Over the past month, we decided to respond to the Middle East conflict and its reverberations in communities closer to home by writing some blogs to help people understand these issues. This includes two backgrounders on the conflict itself (Part I and Part II) and a piece on antisemitism. Today, we want to turn to the question of Islamophobia and the Muslim Other. This topic is huge, so we will just touch on the broader issue and relate it to Palestinians and Western perceptions of Muslims.
We want to begin by acknowledging the deep pain this conflict is causing for so many.
At Encounter, our goal is always education and connection. We teach that religions are internally diverse and that beliefs, practices, and interpretations vary so much by people sharing the same religion. This understanding makes blogs like this challenging to write. Even as we attempt to share factual information to provide context, we are aware that perspectives and sources vary widely. Please know we offer the information in this series of blogs with the goal of providing context so that others can use that as a basis for understanding, connection, and compassion for all.
Over forty years ago, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said wrote Orientalism, a book on how the West perceived and portrayed Muslims and Arabs. It is impossible to overstate how influential Said’s book became in explaining Western attitudes toward Muslims and colonized peoples more broadly.
One of Said’s main arguments is that Western academics, colonial administrators, politicians, and even artists (novelists, film producers) portrayed Muslims and Arabs as the exotic “other.” He suggests Muslims are often perceived as “Not Us” where “Us” is the civilized, sophisticated West and that this othering fuels so much of the Islamophobia we see today.
Many Muslim voices I’ve listened to over the past month have reminded me of Said’s argument as they convey this sense – namely that, in the West, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims more broadly seem to not be of worth or that their lives count for less.
Harem scenes were common in European art and were used to sell whiskey in this 19th-century poster. Harems, flying carpets, and genies are popular in early European portrayals of Arabs. | By Wells & Hope Co. (poster publisher) – Library of Congress, commons.wikimedia.org
Carving Up the Middle East
Perceptions shape not just language or art but also realities on the ground including sometimes our very maps. After WWI, the French and British gained control of the Middle East and divided it to suit their purposes, often paying scant attention to the location of language, ethnic, and religious groups. The turmoil in this region since then stems partly from how foreign powers drew lines with little regard for the people there.
A similar principle holds if we zoom in on Palestine. In Rashid Khalidi’s book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, he documents how the British, who ruled Palestine after WWI, never treated the local inhabitants as legitimate people with aspirations for political equality and representation. There were Palestinian leaders asking for representation, demanding an audience with the League of Nations, and wanting independence, and the British just ignored them and even banned their newspapers. Freedom of the press and political representation were, seemingly, for Westerners only.
These Palestinian women protest British rule in Jerusalem in 1930. The sign reads, “No dialogue, no negotiations until termination [of British rule]. | British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library, facebook.com/BMJerusalemitesPhotoLib , commons.wikimedia.org
In 1917, the British declared that they would help facilitate creating a Jewish state in Palestine. The local Arabs, who comprised about 95% of the population, found this incredible. However, for the next twenty years, demands for self-government were thwarted while Jewish immigration surged as the British opened the borders. [Today, I am focusing on the Palestinian perspective. To be clear, many of these Jews were fleeing horrific persecution. Our blog on antisemitism explains some of this.] But, from the Palestinian viewpoint, they had no control over immigration, which likely no people will accept. During this time, many Western nations hypocritically rejected or severely restricted Jewish immigration for antisemitic reasons.
After twenty years of being ignored by the British, the Palestinians rebelled. The massive Arab Revolt lasted three years, from 1936-1939. The British brought in 100,000 troops, killing about 15% of the adult males, decimating the Palestinian leadership, and exiling others for years to places like the Seychelles. The Palestinians were greatly weakened economically, demographically, and organizationally.
In 1936, Palestinians voted for a strike led by the Arab Higher Committee to protest Jewish immigration and land acquisition and to avoid tax payments to the British. | By Matson Collection – Library of Congress Catalog, hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/matpc.18053, commons.wikimedia.org
Muslims in the Modern West
The reverberations of the Muslim “othering” continue to impact the treatment of Muslims today. In the Modern West, Muslims are all-too-often the bad guys in our movies or the scary threat that some security-minded politician will protect you from. Especially on the right, many politicians have perpetuated Islamophobia as a successful means of gaining votes. Some examples:
- Quebec bans government employees (e.g., police, nurses, teachers, bureaucrats, etc.) from wearing visible religious garments. This ban affects multiple religious communities, but the motivation is widely understood to be driven by opposition to Islam and hijabs.
- Ontario’s 2007 provincial election was dominated by a Conservative proposal that all private religious schools be funded similarly to how Catholic schools are funded. Funding Catholic schools was fine but funding Islamic schools dominated the election and the Conservatives were crushed.
- Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to establish a hotline to report barbaric cultural practices as he feared losing an election.
(Sadly, Canada has had more Muslims killed in hate crimes in the past few years than any other G7 country.)
- France bans the hijab in school, bans the niqab in any public space, forbids French women athletes from wearing a hijab in some sports, and even banned modest Muslim swimwear from beaches (literally forcing women to disrobe).
- Norway also bans the hijab in schools, while Denmark has made welfare dependent on children spending enough time away from parents to ensure they are secularized enough.
- US President Donald Trump instituted what many called a “Muslim Ban” forbidding travel to the USA from six Muslim-majority countries.
- US President Barack Obama, a Christian, was frequently accused of being a Muslim. The belief had wide support but further showed how being a Muslim was supposedly delegitimizing.
Note how much attention gets paid to Muslims and how they are treated as “others.” Legislatures often find it critical to pay special consideration to the Muslims in their midst, regulating their dress, their food practices, and, in France, their bathing suits.
Demonizing Palestinians Today
However one processes the events in Israel and Palestine today, we should be able to uphold the humanity of innocent civilians. Yet, in the USA alone, multiple politicians have called for Gaza to be flattened or said that all Palestinians are responsible for Hamas’ actions, while others say the rules of war can be dismissed here and that being pro-Palestinian means being pro-Hamas.
Many Muslims fear that the right to free speech does not apply to them. That even considered words will lead to being silenced or the loss of their jobs. And, of course, a six-year-old Muslim boy was murdered in Ohio.
What Can I Do?
I won’t comment on how to address the current conflict. However you process it, if you wish to donate or write your representative, you can obviously make your voice heard.
Beyond the immediacy of this conflict, creating an inclusive society is steady work that needs to be cultivated over time. There are many ways to contribute to that more just society. This can include speaking up against hate speech or simply inquiring about our colleagues’ or neighbours’ holidays and customs to foster connection. We offer a free guide on creating inclusive spaces for Muslims.
It also helps to educate ourselves. There are many options. The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth is a wonderful Canadian-edited book that features the voices of 21 Canadian Muslim women, ranging from gay to straight, those who wear hijabs, niqabs or neither. It’s just very human to see the variety and hear their experiences with daily life in Canada, in mosques, etc.
If you’d like to know more about Islam, Reza Aslan’s No God but God is a good primer. On the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rashid Khalidi’s book mentioned above is an excellent Palestinian perspective on the issue.
Countering discrimination and fostering belonging rewards us all with a better understanding of our neighbours and colleagues and a sense that we all belong.