Essentializing Islam will not stop Islamophobia

Niqab Photo 2

( A woman wearing Niqab in France- Via AFP)

The cynical glee with which the Western media publicly flaunts — and generalizes — the practice of Islamic customs has become a disturbing pattern. The Hijab, Nigab, and Burkini have now become synonymous with Muslims, a perception that not just narrows the much more diverse reality of Muslims in Western countries, but reinforces a dangerous perception that all Muslims are a homogenous community; that they are all conservative; that all of them are Hijabi, Niqabi, or pro-Burkini. Such media misrepresentation is a dangerous farce that will only encourage Islamophobia, not defeat it, in non-Muslim societies.

The toxic debate about the Burkini ban on some French beaches was painful to watch — a zero-sum narrative on an empty stage that served only to deepen the divide between supporters and opponents of the ban.

Meanwhile, as the simmering outrage over France’s Burkini ban continues, history has been made in Denmark, where two female imams, including a non-Hijabi Danish woman, Sherin Khankan, led Friday prayers for the first time recently. This news from Denmark, however, has not attracted much attention, compared to the global fury unleashed by France’s Burkini ban, which the country’s highest administrative court subsequently suspended.

In America, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim woman from New Jersey, won a bronze Olympic medal in fencing. Ibtihaj was not the only Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal. Another black Muslim American woman, Dalilah Muhammad, won the gold medal in the women’s 400 m hurdles, albeit with a rather muted celebration of her achievement.

Ibitihaj’s achievement was celebrated roundly, and hailed by politicians and commentators globally, not only for the sporting honors she gained for her country, but also because she became the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing an Islamic headscarf (Hijab). Dalilah Muhammad’s gold medal was another superb achievement from a black Muslim woman. However, the media — and some members of the public at large — did not consider her achievement, as newsworthy as that of her Olympic colleague because she is a non-Hijabi woman.

Another sportswoman, Egyptian Doaa Elghobashi, made more headlines than Egypt’s synchronized swimming team by wearing a Hijab during the Olympic beach volleyball contest, while most of the other girls on the team are also Muslims.

One cannot help notice how Muslims have become the frontline for public scrutiny in a subtle, albeit intense fight in an increasingly divided Western world. A closer look at the political landscape in Europe and America makes it easy to spot two major opposite camps: the red and the blue camps. While the red one is raising the alarm about radical Islam and the lack of integration within some in Muslim communities, the blue camp plays the cool progressive by courting conservative Islamist Muslims and portraying them as mainstream Islam. Within this battle, there are other skirmishes: there’s the one mentioned above to ban Burkinis on some French beaches and another to ban the Niqab in a part of Switzerland. And while Olympic bronze medals in general are now a thing of the past, people are still talking about the Hijabi bronze.

Muslims’ attitudes towards divisive trends have also been disturbing. In fact, Muslims are divided between those who immediately adopt a reflexive defensive attitude in justifying practices such as wearing the Niqab, even if they do not agree with it on a personal level. On the other hand, other Muslims quietly agree with the bans on the Niqab and Burkini, but refrain from saying it loudly for fear of looking as if they are betraying their community.

As a result, slowly, but surely, Islam has been essentialized into a religion that is at best benignly conservative, and at worse, rigidly radical. Both the red and blue camp are using the Hijab, Niqab, and Burkini as weapons in their battles, enforcing consciously or sub-consciously the narrative of political Islam, which wrongly portrays itself as the most authentic model of Islam. Yes, the ban on the Burkini has been suspended, but it has left behind an unhealed and divided landscape.

That is neither healthy for the Western world nor for the Muslim communities in the West. In fact, it is profoundly disturbing.

It is indeed great to see Hijabi Muslim women celebrated for their achievements, and Burkini-wearing Muslims defended against an unjust ban, but we should also accept the right of others, including many Muslims, to voice disdain about the Niqab or Burkini. Freedom of expression goes both ways. Expecting that conservative Islam will be loved and embraced by all native Europeans is simply naïve; forcing respect for regressive Islamic patterns on traditional Western communities can be perceived as provocative.

Moreover, while defending freedom, it is crucial not to be an advocate of illiberal multiculturalism, in which Islamist Muslims can demand respect and understanding for their conservative, often illiberal attitudes, while non-Muslims’ illiberalism is damned as sick and unacceptable. It is infantilizing and reductive to portray Muslims as a collective bunch of victims who need more protection and less scrutiny. The notion that Islam is exceptional, and not necessarily liberal, has gained a sympathetic ear from the same people who were outraged at France for its illiberal ban on the Burkini. This hypocritical notion is not just untrue, it will ignite more resentment and anger among many non-Muslims.

