New Internationalist

The Islamophobia debate

Issue 402

Reader Amatullah Matthews protests at recent NI articles; Peter Tatchell argues that critics of fundamentalism are being silenced; while Sharif Gemie and Patricia Clarke offer a new context for the discussion.

Zafar A Malik
Zafar A Malik

Dear New Internationalist,

I am writing to complain about the title of an article in your May 2007 issue: ‘The making of an Islamic Jack the Ripper’. The idea of an ‘Islamic Jack the Ripper’ is as much an oxymoron as the term ‘Islamic terrorist’, only encouraging false peceptions of Islam and Muslims. Abbas Zaidi could have chosen any number of ways to describe the identity of this individual: Pakistani? – yes; Asian? – yes; Islamic? – no. He may be a Muslim, but his behaviour is certainly not Islamic.

By choosing the word ‘Islamic’ the title implies that such behaviour is tolerated and even acceptable in Islam. According to sharia law there are very specific ways to deal with murderers and those who assault and harass women. Both the title and content of the article propel the myth that Islam not only tolerates violence and misogyny, but advocates it. It also implies that piety, religiosity and even being a hafiz, are potentially dangerous attributes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Islam itself condemns extremism and favours moderation, and women have had successful roles in public life since the very beginning of Islam. It’s worth noting that Muslim women had the right to vote 1,200 years before women in western Europe. Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was a very successful businesswoman and his employer to boot; and his later wife Aisha was an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, and gave public consultations to both men and women.

As a Muslim woman myself, I also object to the portrayal of a Muslim woman in the Polyp cartoon (NI 399, April 2007) which shows a forlorn-looking, brown-skinned woman next to some cut-out burqas. It illustrates a patronizing and misguided pity for Muslim women, that only serves to perpetuate a negative stereotype. It is based on a very Western cliché and illustrates the artist’s complete lack of understanding of the values behind sexual modesty, which apply to both men and women in Islam. Rather than recognizing the beliefs, work and intelligence of Muslim women, the artist is objectifying us as mute victims.

Most practising Muslim women feel insulted and irritated by the Western preoccupation with what we wear. The majority of Muslim women find Islamic dress liberating. It frees us from the constant pervasive sexual objectification that the fashion industry dictates to women in Western cultures. We get on with our lives, dressed with modesty and dignity. Western feminist assumptions about Islamic dress are patronizing and ignorant. Practising Muslim women often find Western clothing styles repellent and degrading, although we would be too polite to say so. It will be a great sign of progress when Western non-Muslims can learn to tolerate and accept Islamic dress, and move on to the real issues affecting Muslims around the world. •

Sincerely Ms Amatullah Matthews Taunton, England.

Silencing dissent

Peter Tatchell believes accusations of Islamophobia are being used to silence legitimate criticisms of fundamentalism.

‘The strength and survival of free society and the advance of human knowledge depend on the free exchange of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence and some of the most powerful ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo and Darwin, have given profound religious offence in their time. The free exchange of ideas depends on freedom of expression, and this includes the right to criticize and mock. We assert and uphold the right of freedom of expression, and call on our elected representatives to do the same. We abhor the fact that people throughout the world live under mortal threat simply for expressing ideas, and we call on our elected representatives to protect them from attack and not to give comfort to the forces of intolerance that besiege them.’

This declaration of liberal humanitarian values was issued in London in March 2006 by supporters of the Rally for Freedom of Expression. The rally was called to protest against threats by Islamic extremists to kill the illustrators and publishers of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and in defence of authors, journalists, publishers, artists and human rights advocates the world over who are being threatened, arrested, jailed, tortured and murdered because of their ideas and opinions.

The protest condemned all religious and political fundamentalisms that seek to deny freedom of conscience, speech and expression. It was not an attack on Muslim people or the Islamic faith. While not saying the cartoons should have been published, it defended the principle of free speech – including the right to satirize religion (and other beliefs), and the right of satirists not to be killed.

This defence of freedom of expression was widely denounced by many Muslims and left wingers as ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic’. They smeared rally supporters as agents, dupes or fellow-travellers of the far-right British National Party. In this inflammatory, accusatory atmosphere, reasoned debate became almost impossible. Not surprisingly, some people who privately endorsed the declaration were reluctant to do so publicly, and many others were reluctant to attend the rally. Fearful of being tarred with accusations of racism and Islamophobia, they were intimidated into silence.

