Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend
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The twenty-first century is still young, but it is already proving to be an especially bad time for relations between the Muslim world and the West. Or so it would seem, if we accept the grand collapse of geography, culture, and history conveyed in terms like “the Muslim world” and “the West.” The U.S. military now occupies two Muslim-majority countries, where it faces multiple armed resistance movements, some explicitly Muslim in orientation, others less so. The violence exchanged by these forces is not confined to the roadsides of Iraq and Afghanistan; it has produced bus and train bombings in Europe, attacks on globally dispersed targets linked to support for U.S. war efforts, and massive new government structures—again, global in scope—dedicated to the detention, questioning, and elimination of suspects and “combatants” who are, with few exceptions, Arab, Muslim, or both.
In the short-term memory of our media age, all of this began with the 9/11 attacks, and it will end when “terror” has been defeated. The link between “terrorism” and Islam was firm long before September 11, 2001, but it has grown stronger in recent years as high-profile enemies in the “War on Terror” have been defined (and have defined themselves) as Muslim. The result, many intellectuals and activists warn us, is pervasive “Islamophobia,” a generalized fear of Islam and Muslims. This phobia is evident in acts of mosque vandalism, hate crimes against individuals thought to be Muslim, sensational press coverage of “the Muslim threat,” the selective policing and surveillance of Muslim communities, and the assumption, widespread among even the most tolerant of bourgeois multiculturalists, that Islam is somehow antithetical to “democratic values.” To the extent that Islamophobia shapes government policy in the U.S. and Europe, it poses a significant threat to the civil liberties of millions of Muslims who now live in Western countries. It also threatens the national security of Muslim majority states, who must contend with a suspicious, potentially hostile superpower.
This summing up of recent events is beset by the trends of wartime analysis, foremost among them the tendency to reduce very complex historical patterns to ideologically useful concepts. If “terrorism” is one of these, so is “Islamophobia.” Without a careful assessment of contemporary geopolitics and deep historical relations between Muslim and non-Muslim societies, it is hard to understand what people are afraid of when they fear Islam. Given the scant knowledge of Islam most Americans and Europeans bring to the creation of their anti-Muslim stereotypes, can we be sure that Islamophobia is ultimately about Islam at all? And, if we grant that Islamophobia has a definite profile and poses a real danger to Muslims, should we not be equally concerned about political distortions that might arise from attempts to offset it? “Islamophilia,” a generalized affection for Islam and Muslims, is certainly less malign than its anxious twin, but it is just as likely to be based on wishful thinking and a politics of fear. If we persist in portraying Islamophobia as an irrational force of misperception, we might well render ourselves oblivious to its ultimate causes and consequences. The corrective policies we develop in response to it might, in the manner of a bad diagnosis, end up reinforcing the very syndrome they were meant to counteract.
To explore these issues in greater depth, U-M’s newly formed Islamic Studies Initiative has organized a conference entitled, “Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend.” The conference brings together a diverse group of scholars whose research has equipped them to think critically and creatively about Islamophobia. Ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day, from North America to Indonesia, the contexts explored at this event will challenge popular discourses about Islam as an object of dread or affection. Michigan faculty affiliated with the Islamic Studies Initiative will serve as discussants and interlocutors during the two-day event, which is open to the public.
The conference will be unusual in several ways. First, its participants do not accept at face value the key terms under discussion. While recognizing the dangers of a generically anti-Muslim politics, our contributors are wary of the reductive moral discourses that result when Islam is portrayed as something to be feared or fondly embraced. The idea that Islamophobia and Islamophilia function as opposites is singled out for special critique, as is the assumption that only non-Muslims can view Islam, or aspects of Islam, through a phobic lens. The contributors are keen to avoid the analytical dead ends that await scholarship (and political action) based on a “good Islam/bad Islam” dichotomy.
Moustafa Bayoumi (Brooklyn College, CUNY), who will assess the work of popular Muslim American apologists and public intellectuals after 9/11, argues that Islamophobia and Islamophilia share a common Orientalist heritage, and that both trends focus attention on the origins and essences of Islam, producing “comfortable alibis for readers seeking to escape the secular world of politics and responsibility.” Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton), in an equally counterintuitive move, will shift the boundaries of phobia and philia by exploring how Muslim scholars in the Middle East and South Asia have criticized madrasas (religious schools). This local tradition of “multifaceted contestation,” Zaman argues, was in place before Western policy analysts discovered the madrasa, and a closer look at these debates reveals “competing conceptions of religious authority in contemporary Islam,” each of which fosters patterns of anxiety and affection internal to the Muslim community. Lara Deeb (University of California-Irvine), building on her research among Lebanese activists affiliated with Hizbullah, will examine how “U.S.-based transnational discourses about Muslim women” provoke alternative gender ideologies explicitly designed to offset depictions of Islam as sexist and oppressive towards women. In each of these cases, concerns over the proper teaching and public representation of Islam are as acutely developed among Muslims as they are among non-Muslims, although the intent of critique can differ radically. What is more, the critical concerns of Muslims and non-Muslims often resemble each other, responding directly to each other, or to similar factors, across what are believed to be vast religious divides.
