Countering Islamophobia: Obligation of Scholars

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Let me begin by stating that although Islamophobia is relatively new in our consciousness, it dates back centuries. It has ancestral and intellectual roots, an investigation of which must find a place on the research agenda of Muslim scholars.

The word “phobia” is derived from “phobos”, denoting “an exaggerated, unusually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular class, object or situation.” However, if the expressed fear is not inexplicable or illogical, but based on a clear understanding of circumstances and consequences, it may not be classified as a phobia. Hence what often passes by as Islamophobia may really be an anti-Islam phenomenon similar to anti-Semitism. However, one must recognize that the majority of those presently indulging in it are perhaps Islamophobes and not necessarily anti-Islam.

In the present political context, Islamophobia has compounded antagonism against the religion of Islam with enmity towards Muslims as people, building on negative perceptions of Islam as exemplified by extremists on its fringes. Islamophobes see in the religion of Islam a challenge to their hegemony in the world of ideas and the world of materials, which they deem threatening to them. They see in the social behavior of Muslims conduct that is inconsistent with their own notion of right and wrong, and they are fearful of the changes any growth of Muslim influence might bring about. They are unable to see and realize that their fears are unfounded. To the extent they attack and demonize Islam and Muslims, they engage in an irrational and unreasonable fear of both the religion and its adherents. That is why we refer to them as Islamophobes and their tactics as Islamophobia.

Yet, in a manner of speaking, Islamophobia was the order of the day in the infancy of Islam itself. The Quraysh opposed Islam principally because it threatened their hegemony and their long-held beliefs, even though their opposition was both irrational and unreasonable.One could argue that they were the first Islamophobes and the first to exercise Islamophobia.

The concept of Islamophobia has come into systematic use since the1996 report by Runnymede Trust, a British think tank for ethnic and cultural diversity. The Runnymede report on Islamophobia identified eight distinctions between closed and open views of Islam. Closed views may lead to Islamophobic attitudes. One of these distinctions is whether Islamophobia is seen as natural or problematic. Closed views of Islam consider, according to the report, anti-Muslim hostility to be “accepted as natural and normal”, whereas in open views of Islam “critical views of Islam are themselves subjected to critique, lest they may be inaccurate and unfair.” The implication of this distinction is that society at large should not accept criticism and caricatures of Islam and Muslims without an examination of its logic or its sources, and reject them if they spring from irrational and unreasonable fear caused by ignorance or prejudice. The obligation of scholars is to bring to the discourse tools and techniques that such critique of closed views requires.

Modern versions of Islamophobia have their roots in how Western civilization has developed a model of understanding the “other”, and then defining its response to the “other” accordingly.

The renowned scholar Edward Said traced the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that breeds Islamophobia to the rise of Orientalism, arguing that the Occident’s study of the Orient is inherently biased and as such its readings reflect a negative and inferior attitude towards things which are Eastern, Middle Eastern, Arab and Islamic. “My contention is,” Edward Said wrote in his work titled “Orientalism”, “that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West,…”

Though Edward Said had many critics, it is generally agreed that the ‘us vs. them’ mentality can never be fully objective and devoid of subjectivity. This mentality tends to create differences or to read them as problematic, rather than simply observe and understand them. Furthermore, the us/ them paradigm creates an antagonistic perception of the “other” and eventually leads to often unnecessary, protective defenses and superior reading of the self. It would seem that Islamophobia is a direct descendent of this type of sentiment, wherein the us/them paradigm has becomes hostile.

Further, the dominant Westcentric historical narrative belies the foundational role Islam has played in the growth of Western civilization, culture, arts, and knowledge. There is a false selfserving perception that the Western civilization is a direct and immediate descendent of its Greco- Roman parentage, whereas in fact its philosophies, governmental and social structures, knowledge and civilizations institutions are substantially informed by Islamic sources. Where this connection is recognized, for instance regarding the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in ninth century Baghdad, it is presented only as transitory. Bayt al-Hikma was the epicenter of the Greek translation movement. Resident scholars translated classical works of Aristotle, Euclid, Plato and countless others. It was through these translations from Greek to Arabic and eventually to Latin that Western Europe was introduced to these foundational texts and the many commentaries and expansions written by Muslim scholars. However, if not fully ignored, such grand events in intellectual history are painted by the West as rarities and non-essentials.

