A spectre is haunting the liberal world: the spectre of global Muslim victimhood. The argument, bluntly put, goes this way: Muslims are being singled out as victims, oppressed everywhere in the world, from Kashmir to Palestine, by states and by other communities, whether Hindus, Jews, Christians, atheists, or secularists. The West, and the US, in particular, are seen as particularly hostile to Islam and so-called Muslim countries. This claim is readily bolstered with Edward Said’s thesis in his landmark work, Orientalism, of Islam as the longstanding Other of Christian and post-Christian Western civilization and by assorted Marxist, World-Systems, and nativist theories about a rapacious West seeking to keep Muslims under its thumb while propping up dictatorial regimes in Muslim-majority countries for the sake of cheap oil. The West by this logic is not just responsible for directly attacking ordinary Muslims but is also to blame for the tyrannical Muslim leaders that subjugate these ordinary populations (never mind that the policies of many such leaders, tyranny notwithstanding, enjoy more than a modicum of legitimacy among these very populations). Exploited by the structure of international political economy, Muslims, in this view, are also systematically targeted for killing, whether by US drones, the Israeli army apparatus, riotous Hindu mobs. Muslims are also described as victims in every day settings, unfairly harassed at airports, yelled at in public spaces, and subject to micro-aggressions on social media.
This idea of widespread, consistent, and endless global Muslim victimisation is echoed and granted credence from the halls of American academia to the protest-ready spaces of JNU, from the low-level gutter fights of Indian Twitter to the somber official statements that follow the increasingly frequent attacks of Muslim terror in cities across the world. They can be found in the strident utterances of self-appointed spokespersons of Muslims, whether in India or the US, and in the statements of well-intentioned, if sometimes bewildered, non-Muslims, who are anxious to do the right thing by their fellow brethren. Symbolized by relentless accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ against all perceived critics of Islam, this state of affairs has led to a global industry of Muslim victimhood, with its elders laying down a set of conventions about how Islam and Muslims must be spoken of and the accompanying charges of blasphemy ready to follow against transgressors.
Let us first look at some of the self-styled spokespersons of the global Muslim ‘community’ in the Western context. The Reza Aslans, Mona Eltahawys, and Mehdi Hasans of the world are instructive in this regard. Notwithstanding the qualities of being extremely articulate and media savvy, and blessed with a talent for keeping themselves in the limelight, none of these reformers present arguments that are particularly radical or even insightful when it comes to Islam, Muslim practices, or beliefs. Rather, their prominence appears to be more a function of their apologetics for troubling Muslim and/or Islamic practices and valiantly battling against (often-exaggerated-in-the-imagination) criticism of Islam. For example, here is Eltahawy expressing that well-worn cliche, amply familiar to those of us in India, that no non-Muslim (or non-Muslim non-women) can and should comment on certain matters which are the exclusive property of Muslims or Muslim women.
Here is Mehdi Hasan’s ludicrous response to those who defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech. Hasan, who has clearly never heard of the American Civil Liberties Union or Christopher Hitchens, grandly proclaims, in an obscenely prescriptive manner, “Please get a grip. None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed” [emphasis in original]. And Aslan, who has made a career of explaining Islamophobia—just Google “Aslan and Islamophobia” and be prepared to be awed—was quick to remind the world not to make generalisations about Islam in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. But his thankfully short-lived show on CNN, Believer, peddled every kind of execrable stereotype about Hinduism, taking as representative of Hinduism a group of Sadhus who apparently eat human brains. In a delicious irony, Aslan was accused of being ‘Hinduphobic’ as soon as he undertook his short-lived foray into religion beyond the monotheistic faiths.
In every day liberal conversation and exchanges, the spectre of Muslim victimhood manifests itself in a variety of ways. One cannot use the term ‘Muslim terror’ (but Hindu or Christian or Left terror is fine) or even Islamic terror without worry of being termed communal, bigoted, or Islamophobic. The appropriate phrase is ‘Islamist terror,’ which, we are expected to clarify, has nothing to do with Islam. We can make generalisations about White Americans and their supposed Islamophobia or murderous love for guns, but not about Arabs, Indonesians, or Indian Muslims. We are told to say that ISIS is a corruption of Islam but has nothing to do with ‘real’ Islam (whatever that is). We must repeat the phrase, “Islam is not a monolith” endlessly, though, of course, one can say the same thing about pretty much any large group of people. Or even small groups of people. Environmental terrorists are not a monolith either. We are expected to ‘understand’ why young Muslim men are radicalised by US foreign policy and thus tempted to blow themselves up while shouting “Allahu Akbar.” And so on, till it becomes utterly exhausting to express even a mild criticism of Islam or Muslims–unless one is Mona Eltahawy or Reza Aslan in which case one has that God-given right by virtue of one’s identity. Never mind that non-Muslims also live in the US which Aslan and Eltahawy call home, where they share social life in all its aspects with their fellow Muslim citizens and are also granted that little thing called freedom of speech by the First Amendment.
These positions have become a kind of hegemonic liberal common sense, perhaps as over compensation for the foreign policies of the country one is a citizen of, perhaps for the sins of Orientalist thought and practice committed by one’s ancestors, or perhaps because of being told that one as a non-Muslim is guilty of a banal and implicit communalism or sectarianism. But consider whether similar views would be treated with such veneration and would be taken seriously as legitimately liberal positions if expressed by members of other groups about their respective communities? Would we consider female feticide and honour killings exclusively an internal matter of Hindu Haryanvis? The problem, as this example shows, is precisely that the violence results because these matters are left exclusively to the ‘community’ in question, despite Indian laws against the practices in question. It is worth noting here that Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly disappointed in his hope that caste Hindus would reform themselves with regard to their abhorrent casteism against so-called Untouchable groups. Would we similarly argue that we need to ‘understand’ White racist gunmen who target brown-skinned people or the gangs of Hindu fanatics in India who routinely lynch their fellow Muslims on the false pretext of eating beef or smuggling cattle? Would we argue that America’s sorry history of invading other nations has nothing to do with the rituals of banal nationalism that feed jingoistic American policies even if these rites appear to be nothing more than benign patriotism? Or that attacks on LGBT persons have nothing to do with the homophobic nature of much Christian preaching, practice, and belief in a society like the US?
Lest I be accused of expressing that factually non-existent sentiment of ‘Islamophobia,’ let me state what should be obvious from my remarks here. There is tremendous capital to be gained from the idea of Muslims as privileged victims and from peddling the exceptionalism of Muslim suffering. To make this point is not to deny or trivialise real Muslim suffering. It is rather to point to the hypocrisy of those who present themselves simultaneously as defenders of Islam against bad non-Muslims outside the community and as radically progressive reformers within the community against bad Muslims. We need to pay attention to the contradictions within so-called liberal Muslim discourse—at least the variety that makes it to the international cable news channels–and to its strategic silences and complicity with illiberal and ignorant views. To silence oneself, regardless of whether one is a Muslim or non-Muslim, for fear that the Indian or American Right will ‘coopt’ one’s arguments and demonize Muslims is patronizing to Muslims and nothing short of a deeply hypocritical inconsistency hiding behind the fig leaf of ‘context’ and ‘nuance.’ And finally, we need to be able to—and must—criticise Islam and Muslims freely, as we criticise other faiths, cultures, beliefs (however so you wish to describe Islam) and its adherents without being slapped with the lazy and illiberal charge of being Orientalist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim, racist, or some combination thereof.