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Title Beyond Islamophobia 
Author Shahid Ashrif
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Racism, Education



Recently, a political ally innocently circulated a petition condemning the treatment of women in Afghanistan. In replying to the petition I upset some political allies, who appeared not to understand the potential dangers and offence of such an attitude to Muslim communities in Britain and abroad. Furthermore, certain student comments while lecturing on the ‘Anti-oppressive Practice’ Module at De Montfort University, reinforced the complexity of the intersection between racism, ethnicity and human rights.

Islam has the second largest following of any religion and its adherents are found in substantial numbers all over the world, with the Arab Muslims constituting only a small fraction of the total. Despite its huge following, Islam is poorly understood in the West, and in this country, the media consistently misrepresents the aims of Britain's 2 million Muslims (Hanlon, 1985). There are several reasons for this: cultural racism of the West (Daniel, 1966), collective amnesia of Islam's contributions to world civilisations (Semaan, 1980); past rivalry between Christians and Muslims; and the ascendancy of the West in the last 200 years. The distorting mirror of racism still caricatures Islam in terms of polygamy, purdah, religious zealotry - and more recently, a militant fundamentalism that threatens the economic and political domination of the West.

Islam: reality versus image

Whether one examines the British Muslim community or the global Muslim community, it is characterised by heterogeneity. That heterogeneity of views and interpretations of Islam emerged shortly after the demise of the Prophet Muhammed. Many wars and rebellions during the expansion and consolidation of the Islamic Empire were a direct result of the differing interpretations of Islam among Muslims. Following the demise of the Prophet Muhammed, the Shariah law could not be applied with the same authority and consistency, and not surprisingly, a judiciary evolved. (The jurist played a role similar to the American Supreme Court Justices, in interpreting the law.) Diverse interpretations of Islamic principles and legislation by various Muslim jurists led to the two most important pioneering Sunni schools of law, the Hanafi and Maliki. In due course, there emerged the other two main schools, the Shafi and Hanbali1 (the latter being more conservative in their interpretation.) And yet this is to say nothing about the various schools of thought in Shia’ism. Muslims have historically lived in a number of separate polities, and pluralism is an important element in Muslim political culture.

Where Islam took hold, it had its origins in a counter-tradition, in an expression of dissent (Ahmed, 1985). In many regions such as North Africa and Central Asia, the spread of Islam was dialectically linked with social revolt. Its egalitarian principles attracted a large following in India among the lower castes. In its exemplary form, Islam is a religion of the oppressed and has had a strong appeal to the downtrodden (Ahmed in Syed, 1987). The Fifth and Sixth Imams between the late 7th and early 8th century were responsible for setting up schools to translate and disseminate Greek knowledge (which later would find its way to the West.) The Imams were a powerful moderating influence upon the excesses of the Caliphs, and much feared by them. All met with violent deaths because of the threat they posed to the Caliphs' power. Along with the viziers of the Caliphs, the Imams were once the counterweights to the whims and actions of the Caliphs.               

Scholars like Eqbal Ahmed argue that the totalitarian fun­damentalist movements of the 1980s are contrary to the political culture and historical traditions of the Muslim majority. Ahmed maintains that they arise when the situation for Muslims become intolerable but the Muslim leadership itself proves incapable of offering suitable options for change. Fundamen­talist approaches can therefore be seen as expressions of despair (Ahmed, 1985). As many analysts have pointed out, given the chance, Muslims are likely to reject fundamentalist parties and policies, as they have done whenever free elec­tions have been held2 (Akbar, 1985). As for the organic link between religion and the state - that ended in 945 CE when the Muiz al-Dawla Ahmad entered Baghdad and ended the Abbassid Caliph's rule and role of temporal as well as spiritual leader of the Islamic nation (umma). For almost ten centuries now, Muslims have accepted as legitimate the exercise of power by the state (Ahmed 1985).  

