These days one often comes across the term “Islamophobia” to describe anti-Muslim sentiments and actions of individuals and of entire movements. The phenomenon so designated exists in America, but right now is much more in evidence in Europe. Of course the Islamist attacks in Paris on January 7, 2015, against the satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” and a kosher supermarket have encouraged vocal anti-Muslim movements, not only in France but across Western Europe—in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, even in the United Kingdom. These movements are generally allied with populist and anti-immigrant political parties on the right, like the Front National in France. Other movements are not so easily described as right-wing, such as Pegida, the acronym for its German name “European Patriots against the Islamization of the West”. Pegida has mobilized thousands of people in anti-Muslim demonstrations, first in Dresden, then in other cities mostly in eastern Germany. This movement has been described as an odd alliance between enraged but still respectable elements of the middle class, and tattoo-sporting motorcycle gangs and soccer hooligans.
The French writer Michel Houellebecq, until now best known for sado-masochistic novels, has now added literary panache (perhaps unwillingly) to the anti-Muslim animus by a novel entitled Soumission (“Submission”)—the title referring, not to a sexual preference, but to the general collaboration of French citizens with an Islamic party unexpectedly come into power through a quirk in the electoral system. Starting out with soothing words, the new government then slowly promoted a process of Islamic transformation of French society. The novel was (coincidentally, I assume) published on January 7, 2015, became a huge bestseller, and within weeks came out in a German translation.
The Islamic Monthly is a glossy publication, ably edited by Amina Chaudary, with its office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It must be well-funded; there is a list of donors, mostly family foundations with Muslim-sounding names. The intellectual level of the contributions is very good; there is no manifest sympathy with Jihadist ideas. In the fall-winter 2014 issue of TIM there is an interesting article by Daniel Tutt, self-described as an “ombudsman” for the journal. He gives an overview of Muslim efforts to oppose Islamophobia. He is critical of some of these efforts, which have tended to operate with a narrative of immigrant integration which does not quite fit the Muslim case. This criticism also applies to the campaigns against anti-Semitism by Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, which some writers have urged American Muslims to emulate. [There has been a phenomenal decline of anti-Semitism in the United States, but it is unclear how much of this is due to the activism of Jewish organizations. It is noteworthy that the Jewish population in the U.S. is about twice as large as the Muslim one, which lacks the economic and political clout of the Jewish community, and also lacks the built-in pro-Jewish bias of the powerful Evangelical Protestants.]
Tutt’s argument is concisely stated in the opening sentences of his article:
Islamophobia has done more to unite American Muslim activism under a common umbrella than perhaps any other social issue. Other activist issues, from immigration, to US foreign policy, to Palestine have paled in comparison to what the threat of Islamophobia has been able to achieve.
The reason for this is quite simple: Islamophobia affects all Muslims or people who look like Muslims—whether they come from the Middle East, or North Africa, or Pakistan, or Indonesia. Also, all Muslims have had personal experiences of anti-Muslim attitudes or have friends who have had such experiences—ranging from (rare) incidents of physical violence, to hostile remarks or looks, to discrimination in looking for jobs or housing. By contrast with personally experienced ones, other issues are abstract and are less emotionally charged. Middle-class Muslims have had relatively few problems with immigration and are no more preoccupied with U.S. foreign policy than other Americans, and no American Muslims have had to go through Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Varying with her class location, an American Muslim woman may get disapproving looks at her kerchief, or be taunted by rowdy teenagers as a camel driver.
The term “Islamophobia”, as used in current Muslim usage, refers to the negative attitudes of non-Muslims toward Muslims. This is generally a problem for Muslims living in the diaspora, who are afraid of what the non-Muslims do or might do to them. In Muslim-majority countries the fear is generally the reverse—the others are afraid of the Muslims. One can understand why Muslims are worried about anti-Muslim feelings and actions. But going on and on about Islamophobia may also be a convenient way of avoiding the central problem for Islam in the contemporary world: What has been and what should be the relation between Islam and modernity?
