Paper presented at the “Exploring Islamophobia” Conference jointly organised by FAIR (Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism), City Circle, and Ar-Rum at The University of Westminster School of Law, London, on 29 September 2001.
Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim
There is a proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword” which expresses well the idea of the power, if not the sacredness, of the word, and perhaps there was an echo of this idea in President Bush’s recent statement that the “war against terrorism” had begun with a “stroke of the pen.” There was a television programme recently about the ten hardest men in Britain, and I assumed it was going to be another of those offerings glorifying brute strength or glamourising vicious gangsters. Well yes, there were some tough nuts in there, pretty well all of them hard men in television serials, but the hardest ones were judged to be not those who used their fists but those who used words, and rated top of this class, the prizefighter, was Jeremy Paxman, the presenter of Newsnight on BBC2.
So we understand the immense power of words. But with that power comes a truly awesome responsibility. In speaking of the language of Islamophobia, it would be a very simple matter to give examples over the last two weeks of the abuse of that power, what William Dalrymple castigates in a recent article in The Independent as the “ludicrously unbalanced, inaccurate and one-sided” images of Islam perpetrated by what he calls the “scribes of the new racism” even in our quality broadsheets. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. In 1997 The Runnymede Report had described Islamophobia as marked by “brazen hostility, bordering on contempt, for the most cherished principles of Islamic life and thought, reaching an apoplexy of hate in the modern Western media who represent Islam as intolerant of diversity, monolithic and war-mongering.” As Dalrymple says, “such prejudices against Muslims – and the spread of idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and beliefs – have been developing at a frightening rate in the last decade” and “Anti-Muslim racism now seems in many ways to be replacing anti-Semitism as the principal Western expression of bigotry against “the other”.
What is so much more encouraging is the fact that politicians and writers of this quality, insight, intelligence and humanity are increasingly speaking out against this pernicious, corrosive and virulent form of bigotry and it would be a simple matter too to refer to a great many articles I have seen like Dalrymple’s which are truly civilised and humane and do not bandy about words like “civilisation” and “humanity” as mere rhetorical incantations or militant banners to promote the poisonous and ignorant doctrine of the clash of civilisations.
Let Western civilisation always hold fast to one of its founding principles in the Platonic vision which places reason and dialogue above rhetoric and emotional manipulation. And all those voices in political life and the media who have upheld this vision deserve our profound thanks, for what they are writing and saying is completely in accordance with the universal spirit of Islam and the many sayings of the Prophet (saws) which teach us to use words as well as actions in such a way that we become, in his words, “a refuge for humankind, their lives and their properties.” – a refuge for all of humankind, not for any single group or vested interest. Said the Prophet, “The true Muslim does not defame or abuse others” and “the perfect Muslim is he from whose tongue and hands mankind is safe.”
Now, I’ve said that it would be a very simple matter to give examples of Islamophobic language, but I want to go deeper than simply dredge up old clichés. We’ve all heard again and again the tired old clichés which stigmatise the whole of Islam as fundamentalist, ideological, monolithic, static, unidimensional, implacably opposed to modernity, incapable of integration or assimilation, impervious to new ideas, retrogressive, retrograde, backward, archaic, primaeval, medieval, uncivilised, hostile, violent, terrorist, alien, fanatical, barbaric, militant, oppressive, harsh, threatening, confrontational, extremist, authoritarian, totalitarian, patriarchal, misogynist, negatively exotic, and bent on imposing on the whole world a rigid theocratic system of government which would radically overturn every principle of freedom and liberal democracy cherished by the Western world. I have to say that I don’t know a single Muslim who embodies even one of these characteristics, and I have Muslim friends and colleagues in all walks of life and from many cultures all over the globe.
There is one possible exception, and that is the first one, the most overused of all: “fundamentalist”. If this means certain fundamental beliefs such as belief in a supremely merciful God and in a divine purpose for mankind and all creation; belief that only God can dispense infinite justice although we must strive to embody some measure of justice and the other divine attributes in the conduct of our own lives; belief in a fair and inclusive society which balances rights and responsibilities, which values all people equally irrespective of their race, gender and religion, and which gives equality of opportunity to all men, women and children to realize their God-given potential; and belief in freedom from tyranny and oppression – well then, yes, I am a fundamentalist, and my fundamental beliefs will be shared by many people of all faiths.
But if to be a fundamentalist is to engage in any kind of cruelty in the name of any doctrine or ideology, whether religious or secular, including the murder of innocent people either by terrorists or governments, wherever they may be, then I am most certainly not a fundamentalist.
This defamatory list is a very obvious manifestations of what Francis Bacon, one of the founders of Western empiricism and modern science , called the “Idols of the Mind”, those crippling conditioned beliefs and prejudices which prevent us from learning by critical enquiry, observation and experience, and those who perpetrate them would do well to return to some of the hallowed principles of objectivity which supposedly underpin Western civilisation.
But there is a deeper dimension to these prejudices. Behind them is the demonisation of what is perceived to be a dark and dangerous manifestation of the “other”, the singling out of the most extreme position which can be imagined as somehow representative of the totality of Islam, as if there is one absolutely monolithic, cohesive and uniform Muslim mindset, a kind of immutable, undifferentiated abstraction. In view of the extraordinary size and diversity of the Islamic world, this fantasy about a monolithic and aggressive Islam is not merely the outcome of ignorance. It goes deeper than that. It is quite simply a psychological phenomenon, a pathological state. The very vehemence of the language with its absurdly simplified polarisation of reality into competing and mutually exclusive positions is itself symptomatic of deeply unconscious projections. That is what is so intractable about this pathology. The people who think like this are deeply unconscious of their own psychic processes, or, even more dangerously, they are people who are intentionally exploiting this tendency in the human being to dichotomise, to split reality into polar opposites, to see only black or white, and hence to foster division and confrontation.
In addition to the obvious stigmatisation of Islam through unanalysed clichés stereotypes and labels, we have to contend with grotesquely naïve and childish misrepresentations of what Muslims believe and how they behave, including articles by eminent university dons printed in tabloid newspapers which show an ignorance and intolerance of Islam as profound as that shown in much more lightweight material. That is what is extraordinary about Islamophobic ranting. We can find the same kind of hyperbole, distortions, inaccuracies and unsubstantiated generalisations coming from intellectuals and from the liberal establishment (though with longer words) as we do from empty-headed commentators whose only claim to having their comments on Islam published is that they are (or were) talk-show hosts.
Recent examples in national newspapers in the wake of the atrocities include such utter nonsense as the claim that “the Christian concept of forgiveness is absent in Islam”, or that “the concepts of debate and individual freedom are alien in Moslem cultures”, or that Islam is, uniquely, a “religion that sanctions all forms of violence”, or that the Taliban “desire to return Afghanistan to the mores of Arabia in the time of the Prophet”, or that Islamic law permits a Muslim man to divorce his wife immediately by sending a text message saying “I divorce you”, or that only Islam sanctions “suicide as a path to Paradise”, or, indeed, that the fanatical Muslim hordes are “already there in their thousands. And they are not going to respect weaknesses any more than Lenin did.”
And let us not forget the Internet as a source of Islamophobic utterances. If you have the stomach to trawl through and sift out some of the most obnoxious material you are likely to find on the planet, much of it written by native-speakers of English whose cultural illiteracy is only matched by their inability to construct an intelligible sentence in the English language, you may, if you are lucky, turn up sites which are capable of coherent syntax, if not coherent thought.
For instance, you might find the one set up by an organisation which supports, in its own words, “liberal-democratic pluralism and modernism as opposed to fundamentalism” and which maintains that “Islam was spread by the sword and has been maintained by the sword throughout its history” and that ”the myth of Islamic tolerance was largely invented by Jews and Western freethinkers as a stick to beat the Catholic Church”, or that there is “no way that Islam can ever be made compatible with pluralism, free speech, critical thought and democracy”. If you disagree with this, then, according to these people, you are, of course, an “apologist”.
