By Suleiman Khan, New Age Islam
18 September 2015
Name of the Book: Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire
Author: Deepa Kumar
Publisher: Haymarket Books, Chicago (www.haymarketbooks.org)
You definitely haven’t heard of ‘Christianophobia’ or ‘Buddhismophobia’—or ‘Paganophobia’ for that matter—but you must certainly have heard of ‘Islamophobia’, which is now so commonplace a term that it has probably found its way into every respectable dictionary. And there’s good reason for it, too. Prejudicial views about Islam and negative stereotypical images of Muslims—which is what the term ‘Islamophobia’ encapsulates—are now fairly widespread across the world.
This book purports to explore the roots and manifestations of Islamophobia. Author Deepa Kumar, an academic of Indian origin based in the USA is clearly pained at the widespread and deep-rooted negative images about Islam and Muslims, including and especially in the country where she presently resides, and seeks to argue against them. But good intentions are not enough. Heaping the blame for Islamophobia mainly, or even solely, on Western ‘elites’, she turns a complete blind eye to the fact that the horrific misdoings by scores of self-styled Muslim groups in the name of Islam are actually one of the principal causes of contemporary anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim prejudices.
Kumar 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 such lurid images about Muslims and Islam in Europe, from early medieval times onwards. But this long period, from the eighth century onwards, was not one, continuous conflict between the ‘Muslim world’ and Christendom. There were, mercifully, periods of interaction and exchange, as in Muslim Spain, and till the Ottoman Empire remained powerful European writers extolled it for its justice and efficiency. At a time when Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages, European Christian scholars flocked to Muslim lands to learn various sciences, Kumar notes.
Overall, however, Kumar argues, the Church and European ruling elites regularly marshaled images of Islam and Muslims as ‘the enemy’ in order ‘to advance their political ambitions’. ‘In short’, she claims, ‘the history of “Islam and the West,” as it is commonly termed, is a story not of religious conflict, but rather of conflict born of political rivalries and competing imperial agendas.”
Negative images of Islam and Muslims, Kumar says, helped boost the sagging authority of the Church and European ruling elites. 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—in the name of the ‘white man’s burden’ and the European ‘civilizing mission’. Such views, Kumar argues, are still widespread even today and are deployed in much the same way and for much the same purposes. The argument of the (supposed) inherent ‘backwardness’ and ‘violence’ of Muslims and their alleged hostility to human rights and democracy, continues, she says, to be used by certain dominant powers to bolster their authority and interests in Muslim-majority countries, including, sometimes, through military intervention.
A major portion of the book deals with the rise of ‘political Islam’, which is obviously one of the major causes of contemporary Islamophobia. Kumar naively sees this phenomenon as a solely political one, and as a result of a mix of various political factors (anti-imperialism, the failure of left and secular nationalism in the Arab world, a reaction to Zionism, and so forth). Consequently, her analysis is severely limited, ignoring as it does the obvious fact that ‘political Islam’ is as much religion or religious ideology as it is politics. This oversight owes perhaps to the Marxian inability to take religion seriously and on its own terms. The fact of the matter is that no analysis, leave alone critique, of ‘political Islam’ can be truly meaningful if it ignores the religious dimension of the phenomenon and if it treats it as simply a political reaction to certain political conditions and factors.
Kumar deals at length with Islamophobia in the contemporary USA. She claims that American elites have blown the threat of radical Islamism to America out of proportion in order to create an ‘enemy’ so as to justify American global hegemony as well as Israeli interests—in short, as the subtitle of the book says, in order to serve ‘the Politics of Empire’. But although there is no denying that some individuals and groups are indeed engaged in deliberately fanning the flames of Islamophobia, this claim will undoubtedly be found entirely one-sided and highly skewed by many, who are likely to contend that Kumar does not take the danger posed by terrorism in the name of Islam with the seriousness that it warrants.
Kumar details the harassment of a number of Muslims in the USA by agencies of the state in the wake of 9/11, and in doing so creates an image of American Muslims living under almost complete siege. Not everyone would here agree with Kumar’s description of what is a very complex situation. Ignoring the other side of the story—the vast numbers of American Muslims who continue to choose to live in America, where they continue to enjoy considerable freedoms and opportunities that would be unimaginable in almost every Muslim-majority country—does not make for a fair portrayal of the contemporary American Muslim situation. Kumar, for one, would hardly have the freedom to write the things she does about the machinations of elites if she were living, not in America, but in almost any Muslim-majority country.
Like many Marxian or self-styled leftist/‘progressive’ (Kumar repeatedly uses that last-mentioned term, implicitly claiming to be part of that category) writings, 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. It is definitely the case that in some countries, governments and ruling elites are using the ‘green scare’ for their own interests, targeting innocent Muslims, who have nothing at all to do with terrorism, and engaging in human rights abuses. 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 solutions? As Marx famously remarked (and these words are also inscribed on his grave): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
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. Much of the chapter consists simply of a diatribe against American elites for fomenting Islamophobia, and the only ‘solution’ that Kumar suggests here to counter Islamophobia is street marches and demonstrations of Muslims along with ‘progressives’, chanting slogans against what are called ‘Islamophobes’.
But is that 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. But then, the Marxist or self-styled ‘progressive’ is simply not interested in seeking to win people’s hearts—which is what he or she would pompously dismiss as a ‘wishy-washy’, ‘lovey-dovey’, goody-goody’, ‘non-revolutionary’, and, therefore, to him or her, non-workable, approach to conflict resolution.
