Islamophobia is real, but not in the way you might think. Mark Lee reports from Malaysia on its many faces.
A week ago, I was being driven around in a Grab, the Southeast Asian equivalent of an Uber. Hijab-clad yet donning a pair of cerulean blue Levi’s, my Grab driver appeared to be the image of an average metropolitan Malay-Muslim. Upon informing her of my intent to write a piece concerning Islamophobia, she immediately asked, “Are you against Muslims? If so, I don’t blame you at all. We force our beliefs on others all the time.”
Admittedly, her confession struck a chord. Being a non-Muslim in a Muslim-dominated society, publicly rallying against Islam is – apart from being a taboo – also a possible reason for arrest. Apart from having to endure the loud blares of Islamic prayers from the megaphones of every neighbourhood mosque five times per day, there was a recent push by certain parties to implement puritanical hudud laws in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. It is hard not to be averse toward the rapid rise of Islamism – this appears to be a burgeoning, warranted universal issue.
Even so, being intentionally prejudiced against Muslims – the majority of whom are regular people with perfectly common aspirations in life – should never be normalised. Witnessing a new era of hateful anti-Islam rhetoric, mostly meant to demonise its followers rather than Islamic tenets itself, has been a disillusioning experience. With the advent of the vague term “Islamophobia” – so much so that its usage almost quadrupled between 2014 and 2015 – having a salient understanding of our boundaries has become more crucial than ever.
In most academic circles as well as the mainstream media, Islamophobia is defined as an “intense dislike or fear of Islam”. This is also seen in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the definition coming into play Still, Middle East academic experts like Fred Halliday have rightly criticised the usage of “Islamophobia” as an umbrella term, as this disregards its initial etymology. Peter Hitchens, in particular, has made a convincing case against using “Islamophobia” to describe criticism of the religion; he believes it is not a phobia to be against Islam based on an assessment of its precepts.
In a reasonable world, being against the ideology of Islam due to a careful examination of its ideals should not be equated to having an “irrational” dislike of the religion. It is nothing short of intellectually disingenuous to relegate sound arguments against Islam – be it theological or philosophical – to nothing more than a baseless fear. Apart from impeding the very notion of free speech, it stifles legitimate concerns based on interpretations of the Koran itself.
Some aspects of the Koran are genuinely worrying. For instance, a 2015 New York Times exposé demonstrated how Koranic verses have been used by the so-called Islamic State to “enshrine a theology of rape”. To further note, Muslim clerics like Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed have fostered a victim-blaming mentality based on an interpretation of Islam. To make matters worse, a 21-year-old Malaysian rape suspect married his 14-year-old alleged victim after being accused of statutory rape – with full consent from the Sharia judge. Considering the patriarchal society seen in the Koran, it is understandable. Yet, such puerile ideas are being justified in this day and age based on the Koran, albeit by a certain sect rather than the Muslim population as a whole. To turn our heads and pretend it has nothing to do with the religion, nonetheless, is feckless.
On the other hand, there has been a media crusade portraying Muslims as regressive on LGBT rights – especially after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Whilst this is not completely untrue, a 2015 Pew poll discovered that American Muslims are more likely to support same-sex marriage than evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Additionally, in spite of his strong Islamic faith, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has also pushed for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and equal rights in the UK. If anything, this brilliant piece by Glenn Greenwald shows how Christian Africa is rife with anti-LGBT persecution – with anti-LGBT legislation being espoused by certain American Christians. Somehow, we do not witness demands for Christians to be banned from entering the States, nor do we see “rational atheists” like Sam Harris calling for every Christian to be profiled. There is no denying the anti-LGBT regression seen in Islamic states, but let us not shamelessly excuse our double standards in the name of justice.
Any theologian worth their salt would surmise that interpreting sacred texts without an understanding of context is fallacious. Yet, this is simply not a view shared by certain sects of the Muslim community. Notably, there is an inherently negative view of Jewish people in the Muslim world, based on certain anti-Semitic verses in the Koran. As indicated in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, countries like Jordan and Lebanon have a completely unfavourable opinion of Jews. In a 2014 ADL survey to gauge anti-Semitism, Malaysia has also emerged with a 61 per cent anti-Semitism rating – the highest in Asia, outside of the Middle East. To be fair, the Muslim-dominated Indonesia polled at a lower 48 per cent. Whilst this is a problem based on biased politicking as well, the fact that Muslim-populated countries show an overall higher rate of anti-Semitism is indicative of a bigger problem within the religious community itself.
To be absolutely clear, having preconceived prejudices against someone for believing in Allah is insidious to our societal development. For instance, Islamic State is viewed in an overwhelmingly negative light in Muslim-populated countries. To homogenise an entire group of people, with an immediate assumption of intent to terrorise, is nothing less than repugnant, Islamophobic behaviour.
With that being said, the Maajid Nawaz take on the entire issue seems fair. Instead of trying to absolve Islam from all blame, we need to acknowledge that an interpretation of Islam has had something to do with the recent terror attacks. Religious extremists truly believe they are doing good in the name of their religion, and this is based on their interpretation of the holy scripture – it is unwise to automatically dismiss them as “un-Islamic” simply because we do not interpret the Koran as such. There is, however, a fine line between being suspicious of an ideology and being hateful towards its adherents. Religious discussions require nuance and sensitivity, not generalisations. To think my Grab driver made such an assumption, without knowing any of my beliefs, goes to show how fractured interfaith relations have become – let us not fall into that trap.