I was shocked to read the headline of a broadsheet on Wednesday which proclaimed “No refuge for Islamic Terrorists”. Did this newspaper proclaim that there would be no refuge for Christian Mass Murderers after the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia? Thank you, Mr. Blair, for your statement on Thursday that the atrocities in America were not the work of “Muslim terrorists” but of “terrorists”. On the same front page there is an article about the execution of Islamic “militants” in China, several dozen Muslim men who had been fed alcohol with their last meal and then, stupefied by drink, driven to their deaths on an open lorry past laughing crowds. But is there any leading article or other comment which demands sanctions against China for such gross and barbaric abuses of human rights? Is there likely to be in the current climate which rewards Chinese and Russian support for an international coalition by turning a blind eye to the inevitable increase in the oppression of their own Muslim minorities? Will the Italian Prime Minister stand by his statement that human rights are one of the reasons why, in his view, the West is superior to Islam? Will he announce that the West is superior to China and superior to all those regimes, including those supported by Western powers, which abuse human rights? Will he speak out against those Italian cardinals whose anti-Muslim statements have reinforced xenophobia in Italy and therefore threaten to undermine the rights and freedoms of Muslims?
On Thursday, the first thing I heard in the morning was a discussion about different types of terrorism, and the extraordinary suggestion that the real threat is not so much “ordinary” terrorism as terrorism motivated by “doctrine” and “ideology” (no rewards for guessing here which “doctrine” is referred to) as if we are supposed to believe that it is only the “others” who have any kind of belief-system.
And behind this is also the entrenched view that it is religion which must take the blame for so much violence in the world. In other words, the “doctrine” which feeds the worst kind of terrorism is necessarily religious doctrine. This unquestioned association between religion and war has been wheeled out time and time again in the media with almost no attempt to question it. Having heard this for the umpteenth time last week, I looked into it, and discovered some interesting facts. About 250 million people have been killed in the ten worst wars, massacres and atrocities in the history of the world. Of these, only 2% were killed in religiously motivated conflicts, in this case the Thirty Years War in Europe, which figures as number 10 in the list, and even then this 2% is based on what many scholars believe to be a grossly exaggerated death toll. The vast majority of deaths were the result of secular wars and exterminations, largely based on atheistic doctrines and ideologies. It is truly extraordinary how facts can be ignored in the need to confirm and strengthen cherished illusions.
I clearly haven’t the time today to unpick every example of Islamophobic discourse. This is an ongoing struggle being undertaken systematically and with increasing effectiveness and influence by the Media and Popular Culture Watch Project which is one of the major initiatives of FAIR.
But what I can do is draw your attention to some of the underlying characteristics of the way that political and social power abuse, dominance and inequality are enacted in the kind of discourse of which Islamophobia is currently a prime example. We need to understand the characteristics of such discourse, wherever it appears; we need to rigorously unpick and expose its deficiencies with the best analytical tools, to bring to light and make conscious its manipulations, because although we can of course do our own shouting in response to it, it is through the light of knowledge and understanding that we can most effectively counter it. And as the Prophet made it very clear, the “ignorant theologian” is equally damaging to Islam as the “ill-tempered scholar” or the “tyrannical leader.”
Now there is already an established academic tradition of unpicking such discourse in what is called Critical Discourse Analysis or CDA developed by such influential discourse analysts as Teun van Dijk, Professor of Discourse Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
According to Van Dijk, “much of racism is ‘learned’ by text and talk”.
CDA upholds that power relations are discursive, that is, that discourse is an instrument of ideology and is a means of perpetuating social and political inequality. Discourse analysis which unpicks the way such language works therefore has great explanatory power and is also a form of social action, because the discourse itself constitutes the society and the culture from which it emerges. I am reminded here of the words of the Prophet, who said: “Anyone of you who sees wrong, let him undo it with his hand; and if he cannot, then let him speak against it with his tongue, and if he cannot do this either, then let him abhor it with his heart, and this is the least of faith.” Critical Discourse Analysis, as a form of social action, is both undoing with the hand and speaking with the tongue.
There is an excellent survey of CDA by van Dijk with an exhaustive bibliography which is easily accessible on the following website (www.hum.uva.nl/~teun/cda.htm). This article contains a rigorous exposure of the way discourse promotes and sustains racism, by promoting prejudiced social representations shared by dominant groups (usually white, European) and based on ideologies of superiority and difference. This is done by analysing some fragments of a book misleadingly entitled The End of Racism by Dinesh D’Souza (1995), a book which embodies many of the dominant Eurocentric supremacist ideologies in the USA, and which specifically targets one minority group in the USA: African Americans. This book is one of the main documents of conservative ideology in the US and has had considerable influence on the debates on affirmative action, welfare, multiculturalism, and immigration, and on the formulation of policy to restrict the rights of minority groups and immigrants.
I emphasise here that the discursive moves and ploys used in this book are the same moves and ploys that are used in all such discourse, including Islamophobia, and I hasten to add that we should also be very clear that the same tools of analysis need equally to be brought to bear on “Westophobic” discourse and all forms of discourse which seek to foment strife, division, hatred and confrontation. If I make a strong case against Islamophobia today, this does not mean that I do not value the strengths of Western civilisation.
Here are some of these discursive moves and ploys , as identified in van Dijk’s analysis of just a few fragments of D’Souza’s book. I’ll point up as far as I can the way in which these ploys are also used in Islamophobic discourse, but I hope you will make your own connections too.
Denial, mitigation, euphemization, and explaining away
By denying, mitigating, euphemising or explaining away your own defects you make them invisible or harmless. A characteristic ploy here is to generalise or universalise them or make them seem natural. Thus, we are told that racism is “a rational and scientific response” to primitive peoples and was in any case “widespread among other peoples”. Thus, racism is an ‘all too human’ characteristic of ethnocentricism. It is simply ‘caring for one’s own’. In this way, generalisation is made to appear as explanation. Van Dijk claims that this is “one of the most common moves of ideological legitimation: abuse of power is not a self-serving, negative characteristic of dominant groups” but is innate, “genetically pre-programmed” and “biologically inevitable”, so there is nothing we can do about it.
“The Greeks were ethnocentric, they showed a preference for their own. Such tribalism they would have regarded as natural, and indeed we now know that it is universal.” (533)
Notice the use of positive-sounding words like “human”, “natural” and “universal” to give respectability, even nobility, to tribalism. And how often have we been told in recent days how “natural” revenge is, and how “universal” and “humane” are the principles enshrined in the self-image of the West and supported by the whole “international community”, whatever that is.
Mitigation and denial is also accomplished through the use of euphemisms, that is the substitution of mild, polite, saccharine, evasive or roundabout words for more direct and honest ones. We have become more familiar with this ploy, and the related one of omission of key words, through the honesty and integrity of those journalists who are trying to use words to tell the truth.
Here are some familiar examples, with thanks to Brian Whitaker, among others:
targeted killing (assassination/murder by death squads/extra-judicial killing/execution)
collateral damage (civilian casualties)
killed in crossfire (shot by soldiers or snipers)
settler (illegal settler)
areas (communities/neighbourhoods) – the implication here is that people who live in “areas” are less civilised than those who live in communities or neighbourhoods.
suburbs (illegal settlements)
the international community (the West?)
a divided city (a city with 99.8% Arabs)
disputed territory (illegally occupied territory)
provocative act (criminal act according to international law)
There is a novel justification for euphemisms which I have recently heard from journalists. Apparently, column inches dictate that shorter terms have to be used to save space. “Settler” is only two syllables, whereas “illegal settler” is five, so the use of “settler” saves space. If so, why are the long words “neighbourhoods” and “communities” used to describe where the in-group lives , whereas “areas” is used for the out-group? Why, indeed, are the six syllables of “Islamic Terrorists” used in a headline on Thursday when space would have been saved by using only the three syllables of “Terrorists”?