Muslims have often resisted government sponsorship of any particular religious school of thought as they did with the Abbasid Caliph, al-Mamun (786-833 CE) and Akbar the Great (1542-1605 CE). It has been argued by some that Islamic political culture is essentially activist, rebellious and revolutionary (Hodgkin, 1980). Occasionally, Islam has been invoked to mobilise support for opposition leaders attacking the corruption or failure of a ruling class (as happened in Iran during the reign of the Shah, and more recently in Algeria), or to shore up shaky governments, as in Sudan and in Pakistan under the military regime of Zia al-Haq. Muslim saints and sufis like al-Hallaj (858-922 CE)), Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti (1142-1236 CE), Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-73 CE), and Sidi Lahsen Lyusi (1631-91CE) have repeatedly collided with the governments of the day. In doing this, they asserted the Muslim community’s right as well as obligation to challenge the excesses of political authority (Syed, 1987).

As a Muslim, I have no hesitation in condemning the Taliban regime’s oppression of women under the guise of Islam, just as I had no hesitation in condemning on BBC radio, the issuing of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The manner in which the media orchestrated the debate over the Satanic Verses into a simple two-cornered affair, failed to reflect the uncertainties and differences of opinion within the Muslim community itself. This in turn, led to an escalation of anti-Muslim feeling among the public and alienation of Muslims who disagreed with the fatwa (Cottle, 1991). Both the NF/BNP and many white liberals used the fatwa as a pretext to mountain attacks on Islam and Muslims living in Britain. (While writers, academics and liberals mounted verbal attacks, other white Britons were more physical in their hatred of Muslims.) Muslims, their homes and places of worship were attacked as a consequence. Similar occurrences took place during the Gulf War. During the Rushdie affair, the racism of white people was often articulated in anti-Muslim terms. This raised difficulties for British Muslims who were considered Muslim (rather than both British and Muslim) by the English, and denied the opportunity to have a say in British foreign policy. Muslims have been made the enemy within.

The impact of the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini on the US in particular and the West in general, was profound. During the Carter administration, the Tehran hostages crisis (that occurred during the early part of the revolutionary period) sent many White House officials scurrying for copies of the Koran in an attempt to understand the popular Iranian resentment towards the US. The resentment however was based not on religious precepts but on US economic and cultural imperialism, and political partisanship in the Middle East.

The Rushdie affair and the Gulf War received widespread media coverage. Given that the media remains the major source of information regarding Muslims in Britain and abroad, its continually negative and stereotypical portrayal of Islam and Muslims has had serious consequences for British Muslims.

Racism and Muslim Identity

For many British Asians, being a Muslim forms an essential part of their identity. For many it is the foremost aspect of their identity, often overriding any cultural solidarity they might have with other people from the Indian subcontinent sharing the same language or regional affiliations.  Some of these Muslims may not be comfortable with the term black (but not because of the arguments used by Modood3). From the earliest days of British involvement in India, Indians have been called ‘niggers’ and ‘blackamoors’. Such terminology gained sufficient common currency among the British that the writer Thackery could casually refer to Indians in such a manner despite incurring the disapproval of Queen Victoria! Many Muslims emphasise pan-Muslim brotherhood (umma) at the expense of regional, ‘racial’, linguistic and cultural identity.

The ‘out-casting’ of Muslims from notions of ‘British’ identity, as something alien as well as threatening is comprehensible in terms of Avtar Brah’s analysis:

"…cultural differences is also the site of identificatory processes figuring narratives of belonging and community…Cultural specificities do not in and of themselves constitute social division. It is the meaning attributed to them, and how this meaning is played out in the economic, cultural and political domains, that marks whether or not specificity emerges as a basis of social division." (Brah, 1996: 235)

The naďve who subscribe to the ‘cricket test’ of Norman Tebbit would blame Muslim for not identifying more closely with Britain, even though it is difficult to see how they could without abandoning the Islamic faith. It is not racial minorities who have erected barriers against the rest of society. Rather, it is society which has established those boundaries by racialising certain social groups and signifying them as different. These barriers or boundaries are not arbitrary, but emerge out of  ‘real social and economic mechanisms, out of dialogue and struggle between different social groups, out of the interaction between ideology and social processes’. (Malik, 1996)

