Muslims have been at the receiving end of western aggression long before the events of 911 that the west has used to justify its wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim countries.
Several articles in this issue of Crescent International discuss the problems faced by Muslims living in western countries, particularly since the launching of the “war on terror” after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Despite all the protestations of Western politicians and others that their problem is not with Islam or Muslims per se, the reality is that Muslims in western countries are increasingly under attack because of their faith, not only from marginal and irrelevant extremists but also from government agencies and mainstream politicians and commentators. These attacks take many forms, from the political persecution of Islamist activists to the routine misrepresentation, disparagement and contempt for such fundamental and commonplace Islamic practices as hijab and halal meat. The current controversy in the US over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is just the latest of so many such Islamophobic hysterias, which in different western countries are becoming routine and hardly remarkable.
Muslims in western countries have of course a huge range of very different experiences, depending on where they are, the particular situations in their countries, how they choose to understand and express their Islam, their socio-economic conditions, and a myriad of other circumstantial factors; and their responses to the difficult situation they face are also many and varied. Some simply accept the problems they encounter as a sign of the times, and even place the main blame for them on other Muslims rather than anyone else; others feel besieged and are barely able to remain in the only homelands they know. What virtually all have in common is an awareness of the rising tide of Islamophobia they face, however they may perceive it and try to cope with it.
For me, this is a phenomenon that I view through the experience of a life spent in Islamic movement activism in Britain, and the perspective of a student not only of current affairs but of history. More immediately, I have been working at the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London, much of whose work consists of helping victims of this Islamophobia, whether they are political prisoners detained without charge in Britain or Muslim girls deprived of an education because of restrictions on wearing hijab in schools. The result of this perspective is to recognise this rising Islamophobia not only as a result of the war on terror, but as something much older and much more deeply rooted in history, Western culture and even perhaps folk memories.
As a student in the 1980s, I remember studying the interactions of Western imperialism and Muslim societies in the colonial period, and arguing with fellow students — in the contexts of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Afghan jihad and the first intifadah in Palestine, among other things — that the fundamental elements of that historic process remained central to contemporary history. I also argued that the position of Muslims in western countries would inevitably be defined by the parameters of this broader, global dynamic, a point that was graphically illustrated by the eruption of the Rushdie controversy just months before I graduated. Some friends who then regarded me as unduly pessimistic, even fatalistic, now recognise that events of the subsequent two decades have proved my point. (I claim no particular insight for that; as a son of Kalim Siddiqui, himself also a student of history, I was in a uniquely ideal position to recognise this reality, even as so many others escaped me.)
There is a tendency now, on the part of both some Muslims and some non-Muslims, to trace all the problems between the West and Muslims back to 9/11, as though everything was fine until then. That is a sort of historical amnesia that takes many forms, from the constant American justification for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — that the Muslims hit them first, and they are only defending themselves — to the spectre of the “clash of civilizations”, used as a threat hovering over Muslims: behave, be good, civilized, moderate, submissive, otherwise we really could end up with an all-out civilizational confrontation, which nobody wants, do they?
The reality is that, below the many different kinds and levels of encounters between Western and Muslim societies and institutions in modern history, there has always been an underlying tension, often a conflict, between Islam and the West broadly defined. In one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, Westerners and Western institutions have always approached the Muslim world from a position of power and hegemony; and Muslims have always been on the defensive and naturally resistant to what they have rightly seen as implicit or explicit condescension, contempt or hostility towards them, their faith and their cultures. In a sense both can rightly blame the other for the problem: Muslims say of course that if the West was less aggressive, less arrogant, less greedy, and less controlling, there would be no need to resist it; while Westerners argue that if Muslims just accepted the facts of history, the triumph of the modern West, and their place in the new, global world order, history could proceed more smoothly for everyone. Both are right from their own perspective; but the perspectives are irreconcilable and so the clashes inevitable.
That is where we are today, as we have been for decades and even centuries past. The “clash of civilizations” between the spheres of Islam and the West is not a risk, it is a fact driven first and foremost by the Western determination to establish its hegemony over the whole world and all within it. The increasing conflict of recent years reflects the increasing confidence and successes of Islamic resistance movements in Muslim countries, thereby provoking the Western powers to ever more brutal strategies to protect their interests. Neither side can expect outright victory in the foreseeable future and so the struggle is bound to continue, albeit with changes of focus and variations in intensity over future decades as we have seen over recent ones.
This is the inescapable context which will continue to shape the situation of Muslim communities in the West. The spread of Muslims and Islam all over the world is a factor of globalization, which itself is a function of Western power. The establishment in recent decades of Muslim communities in every western country, mainly as a result of economic migration, is, paradoxically, a result of our historic weakness. As the conflict between the West and Islam escalates, as it is bound to do, the problems these communities now face are bound to increase as well. It would not be invalid to draw parallels between our situation in European, American and other western countries now, as minorities identified with a hostile enemy, and the situations of Muslims left in Andalucia when the Christians took over, or in southeastern Europe after the defeat of the Ottomans.
Stating that is not intended to be defeatist or fatalistic; there are many ways we can respond to this situation, positive and negative, which this is not the occasion to discuss. There are opportunities as well as dangers in the situation in which we find ourselves. But recognising the broader historical context that defines the situation in which we find ourselves is the essential starting point to understanding the nature and scale of challenges facing us and to planning strategies to overcome them, rather than simply responding to individual problems as and when they arise.
This column is a reprint of the original that Crescent International ran in its September 2010 issue. It is still relevant to the adjustment problems experienced by Muslims living in western countries.