Fear of Islam: Facts Fuel Growing Unease. A View from Australia.

Fear of Islam: Facts Fuel Growing Unease. A View from Australia.

This article is published in the February 2011 edition of ViewPoint Magazine.

Fear of Islam in the News
Fear of Islam has become news. Time magazine’s cover story of August 2010 was “Is America Islamophobic?” Bobby Ghosh wrote:

“… where ordinary Americans meet Islam, there is evidence that suspicion and hostility are growing. To be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith.”

In Australia, SBS dedicated its final Insight progam of 2010 to ‘Fear of Islam’.  The episode’s internet page received a stellar number of viewer comments, topping all previous shows of the year including such high-interest topics as climate change, the national broadband network, the Federal election, education, boat people, Afghanistan, hospitals, and sexual attraction. The only show which came close to ‘Fear of Islam’ in viewer response levels was ‘Banning the Burqa’.

Comments posted by Australian viewers to the SBS site revealed deep concerns about Islam.  For example Mark from Sunshine commented, ‘Islam is incompatible with liberal, secular, democracy. A story of oil and water.’ 97 viewers agreed, and only 12 disagreed.

Islam’s Bad Press
Just when fear of Islam is becoming a hot issue, Islam has been receiving a lot of bad press, from all around the world.

From Iraq there was news of the massacre of more than forty worshippers on October 31 at the Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad.  Al Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack and issued a statement that ‘All Christian centers, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahideen wherever they can reach them.’  The ancient Christian community of Iraq has shrunk alarmingly in recent years, due to continued targeting of Christians by Islamic militants.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians were protesting minor bureaucratic planning code objections to alternations for the Church of St. Mary and St. Michaels in Talbiya, Giza, when they were attacked by around 5,000 armed government security personnel on November 24, some of whom were chanting Allahu Akbar (‘Allah is greater!’).  Three Christians were killed by bullet wounds, a young child died from tear gas thrown into a chapel, and over 150 others were arrested.  This was followed by a bomb attack on New Year’s Eve against the Saints Church in Alexandria, which resulted in 23 deaths, and over 90 wounded.  Muslim passers by reportedly cried Allahu Akbar  as they walked past the scene.

Massive international protests have risen up over Iran’s proposed stoning of Sakineh Ashtiani, accused of adultery, and an ex-Muslim, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is also on death row in Iran for converting to Christianity.

In Pakistan two Christians who had been accused of blasphemy were murdered last July by masked gunmen while under police custody in Faisalbad. More recently, Imam Maulana Yousuf Qureshi, in his sermon on Friday 3 December, offered a $6,000 bounty to anyone who will murder Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has also been accused of “blaspheming Allah”.  Then on January 4, Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, was slain by his own body guard. Taseer’s attacker, Mumtaz Qadri, has been praised by distinguished religious leaders from both mainstream schools of Pakistani Islam (the Deobandis and Barelvis), and when Qadri was being led to court on January 6, four hundred Muslim lawyers showered him with rose petals, offering him their services to manage his legal defense free of charge.

On December 10, the Dunia al-Watan posted a video of a woman being publicly whipped by two uniformed Sudanese police outside Khartoum Central Police station. This video has caused a storm of protest throughout the Arabic-speaking media. The police derive obvious pleasure from whipping the woman all over her body as she screams and wriggles around to avoid the blows.  The penalty of public flogging was introduced into the Sudanese statutes in 1983 under the presidency of Gaafar Nimeiry, as part of his nation-wide imposition of the Islamic sharia, which mandates flogging for some offenses.

News stories which link Islam with violence are not isolated, rare occurrences: they could be multiplied many times over. For Western readers they occur against the backdrop of the past decade of terrorist atrocities, including the 2002 Bali bombings, the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis of October 2003, the Beslan school hostage crisis of September 2004, the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, and of course the 9/11 atrocity of 2001.  All these crimes were perpetrated by religious Muslims who claimed to be inspired by their faith.

Offensive Commentary
The offense of these violent acts has been compounded by the spokespeople for radical causes, such as Abu Bakar Bashir, who called upon Australians to convert to Islam if they wanted to be safe from terrorist attacks.