Like other writers in the field, Van Dijk points to the way that racism has come to be articulated in more recent times as cultural differences. Problems are routinely explained in terms of differences of ethics, mentality and religion rather than in terms of discrimination and racism on the part of white people, structures and systems. Not unexpectedly, this approach is characterised by stereotyping and over-generalisations - where Arabs are seen as terrorists and Muslims as fundamentalists. This process also routinely describes such people as ‘backward and primitive’ while Western cultures and values are presented as ‘modern, rational and humanitarian’ (Van Dijk, 1993). While it is acknowledged that issues of identity are closely connected with experience, subjectivity and social relations between individuals and communities, it has taken many battles on the part of black communities for the literature to reflect the fact that one can have multiple identities, with particular identities coming to the fore in specific contexts. Brah’s contention that this flux of identities ‘assumes specific patterns….against particular sets of personal, social and historical circumstances’ (Brah, 1996) applies to Muslims and their historical relationship with the West in general. In Western colonial history, the racism articulated by the ruling classes and the intelligentsia has frequently formed the basis and the ideological justification for racial inequality and discrimination (Van Dijk, 1993).

Elite discourse on ‘race’ has evolved over the centuries and in recent decades has metamorphosed into discussion of ethnicity, mirroring the changes made by the state in dealing with black communities in Britain (Sivanandan, 1985). My criticism of the coterie of academics, writers and liberals with reference to the Rushdie affair has a more serious aspect. These people (along with politicians and business executives) constitute the very elite that plays such a crucial role in explaining and managing race relations. Rather than being the freethinkers they claim to be, they rationalise and bolster the hegemonic forces at work in Britain. Their discourses support, and legitimate race relations (Van Dijk, 1993). International politics and diplomacy, as well as race/ethnic policies are infused with ideological and cultural frameworks supplied by academics and writers (Lauren, 1988; S. Ryan, 1990, in Elite Discourse; Van Dijk,1993.).

The Roots of Islamophobia

Edward Said in his pioneering work on orientalism (Said, 1978) has shown these ideological and cultural frameworks are not a new phenomenon but historically have served the interests of colonial powers like Britain. Orientalists, the source of information for Western powers, were instrumental in furthering the aims of empire. Western colonial powers administering Muslim countries targeted many aspects of Muslims’ way of life. In Algeria, the French not only forbade the use of Arabic as a formal language of instruction but also tried to abolish the chador, not just because it could be used to hide weapons in anti-colonial struggles, but also because the French wished to impose their perceptions of ‘womanhood’ on the indigenous people. However it is not only these physical reminders of Muslim practice, but Islam itself that has served as a rallying call and form of resistance to Western colonialism (Keddie, 1968). In more recent times, the hostility of both Britain and France to the hijab being worn by Muslim women has resurfaced and has been reported in the media, at a time when Muslim women are increasingly resorting to hijab to re-affirm their Muslim identity.

The inferiorisation and vilification of Muslims have been made out to be a recent phenomenon, which began with the revolution in Iran or the subsequent Salman Rushdie affair. The Runnymede Trust’s report on Islamophobia is good at describing the condition but the phenomenon could easily be read as a form of intercultural misunderstanding, particularly since the report fails to examine the roots of Islamophobia. (Islamophobia is an inadequate term to describe the fear and hatred expressed by non-Muslims.) An understanding of a disease or condition can only be achieved when its aetiology is recognised. Islamophobia stretches into a past that details Christianity’s attitude towards and involvement with Islam. This unsettling history is side-stepped by the authors of the report.