And why is the mouthful “international community” used in cases where it clearly refers to “The West”?
Another well-known argumentative ploy is to invoke ignorance.
“It is impossible to answer the question of how much racism exists in the United States because nobody knows how to measure racism and no unit exists for calibrating such measurements.” (276)
Notice the use of academic jargon, and the appeal to scientific credibility. This is a clever ploy because, in a culture mesmerised by the supposed omniscience of scientists, most people dare not question “lack of scientific evidence”. By the same token, we can pretend to ignore the existence of all manner of self-evident and awkward truths, including the very existence of Islamophobia, under the banner of scientific respectability.
Self-glorification is one of the most obvious and characteristic way to promote a positive self-image, and D’Souza’s book is full of glowing admiration for Western culture and accomplishments.
“What distinguished Western colonialism was neither occupation nor brutality but a countervailing philosophy of rights that is unique in human history” (354) – and by the way, colonialism is also legitimated in terms of scientific curiosity.
We are entitled to say in response to this that the supposedly unique philosophy of rights so selflessly propagated by Western colonialism was in fact prefigured and surpassed in the first truly pluralistic society established by the Prophet in 7th century Medinah, a vision which nurtured those splendid multicultural and multi-faith civilisations in Islamic Spain, Sicily, the Levant, and in the Mughul and Ottoman Empires.
“”Abolition [of slavery] constitutes one of the greatest moral achievements of Western civilisation” (112) – notice here this extraordinary reversal used to enhance the positive characteristics of European civilisation, which sits oddly with the justification and mitigation of racism as a natural and all too human inclination.
We are all familiar now with the vocabulary of self-glorification, first in the recent debates about multiculturalism which have included explicit assertions of the superiority of the supposedly mono-cultural virtues of “Englishness”, and more recently in reactions to the atrocities in America, which have included insistent repetition of words like “civilised”, “freedom”, “humanity” and of “good” versus “evil”. And on Thursday, we heard the Italian Prime Minister explicitly ascribe “superiority” and “supremacy” to the West over Islam. It has been encouraging to see that there is not a single political leader who has supported his completely out-of-tune remarks, and it was good to hear British government ministers, including David Blunkett and Claire Short, repudiate them yesterday as “offensive, inaccurate and unhelpful”. But it has raised a new discussion in the media about the differences between Islam and the West and once again all kinds of colourful figures are wheeled out to give their opinions on Islam. I heard one such figure on the Today programme yesterday, having flippantly admitted that he knew very little either about women or Islam, proclaim that the main difference between Islam and the West was the fact that women in Islam were 3rd class citizens. The implication was quite clear: the West is superior to Islam for this reason. Notice the appeal to the moral high ground in this kind of self-referential and self-congratulatory superiority.
To bring some light into this discussion, I recommend a look at the website of the Australian Psychological Society, particularly the section on Language, Social Representations and the media (www.aps.psychsociety.com.au/member/racism/sec3.html) which makes a very clear statement of the way in which “the media are cultural products central to the construction of social realities and to communication between groups and across cultures…..Media coverage of group differences, and often group conflicts, tend to highlight and exaggerate, oversimplify and caricaturise such differences”. A classic study from 1961 of this phenomenon is on cross-national images of the ‘enemy’ which showed that the cold-war images US citizens had of Russia were virtually identical, or the ‘mirror image’ of the views that the Russians had of the US.
The same source makes an important statement about “political correctness”. It can be anticipated that some commentators will suggest that the reluctance of other political leaders to endorse the Italian Prime Minister’s remarks is merely a matter of “political correctness”. It is important to realise that “while genuine political correctness can be a strong force in encouraging more humane reasonable and human behaviour, it is invariably represented by opponents as undermining free speech in the service of minority group interests….Dismissals of genuine and effective anti-racism initiatives as ‘merely’ politically correct thus legitimises racial intolerance….”.
Derogation and Demonisation of the Others
Now, van Dijk pointedly remarks that “it is only one step from an assertion of national or cultural pride and self-glorification to feelings of superiority, derogation and finally the marginalisation and exclusion of the Others”. And indeed, I would add not only marginalisation and exclusion, but ultimately persecution and genocide. We can go directly here to Islamophobic discourse without referring to van Dijk’s analysis.
A classic example is the shaping by Serbian orientalists of a “stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior and threatening” which “helped to create a condition of virtual paranoia among the Serbs”2. As I have said, this is a pathological condition, and its pathology is absolutely transparent in its good vs. evil, “us and them” language. And language which uses the rhetoric of “either you’re with us or against us” partakes of the same psychically fragmented condition. It has been extraordinary to see the hatred which has been aroused by those who have refused to submit to this oppressive, self-righteous and divided mentality and have been courageous and clear-thinking enough to say so. Tony Benn is an example, and the furore he caused on Newsnight on Thursday night, while always retaining his own dignity, could not even be contained by the No. 1 hard man, Jeremy Paxman.
As is true of virtually all of the people of Europe, including the English, today’s Bosnian Muslims are an amalgam of various ethnic origins. Yet what the Serbs did was to differentiate and isolate the Muslim community “by creating “a straw-man Islam and Muslim stereotype” and “setting and emphasising cultural markers” which focused on Islam and the Muslims as alien, culturally and morally inferior, threatening and, of course, exotic, but in a perverse, negative way. The Serbs applied the label “Islamic fundamentalist” freely to all Muslims, who were seen as reflections of the “darkness of the past”. They claimed that “in Islamic teaching, no woman has a soul”; that “the tone of the Qur’an is openly authoritarian, uncompromising and menacing”; that the reading of the traditional tales in A Thousand and One Nights predisposed Muslims (in their words gave “subliminal direction” to the Muslims) to torture and kill Christians; that the destruction of places of worship belonging to other faiths is an obligation on all Muslims; that the “banning of tourism and sports” in Islam inevitably led to “xenophobia” and “segregation”, and so on.
It is quite clear that these Serbian orientalists, “ by bending scholarship and blending it with political rhetoric….defined Islam and the local Muslim community in such a way as to contribute significantly to…. making genocide acceptable”. And what allowed them to play such a role? It was “the extensive media exposure they enjoyed in Serbia”, as much as “their participation in official propaganda campaigns abroad”.
At this point, I will not trouble to examine the profusion of derogatory statements which have been made against Islam and Muslims not only in the last two weeks, but over the last ten years. I will only point to the evidence of how the distorted analysis of Islam by the Serbs, played out in the media, made the transition from pseudo-scholarly anlaysis to advocacy of violence and ultimately to genocide. Such is the outcome of words used without truth or responsibility. To see so many stereotypes in the Western press so similar to those invented by the Serbs is quite chilling.
Other discursive structures, strategies and moves I can only touch on these here. They include:
The rhetoric of repetition, emphatic hyperbole (exaggeration), ridicule, metaphor, association and blaming the victim.
Repetition: An American politician referred to the attack on America as an attack on the “civilised world”, “civilised countries” and “civilised peoples”, all in one sentence.
Hyperbole: A common one is that Muslims want to rule the world (warnings like this are regularly broadcast in national newspapers in Germany by Dr. Peter Frisch, head of the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Pretection of the Constitution).
