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Soumaya Ghannoushi: Islamophobia Acting Like Free Speech

An interesting piece from Soumaya Ghannoushi published at AlJazeera English.

Islamophobia acting like free speech

by Soumaya Ghannoushi

The caricatures of Prophet Muhammad first published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten then reprinted in a string of European newspapers have exposed the gulf separating the West from the Muslim world.

The cartoons and the reactions they have sparked across the Muslim hemisphere, many have conjectured, symbolise the confrontation between two irreconcilable value systems, one based on the Enlightenment tradition, the other clinging to religious dogma.

These simplistic explanations would have stood a better chance of being accepted if the majority of those offering them had been more vocal in denouncing the continuous assault on free speech in Western societies in the name of the war on terrorism. The reality is that the controversy over freedom of expression and its limits is a symptom of an infinitely deeper crisis affecting the relation of the West, European and Atlantic, to the vast Muslim world from Tangier to Jakarta.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Since we are historical beings, we cannot be detached from our hermeneutical tradition and historical condition.

Only by reference to these contexts are our actions understandable. Any explanation of the cartoons crisis that does not take into account the explosive climates of the post-September 11th world and the rise of the right wing in Europe and the United States is bound to remain superficial.

Islam, which had lain forgotten during the cold war and the obsession with the communist threat, has now come to the fore, penetrating into the heart of the public domain.

It is no coincidence that the cartoons were published in Denmark in a right-wing paper under a right-wing government then reprinted in countries notorious for their hostility to their Muslim minorities and opposition to the cultural and racial diversity of today’s European societies.

That reactions to the cartoons have been so passionate should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following developments in the Muslim world closely. To Muslims, the caricatures vividly brought back the scenes of Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes in Jenin, the invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Baghdad, terrors of Abu Ghraib and humiliations of Guantanamo Bay.

Cultural arrogance was added to political aggressiveness. Muslims have grown used to the torrent of terrifying images that associate them and their faith with the most horrifying of practices, from violence and cruelty to fanaticism and oppression. When it comes to Islam, all boundaries and limits could be dispensed with. The unacceptable becomes perfectly acceptable, proper and respectable.

The truth is that today racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and hatred of the other hide behind the sublime façade of free speech, the defence of “our” values and protection of “our” society from “foreign” aggression.

Let us not be deceived about this rhetoric of liberalism and free speech. The Danish cartoons have nothing to do with freedom of expression and everything to do with hatred of the other in a Europe grappling with its growing Muslim minorities, still unable to accept them.

Muhammad, who had been depicted in medieval legends as a bloodthirsty warrior with a sword in one hand and a Quran in another, is now made to brandish bombs and guns. Little seems to have changed about Western consciousness of Islam.

The collective medieval Christian memory has been recycled, purged of eschatology and incorporated into a modern secularised rhetoric that goes unquestioned today.

The medieval world abounded with hostile stories, folktales, poems and sermons of Muhammad where the imagination was given free reign.

About Muhammad, or “Mathomus” all could be said since, as the 11th-century chronicler Guilbert of Nogent had put it: “One may safely say ill of a man whose malignity transcends and surpasses whatever evil can be said about him” (Dei Gesta per Francos, 1011).

Guilbert’s Muhammad, like that of most medieval authors, bears little resemblance to the historical Muhammad, or his journey.

Just as in the Danish caricatures, he appears as a scoundrel who used licentiousness and the promise of paradise with its many beautiful virgins to lure men into following him. His career was devoid of virtue. His vast empire was built on slaughter and bloodshed.

In the popular Chansons de Geste, written from the 11th to the 14th century at the height of crusading fervour, reflecting sentiments and beliefs that were widely accepted, Muhammad and his followers, the “Saracens” are described in the most grotesque of terms.

Creatures of Satan, they are painted with huge noses and ears, blacker than ink with only their teeth showing white, eyes like burning coals, teeth that can bite like a serpent, some with horns like the antlers of stags.

Humans inherit their prejudices as they do their language. Europe has inherited an enormous body of stereotypes of the Muslim elaborated in the course of many centuries of confrontation with Muslim civilisation.

Islam could not be regarded with the same detached curiosity as the far away cultures or beliefs of China or India. Islam was always a major factor of European history.

