A Skewed Analysis of Islamophobia
This book purports to explore the roots and manifestations of Islamophobia-prejudicial views about Islam and negative stereotypical images of Muslims that are now fairly widespread across the world.
Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire
Author: Deepa Kumar
Publisher: Haymarket Books, Chicago (www.haymarketbooks.org)
By a Staff Writer
Author Deepa Kumar, an academic of Indian origin based in the USA, adopts a Marxian approach to the issue of Islamophobia, seeing it as solely a political construct. She claims—simplistically—that negative views of Muslims and Islam are a “mythical creation conjured out of the needs of empire,” and “primarily a tool of the elite in various societies.” Much of the book is devoted to an account of lurid images about Muslims and Islam in Europe, from early medieval times onwards. Kumar argues that the Church and European ruling elites regularly marshaled images of Islam and Muslims as ‘the enemy’ in order ‘to advance their political ambitions’. With the onset of European colonialism in Asia and Africa, these views were pressed into service in order to seek to legitimize the conquest of Muslim-inhabited lands. Such views, Kumar contends, are still widespread even today and are deployed in much the same way and for much the same political purposes.
This book is heavy on fault-finding but remarkably thin when it comes to offering practical solutions. It is definitely true that Islamophobia is a huge problem, which has come to affect even ‘ordinary’ Muslims who are seeking simply to carry on quietly with their lives. But, that said, what, one must ask, is the point of simply narrating a long list of woes and accusations—which is what almost the whole of this book amounts to—and then offering almost nothing by way of practical solutions?
Several chapters of the book—spread out over almost 200 pages—deal with Kumar’s understanding of the roots of Islamophobia and with various manifestations of it in the West, past and present, while, in contrast, only a single chapter—and that, too, a mere seven pages long, titled ‘Fighting Islamophobia’—purports to deal with solving Islamophobia. And even here, Kumar does little justice to what this slim chapter claims to set out to do. The only ‘solution’ that Kumar suggests here to counter Islamophobia is street marches and demonstrations of Muslims along with ‘progressives’, chanting slogans against anti-Muslim discrimination.
But is this any solution at all? To my mind, it seems an entirely counter-productive recipe, guaranteed to further demonize and marginalize Muslims and exacerbate opposition to them. Surely, condemning others is no way to win their hearts and minds!
Kumar’s failure to suggest sensible and practical steps to overcome Islamophobia could be understood, in part, as a result of her Marxian framework. Naively seeing Islamophobia as simply a result of the machinations of elites in certain non-Muslim countries, Kumar ignores the fact, too, that widely-held negative views about Islam and Muslims have much to do with fairly common behavior and attitudes at an everyday level of a significant number of Muslims, as well as terrorism in the name of Islam, that has now become a major threat at the global level. Muslim communal supremacism, widespread negative views among many Muslims about people of other faiths, gender injustice in many Muslim communities, violent sectarian conflicts and mistreatment of religious minorities in a number of Muslim-dominated countries, the pathetic human rights records of many Muslim states, memories of historical wrongs committed by some Muslim rulers, the absurd fatwas issued by some self-styled champions of Islam, and, of course, the widespread terrorism in the name of Islam, to name just a few factors, definitely impact on non-Muslims’ understandings of Islam and those who claim to be its adherents. It is, then, not just some wily Western elites who are responsible for Islamophobia, unlike what Kumar seems to suggest. A great share of the blame for Islamophobia goes to Muslims themselves, especially some of their political and religious leaders.
This is something that Kumar, in her penchant to blame the West for almost entirely for Islamophobia, completely fails to recognize. In doing so, however, she does Muslims no favour at all. Your best friend is your best critic. If you truly care for someone and seek his welfare, you will not hesitate to point out his faults—faults that he may not be aware of or which he, in his ignorance or pride, might even have come to regard as virtues. Kumar would have done Muslims a great service if instead of blaming others for the poor image that they have of Islam and Muslims, she had indicated to Muslims, as a sympathetic outsider, where they have gone wrong and how they can improve themselves and the image they give out to others. Sadly, despite what seem to be her laudable intentions, she does nothing of the sort.
