Confronting the Monolith: The Struggle Against Islamophobia and Osamaism
By Jehanzeb Hasan
”[W]hites speak of Muslims almost synonymously with violence. Whenever Muslims are mentioned by them, violence is brought up; but it’s not connected with any other group. This is a sort of a propaganda tactic, or, what I would call psychological warfare, to, in some way, make the image of the Muslims in this country be a violent image rather than a religious image.”
– Malcolm X, Muslim American Civil Rights Leader, Oct. 1963
After almost forty years, these words still bear some relevance on the situation Muslims find themselves in today. Malcolm X first uttered them in Berkeley, California, just six months before he embarked upon his historic pilgrimage to Mecca. He would return to the United States as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and renounce his formerly held views, admitting to making “sweeping indictments” of all white people in the past. “The true Islam,” he declared, “has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 416). After leaving the Nation of Islam and adopting mainstream Islam, the message of Malcolm X became an all-inclusive one:
“Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds — some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, socialists, and communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists — some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 432)
When he engaged in the kind of essentialist rhetoric of some whites of his time, the pre-Hajj Malcolm X participated in the same sort of “psychological warfare” he condemned. After his pilgrimage, however, he recognized the serious problem and danger in viewing a broad segment of people as a singular monolithic entity.
The transformation of Malcolm X into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz serves as an important reminder for today’s Muslims who still find themselves struggling against those who would attempt to essentialize their beliefs. On the one hand, Muslims are confronted with Osamaists (those who can be characterized as approving of an Osama Bin Laden variant of Islam) who espouse a doctrine of religious violence and oppression. On the other hand, Muslims are also confronted with Islamophobes (those who can be characterized as harboring fear, hatred, or prejudice towards Islam or Muslims) who fully equate their religion with violence and oppression. What is most remarkable about both groups is that the arguments they make about “Islam” are actually founded upon the same antagonistic, literal, and selective interpretation of the religion.
Not unlike Osamaists, Islamophobes argue that their characterization of Islam is not a characterization at all; rather, it is the clear-cut reality and only true reading of the religion. It may be beneficial to compare this mode of thinking to British Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar’s description of modern-day Wahhabist thought:
”y closing the interpretations of our ‘absolute frame of reference’ – the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad – [Wahhabism] had removed agency from believers. One could only have an interpretive relationship with a living, eternal text. Without that relationship of constant struggling to understand the text and find new meanings, Muslim societies were doomed to exist in suspended animation. If everything was a priori given, nothing new could really be accommodated. The intellect, human intelligence, became an irrelevant encumbrance since everything could be reduced to a simple comply/not comply formula derived from the thought of dead bearded men.” (Desperately Seeking Paradise, 151)
In this sense, Osamaists and Islamophobes ignore the dynamic nature of the religion and deny the diversity of belief within Islam. Instead of constantly being pondered and contemplated for meanings, Islam is dumbed down by those who seek to essentialize it for the purpose of augmenting their own sociopolitical agendas. It was the Prophet Muhammad, after all, who said that an hour’s worth of contemplation is better than a year’s worth of prayer.
“What’s really hurting me, the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence… Islam is not a killer religion… Islam means peace… I couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for this problem.”
– Muhammad Ali, Muslim American Athlete, Sept. 2001
Some have argued that Islamophobia confuses criticism of Islamic practices with fear, hate, or prejudice of Muslims. This begs the question: what makes these particular practices “Islamic” and, more importantly, who gets to decide—and how? When one simply characterizes this type of person as a “critic of Islam,” they are not being nearly as specific as they ought to be. One can be a legitimate critic of Islam in the same way one can also be a critic of Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, the Bahá’í Faith, Christianity, Buddhism, or any other organized religion; however, when one conflates the aggressive behavior and beliefs of a group of far right-wing individuals that claim to follow the teachings of their religion with the behavior and beliefs of every other individual that practices that same religion, this person cannot, in good faith, be considered a legitimate critic of Islam. Instead, if we are obliged to call this person a critic at all, we must identify them as a critic of Osamaism.
To be precise, we must also recognize that this conflation-prone school of criticism is not the only group critical of Osamaism. They are among many other schools of thought that are also opposed to this brand of Islam, and these groups are further comprised of various individuals (including Muslims like myself too, of course) who have their own more nuanced criticisms, approaches, and ideas in dealing with the Osamaist problem.
The trouble with those mired in the conflation-prone school of criticism is that they are unable to differentiate between Osamaism and Islam. While some inadvertently confuse the two, others conflate them purposely. In either case, the monolith is erected and we are confronted with Islamophobia.
