In the post-9/11 war-on-terror climate, the “terrorist” has become almost synonymous with the Muslim. The depiction of the Muslim as “terrorist” over the last decade has meant that anti-terror laws, de-radicalisation programs, and the entire gamut of counter-terrorism policies implemented by many Western states, including Australia, have solely targeted Muslims, to the extent that even school children attending prayer groups are being monitored.
But why are Muslims being targeted?
In order to understand this we need to first appreciate that this phenomenon is merely a recent episode in a historical process of the West’s depiction of the Muslim as the diametrically opposite polar of everything the West stands for. More importantly, this antagonism is directed not just against Muslims per se, but primarily against Islam itself, such that it is in order to save Muslims from the regressiveness of their Islam that they need to be educated and civilised according to Western ideals.
When Christian Europe mobilised against the Muslim lands to fight the Crusades, the barbarity and bloodbath meted out against Muslims were possible due to the European myth of the Muslim as a “despised and base race, which worships demons”. Hence, Pope Urban II called out to fellow believers:
O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ…Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago.
Thus the Christian world, exemplifying a religious and God-fearing people, rose up against an irreligious and devil-worshipping Muslim population.
Not a new phenomenon
As the Enlightenment ushered in new ways of imagining the relationship of Christianity to European polities, secularism emerged as a doctrinal separation between organised religion and state. Although the modern West claims to have transformed from Christian to “secular”, old prejudices against Muslims have remained and have only taken on new forms. While earlier Muslims were depicted as irreligious heretics in contrast to the religious, Christian West; in post-Enlightenment Europe Muslims started being depicted as too steeped in blind, religious bigotry in contrast to the secularism and rationality of the modern West.
Despite the official separation between church and state, Christianity has always played an important role in Western politics and especially its colonial endeavours in the Muslim world. The missionary invasion of the Ottoman Caliphate from the 16th century onwards served as the ideological and cultural wing of British and French political, economic and military campaigns against Muslims. Under the guise of teaching science, missionary schools set up in Malta, al-Sham (Levant) and other places preached Western values and sought to raise doubts among Muslims about their Islamic creed. Closer to home and more recently, we have heard the last PM Tony Abbott invoking the Christian experience of “reformation” to highlight the need to secularise Islam because it has never been “through its own version of the reformation, never went through its own version of the enlightenment”.
Qur’anic wisdom on these challenges
While Western prejudices against Muslims have continued in different shapes and forms from the Middle Ages to modernity, Qur’anic ayaat on the attitudes of those hostile to the call of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) can provide important perspectives on the challenges we face today as Muslims.
“Never will the Jews nor the Christians be pleased with you (O Muhammad) till you follow their religion.” [Baqarah: 120]
Imam Qurtubi explains in his famous Tafsir that Jews and Christians would not be pleased with the Prophet even if he brought them everything they asked for. Rather, they would only be happy if the Prophet left Islam and followed them. According to Imam Alusi, this is an emphatic way of informing the Prophet about the complete rejection of Islam by Jews and Christians. If they could contemplate the impossible, that is the Prophet following their religion, Imam Alusi asks how then it could be imagined that they would follow the Prophet’s deen.
Needless to say that this is not a generalisation about Jews and Christians; rather, this can apply to anyone who deliberately denies the truth out of arrogance and displays hostility towards Muslims. In fact, the very next verse goes on to talk about the Jews and Christians who are actually sincere to seeking the truth.
The ultimate goal behind these attacks
From the above verse, the primary traits that we can understand of those hostile to Islam are that they want Muslims to give up their adherence to Islam and follow their way of life, and that they do so, not out of sincere concern, but haughtiness.
The West does not require that Muslims convert out of their religion, but it does seek to impose its normative conception of religion modelled on secularised Christianity. Nor does it require that Muslims stop their ritual acts of worship, but it does seek to transform traditional approaches to primary Islamic texts in order to suit liberal sensibilities. Therefore, any attempt by Muslims to articulate their politics in a spiritual language that is grounded in their faith is considered almost an act of blasphemy against the modern West’s secular doctrine such that it requires state intervention in “religious” matters to ensure that the line between state and religion is not trespassed. Islamic concepts such as Caliphate and Jihad that do not abide by a clean state-religion dichotomy are classic examples of such “violations”.
Why even “private” elements are attacked
Of course, implicit in such treatment of Muslims is a sense of arrogance and condescension that deems Muslims incapable of adapting to the modern age of “science and reason” without the guardianship of the secular state. Such attitudes do not just confine themselves to what are deemed “political” aspects of Islam. Hence, the hijab, polygamy, Muslim views on homosexuality etc. are constantly under public scrutiny and become the yardstick for measuring the “assimilation” of the Muslim community into liberal culture.
Therefore, the attacks on Muslims need to be situated in their historical context. They arise from an old prejudice presently manifesting itself in a secular language though its primary target has remained unchanged – Islam itself.
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