The historian, Jan Carew reminds us that:

"At the beginning of the Columbian era, thousands of books that the Moors had collected over centuries - priceless masterpieces that their geographers, mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, poets, histo­rians and philosophers had written, and tomes their scholars had translated - were committed to bonfires by priests of the Holy Inquisition. And to cap this atrocity, an estimated three million Moors and 300,000 Jews were expelled from Spain (and this does not include the thousands forced to convert to Catholicism). The burning of thousands of books and the expulsion of the Moors and Jews was a terrible loss to the Renaissance, although this is seldom acknowledged by Eurocentric scholars. And the glaring irony of it all is that the Renaissance would not have been possible without the seminal cultural infusions of Moorish and Jewish scholarship. This had been implanted from the very beginning of Moorish rule in the Iberian peninsula, and by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had become all pervasive" 4  (Carew, 1992: 3)

Said’s characterisation of the relationship between Christendom and Islam (Said, 1981) parallels that of Eqbal Ahmed (Ahmed, 1985), and helps to summarise many of the reasons behind modern day Islamophobia:

"For most of the Middle Ages and during the early part of the Renaissance in Europe, Islam was believed to be a demonic religion of apostasy, blasphemy, and obscurity. It did not seem to matter that Muslims considered Mohammed a prophet and not a god; what mattered to Christians was that Mohammed was a false prophet, a sower of discord, a sensu­alist, a hypocrite, an agent of the devil.…. Real events in the real world made of Islam a considerable political force. For hun­dreds of years great Islamic armies and navies threatened Europe, destroyed its outposts, colonized its domains. It was as if a younger, more virile and energetic version of Chris­tianity had arisen in the East, equipped itself with the learning of the ancient Greeks, invigorated itself with a simple, fearless, and warlike creed, and set about destroying Christianity. Even when the world of Islam entered a period of decline and Eu­rope a period of ascendancy, fear of “Mohammedanism” per­sisted. Closer to Europe than any of the other non-Christian religions, the Islamic world by its very adjacency evoked memories of its encroachments on Europe, and always, of its latent power again and again to disturb the West.….Only Islam seemed never to have submitted completely to the West; and when, after the dramatic oil-price rises of the early 1970s, the Muslim world seemed once more on the verge of repeating its early conquests, the whole West seemed to shudder." (Said, 1981: 4-5)

Islam’s presence in the Iberian Peninsula for nearly seven centuries - longer than the European presence in North America - left an indelible mark. The extremism of the Spanish Inquisition was partly a reaction to the occupation of Spain by the Muslims. As mentioned earlier, the Inquisition was to torture and put to death large numbers of Muslims and Jews. Later, Spain attempted to eradicate many of the signs of the Moorish presence. The Moors who remained were involved in many uprisings in resisting the harsh treatment that was meted out to them. The violent rebellion of 1568 was so serious that King Philip II had to call on help from Don Juan of Austria to put it down (Read, 1975).

Despite Islamic contributions to science, medicine and mathematics, the introduction of new foods5, and the contribution of Arabic to European languages, even most of the great philos­ophers of history have regarded Islam without much enthusiasm and engaged in its constant disparagement. In the wake of Islamic nation­alism in Asia and Africa in the late nineteenth century, there was a widely held view that Muslim colonies were meant to remain under Euro­pean supervision, not only because they were profitable but also because they were underdeveloped and in need of Western disci­pline (Said, 1981). In short, Islam has never been welcome in Europe.

Western anxieties about Islam surface not only when Muslims live in close proximity to Europe, but also when they live further away. During the European scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, one of the pretexts used by the West was that the Arabs (whose areas of trade and influence covered large areas of Africa6) were plying a massive slave trade. A great deal of propaganda, including cartoons and drawings, was used by the West to vilify Muslims and justify European greed for territory under the guise of the Christian mission to free Africa from slavery. Interestingly enough if the extent of the Arab slave trade had been as grand as Western propaganda made out, the Middle East would today be awash with people of African origin (Mazrui, 1986).