Ridicule: “Islam Week brought us the wonders of mosques and Mecca…. taking in – ho, ho, ho! – a Muslim football team….” (Julie Birchill, Guardian Weekend, 18 August, 2001)
Metaphor: “While the history of other religions is one of moving forward out of oppressive darkness and into tolerance, Islam is doing it the other way around.” (Birchill, op. cit.). Notice here the characteristic “darkness” metaphor, one of those favoured by the Serbs.
Association: (referring to Jools Holland’s Rhythms of Islam in the BBC’s Islam UK Week): “Mind you, I did briefly start to feel sorry for them here: any espousal of one’s cause by the terminally naff Holland must surely kill its cred stone dead.” (Birchill, op. cit.)
Blaming the Victim: even in such atrocious acts as those committed in Molln and Solingen where Turkish people were burnt alive (Europe’s Islamophobia by Sameera Mian in Muslim News, 28 November, 1997).
The well-known argumentative ploy of casual reference to “scholarly” studies so as to give weight and authority to fallacious arguments.
The use of presuppositions and premises which are taken to be held by everybody: “We all know that….”, “The reality is….”, “The truth is….”,
The familiar disclaimer of the apparent concession: “Of course there is some prejudice, but….”
The number game of comparative statistics – always used in favour of the dominant group.
After this focused linguistic analysis , I would like to finish by affirming the wider spiritual perspective which must inform this discussion. Years ago, when I was lecturing in Psycholinguistics at the University of Edinburgh, I had a strong academic interest in the relationship between language and mind, language and attitude, and language and prejudice, but it is only in recent years in my engagement with the faith, knowledge and civilisation of Islam that I have begun to understand how vital it is to understand the nature of language from a spiritual perspective and how sacred is that trust borne by all of us who use language to inform, educate, influence and persuade others.
And to use words like “spiritual” and “sacred” in relation to the use of language is simply another way of saying that to use language wisely and well is the mark of the fully human being.
The Greeks also understood well the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language and the fierce debates about the role of rhetoric were most notably expressed and distilled in Plato’s affirmation that philosophical dialectic (that is the testing process of critical enquiry through discussion) is utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, which, if not firmly subordinated to knowledge and reason, is roundly condemned as nakedly exploitative emotional manipulation.
It is this legacy which has ultimately ensured that “in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages….the word rhetorical is unfailingly pejorative [i.e. disparaging, negative]. It implies “ dissembling, manipulative abuse of linguistic resources for self-serving ends, usually in the political context…”1 How often have we heard in recent weeks from intelligent commentators of the dangers of “cranking up” the rhetoric and the need to “tone it down” in the interests of reason, restraint and proportionality. And, sad to say, how often have we heard too a new version of Orwellian Newspeak which admits only one version of reality, only one interpretation of events, and which discredits all alternative perspectives as evidence of complicity with terrorists.
And let us not forget the use and abuse of images as well as words in our increasingly visual culture. By “language” I mean both the verbal and the visual vocabulary and syntax. We are entitled to ask what on earth is implied by the juxtaposition of a picture of Muslim women praying next to an article entitled “Cradles of Fanaticism”. This speaks for itself. The intention is very clear. In this equation, to pray is to be fanatical. Elementary logic tells me that this must mean that all people from all religious traditions who pray are fanatics. This is the kind of shameful material I would have used when as a teacher of English I taught young people how to recognise the way they were manipulated by propaganda in the media. I wanted them to gain the essential critical thinking skills, as well as the qualities of empathy, tolerance and respect for diversity, which are presumably valued by civilised, humane and freedom-loving peoples.
But it is important to realise that from an Islamic perspective language is not just a tool of critical enquiry, rational debate and discussion which advances human knowledge, important as this is, but is a divine gift to mankind, a mark of his special status in the divine order.
The Qur’an says that God “imparted unto Adam the names of all things” (2:31). On one level this can be interpreted as the capacity for conceptual thought which is empowered through the definition and distinction inherent in naming, a capacity not shared even by the angels, who are commanded to prostrate themselves before Adam in recognition of his status as Khalïfah, or vicegerent, a term denoting man’s stewardship of the earth as a consequence of his being made in the image of God.
In another sense, the names are the letters from which all words are constructed (notice how we name the letters – we say alif, ba, alpha, beta, and so on). The proportioned script of Arabic lettering has the remarkable property that the shapes of all the other letters are generated in strict geometric proportionality by the alif (or more correctly from the dot, which defines the length and surface area of the alif). This is what gives Arabic calligraphy its sublime visual harmony. Alif is the first letter, the upright stroke, symbolic of our erect, Adamic, human nature orientated vertically towards remembrance of our divine origin.
We have heard much in recent days from politicians, military strategists, commentators and the general public about the need for a “proportional response”. Everyone with humanity feels this instinctively, because it part of the innate disposition (fitra) of the human being who is created, as the Qur’an says, “in due measure and proportion”. But proportionality in Islam is not just a quantitative and material matter, a question of deployment of forces. It is a qualitative matter, a defining marker of human character and spirituality, which in its primordial condition is in a state of balance and equilibrium.
So the “names” are not simply tools for logical thinking, for making fine distinctions. From an Islamic perspective, letters and words are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation. It is therefore a sacred trust to use words which are fair, fitting, balanced, equitable and just, words which are in “due measure and proportion.”
In this conception of language, the letter is not an inanimate component of an abstract concept, but is a living entity, and the words which are formed from these letters, the phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity. The word is in fact a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing and acting. We have the expression “in word and in deed” and this encapsulates this wisdom, this convergence between speech and action.
“Art thou not aware how God sets forth the parable of the good word? [It is] like a good tree, firmly rooted, [reaching out] with its branches towards the sky, yielding its fruit at all times by its Sustainer’s leave. And [thus it is that] God propounds parables unit men, so that they might bethink themselves [of the truth]. And the parable of the corrupt word is that of a corrupt tree, torn up [from its roots] onto the face of the earth, wholly unable to endure.” (Qur’an 14:24-26).
Correctives must always be applied to what is out of balance. Islamophobia is a reality and it needs to be corrected, not by using the word itself as a label to stifle just criticism, not by defensive hostility, and not by shouting louder, but by knowledge, by reason, by detailed work, and above all by the example of our own humanity.
Bath, 28 September 2001
Dr Jeremy Henzell-Thomas is Chair of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR) and the Executive Director of the Book Foundation. He has worked in education for many years, having taught at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, both in the U.K. and overseas. Most recently he has held a lectureship in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and the post of Director of Studies at an UK independent school.
1. Robert Wardy, Chapter on Rhetoric (page 465) in Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000.
2. Norman Cigar, The Role of Serbian Orientalists in Justification of Genocide Against Muslims of the Balkans, Islamic Quarterly: Review of Islamic Culture, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, 1994.
The racialized discourse prevalent in our own era has over the centuries proven alien to the societies which developed under the inspiration of Islam. Even more alien to those societies has been the tendency found in the West to articulate personal identity almost entirely in racial terms. For in racialized nations like the United States, Europe, South Africa or the Caribbean, appearance or physical attributes, such as hair, skin and bone structure, have been more consequential, more starkly invested with social signficance, than anything else such as family, wealth culture education or personal achievement.
It goes without saying that this investing of bodily marks with so high a degree of significance is sociogenic in origin and not phylogenic. To think otherwise would be to place racism beyond the possibility of eradication. It is a historical accident, not a necessity of nature, that produces racist perceptions, actions and discourse. Some historians say that the concept of race did not enter European consciousness until the fifteen century. But certainly, by the midpoint of the nineteenth century Benjamin Disraeli could declare that “all is race.” That is, the basic human condition—and thus economic, political, scientific and cultural positions—are taken to be determined by race. So by the twentieth century, Cromer and Balfour, the most highly-esteemed of British colonial administrators, took it as a matter of course that Europeans and the English in particular, were the master race. All others were “subject races.”
