On March 15, 2019, when a horrendous attack by a white Australian supremacist left 50 Muslims dead in a mosque in New Zealand, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, fired a series of tweets against Islamophobia. Interestingly, in Pakistan, the tweets received some rather mixed responses. Many accused him of exhibiting “outright hypocrisy” while others were more tongue-in-cheek in their response, pointing out that it was ironic that a PM of a country where religious and sectarian minorities are constantly attacked by radical Islamist outfits, should be lamenting the state of Islamophobia in the West.
Indeed, there is always much irony in Muslim states that overtly criticise Islamophobia while doing precious little to address the persecution of minority faiths or sects in their own realms. Therefore, a prominent Muslim (or for that matter, any Muslim) should be very careful in his or her criticism of Islamophobia. If their laments are to be taken seriously, without sounding so obviously contradictory, then they should be well informed about the inherent contradictions that these laments carry. The wording of their criticism of Islamophobia should thus be a more measured exercise.
PM Khan should have observed how Pakistan’s military establishment has been wording its responses in this context. Ever since 2015 — when the military initiated a widespread operation against militant outfits — it condemns violence against Muslims elsewhere, but it always attaches a reminder to it that Pakistan has fought a vicious war against religious terrorism and won. This somewhat neutralises the contradictions that emerge when a country with a history of sectarian bloodshed and violence against minorities wags a finger at a country guilty of exhibiting Islamophobia. Because when this question does arise, it is countered by the reminder that Pakistan is actually doing something about it.
Islamophobia appears to be a handy tool for populist politicians to make Muslims scapegoats for the economic or cultural decline in the West
But PM Khan went slightly off the rails in his tweeted outrage against Islamophobia. He failed to balance his critique by also confessing that Pakistan too has a problem of religiously-motivated violence but one that it is trying seriously to address. But then, when he was in opposition, Khan and his party had actually opposed any serious action against religious militancy. Yet, it is also true that the complex reality of being in power is gradually transforming his views. So one now expects him to be a bit more aware when commenting on the violence unleashed by white supremacists (or Hindutva nationalists) against Muslims.
But what really is Islamophobia? This question needs to be answered in a more thorough manner, especially by the Muslims themselves if they are to critique it without sounding contradictory. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Islamophobia is an ‘intense dislike or fear of Islam.’ In an article in the October 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Tanya Basu writes that the term was derived by the French word, ‘Islamophobie.’ It was first coined by French author Alain Quellien in 1910 to criticise the behaviour of French colonial administrators towards their Muslim subjects.
In her essay for the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, L.P. Sheridan writes that the term’s first known usage in English appeared some 90 years later in 1991. It then made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1997. This suggests that Islamophobia, as it is understood today, is a recent development. Professor Emeritus Bichara Khader, in his essay for the 2016 anthology The Search for Europe, writes that Islamophobia in Europe and the US is often linked to migrants from Muslim countries that are seen as a threat to Western culture and security.
He questions this assumption by adding that migration was not an issue at all in the West till the early 1970s, after thousands of Muslims from South Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa began arriving in various European cities from the 1950s onward. They were looking for work and higher wages. Khader writes that, as post-war economies boomed in Europe, these migrants were seen as being vital contributors to this boom. He adds that it was only when the economies of Europe began to recede — especially after the 1973 oil crisis — the term ‘migration problem’ came into play.
Yet, it was never linked to a ‘Muslim problem’ as it is today. Khader says that during the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s — which saw riots involving migrants and locals, especially in France and England — these were explained as ‘race riots’ and also included migrants from the Caribbean islands and non-Muslim Indians. The reasons were economic. Neo-fascist outfits accused their governments of allowing non-white migrants to steal ‘white jobs.’ It really wasn’t a clash of cultures as such. Or not yet. According to Khader, till the early 1980s, Muslim migrants were not very public or exhibitionistic about their faith. For example, they were happy with a few basement mosques.
Once settled, Muslim migrants began to marry women from their own countries and then brought them to Europe — even though it wasn’t uncommon for some to marry European women as well. Khader writes that most of the women who came as wives were from rural and semi-rural areas of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, etc. This development changed the settlers’ attitude towards their religion and cultural values. Whereas once they were fine with their small ‘basement mosques’, now they began to demand proper mosques.
The change in behaviour attracted preachers who began to set up shop in various European cities. They were particularly appealing to second generation migrants, especially from families who had failed to be fully integrated by European integration policies. Khader writes that, as the presence of veiled women and mosques grew, this is when the ‘migration problem’ began to be seen as a ‘Muslim problem’, triggering Islamophobia.
Authors such as Khader and George Morgan in (Muslims and Moral Panic in the West) agree that the more outward exhibition of ‘Muslimness’ in the West did contribute in the making of the above- mentioned scenario. Nevertheless, they are of the view that Islamophobia is still largely a construct of populist right-wing parties. Khader writes that there are 23 million Muslims in Europe. This means they are just five percent of Europe’s total population. Thus, Islamophobia has become a tool for populist politicians to describe Muslims as the ‘other’ and the ones to blame for the economic or cultural decline of a Western country.