The very negative portrayal of Islam in the current era is the legacy of the West’s hostility towards Islam. An additional consequence of this attitude is that it skews how other religious communities are seen. There remains a marked inconsistency in how reporters and politicians label Muslims, while largely remaining silent about trends in other religious groups. For instance, few Western commentators on Islam’s alleged medieval attitudes were prepared to recognise that in Israel, successive regimes were willing to justify their actions through very conservative theological authority (Said, 1981). (At one stage, fundamentalist Jews threatened life-support devices and airport traffic.) Even fewer commentators criticising the rise in religious fervour among Muslim communities could relate it in any way to similar trends in the US – as in the upsurge in television Christianity. Given this Christian revival in the US, it came as no surprise that two of the three major presi­dential candidates in 1980 were born-again Christians.

The term fundamentalist is regularly used by Westerners to describe Muslims. Interestingly, fundamentalist Christians in the US (who take the Bible literally), in their coalition with right-wing Republicans, are denying women the right to an abortion, determining foreign policy, attempting to introduce Christian prayer into a secular education system, outlawing the teaching of evolution, attempting to abolish affirmative action programmes, getting rid of welfare etc. These fundamentalist Christians are also exporting their brand of evangelical Christianity through television. In a recent article in the TES, David Budge alerted us to the link between the growing numbers of young Americans being taught at home and Christian fundamentalism. While that may be worrying enough, the article also pointed out that Christian fundamentalists were attempting to prejudice young people with sectarian views that ‘Islam is a false religion’ (Budge, 2000).

The reason why many Muslims, whether practising or not, react to Western (Christian) criticisms of Islamic countries and practices is that they are well aware of their history, take a pride in Islam’s achievements and (based upon the past relationships) are suspicious of the motives of Christians. Muslims also feel singled out in a variety of ways – for example, Sikhs and Jews are accepted as ethnic or racial groups for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976, but as yet Muslims receive no such recognition or protection under the law.

The interface of ‘race’ and gender

The intersection of ‘race’ and gender has been debated seriously in the literature over the past thirty years. Hazel Carby criticised the racism in the feminist literature of the 1960s and 1970s (Carby, 1982), while Jenny Bourne argued strongly for an antiracist feminism (Bourne, 1983). Carby made the significant point that ‘racism ensures that black men do not have the same relations to patriarchal/capitalist hierarchies as white men’ (Carby, 1982). bell hooks has pointed out that the involvement of black women in the feminist movement has a history going back to the late 1800s (hooks, 1982).  However, as far as Britain is concerned, these issues have a colonial dimension too. The British, while considering Indian society too superstitious to assimilate Western cultural values, did assist in ossifying the notions of Muslim identity and values. Parsons reminds us that: 

"British officials tended to base their ad­ministrative policies on the assumption that Indian society was defined and ordered by tribe, caste, and religion. With a limited understanding of Indian social practices, these officials relied primarily on orthodox Hindu and Muslim texts to interpret these categories. Yet Indian identi­ties were far more complex and fluid than the British realized.’ In colonial India, ‘By fa­voring scripture over customary law, British officials encouraged the development of more rigid and legalistic conceptions of Hinduism and Islam, which tended to fix religion as a social category. Furthermore, the British helped make tribal and caste-based identities more inelastic by setting “tradition” as the basis of political and social legitimacy." (Parsons, 1999)

Around the same period, the arrival of white women in the subcontinent in significant numbers worsened the situation for indigenous men, who were considered a threat to British womanhood (Ballhatchet, 1980). However, race and gender are social constructs. They are not constructed in isolation, but often intertwine with other categories of identity. As already mentioned, black feminists have criticised single-axis theories which attempt to separate race and gender. Single-axis theories have assumed that the experience of white women illustrated the meanings of gender, distinct from race, when patently the experience of Asian Muslim women (and many other women) is markedly different from that of white middle class feminists (Ferber, 1999).