Now, let us consider for a moment what would happen if there was some truth to the Islamic/Osamaist monolith. If a violent and oppressive reading of Islam is the only true interpretation of Islam, then what of all those Muslims who believe in and practice an Islam different than the Osamaist brand? Using the logic of an Islamophobe, one must reason that these “Muslims” are only nominal Muslims, and that the only real Muslims are Osamaists. If Islam is inherently an “evil” religion, then there can be no “good” Muslims because any “good” Muslim cannot be classified as a real Muslim at all. This is the problem we are confronted with when operating within the Islamophobe’s self-constructed framework. In this world, not unlike the world of the Osamaist, the Islamophobe acts as judge, jury, and executioner—dictating what Islam is and what Islam is not, who is Muslim and who is not.
In recent years, some commentators have also attempted to discredit the concept of Islamophobia itself, claiming that it is used to silence criticism of Islam. However, when this approach is closely examined, we discover that it is actually not the concept of Islamophobia they are criticizing (who could seriously argue that fear, hatred, or prejudice towards Muslims doesn’t exist?); rather, it is the way in which it is used by some people. One only needs to consider parallels of this sort of use with the way in which Anti-Semitism is sometimes used to silence criticism of the Israeli government or AIPAC, or the way in which some poorer members of various minority groups sometimes blame racism for their inability to improve their own individual socioeconomic condition.
While any kind of accusation of racism or xenophobia can be misused, this does not mean it is always misused. In fashioning Islamophobia as a “myth” or an “unfortunate concept,” as some individuals do, we clearly see the way in which criticism of the use of Islamophobia cleverly masquerades as dismissal of the concept itself (and convenient justification to pooh-pooh the problem away).
Another strategy often employed by the deniers of Islamophobia is the rejection of any similarity between Islamophobia and racism. Whenever the two concepts are interchangeably used, one has come to almost immediately expect the tired catchphrase, “Islam is not a race.” While the substitution of “Islamophobia” with “racism” may be incorrect in a linguistic sense, the two are conceptually very much the same. Both forms of prejudice are founded upon a monolithic and stereotypical presupposition. For example, while a racist would assume all or most African-Americans think or behave a certain way, an Islamophobe, too, would believe that all or most Muslims think or behave a certain way.
“I don’t normally talk about my religion publicly because I don’t want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing. And I believe it is a beautiful religion if you learn it the right way.”
– Dave Chappelle, Muslim American Comedian, May 2005
Every religion has the potential to be abused by some and Islam is no exception. However, what Islamophobes would have us believe about this particular religion is that one splotch is representative of the entire spectrum. One needs only apply this to Christianity, the most familiar religion in the West, to recognize the flaws in this narrow-minded approach.
The Holy Bible contains numerous verses that can be interpreted in such a way that makes it appear that Christianity advocates murder, intolerance, slavery, misogyny, and a long list of other evils. Consider the following passages:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay [them] before me. (Luke 19:27)
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor. (Numbers 25:4-5)
Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree: And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which [is] as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; [Namely], of the gods of the people which [are] round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the [one] end of the earth even unto the [other] end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)
Removed from their textual and historical contexts, these kinds of passages project a startlingly violent and oppressive picture of Christianity that is completely at odds with the general perception of the religion in the West. Imagine, now, if these and other similar Biblical passages were accompanied almost exclusively with images of the Crusaders, the Inquisition, the Third Reich, the Ku Klux Klan, David Koresh, the Westboro Baptists, abortion clinic bombers, and many other Christian extremists. And also, what if, these images were mixed with talking points and a steady stream of sound bites laden with some of Adolf Hitler’s hateful declarations:
[T]oday I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. (Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Ch. 2)
My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. (Munich Speech, April 12, 1922)
With a lens fixated on these types of Christians, and coupled with an antagonistic, literal, and selective interpretation of the Bible, one would naturally develop a rather skewed impression of Christianity, no matter how fair and balanced the presentation would be purported to be.
Religion has the potential for great good but when in the wrong hands, it also has the potential for great evil. When Islamophobes conflate Osamaism with Islam and simply blame the religion, one of the consequences is shutting down discussion of the social, political, and economic reasons and motivations behind many of the conflicts taking place around the world today.
“I was talking to [a friend] about religion one day. He’s like, ‘Hey, listen, dude. I’m totally not interested in organized religion.’ So, I said, ‘Great. Become a Muslim. We’re the most disorganized people on Earth!’”
– Azhar Usman, Muslim American Comedian, Oct. 2004
Muslims are now caught in a struggle for their identity on two fronts. In order to defeat Islamophobia and Osamaism, all of us (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) must dismantle the monolith and confront those (Osamaists and Islamophobes alike) who would attempt to deny diversity of belief within Islam.
Jehanzeb Hasan is a research assistant and graduate student in English at California State University, East Bay. His areas of interest are in the history and literature of minorities in the United States, the politics of representation in art, and postcolonial literature.