Since the tragic events of 9/11, many discussions have taken place in the Western world pertaining to Islam. Muslim politics particularly—from the appearance of transnational networks dedicated to militant agendas, to the endurance and transformation of traditional Islamic political parties—have become a recurrent subject in contemporary global politics. However, as the renowned political scientist Olivier Roy pointed out, the study of Islam as a sociopolitical phenomenon has always been challenging. According to him, “there are serious methodological difficulties in analyzing an Islamic phenomenon taking place on a global scale” (Volpi, 2010: 1). One aspect that always lent itself readily to analysis was the political dimension of Islam. The political element of this phenomenon offered a component susceptible of “being analyzed separately from the other processes” (Volpi, 2010: 1). This focus on the politicized nature of Islam gained traction in Western academia, and Islam came to be described “as a political religion, a religion in which politics and religion are difficult to separate” (Mutman, 2014:1). This exclusion of all the other features of Islam in favor of its political characteristics, led to the prevalence of Political Islam as a favorite topic in the study of Islam within Western academia.
“It is commonplace, particularly in Western analysis, to associate the emergence of Islamism with an “Islamic revival” that began to gather force in the 1970s, reaching its zenith with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.” (Mandaville, 2007:58). Western literature devoted to Political Islam or Islamism often reiterates three major assumptions. “These are, first, that the intermingling of religion and politics is unique to Islam; second, that political Islam, much like Islam itself, is monolithic; and third, that political Islam or Islamism is inherently violent” (Ayoob, 2008:1). Western thinkers writing on the subject have frequently been accused by their critics of reducing Political Islam to a “despotic oriental foil” to Western liberal democracies, as well as modernity itself.
One of the main reproaches leveled against this body of knowledge is its reliance on an Orientalist Grand Narrative. An essential Orientalist bias central to these contemporary readings of Islam is the “binary opposition between Islam and the West” (Volpi, 2010:32). In this rather Manichaean worldview, the West represents modernity, secularism and democracy, while the Muslim world embodies stagnation, orthodoxy, and despotism. This idea of a cleavage between a Christian West and a Muslim East is not only one that defines Orientalism, it also introduced amongst Western notions about Islam the idea that an Islamic civilization can only inspire undemocratic governments. While we often attribute the rise of Islamophobia to the post 9/11 context, this ideology predicated on an intense hostility toward Muslims, Islamic cultures, and Islamic politics has a pedigree of many centuries in Western thought.
When in 634 Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands, for many Christians the very status of Christianity as the “universal religion of a universal empire” (Kalmar, 2012:36) was being challenged by the newly expanded Muslim Caliphate. While Edward Said argued that the European encounter with the Orient resulted in the depiction of Islam as the ultimate outsider in the Western world’s collective imaginary (Said, 1979:70), Ivan Kalmar posits instead that when Islam was born, Prophet Muhammad (saw) “was widely regarded not as an alien but as an “impostor”, a heretical Christian with pretensions of being a new Christ” (Kalmar, 2012:38). Hence, the advent of Islam was not interpreted as a schism between Europe and “its outsiders; but rather as a crack within a single, Christian-Muslim edifice” (Kalmar, 2012:39). This fragile status quo changed drastically when the Ottoman Empire won the battle of Kosovo and gained an important foothold in Europe by 1388 (Kalmar, 2012:40). The fall of Constantinople in 1453 exacerbated existing tensions and irrevocably altered the previous relationship between Islam and Christianity.
The capture of Constantinople by Muslims marked the beginning of Europe’s creation “as a continent with a distinctive religious and cultural tradition” (Kalmar, 2012:41). To ensure the integrity of what was now seen as a purely Christian realm, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella launched the Reconquista and expulsed Muslims and Jews from Spain and Portugal. The conquest of Constantinople and the Reconquista allocated to each religion a solid geographic presence. In the Christian West’s Weltanschauung, Christianity found its abode in the West, while the Orient became irretrievably Muslim. During the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther said of Islam the following:
“The Turk is the rod of the wrath of the Lord our God. … If the Turk’s god, the devil, is not beaten first, there is reason to fear that the Turk will not be so easy to beat. … Christian weapons and power must do it…”
He saw Islam primarily as a violent movement—closed to all reason—in the service of the anti-Christ, and that can only be resisted through equally violent means. In 1544 Bartholomew Georgevich of Croatia produced a best-selling work titled Miseries and Tribulations of the Christians held in Tribute and Slavery by the Turks. It was what we might call by today’s standards a graphic novel. This illustrated book showed Turks beheading prisoners, Turks spitting babies on their lances, Turks leading into slavery captured women and children. In Europe where illiteracy was rampant, this book reached a wider audience and popularized a virulent form of propaganda against Muslims.
In later centuries Islam continued to be presented as a foil for authors who championed Enlightenment in Europe. Western thought and literature produced an impressive collection of stereotypes and half-truths about Islam and Muslims. In these works Muslims were often referred to as Turks, Moors, Saracen, or Mahomedians. Whether it was Voltaire’s depiction of Prophet Mohammed (saw) as an theocratic tyrant, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Moor’s inherent brutality and lack of reason in Othello, Hegel’s assertion that the Muslim civilization was devoid of Volkgeist or specific ethnic and national spirits, Montesquieu’s commentary on how despotism is likely to be the only means of establishing order in Islamic territories, or Ernest Renan dismissing Islam as incompatible with science and Muslims as incapable of leaning anything, or of opening themselves to new ideas, this rhetoric about Islam was reiterated again and again. Scholars in Western academia to this day perpetuate these stereotypes of a static, irrational, retrogressive, anti-modern religious tradition. Luminaries of Western academia such as Bernard Lewis, Ellie Kedourie, Daniel Pipes, Gilles Kepel, and Samuel Huntington have given credence to this portrayal of Islam in their own illustrious careers.
To ignore the historical roots of Islamophobia and how Western thought has been instrumental in not only manufacturing a narrative about Islam based primarily on stereotypes—but also in justifying and reiterating this idea of Islam as a civilizational threat to the Western World—would hinder our understanding of the many ramifications of Islamophobia in our society. Sam Harris, the popular American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist stated the following:
“To speak specifically of our problem with the Muslim world, we are meandering into a genuine clash of civilizations”, and we’re deluding ourselves with euphemisms. We’re talking about Islam being a religion of peace that’s been hijacked by extremists. If ever there were a religion that’s not a religion of peace, it is Islam.”
He belongs to the greater industry peddling the fear of Muslims and Islam. The phobia of a subtle islamization of Europe (and the greater Western world) is not solely found in the ramblings of bigots and fascists, but has rather been polished into a conceivable threat by the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who use their academic credentials to lend credence to this supposed threat. If we do not address the structural nature of Islamophobia, we will never truly be able to challenge it effectively. Islamophobia is not simply the work of racists and bigots; it is rather part and parcel of the intellectual heritage of the Western world.