Let me make another point about the term “Islamophobia”. The word “phobia” in Greek simply means fear. But in modern languages it means, not just any kind of fear, but an irrational fear—being afraid of something that a rational person should not be afraid of. It seems to me that this psychiatric meaning might apply to a person who worries about shariah becoming the law of the land in Paris or in Peoria tomorrow. But try to make this psychiatric diagnosis of a Christian in Mosul or for that matter in Saudi Arabia, or of an American health worker of any faith in Taliban territory. Let us stipulate that most Muslims are not Jihadists, and that the latter have a distorted view of the religion whose sacred book begins every chapter with the words bismillah al-rahman al-rahim—“In the name of God who is compassionate, who acts compassionately”. Scholars of the Quran may explain that the term jihad commonly refers to spiritual struggle rather than combat with material weapons. But it is also a fact that throughout Muslim history the term was precisely applied to military conflict in the name of Islam, and that the huge Muslim world created within a century of Muhammad’s death, from Spain to the border of India, was conquered by the sword. This is why in Muslim tradition the world is divided into two realms, the dar ul-Islam (“the house of Islam”) and the dar ul-harb (“the house of war”), because the first realm must always be at war with the second (though occasionally interrupted, for pragmatic reasons, by periods of truce, hudna). Sad to say, there are perfectly rational reasons why, in different places and times, one might be afraid of Islam. [As at the time of the Inquisition it was rational for a Jew to be afraid of Christians.]
It seems to me that in looking at Islam today from the outside, one should aim for a middle position between two extremes. One extreme is represented by the position that, quite simply, “Islam is the enemy”. A good example of this is the Dutch politician Geert Wilders who started an openly anti-Muslim party that is now strongly represented in parliament. Among notable proposals of his was one stopping all immigration of Muslims and banning the Quran (just as the Netherlands had banned Hitler’s Mein Kampf). Another example would be Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman born in Somalia, who migrated to the Netherlands, where she briefly served in parliament, and now lives in the U.S. (after receiving credible death threats), and who has passionately denounced Islam in several publications. At the other extreme are those who openly or by implication deny that Islam has anything to do with the atrocities of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. President Obama can serve as a prime example. He carefully avoids reference to Islam or Muslims, only saying that we must oppose “terrorism” or “extremists”, without any adjectives. [Of course we all know about Methodist assassins and Presbyterian suicide bombers!] This denial of reality seems to be habitual to Obama, especially when he talks about the Middle East—Al Qaida is on the run, we have essentially won in Iraq, Yemen is an ally, Afghanistan is on the way toward a stable democracy. There are two possible interpretations of these denials of reality: that he says whatever he deems to be politically useful, knowing full well that he promotes a delusional picture of the world, or that he actually believes what he says, that he believes himself that the world is what he would like it to be. I don’t know which interpretation is more frightening.
As I have argued elsewhere, one of the benefits of pluralism for any religious tradition is that, because any particular tradition can no longer be simply taken for granted, a reflective believer must decide which elements of his tradition are a non-negotiable core of his faith, and which are the result of historical accidents that could be discarded without affecting the core of the faith. For example, a Christian may decide that the essential core of his faith is that, in Christ, God entered the world in a uniquely redemptive way, but that any particular miracle attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is not so essential. If a more profound encounter of Islam with modern thought is to occur, a similar exercise will be unavoidable. No one outside the umma, the community of Muslim believers, can engage in such an exercise; it must come from within the community. I tend to the view that modern historical scholarship can do for Islam what it did before for Christianity in differentiating core and periphery. Traditional Islamic scholarship knew of course that Quranic passages dating from the Mecca period in the Prophet’s life differ from those from the Medina period (which are more troubling for modern liberals), but Muslim orthodoxy has always held that every part of the Quran was dictated, in Arabic, to the Prophet by the angel Gabriel. Some time ago I wrote in a post for this blog that an old controversy can be surprisingly relevant to the question of the applicability of modern scholarship to the origins of Islam—the controversy as to whether the Quran is eternal or created. This is not the place to re-enter this fascinating but far from obscure matter. It would involve a re-thinking of Islamic faith far more fundamental than questions whether the criminal penalties of the sharia have to be literally followed or whether the Prophet had more than two wives.
I have the hunch that the Muslim diaspora in Europe and America could play an important part in this re-thinking process. An intriguing analogy occurs to me here: the role of the Russian diaspora in the re-thinking of Eastern Orthodoxy. After the Bolshevik revolution a group of Orthodox thinkers gathered around the Saint Serge theological seminary in Paris. It was an unusually lively and productive community. I have read some of their works (in English translations). It was a fairly large group, consisting of both priests and lay individuals. Probably the best known are Nikolai Berdyaev, Georges Florovsky and Alexander Schmemann. Some of them eventually settled in America and played an important role in the founding of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), still today the only Orthodox church without an ethnic self-definition in this country. There have been encounters between Orthodoxy, Western Christianity and modern thought before (in Russia and to a lesser extent in Greece), but, as far as I know, none were as creative as the Saint Serge community. Diasporas can bestow religious benefits.