The Western world needs a centrist approach to its Muslim communities that acknowledges and highlights their diversity, maintains the rights of conservative Muslims, and addresses the fears (even irrational ones) of local communities. The best way to fight Islamophobia is to show sympathy for local anxieties, celebrate and support Islamic diversity, and encourage liberal Muslims’ voices. Reductive emotional outrage, however, will never be part of the solution.





About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
This entry was posted in Islam, Middle East, Politics, women rights and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Essentializing Islam will not stop Islamophobia

  1. dm says:

    Islam is exceptional among world religions, just as you are exceptional among Muslims. That’s just reality. Refusal to accept that reality does not make you liberal; it makes you delusional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nervana111 says:

      Why the “you”? It is not me who advocated Islam exceptionalism, I am totally against it that is why I wrote this piece!


      • dm says:

        What I mean is this: There are so few liberal Muslims like you, thus you are exceptional, and by “exceptional” I mean both in the essential and numerical senses. Just as you are different — and thus, exceptional — from the vast majority of Muslims, so too is Islam different — and thus, exceptional — from other world religions. The fact is, Islam is structurally resistant to change. It’s not as if we hadn’t given it enough time to modernise. It’s been at least two centuries since it was exposed to the Enlightenment and yet here we are, in 2016, still wrangling over the veil ( Needless to say, I do not like it, either. But that does not give me the right to ignore the reality that with regard to virtually everything there is, the conservative Muslim position is the mainstream position throughout history. The veil, for instance, has never been disputed with regard to its obligation until late modernity. And that, whether we like it or not — and I really, really do not like it — is just fact.


  2. nervana111 says:

    With respect, i completely disagree. There millions of Iranian women who resist veil on daily basis. The veil was not accepted for the first 70 years of the 20th century. I have photos of Azhar scholars with their wives not wearing veils, despite there was no formal ban of veil in Egypt ( unlike Turkey). It is not that simple. You are believing the Islamist propaganda. In the piece, I cited 3 major examples from Denmark, America and Egypt, of liberal Muslims, but you clearly opt to ignore them!


    • dm says:

      I fail to see how that invalidates my point. You are aware that late modernity began in the mid-18th century, right? In any case, one century of resistance proves my point about exceptionalism: the other thirteen centuries = rule.


      • nervana111 says:

        You insist that I am exceptional while ignoring other glaring examples. Then you link resistance with exceptionalism as if they are synonymous. they are NOT. It is oversimplification. You are acting as a propaganda machine to both radicals and Islamophobe, enjoy..


  3. dm says:

    Goodness gracious, when did I do that? Add all those “glaring examples” together and still, all of you make only a tiny minority compared with the hundreds of millions of Muslim women who wear the veil. Resistance IS exceptionalism. Black Lives Matter, for instance, IS exceptional because the rule is they don’t matter. GET IT YET?


  4. nervana111 says:

    I will not dignify that nonsense with a response. You responded to my piece and I published yours. ” Get it Yet” is really hilariously sad..


    • dm says:

      Well, that’s funny. I teach a class of two hundred college students, and I’ll be sure to use this exchange of ours in my very next lecture. It’s always fun to have a real life morality tale at hand, especially when you’re teaching Islamic studies. Have a lovely day!


  5. nervana111 says:

    I feel sorry for your “200” students. Enjoy telling them about your exchange with this inferior dumb Muslim who failed to “get your supreme divine views” and prepare an exceptional song to sing on how blurring the difference between exceptional and resistance is so sexy these days..


  6. yaamatullah says:

    Isn’t referring to a Muslim woman as a non-Hijabi doing exactly what you’re preaching against?


  7. Don Weingarten says:

    Missing from your account of the accomplishment of hijab wearing Ibtihaj Muhammad is that she used her time in the spotlight to display her anti American, anti Israel and anti Jewish prejudices. This was her choice, not the choice of news reporters.

    On the other hand,the view of Islam as monolithic is propagated most in the US by defenders such as Kerry, who apparently knows exactly zero about Muslim jurisprudence, and informs us that Islam is a religion of peace with which ISIS has no connection. If anyone were to mention to him ISIS roots in Hanibali tradition he clearly would have no idea what is being said.

    I have boundless respect for you Nervana. But in my opinion this article of yours leaves out much.


    • nervana111 says:

      Many thanks Don for your comment. I think you are missing the context of this article, which is about media coverage, not individual opinions. The choice of reporters, in my views, is to link an achievement in sports with hijab, as if covering hair can make someone a better player or a unique player. That is my point. As for kerry, I completely agree.


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  9. Amir Atiya says:

    Excellent article. In the US the Obama administration talks only
    to these radical Islamists that live in the US, and ignores the
    95 % secular but wonderful Muslims that live in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

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