From ‘Fundamentalist’ To ‘Islamo-Fascists’: How West Dispenses Derogatory Labels
The famous novelist Salman Rushdie who lives in New York has wisely avoided public debates concerning Islam and the West. Once in while though, he does try to spread his message of reason. One such occasion was his interview to the leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. He said;” The West must go on as it is. The problem is on the other side. The Muslim World has to learn to engage the West without always crying foul.”
One may agree or disagree with Salman Rushdie’s observation or writings, he has his right to see the world developments through his hazy Gandhian glasses and give advice according to his experiences and political understanding.
But if he wishes that the Muslim leaders, intellectuals and masses should benefit from his ‘words of wisdom’, then he needs to address their grievances too. To side with one part and blame the other is not the way the dialogues are initiated.
After the debacle of the Iranian fatwa on his life, the world has moved with a great speed, but the West has not yet realised that it needs to come to terms with the new geo-political realities. This change requires sober and mutually respectful debates without prior conditions and prejudices on the part of the Islamic world and the West.
The question thus arises; if such a debate is taking place or would happen. From my perspective, it is not. The Western World, especially a large section of the politicians, mainstream media, academics and the powerful Christian Church – not necessarily the man in the street – have already divided the Islamic World into two camps.
The moderates Muslims and the Islamists, a code word for critics of the west.
The so-called moderates Muslims are not labelled with extra classification because in Western eyes, they agree with the prevailing western thought processes and are partners in the struggle against Islamism, if not Islam as a faith.
On the other hand, Islamists have a number of old and new terminologies attached to them. Words like; ‘fundamentalist’, ‘militant’, ‘radical’, ‘extremists’, ‘home grown terrorist’, ‘sleeper cell’, ‘5th Column’, ‘evil ideologist’, ‘Jihadist’ and ‘Islamo-fascist’ are very commonly and liberally used to describe the Islamists.
There are many more expressions but let us suffice with the above-mentioned ones.
It goes without saying that each of the terms used to disparage one or another portion of the Muslim community has a specific history and a specific constituency. Interestingly, such terms usually do not emanate from Muslim quarters, so understanding their origins and purposes requires a strong interest in the rhetoric and interests of Western political alignments. There is actually quite a bit of scholarship on this, ranging from the ‘Fundamentalism’ project run by Professor Marty at the University of Chicago 30 years ago, down to current discussions, mostly on the internet, about ‘Islamism’.
One of the most eminent expert on Islam-West relationship, the late American Professor Richard W. Bulliet, wrote an essay on this back then for a conference and ran into a great deal of criticism. He observed that most of the papers at the conference sought to classify current Islamic trends according to English-language categories not used by Muslims: e.g., fundamentalist, conservative, modern, reactionary, radical, moderate, etc. Yet at the same time the people who were trying to arouse fervour for military action against the Muslim world avoided categories and preferred to cast a broad net. Their objective was to separate those they liked and called; Moderates from those they hated, namely; Islamists.
The term ‘Islamo-Fascism’ has popped up now because of a political determination in some Western quarters to link Islam with an ideology that was regarded as pure evil in the somewhat mythical past.
To the degree the term ‘fascism’ gains acceptance, it makes it easier to initiate wars against Muslims. In 1939, the argument was, unwise leaders waited for Hitler to strike first. Today we should strike first because the ‘bad’ Muslims are the same as Hitler. Every country that has ever initiated a war has used equivalent propaganda to rally their citizens.
But looking fleetingly at the gradual progression from fundamentalist to Islamo-Fascist, one can quickly observe that this classification of 1.8 billion Muslims is not an unexplainable progress but a very well thought-out effort to demonise Islam as a faith and Muslims as its followers.
On the short-term basis, this strategy of presenting all Muslims as barbarians and unfit to have a dialogue with, is working. This is very obvious in Europe, USA and other Anglo-Saxon inhabited areas, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and even non-Muslim, India, Africa and Christian Latin America. One look at the media coverage and you can see how Islam is mentioned and described.
The various Muslim communities I am constantly in touch with in the West, often ask: Is it the right way to reassure Muslims that they are part of the society? That they belong, that their religion and cultures is under constant observation, that Muslims are as diverse as any other faithful and even more?
I think that Muslim communities in the West are perfectly in their right to ask these disturbing questions. Like all minorities, they are looking for clear answers, they can identify with, work with and in the long run, use to chart a new course of life.
But the right answers from the majority Western societies are hard to come by and if answers are given, these end up raising more questions. Why is it so? Well, the simple fact is that answers are formulated from an Ethno-centerist and Euro-centrist perspective, with little regard to the new inter-cultural realities on the ground.
