Asia and the Curse of Islamophobia

Political leaders in Asia may help to check the conflation of Islam with violence and radicalization if they join in common cause with a plurality of states against radical violence and in favor of religious tolerance and mutual respect.

Posted on 04/15/15
By Peter Drysdale | Via East Asia Forum
(Photo by Alan Greig, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Alan Greig, Creative Commons License)

Over twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington warned that the world faced a future that would be dominated by the ‘clash of civilizations’.


‘The fault lines between civilizations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed’, Huntington proclaimed. ‘The Cold War began when the Iron Curtain divided Europe politically and ideologically. The Cold War ended with the end of the Iron Curtain. As the ideological division of Europe has disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has reemerged. The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500.’


Huntington suggested that the conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations had been going on for 1300 years. After the founding of Islam, the Arab and Moorish surge west and north only ended at Tours in 732. The balance between Christianity and Islam see-sawed across Europe to the Middle East until the Western powers established control over the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Balkans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After World War II, the West began to retreat; ‘the colonial empires disappeared; first Arab nationalism and then Islamic fundamentalism manifested themselves’ while the West became heavily dependent on the Persian Gulf countries for its energy; the oil-rich Muslim countries became money-rich and, when they wished to, weapons-rich.


Thus, Huntington reckoned, the ‘centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam’ was unlikely to decline: rather it could become more virulent. We were set for ‘no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both’.


On the face of it, Huntington’s hypothesis might seem to have been prescient. The Iraq wars, the shock of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and the long and drawn out war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan all might seem to fit within Huntington’s frame.


The truth, of course, is more multi-textured and complicated.


For one thing, as George W Bush declared at the beginning of the War on Terror after September 11: ‘Ours …is not a war against Islam’. Political leaders, intellectuals and analysts struggled against the flawed idea that violence against the established order in the West, or in Asia, derived from ‘Muslim rage’ or ‘clash of civilizations’ and sought to maintain a proper distinction between the Muslim faith and some of its radicalized followers. For another, it was plain for all to see that Muslim states or states with dominant Muslim populations, from Indonesia to Pakistan and Egypt, were threatened by the same radical violence.


But such complex lines of battle were bound to be difficult to maintain with clarity.


Now, as James Piscatori argues in this week’s lead essay, there is a danger of succumbing to the darker prospect. ‘In the face of the frontal attacks on free speech in Paris and Copenhagen, horrific videos from the Islamic State, and the mass kidnappings and murders of Nigeria’s Boku Haram, nuance has seemed to evaporate’, writes Piscatori. ‘The rise of PEGIDA in Germany, opposed to what they see as the Islamisation of Europe, and arson attacks on mosques in famously tolerant Sweden indicate that Islamophobia has found new life’. The threat of ‘Islamic radicalism’ morphs each term with ‘unintended consequences’. The Islamic terrorist too easily becomes ‘so pervasive a figure of fear that it has given a kind of back-door permission for bigots to see fifth-columnists where there are none and for governments to smear domestic enemies as jihadists’.


Islamophobia, of course, had never gone away. And sometimes those same leaders, who try to make the right distinctions, stumble in accidental accusation where none is called for. In Australia, leaders of the Muslim community were outraged when Prime Minister Abbott let slip: ‘I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.’ Australian Muslim leaders and scholars have, of course, spoken out against jihadist violence and the head of Australia’s security agency acknowledged the centrality of support of the Muslim community in the campaign against violence and extremism.


The fear of Islamic radicalization, says Piscatori, is clearly a fact of life throughout Asia, even of course in states with Muslim majorities. He reports polls from Pew that show that 66 per cent of people in Bangladesh and 42 per cent of people in Pakistan held unfavorable views of al-Qaeda. In Southeast Asia, the allegiance of groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah to the ‘Islamic State’has claimed attention. Broader public attitudes matter more. In Indonesia, in fact, 56 per cent of those polled viewed al-Qaeda unfavorably, and in Malaysia, only 18 per cent of people had a favorable view of it.


Piscatori points out that the threat that has been constructed in policymaking circles in countries where Muslims are in a minority has abetted two kinds of Islamophobia — reactive and state Islamophobia. Reactive Islamophopia is now widespread in Europe. In Myanmar the Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to systematic repression. The picture in China is more variegated.


As Piscatori concludes, ‘Islamic State, with its confronting ideology, enigmatic caliphate, and brutal tactics, has virtually single-handedly undone the positive work on attitudes towards Muslims and Islam that has been done since the beginning of the millennium’. But, as he says, the War on Terror has also played its insidious if inadvertent part, with its exclusive focus on security and the pretext it provides for both reactive and state-sponsored anti-Muslim sentiment and actions.


Political leaders in our region might help to check the conflation of Islam with violence and radicalization if they took the opportunity, at an East Asian Summit say, to join in common cause with a plurality of states (some with Muslim majority populations and others with Muslim minority populations) against radical violence and in favor of religious tolerance and mutual respect.


Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

This article first appeared at the East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.


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