A few weeks ago, I was meeting a friend of a friend for the first time. Now usually, my name gets transformed into Tamsin, or Tasmeem, or Tasmeen (the last two have quite unfortunate meanings in Arabic). In this case, the person I was introducing myself to said “Oh, like that creepy ISI woman.” I wasn’t sure what this referred to. Cue explanation that there was a character named Tasneem on season four of the TV show Homeland, a creepy ISI woman who was in league with the Taliban.
Although Homeland makes my skin crawl, I sat down and watched this season featuring Tasneem, and had to laugh and shake my head when the American Embassy was festooned with a black flag, supposedly of an Islamist terrorist group, that said “Struggling against Islam” in Arabic.
You might say Homeland is just entertainment, but the ignorance extends beyond that to people who have very strong opinions about Islam and those who practice it and feel no compunction in berating us all for not having defeated terrorism yet.
I mention all this because it was on my mind while I was listening to this debate on Islamophobia, featuring Douglas Murray, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar and Asra Nomani on one side, and Linda Sarsour, Wajahat Ali and Bassem Youssef on the other.
There were three main arguments resorted to by those who argue Islamophobia is not real: one, that is a constructed term intended to have a chilling effect on critical debate, two, that religion is not a race, and three, that there is a real reason to have a “phobia” of Islam. Let’s go through them one by one, shall we?
The Chilling Effect
In the debate, Nomani argues that “Islamophobia” is in fact a strategic campaign deliberately constructed and fostered by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to prevent any critique of the religion.
This is despite the fact that the very first speaker, Sarsour, set the stage by distinguishing between Islamophobia as prejudice and critique of Islam:
“It’s simple. It’s anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s a term for prejudice against, hatred toward Islam or Muslims…it’s not just people who disagree with Islam or don’t agree with some tenet of Islam. I’m cool with that.”
The problem with this of course is that not every Muslim is as “cool” with critique of Islam as Sarsour. We do ourselves a disservice by not recognizing that the line between Islamophobia and critique of Islam is being blurred by Muslims who will not accept any form of critique of their religion. We need to stress that there is a difference between, say, someone pulling off a woman’s hijab on the street, and someone critiquing the idea of hijab. And we need to do this both in an intra-Muslim context, and in the context of debates about whether or not Islamophobia is real.
Religion is Not a Race
Sam Harris, among others, likes this argument for its convenience. Muslims do not share a race, ethnicity or nationality, therefore you can’t be prejudiced against them. And Harris links this directly to the argument above – any effort to convince you that there is prejudice against Muslims is intended to shut you up.
“Islam is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality: It’s a set of ideas…Criticism of these ideas should never be confused with an animus toward people. And yet it is. I’m convinced that this is often done consciously, strategically, and quite cynically as a means of shutting down conversation [on] important topics.”
This argument erases the target of prejudice. In the debate, Sarsour listed the real effects of Islamophobia, such as mosque opposition, as well as the attacks against both Muslims and Sikhs, who are assumed to be Muslims.
But why are Sikhs assumed to be Muslim? As Wajahat Ali points out. Islamophobia affects not just Muslims but “It affects those who appear ‘Muslimy.’” The whole problem of Muslim misrecognition, which David Tyrer calls the “mistaken identity frame” in The Politics of Islamophobia, underscores the racialization of Islam.
Islamophobia is Not Irrational
This is Murray’s “semantic” point. A phobia is an irrational fear, Murray notes, and Islamophobia is not irrational, because extremist Islamist violence is real. Somewhat like people who say homophobia is not an irrational fear, because HIV is real. But this argument at least accepts that there are targets of dislike, as Murray makes clear when he says we can use the term anti-Muslim, “but it is again something that doesn’t come from nowhere.”
“If there are people who dislike Muslims…we have to stop them from generalizing. But they don’t get some of their ideas from nowhere. They get it because they look at the news every day and they see the bombings and they see the beheadings and they see the anti-Semitism and they see the persecution of Christians and minorities, and they worry about it.”
This argument is ostensibly about the backlash against Muslims, but it directs us to look away from the hatred for Muslims to a justification of that prejudice – something that makes it understandable. It’s a kind of Roots of Rage argument. Non-Muslims have very real grievances, one could say. This was vociferously articulated in a similar debate about Islamophobia in Sweden, Islamophobia, reality or rhetoric? where in the Q&A section a disbelieving member of the audience stood up and asked, “You want us to feel sorry for you? This is unbelievable. Muslims are the cause of all the troubles in the world. You are ignoring reality.”
This was in response to one of the speakers talking about the case of Marwa Sherbini, the Egyptian woman who was killed in court by a German, and whose husband was then shot by police who assumed the Muslim man must be the attacker.
The problem is the vilification and attacks experienced by Muslims are waved off as as nothing compared to what Muslims extremists are doing. What’s interesting here is that both in the Swedish debate and in Murray’s argument, the emphasis is on what Muslims are doing to non-Muslims – as though it does not matter that Muslims are the primary victims of Daesh (ISIL).
Every day I wake up to horror stories of what Daesh has done, as well as to stories of people resisting Daesh, such as the funny, yet incredibly inspiring story my aunt shared recently of a woman in her town who was stopped in the streets and asked where her niqab was by a masked man. The woman retorted that she would put on her niqab when he took off his.
At one point in the debate, Nomani says, “As a Muslim woman, as a feminist, I have dared to stand up.” Muslims like Nomani and Irshad Manji often become the credible people to talk to because their experiences appeal to non-Muslim audiences. Sarsour underlines this:
“Why is that my story is not the story of Islam? I am a feminist too and…I believe my religion empowers me to be the person I am …I will not allow a few cherry-picked Muslims or people who are not Muslims anymore tell you what Islam is and what I am as a Muslim.”
To some extent, the whole debate is about exactly this.
The only thing both sides agreed on was that Islam doesn’t speak, Muslims do. All 1.6 billion of us. But who is heard?
As Anne Aly has put it, no matter how many people denounce terrorism, there is an impression that “Muslims don’t speak out and they don’t mean it when they do”.
For many of us, the question of whether Islamophobia is real or not answers itself. You don’t really need to think too hard about whether Islamophobia is real when PEGIDA comes to your city and the bus stop outside your home becomes a monument to anti-immigrant, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs.
As I stand waiting for the bus, I read the messages scrawled on the bench, which include “Arabs die”, “hang all blattar” (pejorative term for immigrants), “blattar are worse than dogs” and “bomb all pizzerias” – pizzerias being predominantly run by Arabs and Kurds in our area.
Then I read the Facebook updates from relatives who have been given the choice of authoritarian secularism or theocracy, who are actively struggling against the takeover of their lives by the power hungry on either side. Over there, that is their struggle. Over here, the struggle is between the Muslim fanatics and the fanatical right wing. In both places, the two sides feed off each other – and those of us who don’t chose a side become the target of both.