It is a matter of record that white feminists often did not relate to the oppression experienced by black women. When mothers were being separated from their children by racist immigration laws, white feminists were conspicuous by their absence. When black women at Grunwick took on the racism and sexism of the management by going on strike, white feminists ignored the gender dimension of the strike. It was black men and communities that supported the strikers (Sivanandan, 1981). How many white women’s voices were heard to protest when black women were being pathologised by the state? Carby reminds us that: 

"It has been around black women that pathological notions of the black family and the responsibility for failure, or inability, to integrate have been secured. Common-sense constructions of the passive Indian or Pakistani wife and mother, speaking no English and never leaving the home, have been elaborated …into ideologies that justify increased state intervention into school and home." (Carby, 1982: 190)

The issue of human rights in the West has been used when it suited the political agenda of the West – particularly the agenda of the US. Human rights violation in South America (the US’s backyard?) have been brought about as a direct consequence of US covert and overt policies of supporting fascist dictatorships and the derailing of moves to democracy (as occurred in Allende’s Chile.) This approach by the US facilitated greater economic exploitation by US-owned businesses since trade union movements and dissent of any kind were ruthlessly suppressed. But little was heard about human rights violations.  Where was the concern for human rights and the oppression of women in particular, when the US supported the unelected Islamic regime of General Zia al-Haq? Here, the political/military interests of the US in the Afghanistan war against the Soviet Union overrode human rights violations. Ironically, the fundamentalist Mujahadeen that the US sponsored in its war against the Soviet Union was in due course to lead to the present situation of the Taliban domination of Afghanistan. Furthermore, what of the human rights violations of black citizens in Britain, Europe and US? (These are situations the states could remedy if the political will were there.) Recent criticism by the UN of the level of racism in Britain was not only a timely reminder to New Labour of the work still to be done, but also assisted in counterbalancing Western criticism of human rights violations in the Third World. The Callaghan government refused East African Asians their rights as British passport holders, by denying or restricting their access to Britain and refusing to fight for compensation to them following the expulsions from Uganda and Kenya. The Blair administration still does not afford unequivocal protection to British Asian women visiting the subcontinent who might be subject to kidnapping and forced marriages. The rights of black citizens have always been at the discretion of administrations and not one has avoided racist decisions and actions.

It has to be said that the track record of the West in human rights is patchy at best, as well as full of contradictions. For instance, PM Blair has made clear in Parliament that he would prefer Britain’s adoption of the European Human Rights Charter to be an acceptance in principle and not necessarily based in statute, since the acceptance in statute may lead to a flood of cases. Is there that terrifying a backlog of human rights violations in Britain? The West has a very effective propaganda machine and has managed to sell the idea that its human rights record is good and its attitudes to these issues sincere, while that of the former Soviet Union, China, the Third world in general, is poor. The historical record of how both white and black citizens in the West have been treated by government agencies demonstrates that Western governments have violated human rights when it suited the needs of the state. When it suited their political or economic interests, the West has been prepared to support, condone and perpetrate violations of human rights in other parts of the world.

Western critics of Islam or various Muslim states (as well as those bemoaning human rights violations abroad) demonstrate a strong element of what I describe as the ‘South African Apartheid Syndrome’. It was easy to protest against South Africa’s apartheid practices by going on Sunday marches and  refusing to buy South African fruit. What Ashok Ohri calls Sunday antiracists or antiracist racists! Those people who protested against the racism of apartheid in South Africa, generally failed to relate to or do anything about the racism in their neighbourhood or workplace. When such people had the power to affect racism in this country, they shied away from the task, while remaining good at pontificating about distant places.

Different Perspectives

I am no apologist for Islam, but there are some perspectives that I would draw to the attention of Christians in the West. The intellectual arrogance of ‘universalism’ in postmodernist social sciences denies the possibility of non-European viewpoints. Universalism is not only elusive but as set out by postmodernists, is a ‘Eurocentric’ viewpoint that is culturally racist. It is also a means of imposing Euro-American ideas of rationality on other peoples (Malik, 1996). Such hegemonic forces need to be resisted by all those who wish to live and practice their way of life without succumbing to the agenda of Western powers and rampant capitalism.

