Asia and the curse of Islamophobia
Over twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington warned that the world faced a future that would be dominated by the 'clash of civilisations'.
'The fault lines between civilizations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed', Huntington proclaimed. 'The Cold War began when the Iron Curtain divided Europe politically and ideologically. The Cold War ended with the end of the Iron Curtain. As the ideological division of Europe has disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has reemerged. The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500.'
Huntington suggested that the conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilisations had been going on for 1300 years. After the founding of Islam, the Arab and Moorish surge west and north only ended at Tours in 732. The balance between Christianity and Islam see-sawed across Europe to the Middle East until the Western powers established control over the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Balkans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After World War II, the West began to retreat; 'the colonial empires disappeared; first Arab nationalism and then Islamic fundamentalism manifested themselves' while the West became heavily dependent on the Persian Gulf countries for its energy; the oil-rich Muslim countries became money-rich and, when they wished to, weapons-rich.
Thus, Huntington reckoned, the 'centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam' was unlikely to decline: rather it could become more virulent. We were set for 'no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both'.
On the face of it, Huntington's hypothesis might seem to have been prescient. The Iraq wars, the shock of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and the long and drawn out war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan all might seem to fit within Huntington's frame.
The truth, of course, is more multi-textured and complicated.
For one thing, as George W Bush declared at the beginning of the War on Terror after September 11: 'Ours …is not a war against Islam'. Political leaders, intellectuals and analysts struggled against the flawed idea that violence against the established order in the West, or in Asia, derived from 'Muslim rage' or 'clash of civilisations' and sought to maintain a proper distinction between the Muslim faith and some of its radicalised followers. For another, it was plain for all to see that Muslim states or states with dominant Muslim populations, from Indonesia to Pakistan and Egypt, were threatened by the same radical violence.
But such complex lines of battle were bound to be difficult to maintain with clarity.
Now, as James Piscatori argues in this week's lead essay, there is a danger of succumbing to the darker prospect. 'In the face of the frontal attacks on free speech in Paris and Copenhagen, horrific videos from the Islamic State, and the mass kidnappings and murders of Nigeria's Boku Haram, nuance has seemed to evaporate', writes Piscatori. 'The rise of PEGIDA in Germany, opposed to what they see as the Islamisation of Europe, and arson attacks on mosques in famously tolerant Sweden indicate that Islamophobia has found new life'. The threat of 'Islamic radicalism' morphs each term with 'unintended consequences'. The Islamic terrorist too easily becomes 'so pervasive a figure of fear that it has given a kind of back-door permission for bigots to see fifth-columnists where there are none and for governments to smear domestic enemies as jihadists'.
Islamophobia, of course, had never gone away. And sometimes those same leaders, who try to make the right distinctions, stumble in accidental accusation where none is called for. In Australia, leaders of the Muslim community were outraged when Prime Minister Abbott let slip: 'I've often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a 'religion of peace'. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.' Australian Muslim leaders and scholars have, of course, spoken out against jihadist violence and the head of Australia's security agency acknowledged the centrality of support of the Muslim community in the campaign against violence and extremism.
The fear of Islamic radicalisation, says Piscatori, is clearly a fact of life throughout Asia, even of course in states with Muslim majorities. He reports polls from Pew that show that 66 per cent of people in Bangladesh and 42 per cent of people in Pakistan held unfavourable views of al-Qaeda. In Southeast Asia, the allegiance of groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah to the 'Islamic State'has claimed attention. Broader public attitudes matter more. In Indonesia, in fact, 56 per cent of those polled viewed al-Qaeda unfavourably, and in Malaysia, only 18 per cent of people had a favourable view of it.
Piscatori points out that the threat that has been constructed in policymaking circles in countries where Muslims are in a minority has abetted two kinds of Islamophobia — reactive and state Islamophobia. Reactive Islamophopia is now widespread in Europe. In Myanmar the Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to systematic repression. The picture in China is more variegated.
As Piscatori concludes, 'Islamic State, with its confronting ideology, enigmatic caliphate, and brutal tactics, has virtually single-handedly undone the positive work on attitudes towards Muslims and Islam that has been done since the beginning of the millennium'. But, as he says, the War on Terror has also played its insidious if inadvertent part, with its exclusive focus on security and the pretext it provides for both reactive and state-sponsored anti-Muslim sentiment and actions.
Political leaders in our region might help to check the conflation of Islam with violence and radicalisation if they took the opportunity, at an East Asian Summit say, to join in common cause with a plurality of states (some with Muslim majority populations and others with Muslim minority populations) against radical violence and in favour of religious tolerance and mutual respect.
6 April 2015
6 April 2015
Islamophobia in the era of Islamic State
5 April 2015
Author: James Piscatori, Durham University.
