A closed mind is a terrible thing to behold. But it’s a far worse thing to have to engage. And yet we must. This Saturday, the woman who murdered a complete stranger by shoving him into the path of an arriving subway train was arrested. Her name? Erica Menendez. Her target? Hindus and Muslims. Why? Because of 2001.
More than eleven years after the terrorist attacks, and the alleged murderer not only could not distinguish between a Muslim and a Hindu, but held both collectively responsible for the actions of a few—there are 2.5 billion Muslims and Hindus in the world. This is clear, cut-and-dried bigotry, of the typically ignorant kind.
You’d think recent events only further prove Islamophobia’s dangerousness. But on the night of Erica’s arrest, the usual cohort of anti-Muslim voices persisted in their denial of Islamophobia, considering it a “neologism” used by the left to silence their fair criticisms of Islam. Reality, as always, begs to disagree.
Islamophobia is anything but rational, fair, or grounded. Like climate change denial, it masks real threats and makes it harder for us to deal with them. America deserves a better conversation on Islam. One that has the room to acknowledge real threats and challenges,
but also enables us to make smarter choices, and deal with Muslims as we are: Human beings.
I’m not claiming to present a complete cartography. But what I have should help us navigate a far too familiar terrain. After all, why do we have to put up with absurdly ahistorical arguments, such as Pamela Geller’s claim that “jihad” killed 270 million people—fanciful, hyperbolic, and almost endearingly fictitious? Not only is Islamophobia ridiculous, it has violent consequences.
I. It’s (Always) the 1950’s
Islamophobes often argue they’re just criticizing Islam. But simply by prefacing an argument with “I have black friends,” or concluding with it, doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. We have to look deeper to see if “Islamophobia” applies; I’ll use the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women (for many reasons), to that end.
Through France’s treatment of a Muslim woman’s sartorial choices, we can better understand the transition from mere opinionated disagreement to legally sanctioned discrimination. Because while the former may be unreasonable or unwarranted, the latter is the kind of bigotry I’m most concerned by.
In France, Muslims in public schools are forbidden to wear the hijab—overtly religious symbols are seen as threatening of a uniform French identity that is, by the way, more of a project of flattening France into homogeneity than reflecting France’s demographic reality. Meanwhile all women are forbidden to cover their faces in public spaces. This is so that Islam does not appear in public France.
The state does this to “reclaim” public space for secularity; in France, though, secularism is not neutrality. The culturally secular majority champions a statist secularism the effect of which is to restrict the visibility of a religiously defined minority. This is not racism per se, but I hope you can see the problematic overlap: most French Muslims come from France’s former colonies.
And the colonial mindset continues to pertain. Islamophobia privileges the point of view of the allegedly objective outsider, who believes he knows Muslims better than they themselves do. Whether because of race, or because it’s transcended race; whether because of religion, or because it has transcended religion; in all these scenarios, the West always knows best.
Indeed, the West may know best because the West can change. Islam, on the other hand, is frozen, stuck in what Dipesh Chakrabarty called the “waiting room of history.” This is not, by the way, an exclusively French dynamic—the simple and inaccurate binary of a dynamic West and a static Islam, mired in the seventh century or a “medieval mindset” is stunningly common. And equally inaccurate.
Conclusions: The Islamophobe likes to speak on behalf of Muslims, and appoints himself judge, jury, and even executioner. This may be because while the Islamophobe believes he represents a dynamic civilization, the Islam he speaks for is assumed to represent a static and unchanging force.
II. Don’t Ask, Tell
Addressing a panel at the 2011 American Academy of Religion Conference, Hussein Agrama illuminated the contradiction in the French government’s restrictions on hijab and the niqab,or face-veil. France banned both on the argument that they were either the sartorial embodiment of a politically Islamic identity, the tip of an Islamist iceberg so to speak, or evidence of a gender unequal religious tradition.
Thus the French government assumed all women veil for the same reasons. But in her book,The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott surveys French Muslim women—what a novel idea—and finds that few of these assumptions hold. Of course, the emancipation of the Muslim woman cannot be stopped by anything as irrelevant as the Muslim woman’s opinions; to be liberated from objectification, she’s objectified.
Consider the tension Agrama points out. If the veil is a choice (as most French Muslim women say it is) and not a religious obligation, then the French government can restrict it: French Muslims shouldn’t object to not being allowed to practice a choice. But, Agrama went on, if the veil is a religious obligation, it must have been imposed coercively and must be banned by the secular state.
Islamophobes tend to prefer the latter.
They assume that Muslims must do whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to. Not only have Muslims stopped using their brains, their nervous organs have atrophied from unemployment. Thus if a Muslim woman covers her head, it must be because she was forced to. The rationalists of the West, the free peoples of Middle Earth, must step in to liberate her.
III. If Islam Were a Race, Would Islamophobia Be Racist?
The right question to ask is why Muslims need liberation. Why can’t they (we) liberate ourselves? There is a racist logic within Islamophobia, which presents from time to time in the way Muslims are described and treated. As a single, indivisible whole. And, of course, a miserable one at that. The formula? ‘All Muslims are x,’ where x is bad.
This also means that all Muslims are on the hook for what some Muslims do, and must constantly distance themselves from other Muslims—as if the whole must bear responsibility for the acts and faults of individuals. How does that make any sense, except in a racialized and dehumanizing way?
I’m not arguing that Islamophobia is racist, or that Islamophobes are racists, because that’s not quite what’s happening. For one thing, Islamophobes embrace ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and racists wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t) do the same. But consider the similarities: the Islamophobe must assume Muslims suffer some sort of pre-Islamic inferiority, sufficient to explain how some (largely non-white) people—actually, a lot of people—not only fell for Islam in the first place, but then stayed down. How long do enforced ideologies last? Nazism: twelve years. Communism: some decades. Islam: Fourteen centuries and counting.
Those are some dumb people.
But regardless of whether certain mental defects incline a person to Islam or whether after adopting Islam parts of your brain shut down—think zombie virus from The Walking Dead’sfirst season—the output’s the same. If a Qur’anic verse seems to sanction violence, Muslims have no choice but to act on it. There is just one problem with this way of interpreting all of Islam.
Only a puny minority of Muslims acts in a violent manner, while the huge majority does not, though both are reading the same book. If Muslims don’t act in similar ways, the problem isn’t the Islamophobe’s interpretation of Islam, it’s anything else—perhaps the Muslims are practicing taqiyya! Or, perhaps, the Muslims don’t understand their religion.
Islamophobes resolve the challenges posed by reality by dismissing it. Hence, they’ll say things like “most Muslims don’t understand Islam.” This was the rebuttal Ayaan Hirsi Ali used against Zeba Khan during their Intelligence Squared debate on Islam. In her opening statement, Khan argued that her parents stressed tolerance as an Islamic value; Hirsi Ali responded that while that was very nice, it wasn’t Islam.
Islam has one interpretation: theirs. Which happens to be—by chance, of course—the same interpretation extremists offer. Leave aside for a moment the conclusions and consider the methods by which Islamophobes get there. Were Islamophobes Muslim, they would be the Muslims they warn us about.
Islam can only be understood on their terms, they say. And their terms are violent and intemperate. Their strict literalism, inability to grasp context, gross and frequent generalizations, and mind-blowing ahistoricism make them into radicals, only on the opposite side of a chasm into which both have thrown decency, history, common sense, and reality. In place of analysis, they offer us a Xerox machine.
They reproduce themselves and call it Islam.