Islamophobia: The Origins of the Specious

By Clive S. Kessler*
Thursday, January 15th, 2015 @ 10:47PM

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Dismissing criticism of the creed that spawns so many fulminators, fanatics and public dangers as mere prejudice ignores Islam’s history, its embarrassment in failing to fulfill Divine admonitions to dominate and a scripturally endorsed contempt for rival religions. Hotheads and moderates alike, this is what Islam believes—the former simply exalt their faith with action.

Between people formed within “Western culture” and those in “the world of Islam” there is and has long been much fear, mistrust, anxiety and resentment —some of it born of incomprehension (and therefore “remediable” simply by the provision of facts, mere information), and some, even much, of it born not so much of an ignorance (that simple facts can dispel) as a vague memory of an adversarial relationship, even of hostilities.

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On both sides, non-Muslim and Muslim alike are heirs, although differently, to a long history of historical rivalry for world ascendancy between civilizations representing the second and third “successor” variants of the unfolding Abrahamic faith tradition of ethical prophetic monotheism. For a thousand years these two rivals, these two organizing frameworks for world order, faced each other across the Mediterranean — and for much of that time the world of Islam was the more powerful, far-reaching and culturally accomplished.

We are, on both sides, heirs to that history. And we remain captives, often unaware and unknowing, of the still-potent passions and attitudes generated by that deep and long-lasting civilizational rivalry. A deep-seated amalgam of fear, mistrust, anxiety and resentment born of that rivalry is our living legacy of that history. We will only ever deal with those fears, and enable ourselves to engage unburdened with one another, by acknowledging, addressing and exploring their origins and nature, not by silencing all such discussion and banishing necessary consideration of the continuing effects of that history with bludgeoning cries of “Islamophobia!”

For much of that period, the world of Islam was the more powerful of the two, and it came to feel comfortable in, and entitled to, that ascendancy. Indeed, the primacy of Islam long seemed, or was understood by most thoughtful Muslims, to be divinely vouchsafed, guaranteed. Islam was the completion of Abrahamic monotheism: the final, definitive  and uncorrupted version. The self-defined doctrinal, or religious, superiority of this revelation and its human community seemed, to most leading adherents of this most worldly of faiths, to entail a divine guarantee of worldly success and political ascendancy—over both the followers of other, non-monotheistic faith traditions, and over the earlier but inherently flawed and now superseded or abrogated Abrahamic revelations, Judaism and Christianity, and the human communities of their followers.

This started to change when the unitary world order of Western Christendom  began to fragment. Its breakdown gave rise to the intellectual and scientific revolutions, to the Enlightenment and the Era of Emancipation, then to the world of modern industrial, technological, economic, social, cultural, administrative and military power. That is, European Christendom was reborn, or reconfigured itself as, “The West”. In essence (and this again is how many Muslims saw it) the now ascendant West was simply “post-Christian Christendom”. It was this powerful new world that, for two centuries (from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries) established its dominance upon most of the non-Western world: and notably upon the world of Islam, not just across the Mediterranean but far further.

Long confident of its primacy—of its ability and entitlement “to live in the world on its own terms” and to make its own history according to its own script—the world of Islam was now subject to the indignity and humiliation of being made subordinate to non-Muslims and made to live in the world according to an historical script not of its own making. More, it now also needed to explain to itself how this terrible reversal, not only of its own fortunes but also of what had long seemed the divine historical blueprint guaranteeing their own civilizational ascendancy, had come about. Theirs was a now humiliated, wounded and “disoriented” civilization. The contrast between the realities of their new historical situation and what had long seemed its divine assurance of enduring historical primacy generated a huge “cognitive dissonance”, a basic existential bewilderment throughout Islamic culture and society worldwide: this is the so-called “crisis of modern Islam”, of “Islam in the modern world”.

During its period of domination in modern times, there developed in the West a similar attitude (but no longer primarily religiously-based) of cultural superiority, an entitlement to continuing domination. But the rise of non-Western powers, non-Muslim and also Muslim, over the last half-century has already forced some revision of, and retreat from, those ideas borne of the era of “imperial domination and colonial rule”. Many, beyond the world of Islam and also within it, are now making “polite” but tough and entirely justifiable criticism of the age of Western domination, of the “Western arrogance of power”. Others are making far less polite criticism and are rejecting the West far more emphatically and forcefully. This latter group includes many who feel marginalized and disconnected, both within the “Islamic heartlands”, with their majority Muslim populations, and also the disaffected and alienated elements within the “Islamic diaspora”—among the minority Muslim communities living amidst non-Muslim majority populations in the West.

To these disaffected Muslims the ideas of radical Islam, and engagement in militant political action to express and advance them, exert a huge appeal. These ideas serve to articulate a profound sense of rage at displacement and disorientation. They also promote the deep and emphatic conviction that the forces which produced the great dislocation and disruption of the Islamic world lying at the source of their resentments are fundamentally illegitimate; and that the nations and states that have emerged or benefited from that devastating upheaval and from the overturning of the former Islamic ascendancy are an affront not just to them but against God Himself and the Divine Plan of History. Such views justify, so some people may easily come to feel, any and all kinds of extreme, radical action.