For decades, and especially since 11 September 2001, many academics, policymakers and activists have struggled against what they consider to be unacceptable attacks on Muslims and Islam itself. Over a decade before President Obama used the same words, President Bush said of the War on Terror, ‘Ours is…not a war against Islam’. It became commonplace to distinguish, as they both did, between the faith and its radicalised followers and to question formulations like ‘the roots of Muslim rage’ or ‘clash of civilisations’ as causal explanations for violence.
But in the past six months, in the face of the frontal attacks on free speech in Paris and Copenhagen, horrific videos from the Islamic State (IS), and the mass kidnappings and murders of Boku Haram, nuance seems to have evaporated. The rise of PEGIDA in Germany, a group opposed to what it sees as the Islamisation of Europe, and arson attacks on mosques in famously tolerant Sweden indicate that Islamophobia has found new life.
As much as the ‘Islamophobia industry’ — as it is derisorily named by its critics — shifted official attitudes in Europe, North America and Australia, Islamophobia never went away. The semantical distinction between the faith, which is worthy of respect, and adherents of the faith who commit violence in its name and who should be stopped, became lost in what social scientists call the securitisation of Islam.
The political construction of the threat of ‘Islamic radicalism’ has had unintended consequences on conceptions of Islam, often with the blurring of the two terms in practice. The threat has become so entrenched and the Islamic terrorist so pervasive a figure of fear that it has given a kind of backdoor permission for bigots to see fifth-columnists where there are none and for governments to smear domestic enemies as jihadists.
Islamic radicalisation and fear of it are certainly facts of life. The anxiety is pronounced even in states where Muslims are in a majority. Poll data for 2014 show that 66 per cent of people in Bangladesh and 42 per cent of people in Pakistan held unfavourable views of al-Qaeda. In Southeast Asia, the allegiance of groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah to IS has gained considerable attention, but broader public attitudes seem below the radar. Polling data indicate that 56 percent of Indonesians viewed al-Qaeda unfavourably, and in Malaysia, only 18 per cent of people had a favourable view of it.
But the constructed threat in policymaking circles where Muslims are in a minority has abetted two kinds of Islamophobia — reactive and state Islamophobia.
The former is seen, for example, in Europe. The growing numbers of Muslims have cast the policies of multiculturalism into doubt and have unleashed cycles of mutual suspicion in which Islamophobia carries disturbing echoes of earlier — and now resurgent — anti-Semitism. Muslims, like Jews have been for generations, are said to be resistant to assimilation, antithetical to common values, and a threat to national security. While the demographic impact can be debated — the European Muslim population is projected to rise from its current 4 per cent to 8 per cent of the total population by 2030 — the point has always been about society’s attitudes towards a minority. Even in the United States where the protective legal environment is strong, Muslims are the least liked religious group.
In the Asian states where Muslims are also in a minority, many of the same concerns are felt. In a Japan traumatised by the gruesome beheadings of two of its citizens in early 2015, mosques, particularly in the Aichi prefecture, have been subject to intimidation. There have also been right-wing demonstrations calling for curbs on immigration. The number of Muslims is very small — 130,000 people, representing 0.1 percent of the Japanese population — but a forward policy in the war on terrorism may lead to a further targeting of Japanese civilians in the region and, by way of almost inevitable reaction, complicate social relations at home.
State Islamophobia is more disturbing. Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, for example, have been subjected to systematic repression. They have been denied citizenship on the pretext that they are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and in 2014 the very term Rohingya was banned as a term of affiliation in the national census. Médecins sans Frontières has said that Rohingyas are the most in danger of extinction among the world’s minorities.
In China, there are differences of approach to the various Muslim ethnic groups, but the worldwide designation of Islam as first and foremost a security issue strengthens the government’s controlling hand. The ‘terrorist’ label is frequently applied, especially to activists in Xinjiang. Constraints have generally been imposed on who can go on pilgrimage to Mecca, mosque sermons, and the practice of Ramadan. Popular culture, such as television programming, comic books and cartoons, often reinforces negative stereotypes.
While these policies may be thought to be conducive to internal security, they may complicate China’s external policies. Chinese workers built the Mecca Metro designed to facilitate the pilgrimage, and have been engaged in large-scale construction elsewhere, such as the Grand Mosque in Algiers. Having increased its trade with the region by some 90 per cent between 2005 and 2009, China is now the largest overall exporter to the Middle East. A state policy that is seen to be regressive on Muslim issues, as it in fact is, runs the risk of being counter-productive economically and politically.
IS, with its confronting ideology, enigmatic caliphate, and brutal tactics, has virtually single-handedly undone the positive work on attitudes towards Muslims and Islam that has been done since the beginning of the millennium. Forceful reactions to IS are certainly necessary. But we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that the War on Terror, supposedly not directed against Islam, also has an insidious, if inadvertent, effect by focusing attention exclusively on security, and providing in that way a pretext for both reactive and state-sponsored anti-Muslim sentiment and actions.
James Piscatori is Professor of International Relations at Durham University.
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