Legacy of Islamophobia

Hassan Hoque on ahistorical views and Islamophobia rife in the Tory Party

In a July article for the Guardian, Owen Jones brilliantly dissected the implications of a recent YouGov poll which found a horrifying 60% of Tory members believe Islam “is generally a threat to western civilisation”, 54% believe Islam is “generally a threat to the British way of life” and 40% want to limit Britain’s Muslim population – and yet 8% of members think there is a problem of Islamophobia or racism within the Conservative Party. Yet the Tory leader’s commitment to an independent inquiry remains undelivered. It would be disingenuous to say that Islamophobia only exists within the right. Research published by the Independent found a quarter of Guardian readers think that Islam poses a serious threat to Western civilisation and the British way of life.

Islamophobia “has passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable, said Baroness Warsi (co-chair of the Conservative Party and a member of the Cameron Cabinet) in a 2011 speech. In her book The Enemy Within, published in 2017, she provides an eye witness account, stories and emotions centred around the experience of being Muslim in Britain today. Her book provides a powerful argument against our shift from a discourse of multiculturalism to British values, and the government’s controversial Prevent and anti-terrorism strategy. Her critique of the government’s policy of non-engagement with Muslim organisations in the UK and a dangerous disregard for the role played by our foreign policy is persuasive. Is it not hypocritical, she asks, that the government will not engage domestically with Wahhabi-inspired groups and yet at the international level, Saudi Arabia – the home of Wahhabi Islam – is embraced as a strong ally?

Just as racism gained some form of legitimacy from mainstream science and pseudoscience in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern day Islamophobia has an academic genealogy. As with most things uttered by Boris Johnson, when he writes “there must be something about Islam” which is holding Muslim countries and communities back, he’s not saying something new. His argument is a clumsy rehash of the orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis’s infamous essay What Went Wrong, published shortly after 9/11. The argument is that the success of Muhammad in establishing not merely the Muslim religion, but also a state dominated by that faith, served to create a society that is totalitarian by its very nature.

Challenging Islamophobia requires addressing the historically illiterate narrative that reduces Islam’s history to the past 100 years

But what about Saudi Arabia, Iran or even the “Islamic State” in Syria: are they not totalitarian? These modern iterations are totalitarian precisely due to being modern. A key distinction of the modern nation state that we take for granted is its monopoly over the law. If you take the two largest pre-modern Muslim states, the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire, both had two separate spheres of law. Siyasa (legislation enacted for the public benefit issued by a government and backed by political authority) and religious law (each religious community living according to their understanding of religious law).

Just over three generations after the death of the Prophet Muhammed, Caliph Harun Al Rashid (763 CE) offered Imam Abu Hanifa, the eponymous founder of the first Islamic school of law, the post of Chief Judge of the Empire and in effect made his interpretation of Islamic law supreme in the Empire. Abu Hanifa refused, a decision which led to his imprisonment, torture and death. 16th and 17th century Ottoman officials constantly complained of litigants in court strategically choosing a school of law to improve their legal position.

An extreme case for testing this distinct way of separating church and state can be seen by how Islamic jurists debated Xvetodah marriages – a form of marriage practiced by Zorastrians which included brother/sister, father/daughter and mother/son couplings. Rarely practiced and limited to cousin marriages by the Zorastrians in the 1400s, it left a strong impression on Muslim scholars who nonetheless allowed Xvetodah marriage as long as Zorastrians did not come to Muslim courts for this type of marriage to be adjudicated.

The most notable example would be to compare the British and Mughal government’s approach to the Hindu practice of Sati (widow burning). It was regularly sensationalised by European travellers to India from the 1500s onward until the British finally prohibited the custom in 1829. The governor who banned Sati described it as an “inhuman and impious rite” that was “revolting to the feelings of human reason” and could not be tolerated by “the government of a civilised nation”.

In contrast to the British, Mughal officials were instructed by the emperors to try and dissuade the widow from her course of action. William Hawkins (d. circa 1613), a British East India Company agent who visited the court of the emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27), notes that he witnessed many times the emperor himself offering widows all sorts of financial and social support in an effort to sway her.

Challenging Islamophobia requires addressing the historically illiterate narrative that reduces Islam’s history to the past 100 years. In the last Conservative Pary conference a panel discussion titled “Challenging Islamophobia” ended up being dominated by discussions on Muslim extremists, Islamists, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt and the history and content of Islamic law. “The panellists emphasised anything but the real lived experiences of British Muslims,” according to Baroness Warsi. It would be akin to a panel discussion on challenging antisemitism being reduced to talking about the policies of the Israeli government. Far from challenging Islamophobia, the Conservative Party is perpetuating it from the highest levels.

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