Another example of offensive commentary was the February 2006 London protest against the Danish Muhammad cartoons, organized by the Al Ghurabaa organisation, in which Muslim protestors carried placards with messages such as “Massacre those who insult Islam”, “Butcher those who mock Islam”, “Be prepared for the real holocaust”, “Europe you will pay, your 9/11 is on the way”, and “Freedom go to hell”.

Muslims Behaving Badly
Muslims behaving badly have also contributed to Islam’s bad press. As far back as the early 1990’s two Muslim children were photographed demonstrating on the streets of Sydney carrying ‘Kill Rushdie’ signs.

The Daily Mail reported on January 5, 2011 concerning what experts have referred to as a ‘tidal wave’ of sexual exploitation of hundreds of white young girls aged 11 to 16, by gangs of men ‘predominantly from the British Pakistani community’ in the Midlands and the North of England: of the 56 men convicted since 1997, 50 have been Asian Muslims.

In July 2001 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story that 70 women had been gang raped in the Bankstown area: the victims were non-Muslims, the perpetrators Muslims.  A few of the victims found the courage to face their accusers in court, and a group of Lebanese Muslim young men were given long jail sentences.

Throughout this crisis and its aftermath, comments from Muslim leaders added fuel to the fires of public discontent by suggesting a religious basis to these acts. Sheikh Al-Hilali compared a woman who does not conform to Islam’s dress code to meat left uncovered which a cat might take. The attacks, he implied, were the fault of the victims. Many Muslims spoke up to denounce the Sheikh’s comments, but the damage had been done.

Among the comments left by viewers on SBS’s 2010 ‘Fear of Islam’ Insight program there was a remark from Samir of Bankstown that western women ‘who don’t cover their hair’ and ‘dress immodestly’ ‘deserve what they get’, and, ‘if Western women dressed properly without revealing their form, they would have nothing to fear’.  In other words: women who don’t follow sharia requirements should fear assault, but they only have themselves to blame.

To Fear or Not to Fear?
Such events, and commentary upon them by some Muslims, provide fuel for fear.  But is this fear based on ignorance, or is it well-founded?

And what about the opposing fear, that airing such issues will incite hatred against Muslims?  In response to the recent UK news reports of Muslim sexual predators, the Association of Pakistani Lawyers (UK) issued a statement that ‘linking criminal activity to a particular race, colour and nationality may be counterproductive and may attract verbal and physical abuse against those communities and may act as a tool to be exploited by hard-line political groups who play politics on racial tensions, and anti community cohesion steps threatening the multiculturalism which is the fine fabric of British Society.’

Fear itself is morally neutral – it is neither right nor wrong. It can be a virtue when the capacity to fear is protective.  There is such a thing as sensible fear. It is rational to fear to step out in front of speeding traffic, walk along a cliff topic, catch a towering wave in the surf, or climb a broken ladder.

A Moral Panic?
However, the fear of others can also involve a dimension of moral panic, when a particular group is regarded as a threat to the social order.  In such circumstances, fear can reach epidemic proportions, and have little connection to evidence and rationality.  Nazi manipulation of Judeophobia was a case in point.

Yet moral panic can itself be feared, something which provides fertile opportunities for exploitation.  As  Pascal Bruckner has pointed out, the label Islamophobia was coined to convey the implication that fear of Islam is irrational.

The To Kill a Mockingbird World View
Western understandings of ‘fear of the other’ have been profoundly shaped by To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s great novel about racial prejudice and coming of age.  Published in 1960 it has been enormously influential in shaping the world view of young people for the past half century. To Kill a Mockingbird’s message is that knowledge of others increases sympathy and respect for them.  In its final pages, the young girl Scout says to her father about a misunderstood character in a novel she had been reading: “when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things … Atticus, he was real nice,” to which Atticus responds, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”  In other words, if one can only “see” others – that is, understand them – then despite the evident human capacity for evil, it is possible to believe that people are “real nice”.

The world view of To Kill a Mockingbird underpins the western concept of ‘prejudice’. According to it, the root cause of fear and hatred is ignorance. If someone truly gets to know others, sympathy for them will grow.  Looking out at the world through this frame, criticism of Islam and indeed fear of Muslims is portrayed as an irrational phobia based on ignorance.  In this vein, Time magazine called those who link Islam to terrorism ‘unthinking’.

