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The Normative Unconscious Nature of Islamophobia

Imagine Mecca—”a valley without cultivation” as stated in the Quran— in the sixth century of the Christian era, when the final prophet of Muslims, Muhammad, was born to the Quraysh tribe. Muhammad preached about monotheism, much against the beliefs of his tribe which forced him to flee and lead political forces to regain Mecca and establish Islam, making Islam a political force intertwined with religion. Islam primarily means “submission” and Muslim is the “one who submits” to the will of God. Post the death of the prophet, the empire grew with various conquest and victorious battles which also ensured the growth of the religion. Despite this, historians argue that this wasn’t the only way Islam spread but the common notion adopted was that Islam was a radical reform religion which spread by the sword. 

This notion and belief formed the base which was present within the cultural and social divisions among the middle east and western countries and was exuberated post the terrorist attacks early this century, leading to Islam increasingly considered to be a barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist and violent religion. Islam’s cultural elements are also assumed to be regressionist and an obstacle to modern evolution when compared to the internalised ideal modern western society, leading to increased hostility towards the religion which is used to justify discriminatory practices against Muslims. The unconscious internalization of a reductionist and monolithic image of “us” and of “them” leads to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society and making anti-Muslim hostility seem natural and normal. Studies show that Islamophobia, as a phenomenon, is unconsciously internalised majorly post incidents such as 9/11 and 7/7, the continuing war with the Middle-East nations. 

According to  ‘Islamophobia: a challenge for us all‘, a report from the Runnymede trust commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, the term Islamophobia refers to “…unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities and the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.” (1997:4)  It is essential to establish that it is not intrinsically phobic to disagree or disapprove of Muslim beliefs, law or practices. In a liberal democracy, it is inevitable and healthy that people will criticise policies and practices of Muslim states and regimes—especially when their government do not adhere to the internationally recognised human rights and democratic procedures— or to criticise and condemn terrorist movements which claim to be motivated by Islamic values. Similarly, it can be legitimate to criticise the treatment of woman and the lack of rights provided to a woman in some Muslim countries, but the oppressed— terrorist-bride complex, which forces the mainstream society to believe that these women need saving from their oppressive religion, takes away the right to choose from the Muslim women. 

The study claims that debates and arguments and disagreements on all these issues take place just as much amongst Muslims, as between Muslims and non-Muslims. The difference between legitimate criticism and disagreement on the one hand, and Islamophobia or unfounded prejudice and hostility on the other, is through the distinction of the two types of views on Islam, the open view of Islam and the closed view of Islam. This can be understood with an example; a closed view of Islam is where Islam is seen as inferior to the west and is barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist while, an open view of Islam is where, Islam is seen as distinctively different, but not deficient and as equally worthy of respect. 

The following claims are the essentials as when we consider Islam as the above mentioned. We are stating that ‘we’ are superior to them and we are modern, rational, civilised, sophisticated and non-sexist, which introduces the concept of “us” and “them”. An open view rejects such simplifications both about ‘us’ and about ‘them’, it acknowledges that Islam is different from other religions and the concepts of the ‘west’, but it does not demean or consider them less worthy of respect. The study also brings into light that the use of Us/them with ‘them’ seen as inferior is typically expressed through rumours, gossip, jokes and news items.

During the 19th and the 20th century, there was a growth of the ethnocentric thought process, which is to evaluate other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture. With mercantilism and colonization as a result and the growing enlightenment movement, the European colonials felt the need to provide moral and ethical justification for political domination and economic exploitation beyond its borders. Gema Martîn-Muñoz in her article “Unconscious Islamophobia” states “this gave rise to a duality between “civilisation” and “barbarism”, the concept of race and principle of European cultural superiority over the “other cultures”” (Martín-Muñoz 2010: 24). Thus, colonization was portrayed as a moral obligation and a historical mission undertaken by the Europeans that sought to civilise “wild” or backward peoples. Culture was extensively used to justify and meet political ends and resulted in a line of thought that treated other cultures as inferior, and more significantly, denied them the capacity to evolve and progress. This resulted in European culture being considered superior to the cultures of other people, which lead to internalising the concepts of progress, dynamism and modernisation with those of the European culture. 

Gema Martîn-Muñoz further states, “In Islamic parts of the world where great civilizations once prospered, a discourse developed that highlighted the decay of Islam and its inability to escape from the obscurantism experienced before the civilizational advance of Europe. This led to a process of denigrating Islam’s cultural and historical legacy, which was portrayed as incapable of progressing and modernising” (Martín-Muñoz 2010: 24). This essentially resulted in all cultural elements of Islam, even the Arabic language, to be classified as regressionist and an obstacle to modern evolution. The west’s insistence on claiming to be the universal cultural model, made sure that such progress can only be achieved by mimetically copying them and the failure of the Islamic countries to do so, makes them not only stand out but also termed as the other and the backward inferior group. This further accentuates the concept of “us” and of “them” and results in cultural imperialism, one of the faces of oppression which is seen to be prevalent among the Muslim communities and the society at large.  