The contrast with societies that grew up under the influence of Islam is considerable. Although Islamic society was multi-racial from the beginning, in none of the regions where the religion became dominant did the concept of race enter Muslim consciousness. In fact, Arabic had no word at this time which would correspond to the semantic range covered by the English word “race.” The word that is sometimes translated as “race” in versions of Classical Arabic texts is “jins” or “genus.” “Jins” is a classificatory term taken over from Aristotelian science and is used regularly in Islamic law, for example, to define the value of commodities. For example, the eleventh-century Transoxianian jurist Abu Bakr as-Sarakhsi, who writes:
The free and the slave are of one genus. As far as his origin is concerned, the human being is free. Slavery intervenes as an accident . . . So slavery does not bring about a change in genus. (Kitab al-Mabsut (Beirut: 1398/1978) XII, 83-84.)
In the fifteenth century, as racist ideology emerged in the West, the Muslim Ottoman empire was also coming on the scene. “Racism”, however, could not have formed part of its legitimating apparatus. It formed no part of the Ottoman Muslim legacy.
Of course, social differentiation did and does exist amongst Muslim peoples. This cannot be denied. In the tribal society in which Islam was born there existed differences in social status between the various tribes. Moreover, the societies of the Roman, Persian and Indian worlds where Islam planted its roots were highly articulated in terms of occupational differentiation. But while we find instances of discriminatory exclusion founded on a people’s social standing, this did not take on a predominantly racial character.
Wherever Islam put down roots, Muslims grew to believe that discriminatory exclusion based on race was fundamentally alien to the spirit of their faith. This is understandable, given that there is almost a logical connection between affirming the oneness of God and upholding the equality of human beings before Him. We read, for example, in Islam’s sacred book, the Qur’an: “O Humankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples (shu‘ub) and tribes (qaba’il) that you may know one another; truly, the noblest (akram) among you before God are the most pious (atqa) among yourselves; indeed, is God the All-knowing, the All-seeing.” (49:13). This verse was revealed immediately after the triumphant entry of the Prophet (on him be God’s blessing and peace) into Mecca. After a declaration of immunity from reprisal offered to the tribes of Mecca that had fought against him, the Prophet requested Bilal the Abyssinian to call the people to prayer. A group of three new Muslims saw this. One of them remarked how happy he was that his parents were not present to see such a disgusting sight. Another one, Harith ibn Hisham found it remarkable that the Blessed Prophet could find no-one other than a black to call the Muslims to prayer. Yet another, Abu Sufyan, abstained from making any adverse comment lest God send a revelation to Muhammad to deal with what he said. The sources record that God did indeed send the angel of revelation, Gabriel, to inform the Prophet of the discussion that had just taken place. The Prophet asked the three men about their conversation and they confirmed to the Prophet exactly what Gabriel had told him. This verse of the Qur’an was subsequently revealed because these three Arab men were discriminating between themselves and Bilal, an African. God revealed this verse to proclaim that the only criterion He uses to judge between believers is that of piety, a virtue which Bilal possessed and the three men did not.
Qur’an 49:13 has played a central role in Muslim discourse on the race question. Despite the circumstances of its revelation, there are interpretations which suggest that it refers to tribalism and not to race as such. This is because of the reference it makes to tribes, or “qaba’il.” Admittedly, because race calls upon kinship, this may seem a distinction without a difference. In any case, on this reading the word translated as peoples (shu‘ub) will mean “tribal confederacy” inasmuch as the singular form sha‘b signifies “a collecting” or “separating” and thus by extension came to denote genealogical units that resulted from the branching-off of earlier units. Earlier commentators like Sufyan ath-Thawri (d.777) state that “The shu‘ub are like the tribes Tamim and Bakr and the qaba’il are subtribes.” Tabari, (d.923), the great lawyer and historian, accordingly glosses this verse as follows:
We have caused you to be related in genealogy. Some of you are related to others remotely … When it says “That you may come to know each other” it means “That you may know each other with respect to genealogy … not because you have any superiority to others in that respect nor any nearness which will bring you closer to God, but because The most distinguished amongst you is the most pious amongst yourselves. (Jami¢ al-bayan ‘an ta’wil ai al-Qur’an (Cairo: 1373/1854) II, 138ff).
On this interpretation the Qur’an seems to legitimate people formulating personal-identity through the mediation of institutional resources of recognition and authorization. That is, it pronounces as legitimate an identity that locates each person in a given social grouping. Hence the words “That you may come to know each other” are taken to be a condemnation of ignorance of family lines without which a lawful life in Islam would be impossible, since if people ignored their genealogies, they would be unable to distribute inheritance or avoid marriage within the forbidden degrees.
Furthermore, it appears that the Blessed Prophet did affirm the benefit of genealogical knowledge when he said: “Know concerning your genealogies that by which you may make your ties of blood kinship close; for close ties of kinship are a cause of love amongst family.” But the stated motivation for mutual knowledge here is love. After all, the Blessed Prophet had announced, “The believers, in their love, mutual kindness, and close ties, are like one body; when any part complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever” [Source: Muslim’s Sahih]. Hence it does not seem too much to interpret the phrase in Qur’an: “That you may come to know each other” as advancing mutual knowledge as a motivating force for mutual love. Knowledge of one’s particular ties of kinship would be only one means of accomplishing this, given that the entire human race descends from a common ancestor. The latter idea harmonises with the Prophet’s address in his farewell pilgrimage to which we will turn in a moment.
Giving ground to a more universalising interpretation of Qur’an 39:13 are glosses like that of al-Qushayri (d.1071) quoted in al-Qurtubi’s Jami‘ ahkam al-Qur’an (Cairo: 1387/1967) XVI, which stress the idea that “The shu‘ub are those the origins of whose genealogy (nasab) are unknown like the Indians and the Iranians and the Turks.” This reading emphasises the relevance for some commentators of Qur’an 39:13 to racism. For example, Abu’l-Futuh ar-Razi, the eleventh century commentator on the Qur’an in Persian (Rawh al-jinan (Tehran, 1383/1963-64) X, 261), wrote: “The shu‘ub are those whose relations are not described in terms of a person but in terms of a city (shahr) or land (zamin). Tribes are those which describe their relations in terms of ancestors (pidaran).” When he comes to the verse “And their Lord has hearkened unto them, I will not suffer the pious deed performed by anyone amongst you, either male or female, to be lost. The one of you is of the other” (3: 195) he glosses it as follows: “‘All men are one in respect to their innate nature in my sight’ as Muhammad—peace be upon him, said— ‘People are like the teeth of a comb’ that is, in respect to their innate natures.” (Rawh al-jinan, III, 136.)
If someone is a person of distinction, then, it is not because of race or genealogy. After all, a bad man may be wealthy and have prominent forebears and a good one may be poor and quite obscure in origin. Yet for all that he can be a human being of outstanding moral character. Commenting on 39:13 Fakhr ad-DÏn ar-Razi (d.1210) in his at-Tafsir al-Kabir (Cairo, 1933, XXVIII, 136) says: “People are equal insofar as they are irreligious and impious.” What makes them different is the content of their moral character.
Razi goes on to comment that when the verse proclaims “We have created you from male and female”, the preferred interpretation is that all humankind are descended from Adam and Eve. Hence we have no reason to boast because of our social standing, since we are sons and daughters of the same man and woman. Another interpretation is that human beings constitute one race because all human beings are offspring of one male and female.
The sentiments of the Qur’an are echoed in the proclamation of the Blessed Prophet during his farewell pilgrimage:
Oh humankind, your Lord is one and your ancestors are one. You are from Adam and Adam was from dust. Behold, neither the Arab has superiority to the non-Arab, nor the red to the black nor the black to the red except by virtue of piety (taqwa). Truly the most distinguished amongst you is the most pious.