Since “Islamophobia” is a term of recent vintage, it is important to situate it in larger historical contexts and to specify what about it is genuinely new. Tomaz Mastnak (NYU) will provide much of this framing in his keynote lecture, arguing that “the elaboration of a fundamentally hostile Latin Christian attitude toward the Muslims was an outcome of the deep internal crisis of the Western Christian world in the eleventh century.” This crisis in Europe led to the Crusades and to an assemblage of anti-Muslim sensibilities that has survived for centuries. Marcia Hermansen (Loyola, Chicago) will bring these durable themes into the present. Considering recent global flare-ups of “Muslim rage,” such as the Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoon scandal, Hermansen will show how these critical moments are used to define key aspects of Islam and establish new ground rules for “public intellectual and academic theorizing” about Muslims. As both Mastnak and Hermensen suggest, the basic choreography of Islamophobia is quite old; it is highly adaptive to new forms of religious conflict and political alliance building; but it is not a necessary component of Muslim and Christian interactions, nor is mutual animosity the only relationship possible between the two traditions.
The flexible, continually updated nature of Islamophobic beliefs is often based on projection, category errors, and elaborate forms of denial. Engseng Ho (Harvard), in his discussion of diasporic Arab communities in the U.S. and Indonesia, will show how fear of Islam is often, fundamentally, a fear of Arabs, who are now cast as a politically suspect minority population. Although most Arabs in the U.S. are Christian, and Indonesians of Arab descent are a well-established community that once enjoyed immense religious prestige, a special (and negative) relationship between Arabs and Islam is now common in both countries, and fear of specifically Arab Muslims is producing exclusivist policies with palpably racist overtones. When fear of Islam is actually fear of Arabs, then corrective expressions of Islamophilia tend to be similarly anti-Arab in content. Mayanthi Fernando (University of Toronto), working in contemporary European settings, will demonstrate the remarkable degree to which fear of “Muslim intolerance,” especially Muslim aversion to homosexuality, is used as ideological cover for discrimination against Muslims. Since Europeans tend to define themselves as morally tolerant in comparison to Muslims, mounting evidence of European hostility toward Muslim immigrants can be politely ignored by imposing on Muslims a contradiction between “moral sense” and “rational argument” that is, in fact, inherent to secular, Western notions of tolerance. In much of Europe, Fernando argues, Islamophobia is not as much about Muslims as it is about Europe’s own vexed commitment to tolerance. Again, it follows that Islamophilia, under these conditions, will not be driven by deep affection for Muslims, but by a self-affirming affection for the ability to tolerate Muslims.
The likenesses between Islamophobia and racism are strong, and it is telling that Islamophilia is most developed, in the U.S. and Europe at least, among communities of color and among anti-racist political movements. Hisham Aidi (Columbia), whose work catalogs the rich historical affinities between Islam and Black and Latino populations in the U.S., will explore synergistic alliances, borrowings, and identifications that have developed, before and after 9/11, between those who bear the oppressive weight of a racist society and those who live on the receiving end of Islamophobia. Marked by religious innovations, conversions, and experiments in expressive culture (ranging from Jazz to contemporary hiphop), this domain of Islamophilic cultural production is not without its own forms of misrecognition and failed attempts to inspire solidarity across lines of doctrinal and ethnoracial difference. Aidi will use these patterns of felt connection and mistranslation to sort out the potential of Islamophilic politics.
In bringing together these scholars, the Islamic Studies Initiative hopes to provoke discussion, and critical re-evaluation, of one of the most important social justice issues of our day. Several commentators have noted that, if the twentieth century was defined by problems of race and “the color line,” the twenty-first will be defined by Islamophobia and the problem of integrating Muslims into democratic societies, in the West and in the Muslim world. A sea of problematic assumptions is built into these grand pronouncements, and they need to be given the same rigorous intellectual attention that has been devoted to the analysis of racism and other forms of political exclusion. The contributors to the conference are eager to take up this task, in terms that engage public interest and expose the tactical ignorance that suffuses “educated opinion” on things Muslim. Neither Islamophobia nor Islamophilia has cornered the market on misrepresentation. The organizers of this event hope that our invited speakers will help us arrive at a better sense of what generates these patterns of anxiety and attraction, how they are expressed in multiple languages of identity, and how they relate to prevailing ideas—of race, gender, citizenship, secularism, human rights, tolerance, and pluralism—that are important to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Andrew Shryock is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director, with Alexander Knysh and Gottfried Hagen, of the Islamic Studies Initiative. He has done ethnographic research in Jordan, Yemen, and among Arab ethnic and immigrant populations in Detroit. His latest project, “Building Islam in Detroit: Foundations, Forms, Futures,” is a multimedia research and exhibition project that traces the history of Detroit’s mosques and Muslim communities over the last century.
“Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend”, a conference sponsored by the Islamic Studies Initiative of the International Institute and organized in part by ISI Co-Director Alexander Knysh, will be held in the Hussey Room of the Michigan League, October 19-20, 2007. For more information on the event, please contact email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.