Making allegations of anti-Muslim prejudice is an increasingly common way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism, as I discovered earlier this year.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, accused me of running an ‘Islamophobic campaign’, after I criticized the Chief Mufti of Russia for urging Muscovites to ‘bash’ gay people if they tried to hold a Pride March. This was not the first such slur by the Mayor. He previously denounced me as an ‘Islamophobe’ in 2004. I had criticized his decision to host at City Hall the right-wing Muslim cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. I do not oppose Qaradawi because of his race or religion, but because he wants to deny human rights to Muslims, Jews, women and gays.

While Qaradawi is a ‘moderate’ compared to the Taliban and al-Qaida, he is the spiritual head of the Islamist political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He endorses the suicide bombing of Jewish civilians, killing Muslims who abandon their faith, the compulsory wearing of the hijab (headscarf) by women, female genital mutilation, the execution of homosexuals in Islamic states, domestic violence against disobedient wives, and the blaming of rape victims if they have not dressed with sufficient modesty.

This anti-humanitarian interpretation of Islam first and foremost oppresses Muslim people. Accordingly, three years ago 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from all over the world signed a petition denouncing Qaradawi as an apologist for terrorism and human rights abuses.

Qaradawi is an avowed Islamist. In contrast to ordinary Muslims, Islamists see their religion as not merely a faith, but also a political movement. Their aim is to win state power and to run the state on strict Islamic lines – a clerical regime enforcing sharia law. They want theocracy, not democracy.

Wherever Islamists have gained political power – such as Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban – democracy and human rights are crushed. Islamist states don’t have free elections or a free press. Religious minorities are persecuted. Left-wingers, trade unionists, students, journalists, gays and feminists are detained without trial, tortured and sometimes executed.

Mayor Livingstone justifies fêting Qaradawi on the grounds that he wants a dialogue with Muslims. I agree with dialogue. But why dialogue with such a reactionary Muslim leader? The Mayor should be embracing progressive Muslims who don’t oppress other Muslims and who support human rights. After all, most Muslims are not fundamentalists. Many share a human rights commitment. But they are sidelined by the Mayor and by most mainstream Muslim organizations in Britain and worldwide.

The Mayor is right to oppose Islamophobia. Muslims should be defended against prejudice and scapegoating. Terrorist outrages, such as 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, are no justification for the backlash we often witness against innocent, entirely blameless, Muslims.

It is undeniable that Muslim people are some of the most disadvantaged in Britain, with disproportionate numbers living in poor housing and without jobs. Globally, many Muslims suffer grave injustices – including the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US and UK occupation of Iraq. In countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, millions of Muslims lack safe, clean drinking water and face everyday hunger. These injustices do not, however, justify the Mayor of London’s collusion with authoritarian, homophobic and sexist Islamists like Qaradawi.

But the slurs against me are mild compared to what happens to people worldwide who resist the inhumanities of political Islam.

• A death fatwa was issued against the Bangladeshi feminist writer, Taslima Nasreen, after she dared suggest a modest reinterpretation of the Qur’an to improve women’s rights. She was forced to flee her homeland and seek refuge in Europe.

• In Germany, Mina Ahadi and 300 other women refugees from Muslim countries have renounced Islam, in protest at the forced veiling and stoning of women in Islamist states. They now require police protection to ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as Dutch film director, Theo Van Gough, who was assassinated by a fundamentalist fanatic.

• Islamists are behind the terror attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. Under the Iranian ayatollahs, gay lovers are strung up by their necks in public squares; as are young girls who have sex before marriage, dissident Sunni Muslims like Dr Ali Mozafarian, and Kurdish, Balochi and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists.

Exposing these inhumanities, perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims in the name of Islam, is not Islamophobic. It is solidarity with oppressed people, based on the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible. •

Peter Tatchell is a British-based human rights campaigner and is now the Green Party candidate for Oxford East.



Talking to Muslims

Sharif Gemie and Patricia Clarke set out a context to move beyond the current ballet of kneejerk reactions.

Often people respond badly to criticism, even when well-intentioned: they frequently suspect the motives of the critic. This tendency is so common that Freud identified several defence mechanisms that were provoked by such situations.

Recipients of criticism sometimes seem to confuse the issue deliberately. Thus, those who criticize Israeli Government policies are routinely accused of antisemitism. These issues become even more complicated when we consider current Western debates concerning Muslims. Some critics of Muslim practices clearly are motivated by Islamophobia. For example, it is difficult to see how a couple of hundred girls wearing headscarves to school can threaten the French state – yet this practice was outlawed in French schools in 2004. Such state initiatives are significant: they immediately suggest that there is something wrong, unnatural or unacceptable about all Muslim beliefs, and thus provoke the harassment of veiled women on the streets, and hostility to men who wear what can be seen as distinctively Muslim clothes. Islamophobia is a very real threat in many Muslims’ lives: it makes them suspicious and distrustful of even well-meaning critics. Its effects should not be minimized: it does short-circuit many debates and conversations.

