Friday, September 28, 2007

Exposing the West's racist ignorance about Islam


VIEW: Questioning history —Farish A Noor

It would be farcical to claim that the European Enlightenment was merely an auto-generated case of isolated genius, for we all know that European civilisation developed by interaction with Muslim civilisation; as did Muslim civilisation develop in relation with and to the Chinese, Indian and Persian civilisations

It is interesting to reflect on the asinine times we live in, particularly if like me, you are involved in that nebulous thing called ‘inter-cultural dialogue’. Over the past four weeks, I have been engaged in numerous rounds of dialogues between Western Europeans and Muslim migrant communities in Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin; and in every single one of these encounters, I came across stereotypes of Muslims and Islam that were so shallow and puerile that I am almost embarrassed to recount them here. Worst still, these pedestrian musings on Islam and Muslims were not the offerings of everyday punters, but those who claimed to be well-known and admired scholars and historians.

In one of these exchanges, I was told the following: that “Islam is a fascist, woman-hating, Christian-killing, gay-bashing macho male ideology of hatred that was built on fourteen centuries of conquest and bloodshed, murder and rape. That is why there cannot be integration of Muslims into Europe, because the Muslims that we have here are the savages of the Arab world who are barbaric, violent and brutal. They do not believe in reason and the Enlightenment and Islamic civilisation has not produced anything scientific, rational or humane.” Try substituting the word ‘Muslim’ for ‘blacks’ and one would see how far-fetched and racist such claims really are.

Now why is it that whenever we speak of Islam and Muslims today, some of us think they have the license to drop their IQ level by a hundred points or so? Is discussion on Islam a license to say anything dumb, offensive and provocative just for the sake of riling up the masses and grabbing a few headlines? A politician in Holland has even stated that there should be a ban on any reading of the Quran, on the grounds that it can be compared to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Others claim that all Muslims are determined primarily by their religion which happens to be irrational, unscientific and anti-Enlightenment.

I was struck by the wilful blindness of these so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘rational’ Europeans themselves, and their inability to put things in relative perspective and to interrogate their own presuppositions about themselves. In my own work as an academic-activist, I have tried to deconstruct the grand narratives of official history, be it on the level of the state or religion. I am also aware of the fact that the writing of history is a contested process, and that more often than not the writing of history is done by the victors and not the defeated marginalised voices of any community. Is it a surprise then that the history of the West has been only a history of white, male, middle-class voices? Where is the history of women and women’s participation in politics, economics and nation-building? Only recently, with the advances made by feminist historiography and deconstructive history by the likes of Simon Schama, have we seen the writing of history that is inclusive, plural and popular.

Now the conscious historian will inform you that there were (and remain) counter-currents to such dominant grand narratives all along, both in the West and in the Muslim world (as there are liberal progressive counter-currents against orthodox conservative Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism.). Furthermore, all civilisations and cultures exist in relational terms and develop in relation with and to others: It would be farcical to claim that the European Enlightenment was merely an auto-generated case of isolated genius, for we all know that European civilisation developed by interaction with Muslim civilisation; as did Muslim civilisation develop in relation with and to the Chinese, Indian and Persian civilisations.

Of course today, Muslims the world over are hostage to a history that is determined either by ruling elites or their conservative lackeys such as the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. From the pens of these conservative sectarians, we get only a static account of Muslim history that is told from the point of view of kings, sultans and dictators — such as the history of Iraq that was written during the time of Saddam Hussein, or the skewered history of Arabia written by the pro-establishment Wahhabis. But here again, the question needs to be raised: how was this historical erasure made possible, and who were the agents behind such erasure? Unfortunately the finger of blame also points to the ‘enlightened’ West which regarded dictators like Saddam Hussein and the Saudi royal family as their strategic allies.

The rise of conservative, fundamentalist, sectarian and violent Islam was aided and abetted by Western states during the Cold War, leading to the rise of men like Saddam Hussein, the anti-Soviet Mujahideen and later the Taliban, who have done so much to destroy the plural legacy of the Muslim world. Yet today, Western liberals accuse Muslims of either having no history or a history of violence. Where is the enlightened spirit of auto-critique and self-awareness here? Surely liberals in the West should not be surprised to see the rise of fundamentalist Muslim regimes the world over when it has been their own Western governments that have supported those very anti-Christian, anti-women, anti-gay regimes in the first place; ostensibly for the sake of strategic alliances but fundamentally to safeguard the West’s much-needed supply of oil?

I am by no means excusing fundamentalist conservative Muslims here, for there are indeed right-wing Muslims who can only be described as fascist in the real sense of the word. But in the same way that Muslims today need to get out of their shell and stare reality in the face, so do Europeans who claim to be ever so enlightened and liberal. Europe’s Enlightenment project created not only its own discontents but also anomalies.

To suggest that every single European today is the product of this historical process would be so simplistic as to beggar belief, and borders on the ridiculous. For should that be the case, then perhaps we can ask how enlightened the Europeans were when they colonised Asia and Africa. Look at the world map and see how so many patches of the earth today — ranging from North America to Australia — are reminders of a colonial expansion that was motivated by irrational greed, irrational racism, irrational hatred for the Other, and not the values of reason or universal humanism. Tell me, was it Kant or Descartes who told the colonisers to invade and occupy Australia, and exterminate the aborigines of Tasmania and then hang their heads as trophies? Or skin the bodies of North American Indians to make boots and tobacco pouches? Where was the European Enlightenment then? Asleep?

Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

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