By A. G. Noorani
February 11th, 2017
“A SPECTRE is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.” If adapted to the situation we now face, and have witnessed in the last three decades and more, these opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, would yield a startling result: the so-called ‘spectre’ of the Muslim faith worries the West today.
Ever since Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring in the contest for the US presidency, he has denounced Islam and Muslims relentlessly — right up to his inaugural address on Jan 20. At a rally in Youngstown last August, he said, that the “ideology of radical Islam [must not] be allowed to reside or spread within our own communities”.
Given that he is the president’s closest aide, Steve Bannon’s hostility is even more menacing. In 2014, he told a meeting at the Vatican that the “Judeo-Christian West” was at war with Islam. “There is a major war brewing, a war that is already global.” On his erstwhile radio show he warned that “Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise”. He took the lead in shaping the infamous executive order that President Trump signed on Jan 27, which suspended entry into the US of nationals from seven Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya) for 90 days, all refugee admissions for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely.
What the order signifies is that, far more than ever before, Islamophobia has acquired prominence in the US administration’s thinking and policies. Speaking on Feb 5 at the Kerala Literature Festival, British-Pakistani novelist Qaisra Shahraz said that ‘Trumpism’ had led to a surge in hatred towards Muslims around the world. “Donald Trump’s administration has legalised this hatred.” While Islamophobia was ever present in Western Europe, it has surged higher now.
Shahraz noted that India was not exempt from this rising Islamophobia either. Since Narendra Modi became its prime minister, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP have abused state power to project their own ideology of hate. The ideology the RSS and BJP subscribe to only began to be articulated as recently as the late 19th century; the RSS was set up in 1925 to cash in on such sentiment. Today, Islamophobia is a profitable enterprise in India.
In Europe, however, Islamophobia is almost as old as Islam itself. The reasons are ideological, religious and political. Minou Reeves, a former Iranian diplomat, surveyed a millennium’s worth of European criticism of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in her book, Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making — from the days of the Biblical scholar Bede, who died in 735, to this day. Karen Armstrong explained in her magisterial biography, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, that “until the rise of the Soviet Union in our own century, no polity or ideology posed such a challenge to the West as Islam.” Later, political challenges gave an edge to the hostility that the faith of Islam had aroused.
Arab rule in Spain lasted for nearly eight centuries until the fall of Grenada in 1492. Before that, however, Constantinople fell to the forces of Mehmed II in 1453. The Turks had taken over from the Arabs the mantle of “the Islamic threat to Christian Europe”. They knocked at the gates of Vienna twice — in 1529 and 1683.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw a sharp reversal of this tide. Western imperialism colonised Muslim lands. Israel was planted on Arab land in 1948. Muslim resentment was ignored until it became assertive. Western intellectuals went to work to give Islamophobia a new intellectual veneer, producing literature such as Bernard Lewis’s The Roots of Muslim Rage and Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations.
In Britain, the hate spread far enough to warrant an excellent study by the Commission on British Muslims in 1997, entitled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. In his foreword, Prof Gordon Conway wrote, “If you doubt whether Islamophobia exists in Britain, I suggest you spend a week reading, as I have done, a range of national and local papers. If you look for articles which refer to Muslims or to Islam you will find prejudiced and antagonistic comments, mostly subtle but sometimes blatant and crude. Where the media lead, many will follow. British Muslims suffer discrimination in their education and in the workplace. Acts of harassment and violence against Muslims are common.”
Two decades later, this disease still persists and is unlikely to disappear soon. It calls for a political as well as an intellectual response. There must be a concerted effort to dispel the poisonous myths fostered by the practitioners of Islamophobia.
A. G. Noorani is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.