However, the accusation of Islamophobia can also be deployed tactically by some Muslims as a way of sidestepping issues and avoiding criticisms.

There are a number of quite plausible reasons to explain why we might hesitate to criticize the social, religious and ethical practices of another culture. One element in this dilemma has been caused by US and UK foreign policy. Those in the West who oppose campaigns such as the two invasions of Iraq often feel reluctant to question Muslim practices in the Middle East; just as some on the Left were reluctant to criticize the Soviet Union during the Cold War for fear of playing into the hands of American imperialists. One could also argue that Western and Muslim values are so different that they cannot be compared because they are incommensurable – it would be like criticizing cricket for not following the rules of football. In addition, such silences can also be motivated by a fear of adopting ethnocentric positions which simply assume that certain idealized Western norms – such as ‘British values’ – are the correct and appropriate models for the rest of the world to follow. This type of cultural and moral relativism has the additional effect of avoiding any sustained examination of core Western values, whether Judeo-Christian, liberal-Enlightenment or mass-market pop-commercial in character. Lastly, when one considers the worldwide rise of religious and political fundamentalisms and the linked refusal to question or debate, it becomes hard to see how any real debate with Muslims is possible.

These arguments seem overly restrictive, pessimistic and simply inaccurate. The forces of globalization are pushing the varied cultures of the world into ever-closer contact with each other, although these contacts often take the form of conflict rather than dialogue. Muslims and Westerners are learning that they do have some common interests and values, as well as differences. Creating – or recreating – a world of self-enclosed, autonomous separate communities, each with its own set of values and economic practices, is not a realistic option. We have to find common ground. How can this be done?

One way is to appeal to the established notion of universal human rights. Article 55 of the United Nations declares that it will promote: ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. This is a bold and brave declaration, but it has its problems.

Some Islamic states are understandably suspicious of human rights perspectives. These may be seen as ethnocentric: as Western cultural values presented as natural norms for the rest of the world. In addition, they have clearly been applied unevenly and hypocritically: the US gets away with Guantánamo Bay and extraordinary rendition whilst Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses are presented as a justification for invasion. Criticisms which appear to serve imperialist interests, even when they raise legitimate cases for concern, are probably worse than useless. Current American criticisms of human rights in Iran, for example, serve almost no constructive purpose whatsoever: they merely make the Iranian people feel threatened by the ‘shock and awe’ of another Middle East invasion, and therefore encourage them to rally more closely – and more uncritically – to their government.

At a practical level:

1 Any discussion is likely to develop slowly, as was the case in the Northern Irish peace talks. Occasional faltering and mistrust on both sides is to be expected. However, it is essential that all sides are considered as equal and valid partners and that all participants have a willingness to accept (or at least to consider) criticisms from the other. In other words, to avoid Islamophobia, we might at least listen to the criticisms that Muslim states, organizations and commentators make of Western societies.

2 Criticisms must be clearly founded on evidence, not on woolly assertions or stereotypes. Sometimes criticisms put forward in the name of human rights are impossibly vague and even – arguably – inaccurate: ‘Islam oppresses women’ is both unspecific and debatable, whereas ‘female genital mutilation is a violation of women’s rights’ is not.

3 In any such cross-cultural debates, it would be tactically very, very useful (but nothing more than that) to accept – broadly – the legitimacy of Islamic legal and political cultures. As the dissident Iranian feminist lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, has shown, it is perfectly possible to develop concepts of equality and human rights from within the really quite wide body of Islamic concepts. However, in terms of a long-term strategy, one would wish to see the development of a global public sphere in which all citizens were automatically legitimate participants, whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic or whatever.

4 In constructing such debates there is a problem finding legitimate interlocutors. Despite the popular Western images of a centralized, despotic power, Islam is actually not a monolithic religion. Its power structures and cultures are decentralized, overlapping and – frankly – messy. Muslims in the West are under some particular pressure: one problem which constantly arises is that fairly low-level, inexperienced religious or administrative authorities are asked to act as if they were heads of well-organized lobbies or parties. One frequent result is an apparent retreat into dogmatism, as the claimed ‘authority’ merely repeats what he thinks he can remember from traditional scholarship. What is required, instead, is more sensitive and imaginative appreciation of the many internal debates and discussions which are developing within Muslim societies. •

Patricia Clark is a lecturer in Philosophy at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University. Sharif Gemie is a Reader in History at the University of Glamorgan and editor of Anarchist Studies.

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