It takes two hands to clap, as the saying goes. If vast numbers of non-Muslims do have negative views about Islam and Muslims, it is completely unfair to blame them alone for this, as Kumar seems to. To ignore the role of a significant number of Muslims themselves in generating these views, through their attitudes and behavior, is hardly just. Justice demands that Muslims recognize their own central role, through their attitudes and behavior (often a result of gross misinterpretations of Islam) in fomenting Islamophobia. Further, if many non-Muslims think of Muslims in negative terms, it is also a fact that significant numbers of Muslims think about people of other faiths in quite the same way, as the ravings of radical Islamist ideologues as well as some conservative ulema easily reveal. These prejudicial views reinforce each other and cannot be understood in isolation from each other. This is something that Kumar is disappointingly silent on.
Blaming others for the negative views they have of Islam and Muslims, as Kumar does, may sound ‘progressive’ to some ears and may warm some Muslim hearts, but it does Muslims no good at all. It only further reinforces the tendency, already deeply-rooted among many Muslims, to accuse others for their own failings, thereby seeking to obviate the need for them to look within and engage in reforming themselves. Introspection, rather than blaming others for one’s woes, is the only way to change your life—this rule applies as much to individuals as to entire communities. The conditions of people can only change if they change themselves. As the Quran (13:11) tells us: ‘God does not change the condition of a people’s lot, unless they change what is in their hearts.’
Kumar completely misses out the role of certain very narrow, intolerant and rigid (mis-)interpretations of Islam in influencing the behavior of their adherents, and, in turn, the role of this behavior in shaping non-Muslims’ perceptions of Islam and Muslims and thereby producing and reinforcing Islamophobia. It is a pity that Kumar completely ignores all of this. As a result of her skewed analysis, she completely ignores the need for the very vital task that Muslims must undertake of reforming themselves and of articulating authentic understandings of Islam that reflect its true spirit and that challenge the claims of the hate-driven discourses of the likes of Al-Qaeda, the ISIS and the Taliban. Without this, Islamophobia can never be overcome.
‘Whatever misfortune befalls you is of your own doing’, the Quran (42:30) says. Some such challenges that we are made to confront provide occasions for us to turn to God for help and thereby strengthen our faith and develop or deepen our trust in Him. They also help us grow in patience, a great spiritual virtue. If Kumar’s Marxism/ self-styled ‘progressivism’ impels her to respond to Islamophobia by ‘fighting’ (as she puts it) it, such as by organizing slogan-shouting street demonstrations, an Islamic spiritual response to this predicament might be completely different. Recognizing that Islamophobia is, to a great extent, a result of the Muslims’ own failings and misdeeds, it may seek to exhort Muslims to respond to others’ hostility, not by protesting against them but, rather, by reaching out to them in love and kindness and a genuine concern for their welfare, in this world and in the next, and in that way changing themselves as well as others’ attitudes towards them and winning the latter’s hearts.
The following Quranic verse (25:63) contains valuable guidance for Muslims in how they should respond to the challenge of Islamophobia:
‘The true servants of the Gracious One are those who walk upon the earth with humility and when they are addressed by the ignorant ones, their response is, “Peace”’
This verse provides a beautiful description of who the true servants of God are. They are people who are humble and who, when addressed by the ignorant, respond by wishing them peace. Can one think of any better way to respond to anti-Muslim hate than this? What more effective way to win the love of someone who hates you than to wish that he be at peace? Contrast these humble people who respond to the ignorant by wishing them peace with angry slogan-raising demonstrators, hollering against their detractors. What a stark contrast!
You cannot force someone to like or respect you. You cannot compel people who are inimical to you to become your friends—certainly not by organizing protest marches and ‘progressive’ sloganeering, as Kumar advises. Only the quiet, gentle, non-aggressive ‘non-revolutionary’, ‘wishy-washy’ way of love and service can work—and it does! It works wonders! You won’t believe it unless your try it out yourself.
The only way that Islamophobia can be overcome (and not ‘fought’ against, as Kumar would have it) is by Muslims themselves changing their own attitudes and behavior—instead of protesting against others for their attitudes and behavior towards them and demanding that they change these. Islamophobia can be overcome only by Muslims being givers. By becoming an asset for others. By following the path of the prophets. By loving and serving others. By being witnesses to God, by inviting others to Him and by reminding them that we must all return one day to Him.