Recent terror attacks in the month of Ramzan in Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina by Islamist extremists have again brought to light the question of vilification of the entire Muslim community in social media and in a section of mainstream media. Though we do not have firm evidence of the hand of Islamists in the July 14 attack in Nice in France, Islam might still be blamed for the carnage. There is an increasing trend to blame Islam for producing “jihadi” terrorists. However, the Muslim ulema’s critique of terrorism as antithetical to Islam (which, like many religions, spreads the message of peace) is rarely highlighted by the media. Is this a new trend of Islamophobia in the media?
The global phenomenon of Islamophobia is a product of hundreds of years of Orientalist discourses constructed by the Western colonial education system. The dominance of many parts of the medieval world by Islamic cultures is described as “dark ages” in such discourses. In one of his celebrated essays, ‘The Campaign Against ‘Islamic Terror,’ Edward Said has shown how the depiction of Islam as a threat to the West is largely a discourse that was produced by mainstream American academia and journalism in search of a new “manufactured enemy” in the post-Soviet world order. Said, in his book Covering Islam, has also argued how the western media and academic experts in the West have often produced biased, stereotypical and mythical representations of Islam.
Such discourses produced the phenomenon of “Islamophobia” that was reproduced in media caricatures and stereotyped political cartoons. Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg’s, Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy shows thatmedia caricatures and political cartoons showing Muslims as “terrorists”, “irrational”, “violent”, “evil”, “oppressive” and “fanatics” date even further back. Political caricatures of Muslims and Islam in the Western media are as old as the Suez Canal crisis of 1956-1958.
They made an appearance during the 1974 oil crisis, the revolution, the hostage crisis of 1979-1980 and Gulf war of 1990. The 9/11 incident followed by the Afghanistan war in 2001 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 saw such imagery acquire a sharper edge. The prejudicial view of Islam and Muslims as backward and fanatical and not compatible with modernity slots Muslims — and Islam — into a homogenous, essentialist and unitary category without acknowledging the multiplicity of Islamic groups and the heterogeneity of the Muslim world.
Popular cinema in Hollywood and, to an extent, Bollywood, have also contributed in reinforcing stereotypical images of Muslims as terrorists. Many Bollywood films make a direct connection between Muslims and terrorism, and stir up sentiments against Islam and Muslims. The community is rarely shown as a victim of terrorism, which threatens lives of both Muslims and non-Muslims. The profile of the victims of terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina shows that terrorism makes no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims.
It is well-known that numerous terrorist groups have organisational bases among non-Muslims. According to the Forbes’ latest list of the world’s top ten richest terrorist organisations, two are non-Islamic outfits — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Real Irish Republican Army. The Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in Myanmar claim to be inspired by Buddhism. The Maronites in Lebanon and Syria, Orange Volunteers, Loyalist Volunteer Force and Red Hand Defenders in Northern Ireland, the anti-abortion Army of God in the United States, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and various neo-Nazi groups in Europe claim to follow Christianity.
In 2011, Anders Behring Brieivik, a neo-Nazi, carried out the horrendous attacks that killed 77 and injured 319 in Oslo in Norway. Not many decades ago, Zionist groups like Jewish Underground, Brit Hakanaim and Kingdom of Israel, as well as certain anti-communist outfits, took part in terrorist activities. Some left-wing groups, including the Maoists in India, have been designated as terrorist outfits. Hindutva activists are alleged to have organised the Malegaon, Nanded, and Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid blasts.
However, it is noteworthy that there is an increasing trend of Arabisation and Wahabisation among South Asian Muslims. Changing dress codes and changing mannerisms reflect the growing Arabisation of Muslims. This tendency
is detrimental to the otherwise plural character of South Asian Muslims. Islamic theology needs to address the core
problems of the religion; these pertain to gender inequality, unequal property rights for women, discrimination against women after divorce and the right to use contraception. This is only possible through democratic movements in the Muslim community: Moderate Muslims should take charge and not become passive spectators and victims of Islamist extremism.