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Before the Next Massacre, by Christopher Houston

Cultural supremacism or shared ordinariness?

Published: 27 Aug 2019

In multireligious societies like Australia, what should be the purpose for critiquing Islamophobia? Is it to reassure anxious white Australians that there is nothing to fear from real Islam, and that rhetoric about its intrinsic violence, sexism, or hostility to other religions is misinformed and racist?

In this brief article I contend that in Australia the prime intention of such a critique should be to avert the suffering that racist stereotyping and discriminatory laws cause. But I also argue that the same concern should be extended to religious minorities everywhere, including to Christians in Muslim-majority contexts. The question is how this prevention might best be done.

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre one common strategy central to the succour of Muslims, used by both Muslims and non-Muslims, has been the strategic affirmation that ‘Muslims are just like us’ [non-Muslims]. After the murders New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asserted it slightly differently, stating that ‘Muslims are us’ [and the killer is not]. In other words, against racist scaremongering that seeks to incite a movement for the expulsion of alien Muslims from the West, it is strategic to affirm that Muslims are not to be feared, given our similarities.

Nevertheless, even as this defence of Muslims against Islamophobic racism affirms our human commonality, it also raises questions. Who are ‘we’ that resemble Muslims? Who are the ‘Muslims’ that resemble us? Here, against those who claim there are only contrasts, Islam and the essence of us alike are presented sometimes as shown in our tolerance, each of us jointly characterised by our acceptance of others different to us, or by our acknowledgement of religious relativity. At other times Muslims and we are said to be alike in being committed to family values, in seeking the prosperity of our communities, or even just in our valiant going about our daily business. As Sting famously sang (in Prokofiev’s melody), ‘The Russians love their children too’. Regardless of how our mutually shared characteristics are designated, all these examples postulate that our commonality inheres in our sharing of commendable social and personal attributes, contradicting racist forces that seek to demean and inferiorise Muslims.

Could the affirmation of our common attitudes and purposes be expressed in a more nuanced way than asserting our mutual civility, decency, superiority and merit? After all, those who kill Muslims praying in a mosque—or slay Christians at worship in a church—claim to act in our name. Perhaps it would be more truthful to explore the likeness between Muslims and non-Muslims in another language, one that acknowledges our cultural differences but concedes our joint flawed humanity. What if we admitted the commonality we possess in our jaundiced pre-judgments; or in our common emotional predispositions to find the events of one terrorist outrage more telling than another; or in our preferential identification with some victims of violence and not with others? What if we confirmed the necessity to guard ourselves against our own tendencies towards vengeance? Should we not acknowledge the desire so many of us share to simplify our histories by claiming that Islam or Christianity constitutes its true essence, or to present our own faith as the only valid revelation from God? In owning these less admirable attributes we would confess a shared fallibility, against those committed to the superiority of their own cultural worlds, Muslim or non-Muslim.

In brief, in acknowledging Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ common faults, we might be less inclined to heed the siren call of those who preach the unique supremacy of Western, White, Islamic or any other civilisation.

Most importantly, in doing so certain similarities in the situation of Christian (and other) minorities in Muslim-majority contexts, and of Muslim (and other) minorities in Western, Jewish or Buddhist/Hindu-majority countries would become more significant. For example, in Pakistan Islamic-supremacist movements perpetuate a Christophobic racism that discriminates against and degrades Christians. Just as no one doubts that in many contexts Islamism expresses an anti-colonial resistance born of a history of European imperialism, can we not also query its simultaneous commitment to instituting Islamist social relations in those complex post-colonies, or critique the particular jurisprudence tradition (fiqh) informing its particular political project? Criticism of Christophobia in Pakistan (or of anti-Semitism in Poland) should aim to defend Christian or Jewish minorities against the suffering caused by racist stereotyping and discriminatory laws, not reassure chauvinist locals that Christians or Jews are harmless. Thus the practice of Islamophobic, anti-Semitic or Christophobic racism demands careful comparison, given their similar incitement to commit ethnic cleansing in different parts of the world.

Comparison is also vital in another area: the linking of political identity with or against religion itself. In European societies Muslim youth often respond to the range of punitive Islamophobic policies, racist stereotyping and occasionally violent Islamophobic acts by expanding their Islamic commitments and loyalties. Here Islam becomes a vehicle for collective resistance and for personal revolt and/or self-alteration. But, by contrast, in Muslim-majority societies such as Iran or Turkey where Islam is increasingly experienced as a vehicle of state power and political authoritarianism, Muslim youth are often forced to generate an anti-Islamic counterculture or an alternative Muslim politics, while pressing governments to recognise Islam’s minorities and inner plurality.

Thus, ironically, the resistance of Muslim or Christian youth to their varied experiences of disenfranchisement reveals similar (or common) cultural politics and social distinctions at work across societies. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians are oppressors in some contexts, oppressed in others. Further, in a globalised world the force fields of these contrasting religious politics are not as separate as may be supposed. Chauvinist Islamist movements in one country attract victims of Islamophobia from another. Migrants or asylum seekers from Iran, Turkey and Kurdistan who oppose the political Islam of their natal states find themselves unwelcome in Australia or Europe by local Islamophobic publics. And racism against Jews or Muslims in the West may be cynically co-opted for the benefit of authoritarian Islamic or Jewish political parties at home, to subordinate non-Muslim or non-Jewish minorities there. In other words, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Christophobia, just like white, Jewish or Muslim supremacism, are political practices simultaneously entangled in zigzagging national and global politics.

What is to be done? Our denial of civilisational supremacy must be a better first step towards mutual solidarity, in the light of joint awareness not only of our common ordinariness but also of our shared political predicaments.

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