The West does not have any moral authority given its own widespread sexism. Whether we look at the levels of domestic violence, equal pay for women, the impact of the criminal justice system on women, the representation of women within political systems, or the burgeoning pornography industry, it is difficult to see the how Britain or the US, can claim to have successfully dealt with gender inequality. It smacks of hypocrisy to criticise sexist practices in foreign lands when the problem has not been solved at home. One wonders whether the critics of Afghanistan are more interested in criticising Muslims per se or sexist practices regardless of their location and origin. It would be preferable that such people concentrated on tackling sexism in this country, because that is something within their ability to change. It is unlikely petitions will make any difference to the regime in Afghanistan. Based upon the history of Islamic nations, rest assured, there will be Muslims who will tackle the regime’s practices towards women.

When after financial and social crises, the Algerian administration was defeated at the elections in the 1992 by so-called fundamentalists, the administration, backed up by US and Europe, failed to recognise the voice of the people. The denial of a multi-party democracy, gained for the first time in the 1989 constitution, was rationalised within a stereotypical view of the Islamic Salvation Front and its possible relations with the West. The actual agenda was that Algeria, which until the mid-1990s provided 30% of Europe’s natural gas, had become even more important in the wake of the Gulf War (Slisli, 2000). Furthermore, the Islamic Salvation Front as a grassroots-based government would most likely resist the move towards appropriation of its wealth by transnational elites through globalisation, as has happened in Latin America (Robinson, 1998/9). The illegal regime, implicated in orchestrating acts of terrorism to discredit the Islamic Salvation Front, is still running Algeria while a largely unreported but deadly war is being waged there. The sparse media coverage of the slaughter makes no reference to the illegality of the current administration in Algeria or of the fact that Islam has served as a focal point for resistance in Algeria.

As for the Gulf War, it was notable that few reports in the Western media saw the inconsistency and patent self-interest in the US’s use of the UN Security Council to push for war against Iraq, yet in numerous other instances deliberately chose not to support the enforcement of UN resolutions against Israel (Said, 1993). The US has for the last fifty years sided with tyrannical and unjust regimes in the Middle East. Recently the public has come to learn that the US originally sponsored many leading ‘terrorists’ and dictators such as Bin Laden and Saddam Hussain in pursuance of its covert foreign policy. What is less well known is that the same US that makes great play about human rights has not supported any struggles for democracy, women’s rights or the rights of minorities in the Middle East (Said, 1993). Instead, successive US governments have propped up compliant and unpopular regimes and sold them powerful arsenals. That is why it is difficult to shake the feeling that Islam’s sole value to the West has been its anti-communism. Sadly, that anti-communism in the Islamic world has been synonymous with repressive pro-American regimes. (Islam, like Christianity, can be read as justifying socialism equally well as capitalism, but the Muslim antipathy to communism is because of communism’s inherent atheism.)

Before the relatively recent recognition of Arafat’s Palestine State, Hamas, the so-called terrorist- fundamentalist group, was the only agency providing food and support to the Palestinian people in the absence of local services. Hamas was also directly challenging the oppression and brutality of successive Israeli governments against the Palestinian people when other Arab countries were coming to an accommodation with the Israel/US agendas – at the expense of the dispossessed Palestinians. Perhaps there are reasons, other than fundamentalism, for Palestinian support for Hamas.

Hypocrisy is a charge that has been and continues to be levelled at Western critics of Islam and Muslim states. Despite the atrocities against Muslims in various parts of the world, Europe and the US, for all their talk, stood idly by, allowing people to be massacred. Despite all the rhetoric about human rights and democracy, Muslims were betrayed in Palestine, Pakistan (under successive military regimes), Bosnia and Chechnya.