As the historian Richard Southern put it, Islam was Latin Christendom’s greatest problem, a mighty military and cultural challenge, dazzling in its power, wealth, learning and civilisation.

In the heart of Europe, its poor northerly neighbour, it generated an array of emotions that ranged from fascination to fear and resentment.

When in the 11th century European writers began to form a notion of what it meant to be European, they found themselves faced with a powerful Islam, which they were neither able nor willing to understand.

Islam was integral to the European notion of the self. The encounter with the Muslim other was fundamental to the formulation of the Western world view, particularly in the centuries that began in the Crusades and culminated in the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire.

By forcing the continent to find ways of concerted action, Islam encouraged Europe towards a stronger sense of “self” and a stronger sense of the “other”. In more ways than one, Islam was Europe’s midwife.

In the tense post September 11th climate, with its pre-emptive strikes, growing military interventions and increasingly powerful right-wing parties, the medieval arsenal of fantasies and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims has been brought back to life. Gone are the devils and Antichrists of medieval legends and polemics.

But their bleak outlook on Islam and the Muslim lingers on unchanged. It survives in an essentialist self-enclosed discourse centred on a mythical pure self permanently pitted against an imaginary dehumanised, demonised Muslim other.

In the past as in the present, religion, culture and the politics of fear are placed at the service of the great games of dominance and mastery.

Make no mistake about it: This is a political conflict that speaks in the language of culture and religion. The conflict is not between “we” and “they”, not between cultures and civilisations, but within the same cultural and political front.

The battle must be fought, a battle against intolerance, hatred, myth of cultural superiority and will to hegemony over the other.

Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

Ghannoushi is currently writing a book on Western Representations of Islam Past and Present.

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  • Zakariya Ali Sher

    @ Charles Martel:

    Really? Really?!? Couldn’t come up with a more original name? I mean, sure the Holy Roman Empire is interesting and all, but the whole Charles Martel thing is SOOO passé. I’ve always found El Cid to be more interesting anyway. Was he too ethnic for you, being Latin and all, or did you do your homework and learn that he served the Muslim King of Zaragoza for a time?

    > ISLAMOPHOBIA? Phobia denotes by definition an irrational fear.

    And what is your rational? When some inbred moron who has never seen a Muslim let alone talked to one starts parroting the same crap about ‘stealth jihads’ and ‘victory mosques’ how can it be rational? You hate Islam and dress it up with righteousness. Big whoop. Bigots like you are worth a dime a dozen.

    > After constant war,

    Really? The US has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, led attacks in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan without caring about civilian casualties, tried to start wars with Iran and/or Syria, supported corrupt dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere, and turned Palestine into an isolated third world hellhole. Not to mention the huge number of military bases in EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! That’s just within the past decade or so.

    How many Muslim countries have declared war in the past decade? Past century? And how many Muslim countries have military bases of any kind outside their national borders?

    > violence,

    See above. Add in various murders, assaults, hate crimes and the like and you’ve got plenty of violent criminals in the US and elsewhere. Was Charles Manson Muslim? What about the Son of Sam? Or Scott Peterson? Oh or how about Joren vander Sloot?

    > theft,

    Theft of what? Islam forbids stealing. If you want to talk theft you may want to look at European colonialism in the past couple centuries, which overthrew governments of many parts of the world, displaced and killed native peoples, set up an emphasis on cash crops like tobacco rather than foodstuffs, and stole wealth.

    > rape,

    Islam actually forbids rape….

    > beheading,

    You mean like the beheadings carried out by Mexican drug cartels or Russian neo-Nazis?

    > terrorism,

    Sure there are Muslim terrorist groups. Also lots of non-Muslim terrorists like IRA or Tamil Tigers or Shining Path. What about street gangs and biker gangs in the US? Or drug cartels? Or neo-Nazis? They do pretty much the same sort of things.

    > kidnappings,

    See above.

    > drug sales,

    Again see above. Islam can be pretty strict on drug usage. Besides which some drugs come from non-Muslim regions. Coca production is only in South America – a historically Catholic area. Meth production is mostly done in rural small towns in the US. And even things like heroin and opium are not exclusive to Afghanistan. Ever heard of the Golden Triangle in SE Asia?

