Paul Sikander on “Islamophobia”

‘Islamophobia’ is a constructed model designed to protect Islam and Islamic politics from criticism. It has little or nothing to do with protecting individual Muslims from discrimination.

Until the late 1990’s, ethnic minorities in this country were conceived of as being susceptible to discrimination on the basis of immutable human factors. That you are black or Asian is a fact that cannot be altered, and you could face discrimination in British society because of it, prejudice sometimes subtle, sometimes violent and visceral. And so, civil and political society sought to counter this by privileging the dignity of the individual in the face of racism. If a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Sikh was to be called a ‘Paki’ it was not because of the religion they actively or nominally belonged to. If a West Indian was called a ‘nigger’ it was not because of any cultural or religious formulation or criticism they were facing. Anti-Semitism when it was expressed, the earlier racism of Europe, that had been present before the post war migration of black and Asian people to the UK, was simultaneously a similar and different mode of prejudice. But crucially, anti-Semitism when expressed and countered was not about defending the theology of Judaism.

The construction of the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ began in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair. The impetus for it was to stigmatise an entire range of individuals and opinions, from those who took issue with religious precepts of Islam, to those who questioned certain values of the religion, certain cultural practices recurrent inside the sub-culture of some British Muslim groups, all the way through to those who critically analysed Islamist politics.

For the first time, ‘racism’ was not considered to be the active discrimination against individuals because of their ethnic background. Now, ‘racism’ was asserted to be anything that remotely offended the sensibilities of religious Muslims, including those from within the Muslim community who dissented from a certain line on any range of issues.

What a victory. To weld together the protection of religion and theo-politics with the whole idea of racism. To no longer privilege the dignity of the individual against racial prejudice, but to privilege the ‘dignity’ of the religion of Islam, and the politics of Islamism, and providing them with an immunity — the righteous immunity of protection from ‘victimisation’.

It has been quite a triumph. Not just because of the limits it sets on intellectual rigour, the limits imposed on ‘outsiders’ (ie: non Muslims) in terms of critical inquiry of Islam and the political stances and dogmas of Islamism, but the Orwellian tint it imposes because of the subjection of language to a bizarre 21st Century kind of Islamic New Speak. More ominously, it is also Kafkaesque because of the horror, guilt and judgment it inspires in those within the fold of Islam who wish to speak freely and subject their religion, and the ideology of theological-politics, to criticism and reform. It has been achieved with startling success, to bring this word and the whole concept behind it to the forefront of public debate and consciousness in Britain. And it is only now that it is being subjected to scrutiny.

How did we get here? You could write a whole book about it. But trace it back to the Rushdie affair, the collective efforts of Muslim activists and organizations, leveraging the tools of politicized multi-culturalism. It can all be traced back to that big-bang moment in modern British Muslim history, the year 1989 and the aftermath of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

The concept of ‘Islamophobia’ not only privileges the communal, and privileges a single religion, it also privileges the ‘grievances’ and ‘plight’ of Muslims over other minority groups in Britain, and it can be seen as an attempt to bully wider British society into submission to certain religious and theo-political norms. It is the strongest tool available for keeping Muslims in a state of denial about the internal issues that cause self-oppression and social failure and dysfunction relative to other groups in the UK, including an inability to take full advantage of the openness and opportunity in British society that proportionally other ethnic minorities who also face discrimination are able to utilize. It also numbs the mind to the signs and signals that the most insidious forms of extremism make when they arise.

Much of the trouble we find ourselves in today can be traced back to this self-perpetuating, self-justifying need to create a hygienic space for Islamism, for whatever any loosely connecting individual or group of activists deems mist to be placed inside this hygienic, uncritical space. The continuing efforts of Islamic activists and extremists, including the most violent extremists, have to be seen in this context.

Like thanks to Butterflies and Wheels and Harry’s Place

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About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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