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Islamophobia: Do Two Wrongs Make A Right?15 Sep 2019
In his winning submission to the 2019 U@live–NUS Essay Competition titled “Islamophobia: Do Two Wrongs Make a Right,” MEI Research Assistant Fadhil Yunus Alsagoff discusses the sloppy use of terminology and definitions in the discourse surrounding terrorism, Muslims, and the religion of Islam. He argues that analysing the way these definitions and terminology have been used reveals hidden biases pitted against Muslims and Islam, and fails to portray an accurate picture of the religion and its followers.
By Fadhil Yunus Alsagoff
A fundamental issue with this debate involves the sloppy use of terminology and the ambiguous ways in which we define terms. It is absolutely necessary to address this issue at the onset as it frames the contents and arguments of the discussion. In this sense, the problem is largely one of labelling. I intend to show this by unpacking the terminology and critiquing the definitions provided in this essay question and its description. In doing so, I aim to reveal hidden biases pitted against Islam and Muslims that exacerbate rather than alleviate the real issues at hand. The first two segments are dedicated to critiquing the use of the term “Islamic radicalism”, and the third segment, to critiquing the provided definition of “Islamophobia”. I also suggest alternative terms and definitions that more accurately encapsulate the phenomena being discussed and could consequently be employed for clearer and more focused discussions.
First is the use of the term “Islamic radicalism.” The legitimacy of the term “Islamic” has been debated extensively in academic and political discourse concerning terrorism, and there is a global, consensus that the term is problematic as it implies a fundamental link between Islam and acts of hatred and violence. Former Presidents George Bush and Tony Blair have repeatedly stressed that the war against terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, that Islam is a religion of peace,1 and Barack Obama was explicit in his refusal to use the term Islamic terrorism, so as “to make sure that we do not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world”2. Even President Donald Trump, notorious for anti-Muslim sentiments, retracted his use of the term Islamic, explaining it as a slip-up and stating that he meant to say Islamist.3 Islamist, on the other hand, receives a much wider acceptance, though some have resisted its use as well.4 Unlike using Islamic, using it takes focus away from the religion and rightfully directs it to political ideologies that draw legitimacy by employing the use of Islamic language. It must be noted that not all Islamists accept and employ the use of violence; Islamists are adherents of movements or ideologies that seek to bring to power an Islamic form of governance, by means that could include peaceful democratic processes, an example being the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia. If we agree on using the term “Islamist” in place of “Islamic”, next is the term “radicalism”, another loaded term that requires unpacking. The terms “radical” and “radicalism” have a long history in Western political thought and gained traction around the 19th century in Europe to refer, ironically, to non-violent liberal democratic reformist movements.5 “Radicalization”, however, is a new term that only began appearing after the year 2000, and has yet to be adequately defined.6 The latter was, and remains today, used loosely to refer to the transformation process of Muslims specifically, into terrorists. This reveals an insidious assumption built into the term “Islamic radicalism”; that if radicalism is “Islamic”, it must be violent, while the same does not necessarily apply to other reformist movements. Indeed, Magnus Wennerhag, in his account of radical movements in contemporary Europe, stated “We therefore do not equate radicalism with the use of political violence… as one can also find many examples of radical groups that have regarded non-violent actions as both morally justifiable and more efficient.”7 A favourable alternative that encapsulates the meanings of exclusivism, hatred, and violence, would be “extremism.” According to the European Institute of Peace, “extremists accept violence as a legitimate means for obtaining political goals.”8 Put together, we have the term “Islamist extremism,” which means an orientation that justifies the use of violence to achieve the goals of political ideologies that draw legitimacy by using Islamic vocabulary.