    > hypocrisy,

    Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black.

    > corruption

    You don’t live in Chicago do ya? We’ve got plenty of corruption here.

    > since oh about the 7th century

    Really? Does the 7th century affect your life that much? I would assume you would be more outraged by things that happened recently… like the Nazis or the Cold War. I suppose you’re still pissed about the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain or some of the stuff that Pakal did over in Palenque then.

    > I think the fear people feel is well founded.

    If you are ignorant and need someone to hate then I suppose.

    > Keep pushing this and people will just wake up faster to your lies.

    Yeah, and an anonymous poster on the internet is gonna have us quaking in our boots. Or khussa as the case may be…

  • muhammad ‘abd-al haqq


    Just by choosing the name Charles Martel and posting on LW you have proven that,
    1. Islamophobia exists
    2. You are an Islamophobia

    “constant war, violence, theft, rape, beheading, terrorism, kidnappings, drug sales, hypocrisy, corruption”

    All things non-Islamic, so fearing Islam because these things IS irrational

    Allahu A’lam

  • Mosizzle

    “Keep pushing this and people will just wake up faster to your lies.”

    If you think LoonWatch’s articles will wake people up to the their “lies”, then what is your problem? Go away and let LoonWatch do its job if you think their work is helping your cause.

    By the way, in 1997 the Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as “dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, to the fear and dislike of all Muslims”. That should be the only sentence on the “About Robert Spencer” section of Jihadwatch. It it fear of Muslims as a result of hatred of Islam. Irrational fear of Muslims does exist, what else would explain why Bob McArthy wants Muslim bodies moved out of a cemetery? If, as you say Islamophobia is the result of previous Muslim violence, then why is he scared of dead Muslims? Answer = Irrational fear.

  • NassirH

    ISLAMOPHOBIA? Phobia denotes by definition an irrational fear.

    Considering all the conspiracy theories Islamophobes believe in, “irrational fear” is an understatement.

  • Charles Martel

    ISLAMOPHOBIA? Phobia denotes by definition an irrational fear. After constant war, violence, theft, rape, beheading, terrorism, kidnappings, drug sales, hypocrisy, corruption since oh about the 7th century I think the fear people feel is well founded. Keep pushing this and people will just wake up faster to your lies.

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  • Hussain

    Amazing site MashaAllah. stumbled upon it accidentally :-)
    Keep up the Good work..!!

    -Hussain (India)

  • Mosizzle

    “Just like Constantinople, Northeast Washington will also fall!”

    According to Tealiban Sharron Angle, Mooslims have already taken over Detroit, Michigan and the (non-existent city) of Frankford,Texas and imposed Sharia Law. Compared to that, taking over Northeast Washington will be a piece of halal cake.

  • Jack Cope

    ^^ Anyone recon that that above post is going to be taken as yet more ‘evidence’ of Islamic supremacist types running this site?

  • Rob

    “Jihadi boob, this one is for yoouuuuuuu…. learn about building bridges as oppossed to destroying them…while you are at it, get a life :)”

    “In the past few years, enrollment of Muslim students such as Shabnan has spiked at Catholic campuses across the country. Last year, Catholic colleges had an even higher percentage of Muslim students than the average four-year institution in the United States, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. The influx has astonished and sometimes befuddled administrators. Some Catholic campuses are creating prayer rooms for new Muslim students and hiring Islamic chaplains to minister to them. Others are unsure how to adapt.

    One of the sharpest increases in Muslims students has been at Catholic University in Northeast Washington. In the past five years, as the number of self-identified Catholics on the campus has decreased, the number of Muslims has more than doubled, from 41 in 2006 to 91 this fall.

    The largest group of international students by far now comes from Saudi Arabia. ”

    lol! Just like Constantinople, Northeast Washington will also fall!

  • mike

    Every time I breathe I realize more and more how hateful spencer is. Labeling him as an islamophobe is being generous. He is more like a parasite on the spiritual world. After reading thia article about the influx of muslim students at catholic universities, it is quite clear, clearer than before that he is just a hateful man (who I think might wear an adult diaper) who needs to reflect on his spiritual condition. Jihadi boob, this one is for yoouuuuuuu…. learn about building bridges as oppossed to destroying them…while you are at it, get a life :)

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  • NassirH

    Nice to see that Loonwatch is as great as ever and still keeping an eye on the loons. Keep up the good work.

