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Why the West Fears Islam

1 December 2013 No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

The legitimacy of Islamic signs in public space: headscarves, mosques, and minarets are increasingly seen as a rejection of western democratic values, or even worse, as a direct threat to the West. Pictured: Walter Wobmann, president of the committee “Yes for a ban of Minarets”, in Egerkingen, Switzerland

The legitimacy of Islamic signs in public space: headscarves, mosques, and minarets are increasingly seen as a rejection of western democratic values, or even worse, as a direct threat to the West. Pictured: Walter Wobmann, president of the committee “Yes for a ban of Minarets”, in Egerkingen, Switzerland

Why the West Fears Islam

All over Europe Islamophobia seems to be on the rise.

Simply dismissing people’s fears and concerns as bigotry is not going to solve the problem. Suppressing expression of these concerns only drives them deeper, and in some cases, fuels anger, hatred, and even violence. Muslims who are on the receiving end of growing resentment also have legitimate concerns.

Arguably, the only way to reconcile and resolve these issues is to bring them out in the full light of day and subject them to scrutiny and debate. This article provides a starting point.

Why the West Fears Islam

by Jocelyne

The integration of Muslim immigrants has been on the political agenda of European democracies for several decades. However, only in the last ten years has it specifically evolved into a question of civic integration closely related to religious identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the socio-economic integration of immigrants with a Muslim background was the primary focus of academic literature, but with the emergence of the second and third generations, the interest has shifted to political mobilization. Beginning with the Rushdie affair in the United Kingdom and the hijab affair in France from 1989 to present, the spotlight has moved to the legitimacy of Islamic signs in public space, such as dress code, minarets, and halal foods.

As a consequence, controversies surrounding the visibility of these signs have steadily grown. Controversy is not merely a disagreement about divergent points of view; but it is about fundamental differences (or at least perceived as such) about the principles and norms that regulate the common life of individuals sharing the same time period. Such fundamental divergences that lead to exclusive or binary positions cannot coexist in the same public space.

Islam and the perceived rejection of democracy

Consequently, headscarves, mosques, and minarets are increasingly seen as a rejection of western democratic values, or even worse, as a direct threat to the West.

During the 2006 campaign to ban minarets in Switzerland, posters from the Egerkinger Committee displayed a woman in a burqa standing next to minarets that were rising from a Swiss flag and pointing to the sky like missiles (see picture). Such a perception of Islam in the public sphere has reached the United States as well through the ongoing Shari’a debates, discourse on Islamic radicalization in jails, and the ground zero mosque controversy in the summer of 2010.

Islamic signs are not only ostracized in public discourse, but are also controlled and restricted through multiple legal and administrative procedures in an attempt to “civilize” or adjust the signs to fit western political cultures. In April 2011, the French government enforced the ban on wearing the niqab or burqa, which was overwhelmingly approved in 2010 by the French legislature. Other countries like Belgium and The Netherlands have followed the French path in 2011 and 2012.

The most recent addition to the long list of outcast Islamic signs is circumcision. In June 2012, a judge in Cologne, Germany, outlawed circumcision on the grounds that it causes “illegal bodily harm”. Although Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has promised the Muslim and Jewish communities that they can continue practicing circumcision, the legal implications of this ban have yet to be determined.

Cultural struggle within Islam

This cultural struggle is also fought on the Muslim side. Salafism, a specific interpretation of Islam in stark opposition to western values and cultures, advocates many practices such as gender segregation and rejection of political and civic engagement that are deemed as efforts to fight the impurity of the West. This particular brand of Islam is one of the most visible, widespread, and accessible interpretations, and thus gives the illusion to both Muslims and non-Muslims that Salafism is the true Islam.

In sum, an essentialized West and an essentialized Islam are fighting each other and in so doing reinforce one another. The “burqa versus the bikini” opposition often used by both Islamophobes and Muslim fundamentalists encapsulates this sense of profound incompatibility that relates to politics, lifestyles, and most interestingly, women’s bodies.

On one hand, for most westerners, the burqa symbolizes total denial of freedom and of gender equality. On the other hand, for fundamentalist religious voices, the burqa symbolizes woman’s dignity and her devotion to family values, opposed to the bikini seen as an objectification and degradation of the female body.

Such stark oppositions are of course extreme, but at the same time, reflect the “either or” approach, in which most of the discourse on Islam is currently trapped. The German President, Joachim Gauck involuntarily illustrated the milder version of this binary opposition, when he said that Muslims can live in Germany but that, unlike his predecessor (Christian Wulf), he does not think that Muslims can be part of Germany.

Polarized mindset

One major consequence of such a polarized mindset is to mask the sociological reality of Muslims. In fact, a striking gap exists between the image of Islam as it is constructed in binary public discourse and the multifaceted reality of Muslims across countries and localities.

For example, the dominant assumption is that visible Islamic identities in the West are inversely correlated to their civic and political loyalties, while there is empirical evidence that contradicts such an assumption.

My book – “Why the West Fears Islam – An Exploration of Muslims in Liberal Democracies” – presents first-hand data from focus groups I organized in Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Boston between 2007 and 2010. In this regard, it is the first systematic and comparative review of the existing knowledge about Muslim political behaviours and religious practices in western Europe and in the United States.

The major conclusion is that although Muslims are challenged by their secular environment, they do not experience the incompatibility so intensely debated by western politicians and Salafi preachers alike. Then why is Islam depicted as an obstacle in political discourse and the media? Taking up this intriguing gap, I have attempted to make sense of this disjuncture between what Muslims do and the political construct of the “Muslim problem”.

During this exploration, liberalism and secularism have appeared as the two major idioms used to make sense of the Muslim presence…

….At the core of the European shift is the blind spot of the social legitimacy of religion that has been completely eliminated from most of national discourse and values.

In sum, the symbolic integration of Muslims within national communities would require a dramatic change in the current liberal and secularist narratives. It is a daunting task, but it can be done.

This article continues and is fairly long, but well worth reading in full. Read the rest here

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