Last month, the government of Canada decided to appoint a special representative for combatting Islamophobia. The announcement was made on the fifth anniversary of a terrorist attack against a mosque in Quebec; an attack that was inseparable from deeply problematic discourse that had become mainstreamed in Canadian society.
That relationship has played out across the West. As an analyst and academic on relations between the West and the wider Muslim world, I often get difficult and challenging questions. I perhaps naively expect that some questions have already been settled, at least in informed company. But when western diplomats and opinion formers still ask me, “Is there a problem with Islam”, it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do in the policy arena. In 2022, however, I am no longer prepared to even address the question without questioning its very framing. In 2022, no one should do otherwise – we should be far beyond that point.
The indignation that one often faces when insisting to question this framing is rather extraordinary, but perhaps unsurprising. Invariably, the response, from the likes of pseudo-liberals such as the American talk-show host Bill Maher, is that Islam is somehow off-limits when it comes to critical discussion. Indeed, I have heard it myself: “Why won’t you just answer my question? Don’t you believe in critical debate?”
Of course, this is a completely straw-man kind of objection. There is probably no religion in the world that is regularly critiqued, debated, and criticised in the public arena, academic circles, or around the dinner table more than Islam. It is, ironically, very “snowflake”-like for such protestations (“Why can’t I merely ask the question?”) to arise. The issue is not about asking challenging questions – it’s about being prepared to answer questions of your own about how such questions are framed, and what assumptions underlie them.
If the question, for example, were framed as, “Is there a problem with certain interpretations of Islam”, that would be very different. Because then, Islam as a religion is not reduced to a single “thing” that is ever immutable and unchangeable, and needing to defend ‘"itself" against accusations. This isn’t just nuance. It is common sense.
What is more, it is common sense used with many of the other great religions of the world when some of their followers are engaged in violent or unsavoury acts. When we discuss the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, the question "is there a problem with Judaism?" is, quite appropriately, not raised – even though there is an appeal to religion among some supporters of the occupation. When we discuss Nazism in Europe, we do not ask, "is there a problem with Christianity?, even though there was a movement called “Positive Christianity” popular among some Nazis, which was used to justify the Holocaust. Nor do we do so when we discuss apartheid in South Africa, or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, even though both issues invoked Christian themes. We do not do this, for one simple reason: it would be the wrong question. It would also be rather offensive.
It isn’t that there is nothing to be learned from looking into how religion and religious interpretations are utilised for power politics – of course, there is, and I investigate that myself a lot. But this kind of reductionist essentialisation does nothing to help us understand. It simply furthers more, not less, ignorance and demonisation.
Moreover, particularly when it comes to Islam, the framing of the discussion does not happen in a vacuum. When we ask, “is there a problem with Islam?”, we are directly feeding into discourses that demonise Muslim communities in the West, as well as Muslim communities abroad.
We live in a world where anti-Muslim bigotry is tremendously common, which has affected not only our discussions in the public sphere, but also policies from different governments. We need only look at the mainstreaming of it in the West, which has lead to Islamophobia across different western countries. These kinds of discussions have impacts.
Thus, when we frame these discussions, especially in analytical spaces, diplomatic ones and the public arena in general, we need to immensely aware of what assumptions we are empowering. Because those kinds of assumptions can not only be tremendously problematic in the abstract, but also have deep repercussions on policies at home and abroad.
Many such assumptions may be made unthinkingly and in ignorance. But if that is the case, then we should all be ready to have those assumptions challenged and questioned, instead of insisting that censorship is taking place. This has never been about censorship. It has always been about raising the bar, especially when the alternatives lead to more division.