Does terrorism cause Islamophobia? 13 October 2017

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The link between terrorism and hate crime is clear – apparently. An article in The Independent quoted Fiyaz Mughal of Faith Matters that “the biggest driver of anti-Muslim hate is terrorist attacks – the research is very clear here” (some more nuance to these views was given later through a blog post by Tell MAMA). The research supposedly backs up the idea that hate crime is a product of terror attacks in Britain, except that it doesn’t. A helpful review of the literature on the causes of hate crime is provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (.pdf). It includes works of psychology, such as that by Patrick Forscher, as well work by scholars such as Larry Ray who argue that the shame of economic failure translates into rage against minorities. There is also a relevant journal article by Jeffrey Kaplan, on the perceived threat of Muslims that results in spikes in hate crime following terror attacks.

Despite this, it is not an uncommon claim. I have heard it expressed in different ways, often but not exclusively from Muslims themselves, who feel that if only Muslims stopped engaging in terrorism, or stopped being involved in crime, or stopped parking so badly, that Islamophobia would cease to be a thing. This logic imagines that bigotry, discrimination, or racism are normal responses to social situations. Except this ignores the basic facts about this type of bigotry, namely, the incredible amount of energy involved in holding the delusions necessary to construct them. Bigotry is not ignorance, but a wilful delusion.

This is the same logic that argues racism against Black Americans is caused by gang crime, and ignores that it is a continuation of the relationship of subjugation established in the era of slavery. Likewise, Islamophobia stretches back further than 9/11.

A Brief History of Islamophobia

Islamophobia is a product of a historical and structural relationship between the Islamic East and Western Christendom. This relationship took shape in the medieval period, in which an emerging Christian Europe faced Muslim empires in the Middle-East as their primary political opponent. Muslims were conceived of primarily as a threat – politically, militarily, and morally, to Christian Europe. These conceptions were developed further during the Crusades, and met their most violent manifestion during the period of colonial empires. With European countries, foremost amongst them Britain, needing to justify their subjugation of peoples abroad, Islamophobic ideas emerged that rationalised the colonial project as a necessary task, the “white man’s burden”, to civilise the uncivilised world, to bring rationality and peacefulness to violent and superstitious Muslims.

These ideas did not end with Empire, they were inherited by the polity of the United States, who utilised them during the period of the Cold War in relation to Iran and Palestine (as explored by Edward Said in his monumental Orientalism and Covering Islam).

The most recent iteration of Islamophobia however came during the War on Terror, and as the University of Berkeley’s definition of Islamophobia emphasises, Islamophobia rationalises ‘the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise).’

Western states utilise an ideology of Islamophobia to argue that violence against Muslims is not only needed, but a moral activity. Bombing Iraq is good, invading Afghanistan was the right thing to do, and draconian counter-terror laws domestically are for all our safety. This ideology of violence is not limited to warfare of course. If it is justified for the state to deploy violence against Muslims abroad in order to combat terror, then it is justified for an individual to deploy violence against Muslim neighbours in order to combat terror.

Wilful Delusion

Hate crime is an extension of this world view, a product of this ideology that pervades society. Terror incidents do result in a rise in hate crime, as did the Brexit referendum, but these are triggers to action, not causes. The problem is deeper, a faulty way of viewing the world, one that requires significant effort to maintain – it is a wilful delusion.

First, you need to turn Islam, a religion of 1400 years of history and several billion adherents across countless cultures, into a singular monolith. When Trump said “Islam hates us”, he speaks of a sprawling tradition as if it was a person sitting in a room with coherent views. Islam is diverse, dynamic, changing, and always has been. It is has boundaries and borders, but that does not mean it is uniform.

Second, you need to use this homogenised notion of Islam as the sole factor in explaining the actions of terrorists. This is despite the fact that countless academics who have researched radicalisation have stressed the multiplicity of issues at stake, in which religion is usually a periphery issue. When we look at terrorists, we find that rather than being puritanical fundamentalists, they tend towards the less devout and more liberal. It’s well known that one of the Paris gunmen owned a bar and that the 9/11 hijackers visited a strip club prior to committing mass murder. Both actions are distant from the image of a devout religious zealot. To view Islam as the sole motivating factor of these terrorists mean you actively ignore the countless pieces of contradictory evidence flying your way. This isn’t something you can do by accident. It is ultimately a choice.

The third thing needed is for “local and concrete circumstances” of terror attacks to be “obliterated” – to quote Edward Said. To arrive at this destination is not straightforward. Significant energy needs to be invested by writers, journalists, politicians and think tanks, speaking of the “global jihadist insurgency” as Quilliam do, in order to convince a person that the murder of a cheery backpacker in Queensland and stabbing in London are related – motivated transnationally by an abstract religious project.

Only after these significant and not at all easy generalisations are made and accepted within one’s credo can you respond to an act of terror with a hate crime.

The idea that Islamophobia, or any form of prejudice, is caused by the victims of that prejudice is frustratingly common in so many walks of life, but it’s an idea that needs vocal challenging.

I reflect on the contention of Ambalavaner Sivanandan when he wrote that ‘in going along with the dominant narrative, the government reduced racial violence, a socially-based issue, to individualised “hate crime”’. We’ve gone even further than this now, in focusing on “hate crime” as the sole manifestation of Islamophobia and racism, we’ve essentially allowed it to become nothing more than the angry reaction of a person to a terror attack, forgetting the global, historical, and structural complicity that was invested into creating a situation where that is possible. Everyone concerned with social justice must start pushing back against this.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.