Given that Kumar rightly recognizes Islamophobia to be a very serious issue today, causing great misery to vast numbers of perfectly innocent Muslims, one would have expected her to give much more attention than what she cursorily does to the issue of practical means to address and solve the problem. On that score, this book completely fails.
Perhaps Kumar’s failure to suggest sensible and practical steps to overcome Islamophobia must be understood as a result, in part, of the Marxian framework of analysis that she adopts. Naively seeing Islamophobia as simply a result of the sinister machinations of elites in certain non-Muslim countries, particularly the West, Kumar ignores the fact that it is now part of the social commonsense of many non-Muslims ‘in the street’ across the world, and not just of the elites among them. She ignores the fact, too, that widely-held negative views about Islam and Muslims have much to do with fairly common behaviour 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 Muslims about people of other faiths, Muslim self-imposed ghettoisation (which can be physical as well as mental), pervasive misogyny in many Muslim communities, sectarian conflicts and mistreatment of religious minorities in Muslim-dominated countries, the pathetic human rights records of many Muslim states, memories of historical wrongs committed by Muslim rulers (as in India, for instance), the absurd, sometimes bone-chilling, Fatwas issued by self-styled champions of Islam, the killing of Muslim apostates and freethinkers, 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 would not hesitate to point out his faults—faults that he may not be aware of or which he, in his ignorance and 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. She could have held a badly-needed mirror for them to look at themselves—and that could have done them much good. 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 beliefs, attitudes and behaviour, 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. The Quran (4:135) address the believers thus:
Believers, be strict in upholding justice and bear witness for the sake of God, even though it be against yourselves […] Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice. If you conceal the truth or evade it, then remember that God is well aware of all that you do.
Further, if many non-Muslims think of Muslims as despicable monsters, 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 reform 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 behaviour of their adherents, and, in turn, the role of this behaviour in shaping non-Muslims’ perceptions of Islam and Muslims and thereby producing and reinforcing Islamophobia. Some of these (mis-)interpretations, based on fake Hadith reports and absurd Fiqh rulings, foment extremely negative attitudes towards people of other faiths and to women, for instance. Such interpretations underlie the megalomaniac dreams of hate-driven self-styled champions of Islam of conquering the whole world in the name of jihad. When news of the horrors being committed in the name of Islam in large parts of the world—the slaughter of school children in Pakistan, the enslavement and rape of Yazidi women in Iraq, the killings of innocent Christians in Syria, bomb blasts in Nigeria, and so on—splashes across the front page of every newspaper with nauseating regularity, can one at all blame people of other faiths for not having a positive image of Islam and of those who claim to follow it?
It is a pity that Kumar completely ignores all of this and facilely blames the West almost wholly for Islamophobia. This is a result, in part, of her skewed understanding of Islamophobia, which she erroneously sees simply as a political phenomenon that supposedly has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. “It follows that Islamophobia is about politics and not religion”, she claims, adding “it is therefore in the realm of politics that Islamophobia must be fought.” As a result of this skewed analysis, Kumar completely ignores the need for the very vital task that Muslims must undertake of reforming Muslim religious discourse 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.
The Marxian/self-styled ‘progressive’ diagnosis of social problems locates their causes and possible solutions in a particular way, distinct from how these are understood from a spiritual perspective. From the latter perspective, the challenges that individuals and communities face cannot be fully understood apart from the fact that God sometimes uses challenges to test us. Sometimes, the difficulties we face are a result of our own actions. ‘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. As the Quran (41:34) tells us: ‘Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend’.
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.
In her naïve Marxian romanticism, Kumar might imagine, as she does in the closing lines of her book, that this approach to countering Islamophobia will help usher in what she terms as ‘an era of revolution that brings with it the potential to create a brand-new society free of racism and war: a new world where every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion will be treated with respect, a world where the ideology of Islamophobia will be dumped into the dustbin of history, and that will be the end of that.’ But we’ve heard all that before, of course, and we know what came out of such bedazzling dreams and alluring rhetoric, in the erstwhile Soviet Union and elsewhere. We know, through the bitter historical experience of many a failed revolution, that there is simply no way to force people to change their perceptions of others and shed their prejudices, and certainly not through protest marches and chanting slogans. Only the quiet, gentle, non-aggressive ‘non-revolutionary’, ‘wishy-washy’ way of love, service can work—and it does! It works wonders! You won’t believe it unless your try it out yourself.
Darkness, it is said, has no reality of its own. It is simply the absence of light. Demonstrating against the darkness won’t do a thing to make it go away. All you need for that is to light a little candle and see the great difference that makes! As the Dhammapada, a classic Buddhist text, says the Buddha remarked: “Hate is not conquered by hate. Hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal.”
The only way that Islamophobia can be overcome (and not ‘fought’ against) is by Muslims themselves changing their own attitudes and behaviour—instead of protesting against others for their attitudes and behaviour towards them and demanding that they change them. Islamophobia can be overcome only by Muslims being givers, instead of takers. By being an asset for others, instead of a liability and a headache for them. By following the path of the prophets, not that of self-styled imams and mullahs and their invented theories. By loving and serving others, not scorning and hating them. By being witnesses to God and inviting others to Him (a task that the Quran enjoins on them), not by hating and condemning them.