Examining the speeches by populist nationalist politicians such as the president of the US, George Bush, and the Prime minister of the UK, Tony Blair, after the 9/11 incident and the 7/7 incident, the government speaks about “tolerating” minorities, suggesting that the minority has traits that are difficult to accept and need to be tolerated by the majority. Shayna E. Solomon in her work “Shifting Discourses of Tolerance: The Framing of Muslim Minorities in the U.S. and the UK Before and After National Traumas” states “speech which demeans Muslims translates into negative results for Muslims and can ‘inflame hostilities’ between Muslim minorities and the non-Muslim majority…”(Solomon 2016: 8). This is because it is made to believe that the “intolerable” parts of the community should be excluded from society, but it is not obvious who they are as they often share the same characteristics (such as skin tone, religious ideas, and patterns of dress) as the tolerable group and this leads to the mass hate crime and discrimination of the Muslim Community in Europe and the United States. 

Further, Lara Sheehi in her work, “The Islamophobic Normative Unconscious: Psychoanalytic Considerations”, states “The mere act of existing as a Muslim in today’s world engages the Muslim individual in a dialectical relationality, the reference point of which is 9/11, America’s never-ending imperial wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and “radical Islam”” (Sheehi 2019: 158). And this racial profiling and mass hate crime and discrimination, is something very similar to what the black individuals experienced in the United States. Lara further states that this parallel is key, as it allows us to appreciate the inherent racism involved in the Islamophobic normative unconscious, corroborating the cultural norming of race and raced individuals as dangerous, suspicious, and worthy of surveillance. 

Cultural Hegemony is the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group and Cultural Hegemony permits the most powerful groups to dominate the rest of society with their own interest through consent rather than coercion. Once hegemonic values are taken as natural, we believe them to be universally true and become habituated to them. The normative unconscious processes function within what might be understood as unconscious “cultural norms”—largely unspoken, but very pronouncedly neoliberal, white and middle-class in nature. The internalised notion is that Islam is a monolithic entity with an essential potentiality for violence and radicalizationeviscerates any texture of gender, here erasing female presence making Islam, only made up of “boys” with “oedipal issues”. These boys, by virtue of an inherent backwardness within their religion, cannot access an interior world of individuality and therefore are in need of saving, lest they fulfil their natural destiny of radicalization. The only mention of Muslim women takes place to state how they are in need of saving from their oppressive religion. 

These notions and hegemonic values are fuelled with the backdrop of politics in Trump’s Muslim-ban era, the rise of American ethnonationalism and the continued American support of right-wing Zionism. Lara Sheehi states, “The trends, therefore, often conflate the two and, together, aim to activate the terrorist/terror trope and that this the conflation is a core facet of the divisive ideological profile that is activated to shore up the normative unconscious processes of Islamophobia” (Sheehi 2019: 158). For example, we do not see the same apparition in the case of white “terrorism” as with Ander Breivik in Norway, neo-Nazi racist shooter Dylann roof, or even the sustained police shooting of unarmed children and adolescents of colour in the United states. We do not see this apparition because “whiteness” is not seen or experienced as dangerous; white people, therefore are not, consciously or unconsciously, thought to harbour a “terrorist” within them. 

Mr. Brendan O’Neill offers a different narrative to this story, the editor of the London-based online periodical Spiked in his article “Islamophobia is a myth”, describes how people in Europe and elsewhere dislike Muslims, just like how some people dislike the Irish or blacks or women but the idea that there is a climate of Islamophobia, a culture of hot-headed, violent-minded hatred for Muslims that could be awoken and unleashed by the next terror attack, is an invention and the idea of Islamophobia has always been informed “more by the swirling fantasies and panics of the political and media elites than by any real, measurable levels of hate or violence against Muslims”. Various more articles claim that how ‘a popular anti-muslim racism did not happen’ and it is termed as ‘over-sensitivity’ on part of the Muslims.

 These claims are dismissed with the in-depth studies and reports such as European Islamophobia Report 2018 released by The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). This report investigates in detail the underlying dynamics that directly or indirectly support the rise of anti-Muslim racism in Europe in 2018. The study which involved 39 local scholars, experts, and civil society activists specialized on racism and human rights, the European Islamophobia Report 2018 shows how the banalization of Islamophobic discourse in the European public sphere as well as the constant anti-Muslim discrimination in workplace, education and justice pave the way for violent actions against Muslim and their institutions. The Center for American Progress Action Fund released a similar in-depth study report called Fear, Inc., which deals with the roots of the Islamophobia network in the United states. 

The religion which started in a valley without cultivation, is now an umbrella for over 1.8 billion individuals and the phenomena of Islamophobia which is neatly knit into the fabric of conscious for most people in the western countries poses a threat and as an obstacle for Muslims all around the world. The Normative unconscious nature of Islamophobia which can be understood by differentiating the two views of Islam, is not only fertilized but also nurtured into the minds of people through political speeches and policies post terrorist incidents in the last few decades. It poses an essential challenge for us to question and break the unconscious internalization of a reductionist and monolithic image of “us” and of “them”. 

Maria Jovita, is a first year law student from Jindal Global Law School.



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