The Key Question
This then is the heart of the matter:  Is fear of Islam rational, reasonable and protective, or is it an irrational phobia? Does the evident fact that such fear exists and is growing reflect ignorance and prejudice, or is it a symptom of a problem with Islam?

In reality, both are true.  Fear of Islam is fact-based, but it can also have features of a ‘moral panic’.

To illustrate the first possibility, consider the story of Ahmer Khokar, a Pakistani Muslim who converted to Christianity in the UK, and then emigrated to Australia in order to find a safe place to live. He wrote in January 2003 in the Times about his conversion to Christianity and its impact on his life.

Khokar described his feelings when he first doubted Islam and believed that Christianity was true:  “That night I went to bed terrified.”  What he feared most was the anger of his family.  He said “if I was living in an Islamic country I would be killed for converting to Christianity”.

It is impossible to call Ahmer’s terror ‘Islamophobia’.  He was not ignorant of Islam, having been schooled in it by his devout father from his earliest years.  His fear was a rational one, based upon an intimate familiarity with his family’s beliefs.

A flaw with the To Kill a Mocking Bird world view is that at times ignorance is bliss.  Getting to know another person better does not necessarily increase respect.  Like fear, stereotypes are in essence morally neutral.  Of course unfounded negative stereotypes can cause great damage, racism being the classic example.  Yet positive stereotypes can also be all too rosy and optimistic.  Ignorance can result in naïve gullibility, just as easily as hateful prejudice.

The West Awakens to Islam: Some Find Reasons to Fear
In recent years Westerners have had many opportunities to learn more about Islam.  Some have taken advantage of these opportunities and become Muslims as a result: they liked what they saw.

For others however, familiarity has only increased their disquiet.  Many who have sought to dispel their own ignorance about Islam have found solid reasons to continue to regard Islam as a threat.

One is Islam’s history of empire and conquest, the product of a supremacist theological vision that Islam must dominate other religions.

Another is the well-attested desire of some (but by no means all) Muslims to work for a society in which Islam dominates. Such was the sentiment expressed by internationally renowed Muslim jurist, and deputy chair of the Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, M. Taqi Usmani, in his description of the purpose of jihad:

… the purpose of Jehad … aims at breaking the grandeur of unbelievers and establish that of Muslims. As a result no one will dare to show any evil designs against Muslims on one side and on the other side, people subdued from the grandeur of Islam will have an open mind to think over the blessings of Islam. … I think that all Ulema (religious scholars) have established the same concept about the purpose of Jehad. (M. Taqi Usmani. Islam and Modernism, Adam Publishers & Distributors, India, 2005, pp.133-134.).

This is along the lines of the views of the influential Indian scholar Abul A’la Mawdudi:

What Islam demands from those who submit to God as the real Sovereign, their only Ruler, and who accept to abide by His laws as brought by His Prophet, blessings and peace be on him is quite obvious. … wherever you are, in whichever country you live, you must strive to change the wrong basis of government, and seize all powers to rule and make laws from those who do not fear God. … The name of this striving is Jihad. (Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi. Let us be Muslims. Trans. & ed. Khurram Murad.  The Islamic Foundation, A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Third Reprint 1991, p.290.)

Another reason to fear Islam is objectionable public statements issued by Muslims, including in sermons and ‘fatwas’. A recent example was the ruling from leading Pakistani scholars on behalf of the Jamaate Ahle Sunnat Pakistan, a prominent and influential mainstream Muslim organization, that slain governor Salman Taseer should go unmourned:  “No Muslim should have attended the funeral or even try to pray for Salman Taseer or even express any kind of regret or sympathy over the incident.”

Sheikh Al-Hilaly’s sermons have provided further examples to the Australian public.

Another reason for fear is the opinion polls.  For example, a poll conducted in the UK in 2006 found that a quarter of British Muslims thought the 7/7 bombing was justified, and a third said they would prefer to live under the sharia law.  Strikingly, the younger the respondents, the more radical their views.  It seems that the home-grown younger generation of Muslims in the UK are more antagonistic to British ways than their immigrant parents.

Another reason for fear of Islam is the poor treatment of non-Muslims and women in many Islamic societies, and the fact that some who mete out this treatment attribute this to the teachings of Islam.  For example, more than a million non-Muslim guest workers in Saudi Arabia are denied basic human rights, including freedom of worship.

