//Sanjay Subrahmanyam : Bad time to be Muslim

Sanjay Subrahmanyam : Bad time to be Muslim

It was a slightly surreal experience transiting through a series of airports in the week following the British announcement of a discovery of a new conspiracy to blow up a vast number of planes in midair. British home secretary John Reid’s statement on August 10 declared rather dramatically that his country was engaged in a “long, wide and deep struggle against very evil people”, and also that his government had the total support of all the opposition parties. Who were these “very evil people”?

Reid was careful to note that “this is not a case of one civilisation against another, one religion against another”, but other statements notably one by President Bush once more brought to the forefront that the source of the problem lay in Islam, even if he specified that rather than all Muslims, “this nation (the US) is at war with Islamic fascists”.

Amongst the groups of passengers I saw in Frankfurt was a large one of Muslims from Central Asia, seated on the floor in anticipation of a long wait. Though the airport authorities were tactful enough not to screen them more conspicuously than the average family from Missouri, the tension was palpable.

Once again, this was not a good time to be a Muslim or even to have a beard. British newspapers report, however, that there is some scepticism in that country on the reality of the conspiracy revealed by Reid.

As usual, reporters have been to small towns and suburbs inhabited by British Muslims (usually of South Asian origin) and find them far more questioning of the government’s claims than the rest of the population.

Given the Blair government’s record of spin and outright mendacity, there is surely some basis for this scepticism.

But equally it means that many will find that “the Muslims” have failed once more to rise to the occasion: In weblogs the world over, we will hear of how rather than condemn the terrorists, Muslim opinion in general supports them, and prefers spinning conspiracy theories to facing up to the facts.

It may not be a good time to be a Muslim, but it is a splendid time to be an Islamophobe. In the case of India, such groups of Islamophobes have existed since at least the nineteenth century, and many were a conspicuous part of the nationalist movement, and even the Congress party.

As has been pointed out on more than one occasion, the invention of the so-called “two-nation theory” owes as much to Savarkar as to any leader of the Muslim League, and underlying it was the idea that Muslims and non-Muslims could not coexist in any society despite a vast variety of historical examples to the contrary.

With the rise to prominence of the sangh parivar, an interesting new alliance emerged in the 1980s. Right-wing (at times neo-fascist) European writers had long railed against the migration of Muslims to that continent as “guest workers”.

Their rabid Islamophobia was at times paired with an ostensible admiration for Hinduism, or at least for certain of its ersatz manifestations.

It thus came to be a perfect marriage of convenience between the likes of the Belgian Koenraad Elst (closely associated with the radical Vlaams Blok, condemned legally for its racism and xenophobia, and reincarnated as Vlaams Belang) or the Frenchman Francois Gautier, and the Hindu far right.

Islamophobia provided the perfect cement between these European agitators on the one hand, and Sita Ram Goel and Arun Shourie on the other.

 Under their influence, Islamophobic French papers such as Le Figaro began to carry the most absurd claims regarding the greatest genocide in the world, an untold “holocaust” that had been carried out by Muslims on Hindus over the mediaeval centuries.

These authors also produced paranoid theories of a conspiracy of silence, involving both western and Indian academics, and a hydra-headed Marxist network, which was allied in their view to the radical evil of Islam. Ironically, 9/11 has given such views an audience that they would otherwise never have possessed.

An example of how Islamophobia truly pays is provided by the recent case of the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who after a brief career in the Dutch parliament is about to leave that country for a radical right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, known for its hand behind the war in Iraq and Republican foreign policy.

Though acclaimed by the likes of Time magazine and Christopher Hitchens, it is now amply clear that Ali gained Dutch citizenship under false pretences, claiming to be a political refugee from Somalia, when in fact she was a long-term resident of Kenya.

In Holland, after flirting with a variety of other tendencies, she was eventually associated with radical Islamophobic movements, and her collaborator Theo van Gogh was murdered in the streets in November 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri.

She has then gone on to use a variety of platforms to promote herself, even finding common cause with anti-immigration parties (despite her own history), and playing the card of Islamophobia in the name of an allegiance to the “Enlightenment”.

The vast number of awards she has garnered, in comparison to a number of genuine feminists, social workers, and other public intellectuals, shows once and for all that Islamophobia does pay, especially coming from a former Muslim. At this rate, Ali will be the Bernard Lewis of tomorrow.

The writer teaches history in UCLA.

SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAM, Times of India, 22 Aug, 2006