We Need An Intelligent Response to Islamophobia
By Farish A. Noor
The recent declaration made at the OIC summit that calls for Muslim nation-states to act in a concerted manner and to take legal action against any country, group or individual who deliberately attacks Islam is noteworthy for the seriousness of its intent; but falls short of providing us with a real solution to the problem of racism and prejudice disguised behind the banner of Islam-bashing.
For a start, one wonders if the arena of international law even allows states to take legal action against other actors and agents on such grounds; and one wonders what the modalities of such an action might be. But above all, we need to take a calm and rational distance from the problem itself and consider methods that will work and reject those that certainly won’t.
The problem, however, is this: How can Muslims react rationally and coolly to acts of provocation at a time when even the utterance of the mutest words of protest are deemed by some as the irrational outpourings of misguided pious grief instead? The worry that some of us share at the moment is how the Muslims of the world will react to the release of the film produced by Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party. Wilders is known in Holland as a maverick politician on the make, an ambitious demagogue whose tactics are as loud as they are crude. His decision to make a film on the life of the Prophet Muhammad was calculated to raise the political temperature in Europe at a time when Muslim-non-Muslim relations have hit an all time low. Unlike the murdered film director Theo van Gogh who was a left-leaning activist and long-time supporter of minority concerns (and who, incidentally, also defended the rights of Muslim migrants in Holland), Wilders is a far-right politician who is clearly appealing to the baser parochial and exclusive sentiments of white Dutch society.
It would be hypocritical, to say the least, that Wilders’ film which presents Islam as a religious system akin to Facism and which compares the Prophet Muhammad to Hitler was meant to bring the communities of Holland closer together.
But in reacting to the film the Muslim community worldwide would have to take into account some cautionary points:
For a start, Geert Wilders happens to be a single individual who happens to lead a relatively small (though growing) political movement. In no way can we say that his is the voice of mainstream Dutch society which has historically been critical of racist demagogues and hate-mongers in its midst. Furthermore it should be remembered that thousands of Dutch citizens have also been active supporters and defenders of the rights of Muslims elsewhere, and that there are hundreds of Dutch NGOs and citizens groups that have been actively campaigning for the political rights of the Palestinians and the people of Iraq during the recent Gulf War. In condemning Wilders for his racist rant, it is absolutely imperative that the Muslim communities of the world restrain from condemning Dutch society in toto, and Westerners in general.
Secondly it should be noted that any mode of protest has to be measured and has to reflect the true nature of the insult that is perceived. The concern of many Muslim intellectuals and leaders today is that as the protests against Wilders’ film grow across the planet, we will see yet another round of violent demonstrations accompanied by the now-familiar rhetoric of death threats and hate speeches. When will Muslims realise that reacting to racism and bigotry can only be effective when it is done from a higher moral ground, and not by responding to hate with hate?
To this end, we need to emphasise that Muslims will never occupy the higher moral ground as long as they do not learn to co-operate with other faith communities and realise that our lot is a common one, shared with the rest of humanity. It is therefore vital that any steps taken to respond to the film by Geert Wilders be inclusive and accommodating in character, and that Muslim leaders, intellectuals and activists reach out for support from other faith communities including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and all those who are against all forms of racism and bigotry. Only then will Muslims give the impression that we are not an isolated, marginalised and parochial community driven primarily by our own exclusive sectarian interests.
Lastly, while responding to Wilders’ outlandish and repugnant misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims, Muslims also need to be honest enough to recognise the faults and errors in ourselves. To condemn racist non-Muslims who deliberately abuse Islam is one thing, but Muslims also need to do some proper in-house cleaning and recognise that not all is well is the house of Islam: Racism, sexism, corruption, nepotism and abuse of power remain pressing realities in so many Muslim countries today. Likewise the hate-discourse of the likes of Wilders can also be compared to the hate-discourse of many radically violent Muslim demagogues, who do deserve to be called Muslim Facists too.
Can this dilemma be resolved in time before we witness yet another round of Muslim-West antagonism as we did in the wake of the Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2004-2005? One will only know the answer to that question when the controversy has passed and the dust has settled. But one thing is for certain at this juncture: No resolution to the perennial problem of Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing can be reached as long as we react to such slander and bigotry with slander and bigotry of our own. One does not fight hate with hate; and an intelligent, universal, inclusive reaction to the problem of Islamophobia is perhaps the first step to finding a solution. Let us hope that Muslims will keep their cool this time round.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.