Recently, an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) found that prevalence of Islamophobia was driving hate crime and even terror attacks against British Muslims. Citing the report, UK-based ‘Independent’ reported that the harmful myths and lies about Muslims are now believed by a large section of the country’s population, contributing to discrimination across employment, housing, the criminal justice system and other areas of public life.
Some of us may be thinking that only Muslims of India have been at the receiving end of the hate crimes, but Islamophobia is more of a global phenomenon. In his recent piece for Aljazeera ‘Muslim cleansing: A global pandemic?’, Hamid Dabashi writes how Muslims across the world are persecuted, abused and murdered by Muslim and non-Muslim regimes alike. He refers to China where Muslims are put into concentration camps, in Myanmar where they are slaughtered en masse, in Israel where they are mowed down on a daily basis, in Europe and the United States where they are subject to increasing demonisation and persecution.
Among other factors, Islamophobia also stems from the limited understanding of people about Islam and the skewed portrayal of Muslims by much of the mainstream media. These people see Islam in the post-9/11 context. They see the anger and protests of Muslims as an example of their intolerance, whether it is over the blasphemous cartoons published in Danish daily or a blasphemous post on Facebook. There shouldn’t be any surprise if these misinformed people see the developments in Kashmir as a manifestation of “Islamic fundamentalism”.
Media may have revolutionized the world turning it into what Canadian media theorist, Marshal McLuhan termed as ‘Global Village’, but at the same time, it has also served as a vehicle for propaganda, misinformation and stereotypes. Islam is a subject that most Americans and Europeans have experienced only through these negative images and stereotypes.
In the western world the debate about Islam, particularly after September 11 episode, has been conducted primarily through sensational journalism and ideological attack. The negative image of Muslims is remarkable, even though they are not based on personal experience or actual study, but they receive daily reinforcement from the media. As a result to the average American newspaper reader “Muslim” and “fundamentalist” or “Muslim” and “terrorist” have become almost interchangeable terms. In the absence of any contact with real Muslims in daily life, many have accepted this kind of violent image as a substitute. Furthermore, such is the power of the mass media that the negative images are carried to every corner of the world, with a powerful and persuasive effect.
In the world of books also, the subject of Islam conjures images which are usually misleading born of the prejudices or misinformation of the western writers. Such books have only added up to the hostility among the non-Muslims towards Muslims and Islam. To counter this, Muslim writers have been coming up with the clarifications from time to time. Although it is quite possible that the non-Muslim readers might agree with a Muslim writer, but it is more probable that they would endorse the viewpoint of one of their own.
Having said so, there are also exceptions of bias-free assessment of Islam by some non-Muslim writers who have made an honest attempt to understand the religion in an objective manner. American author, Carl W. Ernst’s “Following Muhammad- Rethinking Islam in the contemporary world” can be categorized in such exemplary works. Infact, the prejudice in the publishing world can be gauged from an experience shared by Ernst himself. In 2002, he says, when he delivered the completed manuscript of his book to the publisher who had initially commissioned it, the latter declined to publish it on the basis of personal attitudes among the editorial staff. This shift in attitude was a direct consequence of September 11 attacks. The editors defended their stand by saying that the book could be used to justify terrorism. Ernst argues, “Under theses circumstances when even publishers are opposed to an impartial and fair minded discussion of Islam- it is painfully obvious that such a discussion is exactly what we need”.
As Ernst remarked, there is indeed a need to cut through the fog of suspicion and misinformation. Media and scholars can offer non-Muslims the tools to reach an independent understanding of key themes and historical settings affecting Muslims around the world today. Knowledge of the past can be an important tool for liberating oneself from the tyranny of the current climate of opinion. By paying attention to historical context, we can bring out the political, economic and social factors behind phenomena sometimes thought to be exclusively religious. Since people have constructed the notion of religion in recent history around the ideas of competition and confrontation, there is a need to see Islam beyond religion. Religion never exists in vacuum. It is always interwoven with multiple strands of culture and history.
The negative stereotypes of Islam have a history. Islamophobia has succeeded anti-Semitism as a form of acceptable racial and religious prejudice. There are important political reasons for the existence of these stereotypes and particular interests are served by their perpetuation. Yet if we are to construct a vision of the world in which multiple cultures exist together without confrontation or domination, it is necessary that non-Muslims should be able to understand the perspective of Muslims. There is a need to remove the veils of ignorance that have cloaked the subject of Islam for centuries in the minds of non-Muslims. Muslims constitute nearly one-fourth of the human race and that proportion is not likely to change, so it is simply a fact that non-Muslims need to come in terms with Islam.
In Indian context also, we need to wage a peaceful and sustained campaign against Islamophobia. We have to be either proactive and fight the propaganda against Muslims or just watch the situation go out of hand.