So, let us not fool ourselves by hiding behind age-old clichés and the smiling face of democracy or dysfunctional multi-culturalism of the Western World. The ideology of multi-culturalism did not take hold, not because it is false or non-workable. It failed because it is built on the majority demands and premises, with little regard to minority needs or because of lack of consultation with the groups, it was supposed to give room to. There has never been a mutually agreed meeting point where majority and minorities can meet, exchange views, utilise opportunities and function with respect and accept of each other.
On top of this glaring miss, the lingering European racism, the colonial hangover, cultural arrogance and inherent anti-Islam mindset are the real barriers and obstacles which has not only hindered any reproachment but also stopped the train of multi-culturalism in its tracks.
I am aware that by saying so, I would be accused of one- dimensional way of thinking; The West is a devil and Muslims are angels. Well, I wish, I can say so, but I cannot. I do not classify people in boxes. I am just trying to articulate what I hear and experience.
In discussing relationship discourse, power structure of the society must be taken into account. Those who blame Muslim communities of not integrating, preferring to live in ghettos, lacking professional qualifications, having primitive traditions and worst of all, wishing to Islamicise the West, very conveniently forget that minorities do not have the luxury of rejecting the norms of the society they live in.
A non-European, non-Anglo-Saxon person, especially one with a Muslim background, in today’s Europe is dependent on the majority society, for socio-economic well being, a good neighbourly relationship, legal protection and most important of all, the sense of being part of the surroundings.
Just take the case of the so-called ethnic ghettos. Power structure in the western societies is such that one has to ask for an accommodation from a housing society, a council or communal authority that normally send minorities to those areas, which are already overcrowded with socially deprived people. So, one integrates with those who are close to you. One has to apply for a job and without a network, jobs are not found. One’s foreign or Muslim sounding name is a guarantee for rejection in spite of good education and qualification.
Socialisation in the society is difficult when even minority youth with a command of local language and even good looks, cannot come in a club or a disco to meet like minded and same age people. The ethnic youth are trying to integrate but face disappointments. Who is there to console their broken wishes and give them hope? Maybe police, social authorities or even parents can listen to their complaints, but none understands the wounds, these youngsters carry on their soul.
As far as the so-called primitive traditions and middle age mentality of the Muslims is concerned, these are not inherited, and signs are that manners and lifestyles are changing fast. Here Muslims need appreciation of their efforts, support for their small steps and not demonising and hurling of daily insults.
Making disparaging remarks about Muslims, insulting their Prophet in the name of freedom of expression, calling their Holy Quran, a demon’s work and topping it all, by demanding a total loyalty and submission to Western cultures without questioning is a sure recipe for disaster.
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhism made a beautiful observation about the relationship between Islam and the West. A few years back, he participated in a TV programme, hosted by BBC World Service, with other Noble laureates. In response to the presenter Zaneb Badawi’s assertion that terrorism is a Muslim phenomenon, the Dalai Lama responded;
“Lately, I as a Buddhist Monk have become the defender of Islam. I know personally many very good, kind hearted and sensible Muslim people. There are few mischievous among Muslims but so are such people in the case of Christianity and Buddhism and among the Hindus and Jews. There is some kind of a created impression that Muslims are more militants. This is dangerous”.
But this impression, Dalai Lama was and still is concerned about is, mainly created and nurtured by most of the selfish mainstream media. Instead of living up to its public responsibility of being a neutral news distributor and opinion maker, it deliberately chose to be a manipulator of information. It is done to make money, gain power and in the end be a mouthpiece of rightwing politicians.
So, what can be done
There is a great need of media centres, research institutes and publications run by Muslim experts and academics. It would help to reach the common man in the West and provide necessary information about the importance of the Muslim World, its glorious cultures, Islam as peaceful religion, diverse lifestyles, vibrant societies and most of all, the desires of the Muslim masses to live a decent life. True knowledge of Muslim people’s situation will create a sense of understanding between different Muslim minorities living in the West and the Western majorities as a whole.
Countries with large Muslim populations and wealth can help those institutions that are willing to take up this challenge. After all, many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia have invested heavily in the building of mosques and cultural centres in different countries in the west.
Why not provide financial assistance to utilise local Muslim expertise? Many religious leaders have very little understanding of the challenges Muslim communities’ face in the West. Leading prayers, teaching Quran, performing wedding blessings and speaking at funerals is not enough. Young Muslims need role models, they can be proud of, can bounce their ideas with, and get inspiration from.
The Muslim World – if such an entity still exists – needs to provide professional responses to negative propaganda being waged against Islam from the Western politicians, religious leadership and the media. Violence, threats and burning of flags gives more ammunition to the Islamophobic forces and proves their initial assertion that Muslims are intolerant.
Why give them this satisfaction? Why not prove to them that their misguided opinions are based on ignorance of the facts!