Large parts of the non-Muslim world continue to associate Islam with terror
Everyone is praising Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. Her unequivocal condemnation of the dastardly act of the Australian white supremacist that killed 49 Muslims in Christchurch on March 15 has been unanimously lauded.
Calling it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” she told the world that: “We were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism.
We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values ... [which] I can assure you, will not, and cannot, be shaken by this attack.”
To comfort the psychologically battered Muslims, she ordered a nationwide broadcast of the Azaan the following Friday (March 22) led by Imam Gamal Fouda. She participated in the prayer with her head draped by a black scarf. She referred to Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) saying: “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain. New Zealand mourns with you; we are one.”
But is Christchurch going to be the last of such madness? Is Islamophobia not a veritable reality? Although everyone knows that terrorism is not the monopoly of the Muslims, why, in large parts of the non-Muslim world, are they alone seen as its vehicle? These questions beg answers.
Religion-centric conflicts are not new. The Crusades (11th-13th centuries) were long enough to sow the seeds of the Christian-Muslim race for supremacy. In its recent phase, the mutual doubt can be traced to the American hostage crisis of 1978 in which it was the Iranian clergy that had provided the anti-American leadership.
Had it been secular, probably the meaning of the resistance would have been different. This event, soon brewed with the American victory in the Cold War (1990), seemed to make the job easy for the US to explain that the danger to the world order now on emanated from Islamism. Although the story was complex, it was simplified for the world through such notions as End of History (Francis Fukuyama), OWL (Order, Welfare and Legitimacy theory of Edward Kolodziej), and Clash of Civilizations (Samuel Huntington).
The connection appealed to the non-Christian non-Islamic world, which had its own reasons to subscribe to the idea. The Chinese found it handy to promote its Hanification project by othering the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. For the Hindu nationalists in India who had a long history of anti-Muslimism, it was a shot in the arm.
Even some Buddhist nations which had a sizeable Muslim presence used it as a tool to justify their undemocratic highhandedness. Western intellectualism, with its traditional base in the developing world, had little difficulty in spreading the fear. The 9/11 incident completed the task.
What came first, anti-Islamism or Islamic terrorism, is one of those chicken and egg stories that can never be answered, because every history has its own history. In the present context, let us at least know for certain that Christchurch was not a lone wolf affair.
The day it happened, Fraser Anning, a senator from Queensland, said unequivocally: “What it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence ... Muslims may have been the victims today, [but] usually they are the perpetrators ... The truth is that Islam is not like any other faith. It is the religious equivalent of fascism.”
Is it not surprising that no one ever meets a non-Christian white supremacist, yet he is not a Christian terrorist. Likewise, it is never an Arab, Syrian, or Nigerian terrorist, he is always an Islamic terrorist. This raises the question as to why it is so, and from the answer one probably gets an explanation, partially though, to what this Islamophobia is, and why it is so pervasive across the non-Muslim world.
We just explained how the West has popularized it. Let us see now how Muslim attitudes could also be a contributing factor. Certain Islamic norms and practices, which are essentially insular, private, and harmless, inadvertently encourage animosity for the Muslims at large.
They insist on halal meat even in non-Muslim countries, their mosque sermons are often loaded with political messaging, they prefer Islamic vis-à-vis secular schooling in many Western societies, their schoolgirls insist on wearing the hijab (recall the controversy in France), they violently react to any kind of joke on their religion which is common with other religions, they, in most cases, insist that non-Muslims marrying Muslims must convert to Islam, and so on. These things do earn for them the notoriety of being fanatic.
In short, it is a bad time for the world which is increasingly getting polarized on sectarian lines. Such UN initiatives like Alliance of Civilizations (2005) meant to find the roots of cultural polarization hold little promise for the simple reason that instead of being inspired by major nations like the US or China which really matter, it was sponsored by Spain and Turkey. No wonder that after 14 years, hardly anybody talks about it, though it has many signatories.
In the absence of any concrete action, let us do what we always do best, express some nice sentiments. After 9/11, it was for Le Monde to say: “Today, we are all Americans.” Now the world says: “We are all New Zealanders.”
Partha S Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.