are communist anti-Semites. Such broad generalizations also ignores the very real situation of poor literacy rates in the Muslim-majority world: Turkey (87%), Egypt (71%), and Pakistan (50%), and of course rates of sale.
How does an Islamist pamphlet compare to fiction or poetry in the same region? Finding the man on the street who screams “the West” is the great Satan is great for proving what one person thinks. How about what a billion Muslims might actually think? This smear is predicated on guilt by association and on the assumption that an “Other” is by definition different. The argument that “the availability of hate literature in the US is different than the hate literature outside of the US because it is” does not seem very sound. Neither does the argument that “there is one person of 10 million who hates me, so they all must.”
One also sees attacks on Pres. Obama for wanting to treat Muslims with respect. While it is true that treating Muslims with respect will not stop terrorism, it undercuts one of the major arguments that these terrorists groups have: non-Muslims do not treat Muslims with respect. There is an adage I grew up with in my Muslim household that seems to apply, “you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It would seem that if you want to help bring about peace, threatening to constantly kill the other party does not presage good negotiations.
Of course, there is also the savior argument. There are Muslims and there is the West, and Muslims have only done good when the West colonized them. Such an argument ignores the large numbers of Muslims in the “West,” and is essentially a pro-colonist argument. The basic premise is that only by being abused, beaten, degraded, and controlled will Muslims begin to question what the “good life” is, because the colonizers talk about it and it gives the colonizers the ability to brutalize another people. If there is a lesson that extremists learned from colonization, imperialism, and mercantilism, it is how to desire to subjugate and humiliate another people. The great flow of ideas was happening long before the European expansion, with classical Greek and Latin thought being transmitted from the Arab-Muslim world back into Europe; with Venice adopting the architecture of the “East.” If it was not for this flow of ideas, the Enlightenment may never have come to pass.
While there may be fantasies of returning to a great colonial past, the so-called “Golden Age” of Islam happened long before colonization. The attempt to “spread democracy” in the Middle East under Pres. Bush was a incoherent combination of idealism and colonist thinking. The civilizing mission failed once more, and authentic movements like the 6 April Movement in Egypt were left to flounder, much like the Shi’ah uprising against Saddam after Gulf War I. This revisionist view of history ignores the long interaction between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, and focuses on returning to a period when European nations were colonial masters. Historically, that connection has been between Islamdom and Christendom, not nation-states. In the modern period, when we deal with nation-states and non-state actors, and need to choose what sphere we are operating in, the religious or political.
Clearly religion plays an important role in the thought of terrorist groups. These non-state actors must be met with both force and ideas. There is no other way to stop them and the spread of their ideology. On the other hand, we cannot treat state actors the same way, unless we revert to the colonial mold. At the political level many countries deal successfully with the largest theocracy in Europe, the Holy See, without moving away from the political language. What “intellectualized Islamophobia” seeks to do is justify political domination and neo-colonialism by creating a new sense of the “white man’s burden” by masking political problems with religious language.