In contrast to Western antipathy towards Muslims’ alleged mediaeval values, it is worth reflecting on the silence of opinion formers regarding the illiberal views of the Pope. This Catholic ‘Ayatollah’ would deny abortion even to women who have been raped, condemns the use of contraception even in an Aids-contaminated world, denies oppressed people of the Americas the use of Christian liberation ideology (thereby indirectly supporting fascist dictatorships) and excommunicates heretics. Only in the last few years the Catholic Church has forgiven Galileo for his heresy of maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun. Holy relics like the Turin Shroud have been shown to be forgeries but are still revered. Is this a case of the West needing to remove the mote from its eye?


Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of a unitary form of ‘Islamic’ behaviour is problematic. As indicated earlier, the practice of Islam is diverse and the disagreements within it profound. From the days of the first four Caliphs, Muslims have been divided in their religious and political beliefs. There were sects that believed that the Mahdi (the 12th Imam) would return as a saviour; there were the Kharijites who wanted a return to the way of life and government of the Prophet; there was rivalry between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims; and then there were the followers of Qarmat (Shi'a Muslims) who began a prolonged rebellion in Arabia in 900 CE. Rebellious acts and thoughts have been a constant feature in the history of Islam.

Many of the Muslim practices considered as religious laws are simply social customs, some of which predate Islam (Abraham, 1998). Islam has a history of reformist thinkers like Shah Walliullah (1703-62 CE), Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98 CE), Jamal-ud-Din Afghani (1839-97 CE), Muhammed Iqbal (1876-1938 CE) and Ali Shariati (1933-77 CE) – all have been critical of the Muslim clerics (ulama) and their conservative interpretations of Islam. Such Muslim intellectuals and reformers have argued strongly for ijtihad, the interpretation of the Koran and Hadithes in light of the context and times – a practice much engaged in during the first four hundred years of Islam, but brought to an end by obscurantist clerics around the tenth century CE (Irfani, 1985). Among Muslim intellectuals there continues to be disagreement as to what extent ‘Arab’ cultural practices are synonymous with Islamic practices. In the light of the above, Westerners need to countenance the unsettling idea that ‘Islam’ is not a helpful concept for understanding the complexity and diversity of peoples, cultures and political systems found in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Syria etc.(Said, 1981)

In marked contrast to Christian attitudes to Islam, Muslims have historically respected Christianity as a sister religion that shares the same prophets and many of the same moral values. Muslims would welcome a rapprochement that heralded an end to Islamophobia. For this to be realised, however, Westerners have to shed their racism and face up to the realities of past and recent encounters between Muslims and Christians.

© Shahid Ashrif & Student Youth Work Online 2001

This article originally appeared in Multi-Cultural Teaching - Spring 2001


  1. Hanbal was a conservative who instigated riots against the authorities of the Islamic Empire.

  2. The clergy currently controlling Iran came to power in the revolution to oust the tyranny of the Shah of Iran, but once in place were unwilling to relinquish power. Despite further oppression since the revolution political struggles continue with the Muslim masses calling for further liberalisation and democracy.

  3. Modood’s arguments against black/white dualism have been challenged by many writers in the field of ‘race’. Brah’s book listed in the references contains a critique. Modood’s arguments are ahistorical and like his definition of fundamentalism, disingenuous.

  4. Book burning did not only occur during the Reconquista in Spain and later in Nazi Germany. It played a significant role in the history of the West.

  5. Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and the Middle East introduced new foods like sugar, lemons, tea and coffee to Europe. The traditional Christmas mince pie was only one of many ideas picked up from the Muslims during the Crusades. Arabic not only made significant contributions to Spanish and Portuguese but also English, as evidenced in words like cotton, mattress, syrup, alcohol, sofa, admiral, zenith etc.

  6. Large areas of Africa had long established Muslim populations before the European scramble for Africa. For more details see Precolonial Black Africa, Cheikh Anta Diop; Lawrence Hill Books 1987.   

References & Recommended Reading

Abraham, M.F (1998) The Agony of India; Eastwest Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd.

Ahmed, E (1985) ‘Islam and Politics’ in Islam, Politics and the State: the Pakistan experience; Zed Books

Akbar, M.J (1985) India: the siege within; UBS Publishers

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