  • 1001 Inventions

    “Or conversely, if you take the Islamic view, since the first Prophet of Allah”

    All the Prophets faced resistance to the message that God sent. Every one without fail was considered a kook and a madman by the disbelievers. Human nature is such that it is suspicious and doesn’t believe.

    It’s a bit odd to state (as some people do) that this is peculiar to Muslims. It’s not.

    Muslims have one advantage that other Ahl Kitaab don’t/didn’t have, and that is we do not have to recognise a new Prophet. Mohammed was the last Propeht. Thus it’s easy for us to reject any new Prophet (claimant) because we have clear commands in black and white.

    Now imagine if God had decided to send more Prophets to us, and we had been told that another Prophet would follow Prophet Mohammed, how many would disbelieve and how many would accept the new Prophet. Those who disbelieved out of fear of accepting a false Prophet would also have to do whatever God had told us to do to false Prophets.

    The ways of the Almighty are mysterious.

  • Union Of

    Thank you Soumaya Ghannoushi, that’s a good article. Succint and to the point.

    Europe for many millenia, has had terrorism of it’s own in nearly all the countries that now comprise the EU, and are better able to handle the threat. The USA never did have have an internal threat or a non geographical enemy till 9/11, and that’s one of the reasons for it’s hysterical gung ho response.

    Something I want to raise with other Muslim posters here, is that the cartoons and art of the Prophets (all of them) is deemed offensive today. However if you look at art and in times gone by, there have been caricatures and art of the Prophet.

    Can anyone shed more light on this? which period of history was this and what is the difference, the religious background to that…

  • muhammad ‘abd-al haqq


    Exactly what i was saying in, but said in a better way

    Allahu A’lam

  • Mosizzle

    Islam and Islamophobia were created almost at the same time. As soon as the Prophet (PBUH) told the message of truth to the Arabs, he faced hostility. This article is great but it only touches the tip of the iceberg. Christian writers knew about the Prophet and have been writing disgusting crap about him. They thought he was the anti-Christ, part of some evil Trinity and worshipped by Mooslims who were only there because someone had put a sword to their throat.

    But something extraordinary happened when Christians actually met some of the Muslims they had been talking about and realised that they worshipped the same God. Eventually, many historians and writers began writing very enthusiastically about the Prophet. Take a look at the archives of many newspapers and you find numerous articles praising the Prophet and how he spread monotheism to a pagan land and for that they respected him.

    Note how the people who undertake an honest study of the Prophet, rather than relying on hearsay, found him to be a great man. And once they began to read his message, they found it to be quite similar to what they believed – not some foreign pagan religion. The wikipeie article on non-Muslim views of the Prophet is a good start to learn about this change.

    Most importantly, some of the greatest men of modern times have realised just how awesome the Prophet really was. if the Prophet really was violent and a ruthless warrior, why would Gandhi, a lifelong pacifist, admire him?

    “I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today undisputed away over the hearts of millions of mankind. And I found enough in the volumes to account for it. I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and
    surmounted every obstacle.”

    –Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol.29, Page 133.

    Another great quote from that page, perhaps more relevant to this article, is:
    “my interest to know how a Mussalman had treated the incidents of the life of one who has been almost uniformly maligned and abused in the West [Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)]

  • muhammad ‘abd-al haqq

    Islamophobia has been around since the days of Abu Sufyan, Abu Lahab,Abdullah ibn Ubayy, Musaylimah, and the Jews of Medina. Or conversely, if you take the Islamic view, since the first Prophet of Allah. The current climate of Islamophobia we are seeing has deep historical roots, from the medeival period to the time of Muhammad(saws) himself. What we are seeing now is a culmination and, post cold war, the belief that Islam is the last remaining enemy of Western Civilization.

    Allahu A’lam

  • Masa

    Excellent piece! I’ve always thought that Islamophobia had been around WAY before 9/11. We just never called it that – and 9/11, sadly, became their free ticket to shout louder and get away with the craziest things.

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