And finally, there are the teachings of the Koran and the example of Muhammad, which together form the foundations of Islam.

It is self-evident that some Koranic verses encourage violence. Consider, for example, a verse which implies that fighting is “good for you”:  “Fighting is prescribed upon you, and you dislike it. But it may happen that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that you love a thing which is bad for you. And Allah knows and you know not” (Sura 2:216).  Such verses are matched by the words and deeds of Muhammad, who commanded his followers to offer three choices to non-Muslims:  conversion to Islam, surrender to the armies of Islam, or the sword.

While some of the acts of Muhammad were commendable, including showing generosity and compassion to orphans, many are deeply disturbing and cannot be reconciled with any contemporary ethical standards, apart from those of the sharia.  For example, the assassination of Salman Taseer has clear precedents in the life of Muhammad, who authorized the assassinations of people who had mocked him, and declared those who killed “blasphemers” to be innocent of blood guilt.  This explains the widespread support for the killing among Pakistani Muslim scholars and mainstream Islamic organizations. Another example is Muhammad’s marriage to the nine-year old Aisha, which established the basis in sharia law for child-brides, so that in Iran today, the marriage age for girls is nine.

Today, non-Muslims who investigate such matters for themselves, by studying authentic Islamic sources on the life and teaching of Muhammad, find no shortage of material which causes them to be more, and not less, concerned about Islam.

What about Australia?
However a question which must be asked, is whether the fear of Islam is rational or fanciful in the context of contemporary Australia.  Even if it is rational for non-Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan or Egypt to fear Islam, because sharia principles discriminate against them, depriving them of basic human rights, is such a fear also rational here in Australia?

It all depends.  Such factors as levels of immigration, birth rates, conversion rates, the kind of Islam taught in Australia, and the resistance of the general population will all have an influence on the final outcome.

For example, do Australian Muslims show any signs of desiring to implement a sharia-compliant social system?  In reality, as Abdullah Saeed has pointed out in Islam in Australia, Australian Muslims are divided on this issue.  Some Australian Muslims believe and teach that Muslim believers must work to establish Islam as the foundation of the political system wherever they live.  However other Muslims have come to this land as refugees from political Islam, and want nothing to do with such a project.

Is it fanciful to entertain the possibility that Islam could grow to be a major political force in Australia?  Surely not.  If anyone had predicted fifty years ago the extent of Islamic influence in Europe today, they would have been ridiculed by all except the most ardent Muslim visionaries.  Yet Islam is now well on its way to being established as a dominant force across all of western Europe.

It remains to be seen whether Bernard Lewis’ 2004 prediction is fulfilled, that Europe will be Islamic by the end of the twenty first century ‘at the very latest’, becoming a ‘part of the Arabic west, of the Maghreb’.  But such a proposal can no longer be considered laughable.  Given the widespread and growing support for sharia implementation among European Muslims – especially among younger Muslims – it is only to be expected that political maturity and gains in democratic representation will go hand in hand with a long-term process of societal transformation to remake nations in the image of the sharia. The only question will be, according to Bassam Tibi, a prominent German moderate Muslim, “is not whether the majority of Europeans is Islamic, but rather which Islam – sharia Islam or Euro-Islam – is to dominate in Europe.”

It is as yet far from clear that non-Muslim Europeans have the will to resist Islamisation.  Already the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Nicholas Phillips, has recommend ‘embracing Sharia law’ (‘Equality before the law.’ Speech presented at the East London Muslim Centre, 3 July, 2008), and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has stated ‘it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system.’

Islamisation is a process which can take many decades – or indeed centuries – and Australia is not so far down this path as Europe, including England and France. However, just because it is still early days yet, it is unwise to keep deferring public debate about whether the advance of Islam and sharia implementation will be a good thing for Australia.  A growing number of Australians have taken a good look at Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – and even at western Europe – and are suggesting that these countries can be considered useful indicators of what an Islamic Australia could look like. Many find this prospect deeply troubling.
An End to Fear?
Australians will no longer fear Islam when self-confessed Islamic states such as Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia stop abusing human rights in the name of Islam. They will no longer fear Islam when Al-Qaida shuts up shop and disbands its terror cells.  They will no longer fear Islam when tensions over the advance of Islam across Europe subside.

In reality, fear of Islam is something which is unlikely to go away for a long time to come.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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