Author Michael Hamilton Morgan writes in the introduction chapter of his recent book “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists and Thinkers and Artists”:

“Most Americans, including American Muslims, and even Muslims from other parts of the world, know only the dimmest outlines of Muslim history, i.e. “they were great once, they invented mathematics, but then they fell behind.” Most Westerners have been taught that greatness of the West has its intellectual roots in Greece and Rome, and that after the thousand-year sleep of the Dark Ages, Europe miraculously was awakened to its Greco-Roman roots. In the conventional telling, this rediscovery of classical Greece– combined with the moral underpinning of the Judeo-Christian faith – led to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the scientific and the industrial revolutions. The intellectual contributions of Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Africans and others in the Muslim world are relegated to mere footnotes.”

An obligation of scholars – Muslims or not – is to restore the text in these “footnotes” to its rightful place in the body of human knowledge that nourishes the course of human civilization.

The perception of an Islamic monolith does not help either. One must recognize that on the one hand the various manifestations of Islam, whether defined geographically, politically, socially, culturally, or intellectually, do have a great deal in common, vis a vis a uniform and agreed upon interpretation of scripture and intellectual history, a common moral/ethical code, and socio-cultural narrative.

On the other hand, there are other manifestations of Islam that lie on the fringes. Analyzing this phenomenon in his book “The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality”, John Esposito argues that “We must move beyond a monolithic worldview that sees Muslims and the Muslim world (both governments and social movements) as a unity.” Current qualms against Islam have to do with a radical interpretation of adherence to selectively violent readings of Scripture and the contemporary world. Islamophobia dishonestly paints this as a universal Islamic problem and ignores the diversity of Islamic thought and peoples. It unfairly lends credibility and weight to a fringe interpretation, simultaneously ignoring positive options or solutions that can be derived from the complexity and wealth of Islamic intellectual history and thought.

Islamophobia often emerges in the form of an Islamophobe’s dishonest contextualization of Qur’anic verses, a glaring example of which is Robert Spencer’s book about Prophet Muhammad. Researcher and author Robert Crane has attempted to deconstruct Spencer’s claims, critiquing all of his major arguments for their analytical integrity.

“The new academic field of Islambashing has burgeoned over the past six years into a distinct discipline,” says Robert Crane. “The principal leaders are not the populist evangelists and not the NeoCons who support them. The principal leader is Robert Spencer, who has been honing his trade for twenty years. His magnum opus is his latest book, “The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion”.

In a world of Satans and Counter-Satans, the role of academics,” Crane argues, “should be to expose the generic threat of religious demonization and to forge a common front of Christians, Muslims and Jews against this source of global chaos.”

The thin silver lining in the Islamophobia phenomenon is that it identifies people and institutions which labor under this irrational and unreasonable fear of Islam, and thus gives Muslim scholars an opening to connect with those who engage in anti-Islamic rhetoric out of ignorance. The antidote of ignorance is education and that places responsibility on Muslim scholars to offer and promote a true understanding about Islam and Muslims.

Islamophobia is also a consequence of deliberate effort by those who – while ostensibly promoting and defending values of freedom, tolerance and democracy – insist that they alone can and will define the debate. By insisting so, they hope to shape the public perception of what Islam is and what Muslims are without being challenged on their views. Freedom, tolerance and democracy are universal and Islamic values. By claiming exclusive ownership of these values, among others, Islamophobes want to convey the impression that Islam and Muslims belong to a camp that espouses views contrary to freedom, tolerance and democracy, and is therefore outside the purview of any socio-cultural debate.