Finally, Islamophobia refers not merely to the fear, hatred and discrimination towards Islam and Muslims. Rather, it is an irrational (as embodied in the word phobia) fear based on distorted representations of Islam or Muslims without any correspondence to real Muslims. What if one asks, who or what is a real Muslim? The scope of this essay prohibits answering such a question adequately, but simply said, a “real” Muslim is closer in essence to the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims than the anomalous cases of terrorists we see incessantly in the media. This brings to mind Edward Said’s Orientalism, and it comes as no surprise that numerous scholars have identified this misrepresentation of Muslims as its contemporary manifestation.9 It is the extremity and irrationality of this fear that leads actors to acts of hatred and violence against Muslims. Stressing that the fear is irrational and that it is directed towards distorted representations of Islam and Muslims goes a long way in removing the notion that the fear is justifiable. This allows us to dig deeper into the real problem of Islamophobia, that is, the distorted representations of Muslims, rather than be distracted by problematising Muslims and Islam.
Usage of terminology is no petty matter. It frames the way we approach discussion. Sloppy usage of terminology confuses rather than clarifies, which in turn leads to the implementation of inefficient and sometimes counter-productive measures. Moreover, as I hope to have shown, paying close attention to it reveals hidden biases that have crept into and blurred our perceptions, in this case, of Muslims and Islam. In many ways, then, the issue is one of labelling, and we must be vigilant in ensuring the veracity of the terms, definitions, and concepts we use, particularly regarding sensitive issues concerning religion, especially so in multi-religious Singapore.
1 Shmuel, “The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism,” Retrieved from https://www.hoover.org/research/religious-sources-islamic-terrorism
2 Diaz, “Obama: Why I won’t Say ‘Islamic Terrorism,’” Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/28/politics/obama-radical-islamic-terrorism-cnn-town-hall/index.html
3 Aleem, “Why Trump’s Subtle Mistake During His Important Islam Speech is so Revealing.” Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/5/22/15674392/trump-speech-islamic-islamist-saudi
4 This includes Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, and the respected academic of Islam Bruce Lawrence.
5 See Taylor, The Decline of British Radicalism, 1847-1860.
6 See Jonathan Githens-Mazer’s The Rhetoric and Reality: Radicalization and Political Discourse. Sage Publications, Ltd: International Political Science Review, Vol. 33, No. 5. Pp. 556-567
7 Wennerhag, Radical Left Movements in Europe, pg. 5.
8 The Europe Institute of Peace, “EIP Explainer: Understanding Radicalisation.” Retrieved from http://www.eip.org/en/news-events/eip-explainer-understanding-radicalisation
9 An example would be “A Critique of Western Representations of ISIS: Deconstructing Contemporary Orientalism” by Noah Raffoul Bassil.
Aleem, Zeeshan. (2017). “Why Trump’s Subtle Mistake During His Important Islam Speech is so Revealing.” Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/5/22/15674392/trump-speech-islamic-islamist-saudi
Bar, Shmuel. (2004). “The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism.” Hoover Institution: Policy Review. Retrieved from https://www.hoover.org/research/religious-sources-islamic- terrorism
Bassil, Noah Raffoul. (2019). “A Critique of Western Representations of ISIS: Deconstructing Contemporary Orientalism,” Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 31, No. 1, 81–94 https://doi.org/10.1080/14781158.2018.1481828
Daniella Diaz. (2016). “Obama: Why I Won’t Say ‘Islamic Terrorism’”. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/28/politics/obama-radical-islamic-terrorism-cnn-town- hall/
Jonathan, Githens-Mazer. (2012). “The Rhetoric and Reality: Radicalization and Political Discourse.” Sage Publications, Ltd: International Political Science Review, Vol. 33, No. 5, 556- 567
Taylor, Miles. (1995).“The Decline of British Radicalism, 1847-1860,” Oxford: Clarendon.
The Europe Institute of Peace. “EIP Explainer: Understanding Radicalization.” Retrieved from http://www.eip.org/en/news-events/eip-explainer-understanding-radicalisation
Wennerhag, Magnus, Frohlich, Christian, and Piotrowski, Grzegorz. (2017). “Radical Left Movements in Europe,” London: Routledge.
His essay was also translated into Bahasa Melayu by Berita Harian. Read the full translation here.
Image caption: A Quran in a prayer room. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/ AFP.