Hence the “rage against the West”. Not just against the West but against History itself. Against history, for having “gone wrong”, taken a different path, abandoned the Community of the Faithful. For cutting them loose in a world, in a stream of unfolding human events, that were not of their own making, not according to their own “in-house” script, not—by what had long been thought a Divinely vouchsafed entitlement—in accordance with their own preferred, familiar terms.

There is a problem, however, in ideologically “isolating” these militants and acting simply against them and their convictions, in a precisely targeted and specific fashion. This is because the ideas that frame their worldview and inform their actions are not really peculiar to, distinctive of, or unique unto them. Rather, they are the general views held by many, probably the great majority, of socially and doctrinally “mainstream”, “conventional” and “traditional” Muslims. The greater difference, rather, is that radical Muslims take certain ideas that are basic to mainstream Islam very seriously, give them primacy, a special importance and meaning. More “committed” than the radicals, the militants not only take those ideas supremely seriously but also affirm them by offering themselves as ready “exemplars” of the seriousness with which they hold them—by insisting that those ideas be implemented, put in to action, even violently—or by “grooming” others to do so. The militants are personally prepared to take responsibility, and the initiative, for the bold and decisive enactment of radical Islamist ideas.

That is, the militants are ready to do what the radicals take very seriously. And what the radicals take seriously most Muslims also, with greater or less passion, also routinely affirm. This needs to be stressed if Islamic terror promoted by radicals and militants is to be understood and, ultimately, addressed: The radicals’ gospel is neither alien to nor markedly different from what most in the mainstream hold and adhere to as basic matters of Islamic faith and identity. That is why there needs to be open and honest discussion, some responsible public consideration, of those ideas—and of their origins, development and place within mainstream Islam, as a religion and more broadly as a religiously-based civilization, as it has evolved throughout its history.

This history of civilizational rivalry and antagonism, and of the deep fear and mistrust thereby generated, between Islam and the West have profound and far-reaching implications, on both sides. If we are all to move forward, one cannot simply turn one’s back on that—on both sides—historically formative antagonism, rivalry, fear and mistrust. One will get nowhere by simply denying and refusing to consider them. Or by pre-empting  and precluding all possibility of their serious consideration by protective recourse to the catchcry “Islamophobia!”….

….How are modern and contemporary Muslims to construe and act upon the view that all that is good in Judaism and Christianity now lives on, improved and enshrined, within Islam; that Islam took over and incorporated into itself all that is good and true in Judaism and Christianity; and conversely, that what Islam did not take over from them is either inherently wrong or else historically damaged though corruption by its historic human custodians over the ages; that historical Judaism and Christianity are therefore abrogated revelations and now divinely repudiated faiths; that the Jews and Christians in today’s world live on in human communities and forms of faith that are nothing more than surviving relics of earlier human religious history, broken shards, mere empty husks and not continuing repositories of genuine faith?

Nothing can be done to change sacred texts. They are what they are. The crucial question is how modern people choose to live with and construe them, how they understand and work with them as modern people, how they apply that understanding to the modern world around them and to their engagement with it.

Everybody thinks that their religion is best and uniquely true. That is given: nobody is asked to forgo that personal conviction. But others do not have what Islam has: the in-built, explicit and defining supersessionist denial of veracity and dignity to other major faiths. Yet in a faith community where there is great scope for flexible reinterpretation of the sacred word (which is to day in faith communities that have experienced and been greatly transformed by the intellectual impact of “modernity”, which is not true of the Islam), these things are more easily handled. I the case of Islam things are not so easy.

Islam, in its own self-understanding and in its central formulations of its position, combines the holding of such deprecatory views as a core feature of sacred doctrine, together with an absolutist position of “scriptural inerrancy” (that every word and syllable is divine, perfect, literally true, unalterable, and was even there in the mind of God before the world was created from that same template or blueprint). In such a religious tradition, one founded on that kind of doctrinal basis, there is a real problem. It is one that all Muslims, wherever they reside in today’s globalized world, must face.

How, one asks, do and will Australian Muslims as citizens of a democratic, religiously pluralistic, multicultural society address these dilemmas and challenges? How they do so is a matter of concern not only for them, amongst themselves—and therefore something to be settled quietly “behind closed doors”. Rather, there needs to be serious and honest public engagement with non-Muslims of all kinds, but especially non-Muslims of other faiths, on these issues.

Unless and until there is a clear readiness to address these questions, there will be a wariness among religiously and historically knowledgeable Australians about Islam, about some aspects of Islam. A justifiable wariness.

What is involved here is not just “Islamophobia”.

* Professor Clive Kessler is Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales. His main work is in the culture, society, religion and politics of the Malay world, especially Malaysia. He also pursues research into the social, historical and civilizational relations between the faith communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His more general work centres on the question of modernity and its varying cultural forms and diverse civilizational expressions. This article originally appeared in Quadrant On-Line.


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