As an obligation of Muslim scholars, research that exposes the roots and multiple facets of Islamophobia must be on the agenda of research institutions and academic circle wherever possible. Muslim scholars will be well advised to seek active involvement in various theatres of academic discourse in the West, as well as identify Christian and other groups to build inter-faith alliances with for such purposes.

The purveyors of Islamophobia frame their message artfully in various media, be it print, broadcast or internet. They frame the message to create negative perceptions of positive ideas or events. They use frames that appeal to base prejudices commonly held.

The scholars’ first response can be not to “respond” at all. However, this is not to suggest that we should not address the issues. Engagement with Islamophobia and its perpetrators is necessary, but by responding, per se, to the arguments they present, we inadvertently assume and enhance the seeming credibility of their false arguments. As they say in the communications business, we cannot negate the opposition’s frame, and we should not subscribe to their story. Scholars must resist the temptation to engage in a debate predicated on the Islamophobes’ frames.


They need to offer positive messages through well researched narratives of Muslim history and their Islamic heritage. The noise and confusion generated by the Islamophobes need to be drowned by the symphony and order of truth about Islam and Muslims. In addition, whether in a casual public place or in the halls of scholarship, the guiding principle should be the Qur’anic injunctions of responding with what is better. “And dispute not with the people of the book except in the best way” (29:46) and “Repel [evil] with what is better” (41:34).

History is being constantly rewritten by dominant currents in scholarship, and, to say the least, the colonial subjugation of Muslim lands has not been kind to Muslim history. Certain narrations of history have been privileged above others, favoring overly positive and West-centric understanding of ‘renaissance,’ ‘enlightenment,’ and ‘scientific revolution,’ to name a few. These terms themselves, along with era-markers such as ‘medieval’ and geographical references such as ‘Middle-East,’ are loaded with presumptions and constructs which need to be re-examined and perhaps replaced in order to weed out inherent prejudices and preferences.

Author Michael Morgan thinks that a deeper appreciation of Muslim history could re-frame the premise of a “clash of civilizations”. Responding to critics who might say that he was highlighting only the bright side of a very complex Islamic civilizations in his book “Lost History”, Morgan pointedly states that to consider the critics’ arguments, “we would need to include in the history of Western Christian civilization not only the thoughts of Voltaire and St. Thomas Aquinas, we would also need to include the thoughts and deeds of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.”

An obligation of scholars is to present and advocate for alternative historical narratives.

Theological Ethics Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago has argued that intellectuals need to diffuse the clash of civilization by reigning in extremism from their co-religionists. To the extent intellectual opinions can sway extremists with an agenda, scholars are obligated to write, research and publish literature that identifies commonalities and highlights constructive and positive facets of their religious worldview. The challenge lies in doing so with academic rigor, intellectual honesty, and spiritual faithfulness. Sloppiness, dishonesty, or trickery can only worsen tensions between civilizations.

The obligation of Western scholars as much as of Muslim scholars in combating Islamophobia is well articulated by famed author Karen Armstrong in her outstanding work simply titled “Islam”.

“The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of religion”, she writes in the concluding paragraph of her book, and then adds: “But the West has certainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium.”

To sum it up briefly, one could assert that the origins of Islamophobia rest (1) in the West’s fear that the growing Muslim influence may threaten Western hegemony, (2) in the Western civilization’s definition of the “other”, (3) in the West-centric historical narrative, and (4) in the West’s claim to exclusive ownership of universal values. The obligation of scholars must rest on understanding the roots of Islamophobia and engaging, through their research and publication, those who are its perpetrators out of ignorance.

To conclude, let me add that, while individual scholars must contribute to the growth of positive literature, a greater measure of responsibility rests with institutions such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought, to which I belong, and other academic and research houses that are also publishing entities. Their institutional agenda must provide for – indeed facilitate – the production and dissemination of accurate and authentic works on the religion of Islam and its adherents from perspectives of both belief and practice.

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