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Muslims and Islamophobia ( 14 Jan 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Branding Islam: Islam, Islamism and political Islam have become new brands in the West

By Afiya Shehrbano

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


In the last few years, Islam, Islamism and political Islam have become new brands of academic and policy interests in western countries. Well-funded government think tanks in Europe and the US are drawing upon academics as well as representatives from their local Muslim communities in an attempt to dissect, distinguish and sanitize the politics from Islam. Presumably this is a means of dealing with global faith-based violence. It's a useful political tactic for western governments to appear to be 'doing something' other than fearing, arresting or bombing suspect terrorists. It also helps them avoid accusations of being Islamophobic. However, the process of research and offering courses on the subject is an exercise that is sometimes interesting, other times amusing and often disturbing.


In the United Kingdom for example, nearly every university is offering (very expensive) courses that analyse Islam as a practice, or organising conferences that attempt to 'frame' Muslims as political communities in and outside of the Muslim world. They are also funding several doctorates in this regard. As scholarship goes, this is a valuable exercise as some of this research attempts to debunk myths and challenge orientalist interpretations of existing literature on Islam and Muslims. However, in their wake, these projects are problematic when they begin to get articulated into policy and become applicable to those of us who actually live in the Muslim world.


One such concern is over the endeavour to study Islam and Muslims with reference to faith-based politics. This suggests that now western academia too refers to our identities first and foremost with reference to religion. This narrow lens on how we accept or resist religion and its expressions leads to divisiveness. Women, for example, become symbols for western audiences representing either the progressive modern potential of a nation in question or, as veiled, regressive, threatening reminders of what the wrong kind of religious politics can potentially lead to. In other words, such an approach suggests there is little space for Muslims to be anything other than a religious category. And increasingly, academics (whether apologists or critics of Islamic politics) are complicit in essentialising Muslims in this process.


Neither are Muslim activists or community leaders innocent in this regard. Researchers at the University of Warwick while studying Muslim communities in the UK, shared the finding that sometimes Muslim women suddenly start observing the hijab so that they may be invited to government think-tanks as 'authentic' voices for their communities.


There are any number of scholarly experts of Arab, African and Asian origin involved in explaining, and reinterpreting Islam for the western audience. Within the overlap of such discussions, fringe movements have gathered momentum, such as Islamic Feminism. These scholars are involved in projects that seek feminist reclamation of the religion, including reinterpretations of Islamic texts from a women's rights perspective. Other Muslim academics look to revive classical debates from Islamic history and advocate the need to resort to pre-modernist legal, social and state structures and relations in order to resolve current crises, which they attribute to modern secularism.


Clearly there is no unanimity on any agreeable model of Islamic politics within this diverse scholarship. However, the government is attempting to counter the Islamophobia they are accused of by promoting 'progressive' British Muslim youth or women as role models. This creates new dilemmas. For example, when these 'ambassadors' travel to Muslim countries, such as Somalia, to discuss the human rights abuses committed in the name of religion, it reeks of neo-colonial attempts to civilise the savage native.


There are even joint research efforts between western academia and individual experts in Pakistan that attempt to look for alternatives to radical, political Islam as an effort to promote the softer or Sufi side of Islam. All attempts to redefine what is essentially a complex political identity that is in itself a dynamic mixture of the ideological, material and social, are incredibly ambitious. The idea that if only we could neutralise some of the radical groups or reinterpret texts in a progressive way or shut all/certain madressahs or convince the jihadis to struggle for the personal but not the political, are reminiscent of the NGO approach to socio-political development. That is, to circumvent the state and try and fix structural failures by awareness raising, empowering the communities and putting up more schools/shelters/income generation programmes. Commendable projects but not political solutions.


The value of research is not in question here. However, when this research begins to morph into developmental joint ventures between western governments and home institutions, then there is a danger. There is no homogenous understanding internally within Muslim countries of religious or political identity. Muslim feminists in the west face very different identity issues compared to Pakistan. Therefore the strategies that work for them within a broader secular state have very different implications for the women's movement here. If then we find ourselves facing policy recommendations that uniformly suggest we can correct the wrong kind of political expression of religion and replace it with another kind, we step deeper into the minefield. This will never allow us to sort out an issue that is not simply about the heart, mind or soul.


The contest of political identity has to be fought between and amongst the radical and moderate, the conservative and liberal, the religious and secular. What western academics and Muslim diaspora would do well to understand is that these categories in Pakistan do not have fixed meanings as they may in other cultural contexts. To some extent the growing academic interest in Islam is useful and even helps to reinvent the careers of some fledgling western academics who have jumped on to this bandwagon. But it should not divert from the very real political challenge that requires our own analysis and struggle and often has very little to do with those academic exercises mentioned above.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. She has a background in women's studies and has authored and edited several books on women's issues Email: