Troublesome Thirties

The trials and tribulations of a Geeky Muslimah

Chechnya: A History Of Resistance And Revival

Chechnya: A History Of Resistance And Revival

In the fall of 2018, a confrontation in the sport of Mix Martial Arts between a young man from Dagestan and his Irish rival thrusted the Caucasus into the limelight of world stage. However, the ensuing discussions and debates revealed very quickly the persistence of often erroneous and facile narratives pertaining to that region of the world and its inhabitants. For most Westerners, to whom Islam is primarily an Eastern religion practiced by hordes of brown and black people, the very idea of white Muslims who are not recent converts was a perplexing one. Everything about Caucasians, from their cultures, to their religion, to their history became a topic of conversation. In the midst of the slurs, braggadocios claims, and accusations of collaboration and betrayal, the Chechen war came up as a topic; a discussion that unfortunately led to the all too familiar territory of thinly veiled Islamophobia.


A brief history of the Chechen-Russian Conflict

Located in the North Caucasus, Chechnya (also called Ichkeria) is a “quadrilateral located in the north-eastern part of the Caucasus, demarcated by the Terek and Sunja rivers in the west and the north, the Andi range in the east which separates it from Dagestan, and the snow-covered twin range of the Caucasus in the south which separates it from Georgia” (Gammer, 2006:2). Rich in oil, natural gas, and minerals, this land is inhabited by the Nokhchi (meaning our people), better known under their Russian ethnonym (Chechen), and are closely related to the Ingush. Together, these two groups form the Vainakh who are the most ancient indigenous people of the region (Gammer, 2006:2).

Islam made its first inroads into the Caucasus in the 8th century. Two centuries later, it became the dominant religion in the southern coastal plain south of Derbent; an important economic centre located in present-day Dagestan. In the 11th and 12th century, most of the Darghin and Lakh people of central Dagestan converted massively to Islam. The arrival of the Nogai Horde, a Turkic tribe, in the region during the 14th century contributed greatly to the spread of Islam amongst the Cherkess, the Kabardins, and the Chechens. A century later, the Lakh of central Dagestan abandoned any remainder of their previous belief systems in order to practice Islam exclusively. As fervent Muslims, they dedicated themselves to the spread of their religion in Dagestan and the lands beyond; bringing Islam to the Chechens and the Kumiks. Over the coming centuries several ethnic groups such as the Avar, Chechen, Ingush, Adyghe, Cherkess, and Kabardins converted massively to Islam; making the Northern Caucasus a solid Muslim Bastion. Today, Islam is an important component of Vainakh culture as both the Chechen and the Ingush belong to the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam jurisprudence.

“In 1556, when Tsar Ivan the Terrible succeeded in conquering the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and thus entering into the Caspian orbit, the North Caucasus region (…) became the object of a competition involving Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire, Iran, the Crimean Khanate, and other lesser powers” (Dunlop, 1998:4). Confronted to a stiff resistance from the native populations of the Caucasus, Tsarist Russia did not hesitate to unleash its might in successive military campaigns resulting in horrific acts of violence. In the 19th century, General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov began a military campaign to secure Russia’s hold over the Caucasus. In order to subdue the Chechens, who were fiercely opposed to the Russian invasion, Yermolov adopted a strategy of collective punishment in which Chechen villages where systematically targeted and destroyed. The campaign was of such cruelty and violence that many believe it contributed directly to the protracted and bloody Murid War (1829-1859). His campaign of expulsions, massacres, and widespread torture not only  “fuelled the Chechens’ hatred of Russians” but also inspired a profound desire “for freedom and their willingness to fight and die for it.” (Hertog, 2001: 29).

In more ways than one, the Russian invasion became the source of social and political turmoil in the Caucasus. Not only did the Chechens lose their sovereignty, they also found their cultural and religious identity endangered. Tsarist Russia’s anti-Islamic policies, its promotion of Russian culture at the detriment of their native traditions, and the spread of behaviours and attitudes anathema to their cultural and religious ethos created a “fertile ground for the ideas of the Naqshbandiya” (Hertog, 2001:29). It is from this Sufi order that key figures such as the famed Imam Shamil emerged during the Caucasian wars that lasted until 1856. He successfully united warring Caucasian tribes under a common Pan-Caucasian and Islamic banner; creating a united front against the Russian expansion into Chechnya and Dagestan. In 1864, after 142 years of a bitter struggle for freedom the Chechens finally surrendered to Tsarist Russia; but this was by no means the end of Chechen resistance (Dunlop, 1998:12). In 1877, they rose up in arms again defying Russian rule and rejecting their inclusion into the Tsarist Empire. This new rebellion ended with the slaughter of more than 60% of the Chechen population (Dunlop, 1998:32).

The February Revolution of 1917 was, at first, welcomed by the Chechens who saw in it a chance to break away from Tsarist rule and regain the control of their land. The Bolshevik slogans promoting freedom, equality, and the right for self-determination resonated with them. But soon after, they realised that the real politics of the Bolsheviks were far from what their slogans promised. Instead of the awaited freedom and independence, they were once again under the yoke of a regime alien to their traditions and values (Dunlop, 1998:16). This new Bolshevik rule promoted atheism and ignored completely the traditions, religion, and customs of the Chechen people. All of this contributed to the uprising against the Bolshevik rule in the 1920’s which lead to renewed hostilities between Moscow and the Chechens. Later on, as the totalitarian regime of Stalin gained in strength, the need to subdue and disarm the autonomous region of Chechnya became a priority.

In 1925, a campaign aimed at “political banditry” was launched in Chechnya, implementing a policy of mass arrests and repression. However, the darkest chapter in the tumultuous history of Chechnya remains without a doubt the deportation of the Chechen people and their kin the Ingush to central Asia in 1944 (Dunlop, 1998:17). Almost 500,000 Vainakh were forcefully put into cattle trucks and deported to Central Asia. The Stalinist regime tried to legitimize this treatment by levelling accusations of Nazis collaboration during World War II against the Chechens, although the Germans  never reached Chechnya during their incursion into Soviet territory. For Stalin, this was an opportunity to get rid of a rebellious nation permanently. “Their name was effaced, their cultural symbols were destroyed and history was rewritten as if the Chechens had never existed.” (Hertog, 2005:243). During the long and perilous journey to Central Asia, close to 78,000 died succumbing to the lack of food, sanitary facilities, and the cramped conditions on the trains (Lieven 1998: 319). The surviving population was further decimated when they arrived in Kazakhstan due to the harsh living conditions. According to official Soviet statistics, an estimated 25% of the exiled died within the first five years of their arrival (Evangelista 2002: 14). Between 30% to 50% of Chechens and Ingush are estimated to have perished during those years of exile, many dying due to the cold and the lack of food. 

In 1957, Krushchev who came to power after Stalin’s death ordered the return of the Vainakh from exile, thus restoring the Chechen republic and its people. However, this return was by no means the end of their suffering. They became once more the focus of Soviet propaganda since their resistance to atheism was perceived as a possible risk for renewed insurgency against the Soviet State. “A special ‘army of atheistic experts’ flooded the inhabitants of Grozny with antireligious lectures.” (Hertog, 2005:244). Many religious figures were hunted down and arrested while Soviet press and media routinely reiterated anti-Islamic narratives and attitudes; all in an effort to discourage the Chechen population from practicing Islam. However, this renewed hostility toward their religion only deepened the Chechens’ desire to maintain their distinctive religious and cultural ethos.

While these anti-Islamic campaigns succeeded in destroying “the material and structural basis” of Islamic leadership in Chechnya, they failed at eradicating Islamic beliefs and practice. “On the contrary, the deformalised but still vibrant faith of the Chechen people was absorbed into the informal networks of the brotherhoods.” (Hertog, 2005:244). The Sufi brotherhoods played an important role in preserving a common Chechen identity during the long years of exile. “As cultural and educational activity came to a halt, and as there were no newspapers or books in the native language, ‘what after all, could the people turn to, if not religion?’ (Henze, 1995: 24). The brotherhoods soon built extensive networks incorporated into the social structure of the Chechen people where now “each individual had not only family and clan loyalties, but also a Sufi brotherhood loyalty.” (Zelkina, 1993: 120). Faced with the openly hostile attitude of the Soviet regime toward Islam upon their returned from exile, the brotherhoods reprised their role as guardians of the Chechen identity by ensuring “the survival of Islamic belief and practice amidst constant atheistic militancy.” (Hertog, 2005: 244).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, secession emerged as a major political issue in the Post-Cold War era. Many states from East Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus  either broke up into a multitude of states or became sovereign nations in their own right. Secessionist endeavours usually provoke mixed feelings and reactions. On the one hand, there is a natural inclination to support minority communities struggling for national liberation. On the other hand, there is a fear of the possible consequences of secession because too often conflict and war are a more typical outcome. In the Balkans, the collapse of Communism led to a genocidal war which effectively split Yugoslavia into 7 countries: Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Montenegro. For Russia, secession in the strategically important region of the Caucasus posed a particular challenge. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, there was civil war in Georgia, conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the republic of Chechnya was actively working on obtaining its independence. Moscow’s resolve to maintain its control over the region led to two terrible and bloody wars with the small  Chechen republic. 

Both, the first (1994-1996) and second Chechen War (1999-2009) can be described as the latest chapters in the Chechens’ ongoing conflict with Russia that started in the 16th century. The first war started in 1991 when Chechnya under the leadership of Djokhar Dudayev declared its sovereignty vis-a-vis Russia. Attempts by the Yeltsin regime to maintain the republic within the Federation were unsuccessful as Chechens rejected the proposed autonomy for complete sovereignty. Finally on December 1994, “the Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior units entered Chechnya” and full-fledge war began (Dunlop, 1998:209). Referred to as the First Chechen war, this conflict lasted for three years and killed 100,000 Chechens out of a population of 1,000,000. It eventually ended with the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechen territory in 1996. However Chechen sovereignty was short lived. In 1999 President Putin declared the Chechen parliament illegal and ordered the invasion of the country by Russian troops. Chechens under the leadership of president Aslan Maskhadov took up arms to defend their country against this new Russian invasion. Although large scale military incursions ended officially in 2000, the conflict soon entered its insurgency phase opposing Russian forces and Chechen paramilitary to Chechen separatists.

Learning from their previous disastrous and costly incursions into Chechnya, the Russian authorities opted for a policy of “Chechenization” as a counterinsurgency strategy during the second war (Lyall; 2010: 3). By granting political power to ambitious Chechen officials susceptible of supporting the Kremlin’s desire to maintain Chechnya within Russia, they effectively created a split in the Chechen front. Akhmed Kadyrov, a mufti once loyal to the Chechen opposition, was nominated in 2003 as the head of the Chechen Republic by the Kremlin; only to be assassinated by the rebels seven months later. In 2007, Putin signed a decree nominating Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the late Akhmed Kadyrov, as the president of Chechnya. One of the main pillars of the Chechenization policy was the formation of combat units consisting of Chechens-only to conduct sweep operations.

Until early 2003, the counterinsurgency campaign was primarily ran by Russian units. However, this soon changed with the creation of joint patrols with Chechen police units. In an effort to further put a Chechen face to the counterinsurgency effort, Chechen-only Ministry of Defense units (Special Battalions Vostok and Zapad) were trained and equipped to assume sweep operations (Lyall; 2010: 3). The Kadyrovs also took advantage of this policy by creating their own paramilitary forces, known as the Kadyrovtsy, to participate in sweep operations targeting the rebels and their supporters. “In total, about 20,000 Chechens had joined Vostok, Zapad, or a Kadyrov affiliated organization by the end of 2005, when large-scale sweep operations were phased out as Ramzan Kadyrov consolidated power.” (Lyall; 2010: 3). Since his nomination as president, Kadyrov has maintained a climate of fear through selective disappearances, targeted assassination of regime critics, and the nighttime burning of suspected insurgents’ homes in a bid to pacify Chechnya.  

In October 31, 2007, “the then leader of the Chechen separatists, Dokku Umarov, announced the creation of the Caucasus Emirate—an Islamic theocracy based on Sharia rule, which spread across the territory of the autonomous North Caucasus territories of the Russian Federation” (Souleimanov, 2011:161). The insurgency which was previously confined to Chechnya eventually spread to five other republics (Dagestan, Ingushetia, the Nogay Steppe, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay) with members loyal to the Caucasus Emirate becoming active throughout the region. While today the insurgency has entered its dormant phase, the Chechen desire for independence is far from extinguished. Both Chechens in the diaspora and at home still dream of one day seeing a free and sovereign Ichkeria.

Figure A: Map of the Caucasus



Clash of Civilizations or colliding hegemonic projects

Both Samuel Huntington and S.N Eisenstadt propose mechanisms of conflict embedded within civilizational entities and triggered by precise dynamics. Each one suggests specific scenarios that are crucial to the understanding of conflict from a civilizational dimension. Huntington in his clash of civilization theory highlights colliding religious and cultural values as another trigger of his civilizational conflict mechanism. According to him, the general tendency throughout history has been to think in terms of two worlds. “People are always tempted to divide people into us and them, the in-group and the other, our civilization and those barbarians” (Huntington, 1996:32). Even scholars are constantly trying to categorize the world into two distinctive groups in their analysis, whether they phrase it as the Orient and the Occident, the North and the South, or the centre and the periphery (Huntington, 1996:32).

In the 14thcentury already, Muslim scholars divided the world into Dar al-Islam (the abode of peace) and Dar al-Harb (the abode of war). “Depending upon how the parts are defined, a two-part world picture may in some measure correspond with reality” (Huntington, 1996:32). Identities are drawn along the lines of these distinctions and specific groupings coalesce around a shared sense of cultural and religious values stemming from a sense of belonging. The cultural bifurcation at the heart of this great divide tends to create a polarization into two opposing camps “where the emphasis is less on differences in economic well-being and more on differences in underlying philosophy, values and ways of life” (Huntington, 1996:32).  Huntington reiterates that the world is far too complex to be simply “divided economically between North and South or culturally between East and West” (Huntington, 1996:33). He promotes instead a vision of a multicivilizational and multipolar world where contacts between different civilizations lead to conflicts.

The secession of the Chechen republic from the Russian federation and the ensuing war could be interpreted, from a Huntingtonian perspective, as the result of a confrontation between two sets of distinctive cultural and religious values. For the Chechens, promoting the rebirth of Chechen-Muslim values necessitated a free and sovereign territory where this project could blossom. However, for the proponents of a unified Russia this was seen as a rejection of the Slav and Orthodox values which constitute the core of Russian identity. As the conflict intensified so did the confrontation between these opposing values. The resurgence of a Chechen culture and an increasingly vibrant Islamic revival led to the rebirth of a Chechen national identity. Breaking away from Russia was not only politically motivated but was also an attempt to consolidate this nascent sense of nationhood. The turmoil of the post Soviet Union climate provided them with an opportunity to reclaim their territory. By changing the name of their country from the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, they were in fact reiterating their distinctive cultural, historical, and religious identity. The secession of Chechnya from the greater Russian Federation was not merely a political act but rather an attempt to create the necessary climate for a cultural rebirth of the Chechen nation.

Conflicts appearing in regions where contacts between civilizational entities occur are called fault line wars by Huntington. These conflicts can occur between states, between non-governmental groups, or between states and non-governmental groups. However, whether these conflicts involve clans, tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, or nations their rational “is always rooted in the identities of people” (Huntington, 1996:252). Fault lines wars can manifest themselves as a struggle for the control of people or the control of territory. “The goal of at least one of the participants is to conquer territory and free it of other people by expelling them, killing them, or doing both, that is, by ethnic cleansing” (Huntington, 1996:252). This explains the extremely violent nature of such confrontations leading often to the usage of indiscriminate massacres, rape, terrorism, and torture. “The territory at stake often is for one or both sides a highly charged symbol of their history and identity, sacred land to which they have an inviolable right: the West Bank, Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Drina Valley or Kosovo” (Huntington, 1996:252). Fault line wars can be notoriously instable and can “flame up into massive violence and then sputter down into low intensity warfare or sullen hostility only to fame up once again” (Huntington, 1996:253).

The Chechen struggle for sovereignty resonated with many other ethnic groups living in the Caucasus and facing the same Russian hegemony. From a Huntingtonian perspective, one could say that the expansion of the conflict outside of Chechnya’s borders is due to  the rise of a civilization consciousness built around the concept of Caucasian and Muslim identity. The struggle is no longer just one for Chechen freedom but rather one for a broader Caucasian rebirth. The implication in the insurgency of Kin countries such as Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay as well as a very active Chechen Diaspora has not only created a broader Caucasian and Muslim solidarity, but has also intensified the conflict. In that context, one can no longer simply speak of a Chechen war but rather a conflict opposing a core Slavic/Orthodox state (Russia) to weaker peripheral Muslim republics located in the Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, etc…)

A rather different perspective of civilizations and their influence in world politics was elaborated by S.N Eisenstadt. Instead of  the concept of civilizational clash promoted by Huntington, he elaborated on the concept of axial civilizations. These civilizational entities not only attempt to reconstruct the world in accordance to their ontological and cosmological vision but they also express a certain proclivity toward expansion. They mobilize pre-existing political ideologies, religious impulses, and to some extent economic structures in order to nourish this endeavour. They adopt a “distinctive ideological and reflexive mode of expansion with potentially strong semi-missionary orientations” (Eisenstadt 2003:41). This pattern of expansion creates a better awareness of civilizational frameworks encompassing different societies made up of a multitude of political and ethnic groups. According to Eisenstadt’s theory it is not so much civilizations that are at odds but rather hegemonic projects embedded in civilizational frameworks.


Civilizational conflict mechanism according to Eisenstadt:

Components of civilizational conflict              Triggers in the Chechen conflict
Ontological/cosmological vision


·      Basic ideological premises (the Dominion of Mother Russia vs. Ichkeria/free Chechnya)


·      Core Symbols (The Russian Bear vs. The Chechen  Lone Wolf)


·      Construction of collective identities


Distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion            (3 key periods)


1)Tsarist Russia vs. Ottoman Empire


2) USSR vs. Chechnya


3) Russian Federation vs. the Caucasus Emirate


Internal civilizational dynamics ·      Religious, ideological, political and economic impulses


·      Center vs. Periphery (Russian Federation vs. Peripheral republics)


The development and institutionalization of specific ontological and cosmological visions and new modes of consciousness within Axial civilizations is connected very closely to the emergence of a “new social element, of a new type of elite, of carriers of models of cultural and social order” (Eisenstadt, 2003:38). The tendency to reconstruct the world according to specific symbolic, ideological and institutional precepts, and to partake in continual expansion has been a common feature of Axial civilizations. The multitude of existent civilizations and their diversity is the work of different patterns through which these elements are being implemented. All these civilizations try to “reconstruct the world in their own mode, according to basic premises, and either to absorb the others or consciously to segregate itself from them” (Eisenstadt, 2003:42). Two elements are crucial in the shaping of the different modes of institutionalization and civilizational expansion. “One such set consists of variations of differences in the basic cultural orientations. The other is the concrete structure of the social arenas in which these institutional tendencies can be played out” (Eisenstadt, 2003:43).

In the case of the Chechen conflict, there are two distinctive ontological and cosmological visions at odds. A vision of a unified Russia is colliding with that of a free and sovereign Ichkeria (Chechnya). During this conflict, symbolic, ideological and institutional precepts have been utilized in order to justify the ongoing hostilities. For the proponents of the Federation, the dominion of Mother Russia already weakened by the crumbling of the Soviet Union needs to be protected from further balkanization. The integrity of the territory must be preserved in order to safeguard the status and the weight of Russia in the international arena. The military incursions in the Chechen territory were framed as a legitimate attempt to protect the nation from peril, and the victory of the Russian army as the proof of the strength of “the Russian bear” representing the Russian strength of character.

On the other hand, the proponents of secession in Chechnya framed their struggle around the question of national freedom. Chechnya, they claimed was never a willing member of the Federation but rather an occupied territory demanding to be released. For them, the conflict was not so much one of self-determination as much as an attempt to put an end to Russian colonialism. Ichkeria was a sovereign nation before the Russian penetration into the Caucasus and will be once again free from oppression. Largely surpassed by the Russian military in terms of resources, the Chechen victory during the first war against a vastly superior military machine was framed as the victory of the “lone wolf against the Russian bear”. This image evokes a struggle similar to that of David vs. Goliath, and in doing so reiterates the perseverance and the courage of Chechens against an enemy far superior to them in numbers and in resources. The continuation of the conflict has in fact institutionalized the ontological and cosmological visions supporting the political agendas of both sides while impacting on the construction of collective identities.

In order to reconstruct a social order according to any given ontological and cosmological vision, it is crucial to develop a strong “tendency to define certain collectivities and institutional arenas as most appropriate for the implementation of their respective transcendental visions” (Eisenstadt, 2003:38). This tendency creates new types of collectivities and groups harboring a special meaning derived from those distinctive transcendental visions. These groups help to institutionalize a “new type of intersocietal and intercivilizational world history” which justifies the proclivity of civilizations for expansion (Eisenstadt, 2003:41). Ideological, religious, as well as political and economic impulses are then mobilized in order to trigger distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion. These expansions could be geographical in nature, religious or cultural; however, it is important to reiterate that these processes are not necessarily linked. Depending on the realities at hand, the civilizational frameworks of these expansions can change as different internal civilizational dynamics come into play.

The Caucasus, as the crossroad between different ethnic, religious, and political entities has been the theatre of many expansionist endeavours. There are key moments in the history of the region which reflect distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion. In the eighteenth century, the Caucasus became the frontline of a war opposing Tsarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire. Since neither of these empires are indigenous to the region, they both mobilized different impulses in order to justify their expansion, while trying to render their rival’s position illegitimate. While the Ottoman Empire utilized religion in order to establish alliances with local ethnic groups sharing the same religious beliefs, Tsarist Russia utilized instead cultural arguments pertaining to the superiority of Russians to the barbarians and savages of the Caucasus. During the twentieth century, the USSR utilized political and ideological arguments to justify their presence in the region. The Chechens on the other hand framed their struggle around the question of cultural identity and national autonomy.



  1. Gammer, Moshe. (2006). The Lone Wolf and the Bear. Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule. London: Hurst and Company.
  2. Huntington, Samuel.P (1996). The Clash of Civilizations. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  3. Huntington, S.P. 1993b. ‘If Not Civilizations, What? Paradigms of the Post-Cold War.’ Foreign Affairs 72(5): 186–94.
  4. Eisenstadt, S.N. (2003). Comparative civilizations and multiple modernities (volume 1). Boston: Library of Congress.
  5. Souleimanov, Emil. (2011). The Caucasus Emirate: Genealogy of an Islamist Insurgency. Middle East Policy 18 (4).155-168.
  6. Lyall, Jason. (2010). Are Coethnics More Effective Counterinsurgents? Evidence from the Second Chechen War, American Political Science Review, 104(1), 1-20.
  7. Henze, P. B. (1995) Islam in the North Caucasus: The Example of Chechnya (Santa Monica, RAND).

  8. Evangelista, M. (2002). The Chechen wars: Will Russia go the way of the Soviet Union? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

  9. Hertog, K. (2005). A Self-fulfilling Prophecy: The Seeds of Islamic Radicalisation in Chechnya, Religion, State and Society, 33(3), 239-252.

  10. Lieven, Anatol. 1998. Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  11. Dunlop, John B. 1998. Russia confronts Chechnya: Roots of a separatist conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  12. Hertog, K. (2001) The Role of Religion in the Conflict in Chechnya and Daghestan: Part of the Problem—Part of the Solution? (unpublished MA thesis, Bradford University).





Political Islam And The Pearl Clutching Of Moderate Muslims

Political Islam And The Pearl Clutching Of Moderate Muslims

Political Islam or Islamism—that is Islam as a political ideology instead of a religion or theology—is a relatively contemporary phenomenon in the history of the Muslim World. Although Western Academia coined the term, the distinctive forms of Muslim politics that later came to define Islamism emerged in the nineteenth-century as European colonial incursions into Muslim territories increased. For many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Political Islam represents what they fear most; a brand of aggressive, politicized Islam hell bent on bringing about autocratic theocracies. Of course this is nothing short of a cartoonish portrayal of a complex sociopolitical phenomenon, but nevertheless this caricaturization continues to plague any conversation pertaining to the role of Islam within politics. In an attempt to explain the ongoing political upheaval observed in many Muslim countries, some Muslim intellectuals, scholars, and politicians often resort to facile and simplistic explanations.

According to them, the proliferation  in the Muslim world of ideologies and movements that strive to establish some kind of an “Islamic order” is due primarily to an increasing religious illiteracy. This particular outlook on the ongoing anomie in the Muslim world is especially prized by contingents of the Muslim community who label themselves as progressives and/or moderates. In this narrative, proponents of political Islam are portrayed as ignorant, fundamentalist, regressive forces battling against the very idea of progress and development. Interestingly enough, this perspective is also one that authoritarian regimes are often quick to reiterate in an attempt to delegitimize any broad-based opposition to their rule. After all, both Muslim personalities in the West, and officials of authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries were quick to point out the glaring religious illiteracy of ISIS’s foot soldiers, while remaining mum on the political factors at play in the very emergence of ISIS.



Using the existing problem of religious illiteracy amongst Muslims to sweep under the carpet the very real political, economic, and social grievances of this Ummah is not only fallacious, it is down right disingenuous. At some point this community of ours will have to drop the groupie mentality and start holding folks accountable for their words and their actions. At some point this community of ours will have to take a long and hard look at people’s motivations and loyalties. Islam, is and always was, a complete way of life encompassing all aspects of human existence. Those who—in this dire moment in the history of our Ummah—are quick to preach that Muslims should turn away from politics and confine their practice of Islam to mere rituals are for all intent and purposes telling Muslims to not only accept their own oppression, but somehow find purpose and contentment in it.

Those who are window dressing the acceptance of our humiliation and oppression as a religious edict cannot (and should not) be allowed to hide behind the title of scholar (‘alim) to avoid the much deserved criticism levelled against them. No scholar is infallible, and no human being is above criticism. Yes Muslims suffer from religious illiteracy. However, to surreptitiously omit mentioning that this problem is a direct result of the Western colonial onslaught that destroyed and dismantled much of the Muslim world’s institutions is nothing short of historical revisionism. To somehow pretend that religious illiteracy is the primary reason we are observing an uptake in extreme forms of militancy in Muslims countries, and not the direct result of Western imperialism and its murderous forays into Muslim land is the epitome of hypocrisy.

Here is the thing: THE STATUS QUO IS NOT AN OPTION ANYMORE. There comes a moment where remaining silent, turning the other cheek, and hoping for the best won’t cut it anymore. When in the absence of viable options to address the very real grievances of our Ummah, some of our brothers and sisters turn to the only groups—albeit problematic, and often flawed in their approches and methods—that seem to be offering a semblance of resistance, a promise to change the tide and bring about change, why do we collectively clutch our proverbial pearls and pretend not to understand what compels them to do so? We—by our indifference to the plight of our Ummah, our cowardice that prevents us from speaking truth to power, our selfishness that makes us so enamoured with our own confort that we keep silent in the face of mounting injustices—create the very conditions that lead so many of our youth to embrace this path. Our disconnect from the political realm as a community has left a void that sadly has been filled by groups lashing out in anger and despair. It is so easy and oh! so convenient to look at them with disdain, point the finger at them, and label them the bane of our existence and the root of all our problems. It is easy to ascribe to them all the evils of the world in an attempt to wash away our own guilt. For we are guilty my brothers and sisters. Guilty of not living up to the true potential of Islam. Guilty of remain deaf, dumb, and mute to the cries for help emanating from the four corners of the Muslim world.

Silencing Islam in all matters other than rituals, repeatedly downplaying the political and social grievances of Muslims, while vehemently criticizing those who engage in political and social resistance has become a staple of an increasingly corporatized form of Da’wah. Many of these scholars have turned into media personalities with massive platforms and millions of followers. They repeatedly use their platforms to plead for the need to maintain the status quo, while demonizing those who criticize and question it. While being implacable critics of what is often dubbed in the West as “political Islam”, they have no qualms cozying up to the same forces that generate the existing political crisis of the Muslim world. While they have no problem becoming the “poster child” for a brand of state approved Islam getting the thumbs up from Washington to Dubai, empathizing with the pain of their fellow Muslims and standing in solidarity with them in their grievances is apparently where they draw the line. In Islam, scholars are said to be the inheritors of the Prophets. As the custodians of Islamic knowledge, they are supposed to be a source of guidance not only through their teachings but also through their actions. To see so many Ulama become deeply entrenched in corrupt power structures, and Da’wah turn into a increasingly lucrative industry should alarm us all.

Look, the very first act undertaken by the Muslim Ummah in the moment of its birth was of two fold; religious and political. When Muslims gave their Bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to our beloved Rasulullah (saw), they recognized him as both their spiritual leader and their political leader. He became their Imam and their Amir. To pretend today that somehow Islam has nothing to say on political matters, or solutions to offer to the political problems plaguing the Muslim world is nothing short of delusional. Asking Muslims to prove that they are peaceful moderate people by endorsing their own oppression is a sacrifice one only asks of subjugated people. When the very forces occupying and exploiting much of the Muslim world are also the one’s fabricating the labels that exalt or demonize us, we should realize that utilizing them only furthers their interests. Ignoring politics only services the forces that are seeking to subjugate, oppress, and exploit our Ummah.



Class, Social Justice, And Islam

Class, Social Justice, And Islam

Talking about class today has been relegated in many ways to a form of antiquated analysis relevant only in Socialist circles clinging to Marxist Theory. In fact, concepts such as class struggle, class divide, or the working class, have been steadily expunged from our social narrative and our academic discourses. The great geopolitical shift of 1989/91 which led to the downfall of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR ended officially the partition of the world along Capitalist and Communist lines. For many, this was proof that Liberal Capitalism had unequivocally defeated Marxism both as an ideology and a socio economic system. This brave new Post-Cold War World heralded for the likes of Francis Fukuyama a world free from the yoke of the past and where history itself came to “an end”[1]. Specialists from both the right and the left were quick to declare that the advent of globalization had ended class struggle, thus making the debate around class obsolete.

It is often argued that the working class as defined in traditional Marxist theory no longer exists in Western societies. The manual workers of yesterdays represent a minority in a workforce dominated entirely by white-collar workers “enjoying middle-class living standards and lifestyles, while, contrary to Marx’s expectations, real wages have steadily risen in the past century ”[2]. The improvement of working conditions and the expansion of labor unions to all sectors of industry helped diffuse the confrontation between bourgeoisie and proletariat with the emergence of an “amorphous middle-class”[3]. Consequently, class as an underlying factor in shaping history has been gradually eclipsed in academia by a variety of other concepts tackling the very structural inequities addressed traditionally in class analysis.

What emerged from the ashes of the Cold War is an overtly simplistic understanding of the world. The onslaught of mass media served as a catalyst for the propagation of a superficial view of history emphasizing the works of politicians, artists, celebrities and a few intellectuals at the detriment of the “more fundamental patterns at work beneath the play of events”[4]. We have become mass consumers of a world history chronicled through the latest feats of celebrities and their scandals served up daily by glossy tabloids and reality shows, all the while denying the very idea that history has any pattern at all. Yet, underneath the veneer of change and the illusion of transformation lie the same old dichotomies.

The drastic change in the structure of our modern workforce and the shift in the conventional configuration of the working class hasn’t abolished class divide. Actually, low income and the working poor are terminologies used today to categorize those who (like the old working class) find themselves at the lower echelons in the relations of production. In-depth analysis of prevailing social, economic, and political concerns are obscured by shallow and misleading discourses that rely on a simplistic understanding of the structural and institutional nature of contemporary social inequities. Hence, rather than talking about class divide and class struggle in the current context, the conversation about economic disparity is now centered on the topic of poverty.

What is simply a symptom of a greater malady takes the spotlight and inspires a deluge of equally superficial efforts aimed at tackling the problem without ever questioning the system that leads to its existence. Despite the popularity of the notion of “social justice” and the string of activism it inspires, class divide and the struggle animating the dynamics of our class hierarchy are never encroached on. Politicians and activists alike promote the necessity of alleviating child poverty, elderly poverty, income poverty, or urban poverty as if these mere manifestations of poverty are not in fact the outcome of the same system of oppression. How can one eradicate poverty without ever changing the elements at the heart of our political, social and economic institutions that ascertain these economic disparities?

In Islam, the concept of justice is at the core of the values that define a Muslim nation. The rise of Islam helped establish a spiritually oriented worldview promoting socio-economic justice as a goal. In fact, one can notice upon an in-depth reading of the Qur’an how “the underlying tendency of the Qur’anic legislation was to favour the underprivileged”[5]. Ibn khaldun defined Muslim societies as goal-oriented, and with a keen interest in establishing social cohesion[6]. This was only possible according to him through a concerted effort by individuals and social institutions alike in promoting social solidarity. Thus, addressing the issue of economic disparity and poverty was not limited to individual acts of charity alone, but also encompassed moral and institutional reforms.

One of the most important things that Islam helped accomplish through its spiritually-oriented worldview was the realization of socio-economic justice. The status as well as the well-being of the weak and the downtrodden improved  drastically when the old social hierarchy based on tribal kinship was dismantled. This was primarily accomplished through moral and institutional reforms that reiterated the distributive nature of justice under Islamic law. It made every individual conscious of his obligations towards his fellow human beings, while the community was commanded to enjoy the good and forbid the bad. The government also played a crucial role in these reforms. It did everything it could to ensure the prevalence of law and order as well as justice. It established a judicial system in which the law applied equally to the rich and the poor.

The Islamic economic system is primarily based upon the notion of justice.  Justice in Islam is a multifaceted concept, and there are several words that exist to define it.  “The most common word in usage which refers to the overall concept of justice is the Arabic word “adl”.  This word and its many synonyms imply the concepts of “right”, as equivalent to fairness, “putting things in their proper place”, “equality”, “equalizing”, “balance”, “temperance” and “moderation.”[6]. An Islamic economic system is not necessarily concerned with economic statistics pertaining to income and expenditure, but rather with the spirit of the system itself.  Islam as a complete way of life brings all aspects of human activity (social, economic, political) under the dominion of a specific set of rules and regulations shaped by the Islamic ethos.

While such matters as financial performance are no doubt important, a society shaped by an Islamic ethos gives preeminence to the wellbeing of individuals and communities. The protection of an individual’s rights, needs, and dignity, irregardless of their race, gender, wealth, or religion, takes precedent over any economic considerations.  “Islam teaches that God has created provision for every person who He has brought to life.  Therefore, the competition for natural resources that is presumed to exist among the nations of the world is an illusion.  While the earth has sufficient bounty to satisfy the needs of mankind, the challenge for humans lies in discovering, extracting, processing, and distributing these resources to those who need them.”[7]

[1] Cohen, Claude. 1970. “Economy, Society, Institutions.” The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2.Edited by P. M. Holt, Ann Lambton and Bernard Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Ibn, khaldun (1377). Muqaddimah

[1] Fukuyam, Francis. (1982). The End of History and The Last Man

[2] Callinicos, Alex. (2010). The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx.

[3] Ibid. p.249

[4] Ibid. p.106

[5]  Cohen, Claude. 1970. “Economy, Society, Institutions.” The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2.Edited by P. M. Holt, Ann Lambton and Bernard Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Ibn khaldun (1377). Al Muqaddimah



The Historical Roots Of Islamophobia

The Historical Roots Of Islamophobia

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.

Narratives Are About Power, And They Matter.

Narratives Are About Power, And They Matter.

In August, I had the pleasure of publishing an article in Islam and science fiction called Should a Muslim narrative matter in science fiction? The main idea behind this article was to discuss how, at its best, science fiction as a genre possesses an uncanny ability to offer insightful social commentaries. It presents itself as an interesting and creative outlet to tackle some of the most controversial social, political, and economic issues plaguing mankind. By often taking place in an ever shifting and evolving context far removed from our own reality, it allows people to take a step back, and in doing so disentangle themselves emotionally from the subject matter; thus offering individuals the necessary space to reconsider and revisit the topic from a different perspective.

Fast forward to a month later and parts of my article were quoted in an article published on IO9, a well-known hub for all things science fiction related. IO9 is traditionally a rather liberal space where gender, racial, and cultural diversity in science fiction is advocated for and prized. Granted, since its merger with Gizmodo much has changed in IO9. Commenters on the site have always been known for their restrain and mature discussions. Since the merger however, it seems a certain contingent of the more extreme commenters from Kotaku, and Gizmodo have found their way to IO9’s comment section. Some of the vindictive and demeaning comments pertaining to the article in question piqued my interest as they seem to reflect something of a pattern emerging where Muslims and Islam are concerned in mainstream discourse.

The very idea that there could be (should be) a Muslim narrative was seen by some of them as a problem. These are people who for the most part would cheer on and even welcome the advent of African, Asian, or Russian science fiction for the diversity in perspective and tone this would  bring to the genre. However, Islam is apparently where they draw the line. Ranging from mockery to reflexions on the “possible future extinction” of Muslims, these types of comments are nothing new for those seeking to construct a Muslim narrative through fiction and non-fiction writing. In this case, the legitimacy, necessity, and utility of a Muslim perspective in science fiction storytelling is deemed not only wholly irrelevant but also harmful to the genre itself as shown by these few exerts from the comments:

“Hopefully they have Islamic stories like salt water and fresh water being unable to mix together…. Lol”

“I look forward to the day when “Islamic sci-fi” is considered by sites like io9 just as ridiculous as “Christian sci-fi” or “Mormon sci-fi”

“Now that I would read. Ideas like that (which come from a publication that is the final word of God, no less) do limit you in a hard science fiction way. Or maybe they’ve learned to ignore what was written in their holy books, like other people.”

“In Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Earth is a peaful, harmonious place in the 23rd century, which means that petty religious arguments are a thing of the past, or that Islam has been completely wiped off the face of the Earth, or they have all moved to Uranus. Just sayin’…”

For others, the discussion about the importance of a Muslim narrative in science fiction is in itself an attempt by Muslims to conflate different issues and “guilt” Westerners into reading their works. Since obviously Westerners are the only audience that matters and Muslims have nothing better to do then to seek their approval via trickery nonetheless.

“Strikes me as a clumsy attempt to make it “relevant” to Westerners, and guilt them into reading it. I trust the authors have larger views than Islamic victimhood, but Ahmad’s statement put me off for a moment.”

Although one would be tempted, at first glance, to simply describe these types of comments as the rancid diatribes of small minded bigots blinded by their own ignorance, it is important to look at the bigger picture. This resistance to Muslim narratives is not happening in a vacuum. In more ways than one, the events of 9/11 brought back into Western consciousness the colonial narrative pertaining to Islam. For all intents and purposes, Islam has been labelled a political and civilizational threat to the Western world, and to deliberately ally yourself with such an entity makes you a focal point for the type of sentiment that transpires from these comments. Present-day Islamophobia is not unfortunately confined to far-right circles alone, it permeates almost every aspects of Western societies. The ideas pertaining to the “dangers”, the “alienness”, or the “incompatibility” of Islam with democratic values are not simply found in the speeches of Donald Trump, they are instead constantly being reiterated in books, tv shows, and movies alike.

The hit tv show Homeland is particularly guilty of relying heavily on stereotypical depictions of Muslims, while presenting Islam as something dangerous, suspicious, and ominous. In order to convey the supposed strangeness and perilous nature of Islam, the creators of the show chose as their promotional poster for their fourth season a picture evoking a blonde, white Red Riding Hood lost in a forest of faceless Muslim wolves.  Shows like 24 and Sleeper Cell have consistently normalized the torture and extrajudicial killings of Muslims characters often portrayed as duplicitous, fanatical, and dangerous. These shows are based primarily on a narrative that justifies the ongoing wars,  covert operations, the drones strikes, illegal detentions, and racial and religious profiling of Muslims as necessary evils required in order to protect the Western world against the dangers of Islam, and by extension Muslims. 24 is another show that follows the same logic. Of all the Chinese, Russian, African, and Middle Eastern villains fought by Jack Bauer, none where more loathed than the  Araz, a suburban Muslim family who turned out to be a terrorist sleeper cell.  Even police procedural shows like Bones can’t seem to escape this trend. When a Muslim character is added to the cast, what was emphasized was not his exceptional educational background, his talent, or what he brought to the team, but rather his “strangeness” due mainly to his religious background.

“Almost every character in the lab, with the exception of Cam, has a serious problem with him taking the time to pray during the day. Hodgins blatantly says that Muslims bother him. Brennan seems to have a problem with it because she dislikes and distrusts all religion… but she isn’t nearly as critical of Booth’s Catholicism, and is harder on Vaziri than any of the other interns. Which doesn’t really make sense, as he has a lot of good ideas. [1]



What The comments on IO9 showcase is the discomfort the very idea of a distinctive Muslim narrative causes even in liberal circles. The power that narratives hold comes from their ability to shape our identities, define our perspectives, and give a unique voice to groups. Whether used in memoirs and documentaries to convey true stories, or made-up ones in books, movies, television shows, and video games, narratives give us access to experiences that otherwise elude us. They allow us to gain a better understanding of the world we live in by introducing us to the multitude of realities that make up the human condition. At almost every level—from the family unit to the highest instances of political power—narratives are used to create a core identity that distinguishes us from others, and helps us strengthen social cohesion through the establishment of specific sets of values and norms. To control a narrative gives one the opportunity to influence the very perception of reality itself. Emory Psychology professor Drew Westen, touches on the  importance of narratives in his New York Times Op-Ed.

“The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

In the Orientalist discourse that emerged from the colonial experience in the Orient, and particularly in the Muslim World, the entire Muslim civilization was defined as utterly alien and inherently dangerous. Out of the colonial endeavour emerged powerful ideological formations reiterating the notion that certain nations require domination, and certain narratives need not exist. As a system, colonialism was not satisfied merely with dominance and possession. It was a process that required the negation of any previous system, an erasure of any previous originality. The past was to be distorted, disfigured, destroyed, and eventually expunged from the colonized’s memory. This perceived irrelevance—and intentional depiction—of the Muslim narrative as useless, unnecessary, and even detrimental to Muslims themselves is a belief present-day Islamophobia has inherited from the Orientalist discourse of the colonial project.

Narratives become in this context a site of oppression. Battling Islamophobia effectively demands that Muslims take charge of their own narrative and control it. Instead of trying to change the depiction of Muslims and Islam in the works of others, Muslims must create their own creative outlets. There is not much we can do to stop the ongoing onslaught of vehement Islamophobic rhetoric, but there is much that we can do in creating a counter narrative that showcases the true nature of Islam.



Why A Muslim Identity Matters

Why A Muslim Identity Matters


It is becoming more and more common amongst Muslims living in the West to grasp at straws when attempting to find an identity to latch on. In fact, these days hyphenated Muslims abound. Almost every label or category that exists in mainstream society has its duplicate in the Muslim community: Muslim Feminists, progressive Muslims, ex-Muslims, orthodox Muslims, hipster Muslims, etc… Clearly, on one hand individuals claiming these labels  still find some importance in establishing a link with the broader Muslim identity; even the ex-Muslims reiterate formerly belonging to it instead of simply calling themselves atheists and putting the emphasis on their new found identity rather than the one they’ve renounced. One the other hand however, being just Muslim is not enough. There is this need to affiliate oneself with something that makes the Muslim part of one’s identity more acceptable, more modern, more authentic, or simply less threatening. It would be erroneous and quite unfair however to pretend that this phenomenon is only found amongst those of us living in the West because the very same thing is also happening in the Muslim world, although certain notable differences exist between the two contexts.

To claim a Muslim identity is one that comes with a heavy burden today. For all intents and purposes, Islam has been labelled as a political and civilizational threat to the Western world. To deliberately ally yourself with such an entity makes you a focal point for the vehement narrative of Islamophobia. Is it so unusual then, that some would try to find a way of softening the blow, of taking the target sign off their backs by attempting to link their Muslim identity to something less foreign, less ostracized, and more acceptable to Western audiences? But, this need to hyphenate one’s Muslim identity is not always born out of a desire for acceptance, at times (or maybe at all times) something far more insidious is at work.

Since the fall of the Muslim Caliphate in 1924, all subsequent generations of Muslims have been educated in Western-centric education systems. We have all become bearers and custodians of a colonial script that alienate us from our own past and our own history. We find ourselves beholden to a narrative that deny us our humanity and instead claims that our salvation as individuals, people, and nations can only be found in blindly following and imitating the Western world’s standard. We are for all intent and purposes colonized bodies leading an illusionary postcolonial existence. It is only logical then, that such individuals find themselves, almost unconsciously, gravitating toward a version of their identity that ascribes to this Westernized standard.

Neither Western Imperialism, nor its main vehicle Western Colonialism, can be reduced to a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even propelled by powerful ideological formations reiterating the notion that certain nations require domination. Out of these imperial experiences forms of knowledge affiliated with domination became part and parcel, if not the most important aspects, of Western thought and Western Academia. The very tenants of Western Enlightenment are rife with notions like subject racessubordinate peoples, and dependency. The giants of Western philosophical thought such as Hegel and Montesquieu formulated the kind of narrative asserting the inferiority of non-Europeans.

Colonialism is not satisfied merely with dominance and possession. It is a process that requires the negation of any previous system, an erasure of any previous originality. The past is distorted, disfigured, destroyed, and eventually expunged from the colonized’s memory. This constant devaluing of pre-colonial history has deep seeded effects on the minds of colonized people and their ability to muster any agency susceptible of truly liberating them from this oppression. They can no longer dissociate themselves from their colonizers, or envision their existence as separate, or in opposition to that of their oppressors. The lines become blurred, and it is henceforth almost impossible to figure out where one ends and the other begins.

This is where it becomes important, dear brothers and sisters, to ponder on the “germs of rot” the  colonial experience has left in our minds, and the way we see ourselves and construct our identities. Any real project of intellectual awakening requires the recognition of this painful truth.  At a time when Islam often finds itself under the limelight for all the wrong reasons it is easy to lose sight of its true meaning. The present socio-political upheaval rocking most of the Muslim World, as well as the continuous attacks on the very nature and goals of Islam, have left our Ummah—here and abroad—embattled, bloodied, bewildered and often divided. The ultimate purpose of the message of Islam is and has always been to nourish and purify the souls of the believers through the knowledge and the worship of Allah (‘aza wajal), while strengthening the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood between us all. However, in the present climate of confusion and chaos we can no longer afford to be ignorant of our past if we expect to move forward meaningfully. To commit as a community to a process of intellectual awakening is commendable indeed, but without a clear understanding of what such a process would entail, the resources at our disposal to achieve our goals, and the acknowledgement of the very real challenges hindering such an enterprise on our part, the chances of success  are nothing more than illusionary .

The responsibility rests with us to use knowledge as a tool to rediscover our own Muslim identity, without hyphens, and elaborate a liberation project through the production of a narrative unsoiled by Western imperialism. The development of a nation does not rely solely on sound economy, but also on sound knowledge and its proper use. Let us follow as an example the previous generations of Muslims, who through Islam, not only liberated themselves from the yoke of disbelief and superstition, but also elevated the whole of humanity through the knowledge they’ve produced.

“Oh Allah, I seek refuge with You from knowledge that is of no benefit, from a supplication that is not heard, from a heart that does not fear You, and from a soul that is not satisfied.”


Politicizing The Hijab: How The Hijab Became A Political Symbol

Politicizing The Hijab: How The Hijab Became A Political Symbol

Any Muslim woman wearing a hijab has at some point in her life come face to face with the politics surrounding what is primarily a religious symbol of piety and modesty. Whether defined as a sign of oppression or a political emblem, the agency of those women who choose to wear it is often ignored in the discourse surrounding the hijab. While many have already touched on the overt policing of Muslim women’s bodies that takes place in these discussions, very little has been said about the process through which the hijab has been politicized.

The explicit politicization of the hijab—in which the decision to wear it is framed as a political act—finds its roots in the colonial occupation of the Muslim World by Western powers. The imperialist expansion of Europe into the rest of the world during the last four hundred years created a dominant imperium expanding its control and influence over newly acquired territories. This relationship extended beyond military occupation and encompassed a social, pedagogical, economic, political, and broadly cultural project that reiterated the notion of European superiority and the ordained right of Europeans to spread “civilization” throughout the world.

Example of French colonial propaganda. France promises to spread progress and civilization through its colonies.

Colonialism was constructed as a noble project, a mission in which the “white man” must take on the burden of ensuring that non-Europeans were  civilized and Christianized. Such a system carried within it inherent notions of racial inferiority and exotic otherness. The colonial narrative in its rendition of Islam and Muslims adopted the broader description of non-Western people in colonial discourse as being fundamentally hostile to modernity, and by extension the very values of the West. This perception of Islam as being utterly foreign—and possibly even a threat, to the values of Christian Western civilization—explains the feelings of antipathy so prevalent in the West today toward symbols deemed to be carriers of Islamic values (Said, 1979:209).

Unveiling the natives

Muslim women  in the colonial narrative were often described as exotic creatures hidden in harems. This fuelled the fantasies of Westerners—who for the most part had never seen Muslim women—about scantily clad ladies submissively awaiting for the sexual favours of their husbands in their well-guarded harems. This image of Muslim women became so pervasive in Western literature and art that it lead to the widespread proliferation of their supposed submissiveness and exoticness in the Western world’s collective imaginary.

Francois Gabriel Guillaume Lepaulle (French artist, 1804-1886) The Pasha and His Harem
The Pasha and his harem by Francois Gabriel Guillaume Lepaulle (French artist, 1804-1886)
Harem girls by Fabio Fabbi (Italian painter, 1861-1946)

In the Orientalist discourse that emerged from the colonial experience in the Orient, but particularly in the Muslim World, the entire Muslim civilization was said to be recalcitrant to embrace changes that have come to define the modern Western World (Said, 1979:123). Muslims were said to be opposed particularly to secularization and the transition of men and women out of traditional and archaic institutions. Here the hijab was deemed singularly problematic because it’s presence in the social landscape was seen as a rejection of Western values. According to Fanon, “the way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness, that is to say the one that is the most immediately perceptible”(Fanon, 1967:35). In the case of Muslim societies, the hijab not only delineated the genders by reiterating the differences between men and women, but it also helped to demarcate clearly the colonized from the colonizers. By refusing to remove their hijab Muslim women were not only reaffirming their attachment to their native cultural and religious identity but also rejecting their assigned status as colonized subjects to be westernized.

Egyptian women protesting against the British colonial presence in Egypt (circa 1920)
Sudanese women in British-ruled Sudan (circa 1953)
Indonesian woman in colonial period

Western colonizers sought to subjugate in every possible way those under their yoke. The colonized must not only be completely controlled politically, socially, and economically,  but also inclined to be investigated, unravelled, and probed by their colonizers. The conquered cannot have secrets, privacy, or intimacy that eludes colonial dominance. The veiled woman however, remains an exception to this rule. Behind her hijab, she escapes the colonial gaze probing every aspect of native life, and in doing so frustrates the colonizers. There is no reciprocity between her and colonial society, since she evades their scrutiny. “She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself”(Fanon, 1967:44). The existing power dynamic between colonizer and colonized shifts in this context. The hijab creates a domain that remains out of the colonizers’ reach, where neither their values nor their authority have any dominion. In response to this defiance, “colonial society, with its values, its areas of strength, and its philosophy, reacted to the veil in a rather homogeneous way”(Fanon, 1967:37).

The hijab became the focus of an intense effort to wipe from existence any symbol that could evoke a sense of national identity, ethnic kinship, or religious belonging, distinct from that of colonial society. The roles of Muslim women as mothers, sisters, wives, and grandmothers were studied at length, catalogued, and defined by sociologists and ethnologists in an effort to identify the matrilineal essence of Muslim societies and understand its impact (Fanon, 1967:37). Colonial administrations deployed a whole new set of policies informed by this new found insight on the importance of women to the completion of the colonial project. They elaborated a political doctrine predicated on the idea of first winning over the women in order to win over the rest of society. Shattering any remaining pretences of nationhood and distinctive originality, demanded that women be made the standard-bearers of colonial values. In order to destroy the innate structure of Muslim societies and hinder their capacity to survive the consequences of  the colonial onslaught, Muslim women had to be conquered first. They had to be brought out into the open and away from their veils where they were hiding from the colonial gaze.

Saving the natives from themselves

This is where the narrative depicting the hijab as a sign of female oppression and a symbol of backwardness came into fruition. Muslim women wearing the hijab were described as victims of Islam’s deep seeded misogyny and backwardness who were simply unaware of their own oppression. The behaviour of Muslim men toward “their women” was said to be brutish and sadistic; after all their medieval and barbaric attitude consistently devalued and dehumanized women to the status of mere propriety meant to be hidden from view. Saving these humiliated and sequestered women become the newest project of colonial society. Charities and mutual aid societies intended to promote solidarity with Muslim women appeared in great numbers. Fanon notes that in the case of Algeria, “this was a period of effervescence, of putting into application a whole technique of infiltration, in the course of which droves of social workers and women directing charitable works descended on the Arab quarters” (Fanon, 1967:38).

The hijab was said to be the undeniable symbol of the oppressed state of Muslim women. Saving them required that they shall first be unveiled. Western feminists particularly took up the cause of these women’s emancipation and invited Muslim women to play a crucial role in the improvement of their condition. “They were pressed to say no to a centuries old subjection. The immense role they were called to play was described to them”(Fanon, 1967:38). Western feminists, much like the rest of Western society, were imbued with an imperialist consciousness based on a racial hierarchy reiterating the superiority of white women. The very existence of their feminist movement hinged in many ways on the racialized construct of the colonized. Their activism was ingrained with an imperial ethos framed around the idea of moral responsibility (white woman’s burden). Their actions espoused to the same goals than the broader colonial project. Saving the natives from themselves by civilizing them through Western values was an approach the feminist project had in common with the cultural assimilation promulgated by colonial administrations throughout the colonies. Both recognized the pivotal role women could play in bringing to completion the colonial project.

Every aspect of colonial society reiterated the call for the emancipation of Muslim women from the shackles of tradition and backwardness. Muslim pupils in schools were told of the evils of their native cultures and religion. In order to embrace the brilliant future awaiting them, they had to first shed away their native values susceptible of only hindering their greatness. The shortcomings of their native societies, in comparison to the greatness of their Western counterparts, were exposed to them in great lengths. Muslim women taking off their hijab were celebrated with great fanfare as examples of saved natives. These individuals adopting Western values were considered by colonial administrations as developed natives who would become part of the colonial cadre and facilitate the erosion of their native cultures. Colonial society expected the newly saved Muslim women, without the supposed stranglehold of the hijab, to support Western penetration into native society by helping them navigate the spaces concealed from their colonial gaze.

Those refusing to follow in the footsteps of their civilized sisters rapidly became the focus of a vehement and aggressive narrative portraying them as custodians of the very backwardness afflicting their gender. Colonial society reacted aggressively to what it perceived as resistance to civilization itself. These women continued to foster spaces that eluded the colonial reach, a world of native mysteries foreign to the European experience. By refusing to bare their secrets, they were unavailable to the scrutiny and influence of the colonizers. Breaking their resistance was the only way of putting them back into the reach of colonial society and making them objects of possession and possible assimilation. In the colonial context the hijab was no longer simply an expression of religious kinship but rather part of the broader anti-colonial discourse as a political symbol of resistance and counter-assimilation, whose bearers displayed a deliberate rejection of the colonial project and its Western values.

Female nationalists demonstrating against British rule in Egypt (circa 1919)

A politicized hijab

It is in the colonial context that the transformation of the hijab from a religious symbol to a political emblem started, but it certainly didn’t end with the advent of independent nation-states in the Muslim world. One could argue, that in more ways than one, postcolonial states in the Global South have inherited a great deal from the previous colonial system. In the case of the hijab, that argument holds much weight. The hijab has consistently been associated, by past and current Muslim states, to political movements contesting their political legitimacy. Hijabis were said to be adherents or supporters of political Islam. Wearing the hijab was no longer a symbol of religious expression but rather one of political dissidence. This attitude became a staple of Muslim politics throughout the better part of the 20th century and continues to this day.

The events of 9/11 brought back into Western consciousness the colonial narrative about Islam, and by extension the hijab. Islam became once more an existential threat. The old European lore of Muslim armies at the gate waiting to take Western civilization by storm resurfaced, and with it old sentiments of antipathy toward an other conceptualized first as a rival and later as a colonized subject. The hijab has become the focus of this fear. Seeing Muslim women in the West choosing to wear the hijab symbolizes for many Westerners a rejection of Western values. These women are in their eyes expressing their loyalty first and foremost toward Islam, and in doing so reject all that Western civilization stands for. This perception of the hijab as a symbol of opposition to modernity and women’s rights is one of the many tenants of the colonial narrative that continue to feed present-day Islamophobia.



Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 1967.

Edward Said, Orientalism, 1979.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993.