The Prophet here makes the logical connection between monotheism and race of which I spoke earlier. Moreover, his language here is similar to that in a tradition transmitted on the authority of Abu Musa where the Prophet—on him be peace—says: “An Arab is no better than a non-Arab. Conversely, a non-Arab is no better than an Arab. A red-raced man is not better than a black one except in piety. Humanity are all Adam’s children and Adam was created out of clay.” [Sahihs of Bukhari and Muslim.] The Prophet’s language also shows that when it comes to discrimination, he has in mind not simply tribalism but also that type of differential exclusion that invests bodily marks with social significance. For the “black” and the “red” are usually taken to mean the Arabs and the Persians respectively, that is, those who relate their personal identity to a tribal grouping and those who relate it to a place or nation.
Razi ends his reflections on verse 49:13 with a story illustrative of the way he understands the Qur’an at this point. He writes:
I heard that one of the nobles in Central Asia [Khurasan] was with respect to his genealogy the closest of people to Ali—on him be peace—[the fourth Caliph of Islam] but he was corrupt morally (fasiq). There was a black former slave (mawla) who was pre-eminent both for his learning (‘ilm) and practice [of Islam] (‘amal). The people [of the locale] liked to seek [the shaykh’s] blessing. It came to pass that one day he set out to the mosque and the people followed him. The nobleman, in a state of obvious inebriation, came upon him. The people pushed the nobleman out of the way [of the shaykh]. But the nobleman overtook them and grabbing the shaykh’s arm, cried: ‘O Black one … infidel and son of an infidel! I am a son of the Messenger of God. Humble yourself and show some respect!’ … The people beat the nobleman. But the shaykh said: “No! This is to be tolerated from him for the sake of his ancestor. Beating him is to be reckoned according to his sin. However, O nobleman, I am white within but black without. People behold the whiteness of my heart behind the blackness of my face … I have taken the path of your father and you have taken the path of my father. People see me in the path of your father and see you in the path of my father. They deem me a son of your father and you, a son of my father.
This story is in a real way illustrative of the exact importance Muslims throughout the ages have placed upon race in their daily lives.
Yet this was the spirit of Islam that the Prophet Muhammad taught, as we see from the tradition found in Ibn al-Mubarak’s (d.797) book, Kitab al-Birr wa’l-Sila. This relates that when some disagreement occurred between Abu Dharr and Bilal, the former said to the latter: “You son of a black woman!” The Messenger of God—on him be blessing and peace—was displeased by Abu Dharr’s comment and he rebuked him by saying: “That is too much, Abu Dharr. He who has a white mother has no advantage which makes him better than the son of a black mother.” The Prophet’s rebuke deeply affected Abu Dharr and he immediately threw himself to the ground, swearing that he would not raise it until Bilal had put his foot over his head.
Still, one may wonder how far the proposed logical connection between monotheism and egalitarianism works as an antidote to racist beliefs. Does Islam offer a conceptual barrier to them, or facilitate their articulation? Recently, efforts have been made to dismantle the impediments to tolerance in our increasingly global age. The hope behind these efforts is that with a better grasp of the roots of intolerance we will be better able to establish a genuinely ecumenical framework for living with our differences. Into this effort one must place Regina Schwartz, who argues that “through the dissemination of the Bible in Western culture, its narratives have become the foundation of a prevailing understanding of ethnic, religious, and national identity as defined negatively; over against others. We are ‘us’ because we are not ‘them’, Israel is not Egypt.” (The Curse of Cain. The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), X.)
The well-known Egyptologist Jan Assmann has also argued that monotheism has been the single most important impediment to cross-cultural translation, communication and understanding, and, for this reason, the single most influential source of negativity and intolerance. According to Assmann, it is only with monotheism that we encounter the phenomenon of a “counter-religion”, by which he means a religious formation that posits a distinction between true and false religion. Before the emergence of monotheism, the boundaries between polytheistic cults were in principle open. Translatability is readily grounded in a general function attributed to divinities whose work in nature shows a correspondence. “The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape and function,” Assmann writes, “the names are of course different … But the functions are strikingly similar” [so that] “the sun god of one religion is easily equated to the sun god of another religion. In contrast, monotheism, because revealed and not grounded in nature, erects a rigid boundary between true religion and everything else. Whereas polytheism … rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked inter-cultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.” (Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).)
Schwartz’s and Assmann’s understanding is grounded in what they take to be a pluralism demanded by today’s increasing global consciousness. For them, racial conflicts are generated through cultural and religious differences, the unwillingness to see the other as oneself. The other is just like oneself. His or her strangeness is simply a function of a different vocabulary. Strangeness comprises a different set of names that can always be translated. This seems to work when we are speaking of the abstract entities divine names signify: the natural functions of divinities. But then the individuality of the divinities seems exhaustible in the plethora of generalities we use in describing those functions. The reason why the ancient pagan gods enjoy the inter-substitutability of which Assmann speaks is that they were perceived as manifestations of rather general traits.
But it would seem that what people find most repugnant about racism is its easy generalisations about others, as though people of a certain race were inter-substitutable or as if one member of a given race were replaceable by another. Yet persons are irreplaceable like nothing is, like nothing else can be. The American philosopher Stanley Cavell notes this in his observation that the pre-Civil War American slaveowner did not deny the humanity of his slave (The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) p. 376). When he took a slave as concubine he did not think that he had embraced bestiality. He did not go to such lengths to convert his horses to Christianity or to prevent their getting wind of it. “It could be said,” Cavell writes, “that what he denies is that the slave is other … to his one.” [Ibid.] That is, he denies that the slave has his own (i.e., the slave owner’s) sense of being singular and unique. But when Qur’an 39:13 enjoins us to know one another as members of different races it is not as instances of a set of general racial characteristics. It enjoins us to know each other as the unique, irreplaceable individuals that we are. This is why I have argued for the logical connexion of Islamic monotheism and egalitarianism. For in the uniqueness of the Creator we find the model of the uniquness of the human individual.
Here, cultural critic Slavoj Zizek’s reflections are helpful. He suggests that since every language, by definition, contains an space open to what eludes our grasp where words fail, we effectively understand a foreign culture when we are able to identify that language’s points of failure when we are able to apprehend its blind spots. Hence, we should not focus on the peculiarity of a people’s customs, but endeavour to encircle that which eludes the grasp of the people themselves, the point at which the Other is in itself dislocated. “I understand the Other,” Zizek writes, “when I become aware of how the very problem that was bothering me … is already bothering the Other itself” (The Abyss of Freeedom/Ages of the World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, p.50). For intercultural understanding, then, demands that we go to those places where each of one of us becomes an enigma to him- or herself. For in the “we” of community there always inheres a strangeness, a space inside us where group identity fails and eludes the grasp of institutionally or religiously created solidarities.
It is this strangeness to which the Prophet Muhammad alluded when he said: “Islam began as something strange and shall again become strange. Blessed be those who are strange.” Someone asked: “In what way are they strange, O Messenger of God?” In one narration the Prophet replied: “Just as one says of a man that he is strange vis-à-vis a certain tribe.” Islam at its most ideal level, then, must be strange to an identity mediated by institutional resources of recognition. For this is like the identity of tribal membership, which is opposed to the ethic of singularity which the Prophet taught. The idea that “We are ‘us’ because we are not ‘them’”, therefore, is foreign to Islam. Solidarity amongst groups created on the basis of racial, tribal or even religious identity in Arabic is called Asabiyya. But of the latter the Prophet said: “He is not one us who calls for Asabiyya, or who fights for Asabiyya or who dies for Asabiyya.” (Narrated in the Sunan of Abu Dawud.)
