Islamophobia and Radicalism: A Vicious Cycle
On January 31, 2014, I spoke at the International Conference on Terrorism in Uskudar, Turkey. The Honorable Metin Kulunk, an AKP parliamentarian and Dr. Serhat Ulagali from Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul hosted the conference. The conference discussions were driven by the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and on the emergence of Daesh, the violent extremist group now carving out a state out of Iraq and Syria.
The conference was interesting and thought provoking. It clearly emphasized how extremism and violence had become the challenge of our times and how nations needed to cooperate to combat terrorism. But additionally it highlighted how different the interests of most of the Turkish researchers were from a majority of those who study terrorism in the U.S.
In the U.S. a vast number of experts focus on issues such as radicalization, strategies for combating terrorism, on the terrorist networks and their financing and recruitment. A lot of attention is paid to endogenous factors such as ideology, politics, and patronage. There are also apologias, which try to make the case that it is not Western policies in the Muslim world or its support for Israel, but rather Islam and Islamic values that are responsible for extremist violence in the Muslim World.
There are broadly two themes in most policy oriented Western conferences on terrorism; how to defeat terrorism and to paint the West as innocent of any complicity in the rise of extremism worldwide. Academic conferences however do seek to provide context to Muslim violence. They examine the histories of colonialism, imperialism, war on terror, and even the crusades and their impact on Muslim societies. Most of the critique of American foreign policy and European domestic policies, which nurture and trigger Muslim radicalism is coming from the academia and a sliver of the press with left leanings.
At this conference, which attracted many Western experts and scholars, most of the Turkish speakers were very critical of the West and blamed the West for nearly everything that was happening in the Muslim World. The absence of any discussion of Turkish foreign policy, its achievements and its failures in the regional crises was remarkable. There were, as usual, lots of rhetorical references to Israel as a terrorist state without any in depth discussion and with no systematic or thoughtful recommendations on how to deal with it. On the other hand there were quite interesting in depth analysis and criticism of Saudi Wahhabism and Marxism and their impact on radicalism and terrorism.
One of the more diverting moments of the conference was when the Member of Parliament, Metin Kulunk, scolded some of the local scholars. First he made a dig at the academics that showed up only to make their presentations and did not stay to listen to others. He wanted to know how they would learn anything if they did not listen to other scholars. His second criticism was more profound in nature. He pointed out that all the concepts and theories with which we discussed the issues were developed in the Western context. He lamented how we could develop our own narrative and analysis without first developing our own concepts. He seems to understand that Western hegemony is not just political but also epistemological and deliverance from political domination cannot come without intellectual independence.
I tried to make the argument that rising Islamophobia in the West is tied to the rising radicalism among Muslims, especially in Europe. Clearly we can make the case, and many have, that Islamophobia is a culture phenomenon that seeks to demonize Islam and Muslims and has been part of Western cultural discourse for centuries. Nevertheless, episodes such as the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and videos of egregious violence, like the burning of the Jordanian pilot by Daesh, which receive wide media coverage, may vindicate to a less nuanced observer the negative images of Islam and Muslims proliferated by Islamophobic commentators.
Islamophobia contributes to a cultural and political environment that alienates and marginalizes Muslims, often making it difficult for them to find jobs and integrate in mainstream societies in the West. Law enforcement backlash after terror episodes also makes the life of ordinary Muslims more difficult. This alienation with structural racism and institutionalized discriminatory policies has made Muslim youth across Europe feel lost. Often in search of a meaningful identity that could give them some self-worth they take refuge in the hateful ideas of Salafi-Jihadism and the cycle of Islamophobia-radicalism gains more velocity.
Muslims I believe cannot escape this vicious cycle by just blaming others and waiting for them to not only reform their ways but also reform our societies. I am amazed at how some Muslims in Turkey criticized the West for its interventionist policies and then complained that the West has not intervened to remove Bashar Al-Asad from power, and has not intervened to restore the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. Western interventions advance Western interests, Muslims need to ask how their actions serve their interests. Ultimately we can act upon only those issues and forces that we can control. And that is where we must expend our energies.
Muslims in the West must engage the political arena to shape the discourse on Islam and deconstruct Islamophobia and Muslims in the Muslim World must combat their own radicals and invest in building capabilities and foster co-existence.
This article was originally posted on www.turkeyagenda.com.