(This essay is based on a text first given as the Annual World Humanities Lecture, University of Leicester, 3 April 2000)
Antisemitism is an ancient European disfigurement whose easing is now underway. The discourse of Jewish ‘threat’ or ‘contamination’ is no longer acceptable in cultivated circles. [Europe] has not yet, however, come to terms with its other historic chauvinism, which is only now being named: ‘Islamophobia’. Islamophobia I take to mean the emotive dislike of the Islamic religion as a whole, rather than of its extreme manifestations; or rather, we might more usefully define it as the assumption that the extremes of the religion have normative status. If that is the definition then clearly [Europe] has hardly begun to purge its subconscious. Despite welcome transformations in Christian attitudes towards ‘unbelievers’, even the churches can harbour intransigent voices. In Italy, the Archbishop of Bologna has called for the closure of the country’s mosques and an end to immigration by Muslims, who are, he believes, ‘outside our humanity.’  In [Kamchatka], at the furthest end of European settlement, the Orthodox bishop has backed opposition to the construction of a mosque for the region’s large Muslim community. The mosque would be ‘a direct insult to the religious and civil feelings of the Slavic population,’ according its local opponents, and would encourage further Muslim immigration, with the result that ‘given their mind-set, they won’t let us live normally here.’ 
The new substitute for Antisemitism is resurgent in formerly Nazi regions as well. In Austria, the currently-triumphant Freedom Party seems no less mistrustful of the Muslim presence. ‘The increasing fundamentalism of radical Islam which is penetrating [Europe],’ it warns us, ‘is threatening the consensus of values which is in danger of getting lost.’ Far from stiffening [Europe’s] moral fibre, the new Turkish invaders form part of a relativising process which allegedly threatens Christian Austria with the confiscation of its identity and with social disaster. As the Freedom Party explains, it is not race, but culture, and hence religion, which defines legitimate belonging, which is why ‘the Freedom Party sees itself as an ideal partner of the Christian churches’.  Even though most local clergy have sharply denounced it, the party attracts a third of the vote of this stable, prosperous Catholic democracy, and may grow further. Minorities can only hope that Jorg Haider is wrong in his conception of his nation when he opines, ‘The Freedom Party is not the descendent of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority.’ 
A Conradian voice of sanity amidst this intensifying atmosphere of anti-Muslim feeling is supplied by the Catholic novelist Jacques Neirynck. His novel Le Siege de Bruxelles depicts events in the Belgian capital in the year 2007. In this nightmare of Europe’s near future, official Christianity has become a ghost, with its cathedrals reduced to the status of museums where Mass is celebrated only to satisfy the curiosity of Far Eastern tourists. The Cardinal-Archbishop bears the mock-eucharistic soubriquet of the ‘Real Absence’, as his hyperliberal theology, anxious to placate all sides, proves unable to mobilise Christian resistance to the new Flemish chauvinism.
In Neirynck’s future, the triumph of the New Right has presided over the opening of concentration camps and the expulsion of the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities, who are given twenty-four hours in which to shoulder their possessions and walk in single file towards the south. This is a religious as well as cultural backlash, under the Crusading cry ‘Dieu le veut!’, blessed by a ‘cultural and religious restoration’ which favours the Jansenist crucifix, whose Jesus is suspended so low that his arms appear to embrace only a small elect. Nationalist priests call for ‘surgical strikes which will cut out the tumour’; and go on to bless the siege and bombardment of the Muslim ghetto, as Brussels is slowly transformed into a second Sarajevo. The drama ends with a Muslim counterattack to liberate a concentration camp, which provokes the panic-stricken flight of the Flemish militias, and thereby reveals the underlying fragility of the far right’s agenda. 
Neirynck’s fable seems alarmist and alien; but it is undeniable that the far right continues to gain ground in Belgium, where Turkish and Maghrebian immigrants, joined by a substantial convert community, provide a convenient lightning-rod for the insecurities of Belgians of all social classes, unnerved by unemployment, globalisation, political corruption, and the visibility of the non-Christian Other. The far-right Vlaams-Blok, the leading Flemish nationalist party, described by Stephen Fisher of Oxford’s Nuffield College, as ‘the most blatantly racist and xenophobic of the extreme-right parties in Western Europe’, has grown in strength from 1.3% of the electorate in 1984 to 14.8% in 1999, and has become the largest Flemish party in Brussels, and also in Antwerp, where it has gained control of the municipality. Vlaams-Blok politicians have not been reluctant to identify Muslims as the new threat. Filip De Winter, the party’s former leader, has called for the ‘hermetic closure’ of Belgium’s borders, and anticipates ‘the return of all immigrants, without exception, to their countries of origin.’ This is to be accomplished by the progressive deprivation of state benefits and citizenship rights, and the creation of specific immigrant areas with the cities to improve levels of surveillance. Islam itself is to be prohibited, ‘because this religion is anti-Belgian and anti-European.’ 
Until his assassination in May 2002 by an animal-rights fanatic, the growing popularity of the far-right Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn sent shudders down the spine of Holland’s half-million strong Muslim population. In March polls, thirty-five percent of voters in Rotterdam deserted traditional Dutch liberalism and voted for Mr Fortuyn, bringing Holland into line with other European countries where anti-Muslim feeling has revived the fortunes of neo-Fascist tendencies which had been largely dormant since the Second World War.
Fortuyn’s religious views are detailed in his book Against the Islamisation of our Culture, published in 1997 to celebrate Israel’s fiftieth birthday. He believed that Islam, unlike his own strongly-affirmed Christianity, is a ‘backward culture’, with an inadequate view of God and an inbuilt hostility to European culture. He called for massive curbs on Muslim immigration, and for greater stress on Holland’s Christian heritage. A prominent homosexual activist, Fortuyn also condemned Islam’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Fortuyn’s popularity was thought to be greatest among Dutch voters who feel strong sympathy for Israel, oppose greater European integration, and demand the refining of immigration and asylum laws to exclude people of Muslim cultural background. It is a package that is being studied very carefully by apparatchiks in more traditional parties, alarmed by the fact that one recent poll of Dutch 18-30 year olds showed that almost half want to see ‘zero Muslim immigration.’
Edgar van Loken, of Amsterdam’s Migrant Centre, fears that Fortuyn’s breakthrough may herald an even stronger showing for the far-right in May’s general election. Even the mainstream parties, he believes, are now considering the adoption of aspects of Fortuyn’s formula. ‘The real problem is that other political parties are starting to see Mr Fortuyn’s strategy as a vote winner and may start to follow suit.’ 
The crisis came at a particularly sensitive time for Holland. On April 16, the entire cabinet resigned following the publication of a UN report into the behaviour of Dutch peacekeepers in the besieged Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. Investigators had consistently suggested that Dutch troops, many of whom were recruited from inner-city areas with a strong neo-Fascist presence, were ideologically anti-Muslim.
In Norway, the 1997 election saw the sudden appearance of the anti-immigrant Progress Party of Carl Hagen, which now holds twenty-five out of a hundred and sixty-five parliamentary seats. Similar to Hagen’s group is the Swiss People’s Party, which commands 22.5% of the popular vote in Switzerland, and has been widely compared to the Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, which in 1999 joined the Austrian coalition government.
In Denmark, the rapidly-growing ultranationalist DPP has become the third most popular party, benefiting from widespread popular dislike of Muslims. Its folksy housewife-leader Pia Kiaersgaard opposes entry into the Eurozone, rails against ‘welfare cheats’, and is famous for her outbursts against Islam. ‘I think the Muslims are a problem,’ she stated in a recent interview. ‘It’s a problem in a Christian country to have too many Muslims.’ 
Here in Britain, the same tendency has to some extent been paralleled in the recent growth of the British National Party. A cassette recording issued by the party, entitled ‘Islam: A Threat to Us All: A Joint Statement by the British National Party, Sikhs and Hindus’, describes itself as ‘a common effort to expose and resist the innate aggression of the imperialistic ideology of Islam’. As with its Continental allies, the BNP is gaining popularity by abandoning racist language, and by attempting to forge alliances with non-Muslim Asians and Blacks. The result has been documents such as the October 2001 ‘Anti-Islam Supplement’ of the BNP newsletter Identity, which ended with an appeal to ‘Join Our Crusade’. The chairman of the BNP, Nick Griffin, wades in with discussions of ‘The Islamic Monster’ and the ‘New Crusade for the Survival of the West’. 
In July 2001, Griffin and his skinheads polled 16% of the votes in Oldham West: the highest postwar vote for any extremist party in the UK. Nonetheless, British fascism remains less popular than most of its European counterparts. An issue to consider, no doubt, as Muslim communities ponder their response to growing British participation in schemes for European integration, and the long-term possibility of a federal European state.
Let me offer a final, more drastic example of how such attitudes are no longer marginal, but have penetrated the mainstream and contribute to the shaping of policy, often with disastrous results. On the outbreak of the Bosnian war, the German magazine Der Spiegel told its readers that ‘Soon Europe could have a fanatical theocratic state on its doorstep.’  (The logic no doubt appealed to the thirty-eight percent of Germans polled in [Brandenburg]who recently expressed support for a far-right party’s policy on ‘foreigners’. ) The influential American commentator R.D. Kaplan, much admired by Bill Clinton, thought that ‘[a] cultural curtain is descending in Bosnia to replace the [Berlin] wall, a curtain separating the Christian and Islamic worlds.’  Again, those who travelled through that ‘curtain’ can do no more than record that the opposite appeared to be the case. Far from reducing to essences, in this case, a pacific, pluralistic Christianity confronting a totalitarian and belligerent Islam, the Bosnian war, despite its complexities, usually presented a pacific, defensive Muslim community struggling for a multiethnic vision of society against a Christian aggressor committed to preserving the supposed ethnic hygiene of local Christendom. In Bosnia the stereotypes were so precisely reversed that it is remarkable that they could have survived at all. Here the Christians were the ‘Oriental barbarians’, while the Muslims represented the ‘European ideal’ of parliamentary democracy and conviviality. Neither can we explain away the challenge to stereotypes by asserting that religion was a minor ingredient in the very secularised landscape of post-Titoist Yugoslavia. The Bosnian President was a mosque-going Muslim who had been imprisoned for his beliefs under the Communists. The Muslim religious hierarchy had been consistent in its support for a multiethnic, integrated Bosnian state. Ranged against them were all the forces of the local Christian Right, as the Greek Orthodox synod conferred its highest honour, the Order of St Denis of Xante, on Serb radical leader Radovan Karadzic. Ignoring the unanimous verdict of human rights agencies, the Greek Synod apparently had no qualms about hailing him as ‘one of the most prominent sons of our Lord Jesus Christ, working for peace.’  As the Quaker historian Michael Sells concludes,
The violence in Bosnia was a religious genocide in several senses: the people destroyed were chosen on the basis of their religious identity; those carrying out the killings acted with the blessing and support of Christian church leaders; the violence was grounded in a religious mythology that characterized the targeted people as race traitors and the extermination of them as a sacred act; and the perpetrators of the violence were protected by a policy designed by the policy makers of a Western world that is culturally dominated by Christianity. 
The Bosnian conflict imposed such an intolerable inversion of stereotypes that Latin Christendom, for all its brave talk of a Common European Home, seemed paralysed. A Byzantine Holy War figured nowhere on its cultural map; certainly Christians were not meant to be Oriental barbarians. Here the rhetoric of Islamophobia and the threatening spectre of an essentialised, totalitarian Islam, stupefied whole chancelleries. As with [Europe]in the 1930s, prejudice and cultural impotence paved the road to genocide.
The Scottish poet Aonghas Macneacail trapped this silent rhetoric in bloody, unhesitant metaphors:
though there’s a brute on your back,
sapping you with blows
(while we observe)
though he’d rip your women apart –
he’s our brute.
help? If only we could –
it’s not your blood, or your deeds
but that we can see
a foreign weed in your heart –
the excuse we won’t declare. 
Macneacail describes the Serb chetnik as ‘our brute’; while Islam, [Europe[’s enemy, is the ‘foreign weed in your heart’. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was no less scathing. ‘Can we stand’, he asked, ‘a bare half century after the Holocaust in a Europe that has replaced the word Judenrein with the equally repellant phrase “ethnic cleansing”, and not ask the question, “Were we wrong to say, Never again?”’ There are too many parallels between the mood of [Europe]now and the mood 100 years ago, and we have too much knowledge to ignore the line that leads from hatred to holocaust.’  The noted Holocaust commentator and political scientist Richard Rubenstein was angry enough to write an article entitled ‘Silent Partners in Ethnic Cleansing: the UN, the EC, and NATO’.  Given his expertise in Holocaust studies, and that discipline’s frequent reluctance to allow any other act of collective mayhem into the same category, we should take with deadly seriousness his statement that Islam now occupies the unenviable position once belonging to Judaism within Europe. 
Even culprits could acknowledge the parallel. The former commandant of the concentration camp at Omarska where several thousand Muslim civilians were killed, reminisced as follows:
We knew very well what happened at [Auschwitz]or Dachau, and we knew very well how it started and how it was done. What we did was the same as [Auschwitz]or Dachau, but it was a mistake. It was planned to have been a camp, but not a concentration camp. I cannot explain this loss of control. 
A Bosnian Muslim reinforced the comparison:
Now we’re the Jews, the Muslims of Banja Luka. I see my friends lining up in front of the bus station here when there is a rumor that it’s possible to leave, and I think sometimes, ‘That is the way it was in the forties.’ But it’s in color now, and it’s not the Jews, it’s us. 
More could be said, but I wish to conclude here. It is difficult to deny that familiar European views of Muslims are a good deal more threatening than the communities they describe. One is forced to respect the pessimism of many European Muslims, threatened as they are by this new anti-Semitism which the white Christian majorities have, to be frank, failed to notice sufficiently. However my own conclusions are cautiously optimistic. Neirynck’s novel suggests that his Flemish zealots are overwhelmed not by superior force, but by the reality of a multicultural world whose logic ultimately forbids its own undoing. If English and Arabic are to be the languages of Brussels in the new millennium, then so be it. History is rarely merciful to nostalgia. Neirynck’s Fascists appear as relics of an obsolete age of European essentialism, and their political gamble a last roll of the dice, as they tacitly acknowledge, even during their brief moment of triumph, that there can be no decisive return to a monochrome demography in an inexorably globalising world , or to a political Jansenism whose theological exclusivism is no longer tenable. The churches damned by John Cornwell in his terrifying Hitler’s Pope  have now for the most part adopted inclusivist approaches to non-Christian religions. Muslims, not least because of our own optimism over the eventual triumph of Muslim orthodoxy over extremism, need to take seriously Neirynck’s insistence that while one Christianity is part of the problem, there is another which is likely to be part of the solution, advocating conviviality in a world which has never been in more need of a transcendently-ordained tolerance.
 Cited in Andrea Lueg, ‘The Perception of Islam in Western Debate’, in Jochen Hippler and Andrea Lueg (eds), The Next Threat: Western Perceptions of Islam, London: Pluto Press, 1995, p.9.
 Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, Berkeley: [University of California Press], 1996, p.85.
 In Ken Smith and Judi Benson (eds), Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia, Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1993, 44.
 David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the failure of the West, London: Verso, 1995, 94.
 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. London: Penguin, 1999.