Islamophobia hides under cloak of gender equality

A protest against banning to burqa, London, 2009.

What do a conservative leader and a radical feminist have in common? More than we would have guessed, it seems.

Recently an Islamic group held an event at the University of Melbourne. The seating was arranged according to gender, as is common with such events. A reporter from the Australian newspaper decided to go along and search for controversies; the promise of discussing jihad at the event must have lured the newspaper into seeing an easy opportunity to vilify Muslims.

This has become a lucrative industry nowadays.

However, what the Australian uncovered was something much more sinister than the excitement of war and violence: gender apartheid. The experience of witnessing men and women seated in different parts of a lecture theatre is obviously traumatising, and so needed to be discussed on a national level.

And of course, there is only one place to go when you want an opinion on Muslims, so the Australian naturally sought out the opinions of a religious conservative politician, and an anti-religious feminist academic.

The differences between the two characters, Catholic opposition leader Tony Abbott and feminist Sheila Jeffreys, could hardly be more striking. In any other scenario, they would quite happily be at each others’ throats, but in this instance they have made uncomfortable bedfellows, quilted beneath the warmth of Islamophobia.

Abbott declared that he expects “members of parliament … to be up in arms about this”. Jeffreys concurred almost identically: “There needs to be great outrage about this.”

Apparently the irony of the Liberal Party bemoaning gender inequality was lost on Abbott, despite Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s recent reminder to this effect. Jeffreys also appears unaware that Western feminism has attempted to move beyond the racism of the second-wave, which constantly claimed to know what was best for “Othered” women as it universalised a specifically privileged white subject.

Those interested in overturning the stifling powers of patriarchy might see their energy better spent questioning men in power, rather than spend most of that energy in focusing on marginalised foreigners.

But that’s precisely the point of this controversy. It’s a classical displacement, focusing on a foreign patriarchy to ignore the local patriarchy. It is less threatening to challenge the Other than to challenge oneself.

It might be comforting to dismiss the above outrage as political opportunism (on the part of both conservatives and feminists), but the unholy alliance points to a deeper underlying issue: namely that left and right politics, while agreeing on little else, can be relied on to come to a common agreement on the exclusion of Muslims.

The ideological marriage of Abbott and Jeffreys also represents the marriage generally of the left and right on this particular issue.

Within the public’s imagination in these continuing discourses, the Muslim is not simply a Muslim. It is a name that ratifies an anxiety about the Other’s intrusion. This anxiety is the underlying and common link that ties together such an unholy alliance.

All things work on their state of exception, and the Muslim is today that exception that can suspend political disputes about issues of national security and culture, prompting cooperation in the face of a common enemy.

The rare bipartisan support for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is a prominent example of this relationship, as is the ongoing mutual cooperation of the ever-expanding anti-terror measures, whose discriminatory effects on Muslims have been noted consistently. This trend is not confined to Australian politics, as the French demonstrated with the bipartisan support of a bill banning the burqa, which was drafted by the leader of the Communist Party.

But there is still a problem here: how do we know whether these acts are in fact Islamophobic and not merely issues of gender equality or security? Modern forms of racism are less explicit than their historical counterparts, and so are sometimes more difficult to discern for the untrained eye.

One technique for distinguishing Islamophobia from legitimate concerns is to analyse whether such concerns are applied consistently, and this is where the outrage shows its true colours.

A quick glance at society shows segregation along the lines of gender to not only be heavily entrenched, but also widely accepted and respected. Many gyms offer women-only sections, many respected schools are separated along lines of gender and even our most private public space, the toilet, is dictated along gendered lines.

We must then recognise that Islamophobia is not simply an irrational hatred of Islam. It is better defined as the over-determining and inappropriate heaping of suspicion on all things Islamic. It is the placing of a burning spotlight on the Muslim. Islamophobia is not in what the spotlight reveals, but rather the fact that everything revealed is placed within the narrative of suspicion.

This suspicion works to maintain the dominance of white culture and white nationalism in Australia. Indeed, the political spectrum of left and right have a structural affinity in their fantasies about controlling foreigners; the debate is really about the proper way to control the ethnic object.

What makes Islamophobia so unique is that it can be articulated in a form that looks like anti-racism. It is like a virus that has evolved to appropriate its initial cure. It is often hidden behind claims of saving Muslims from bad Muslims, or saving Muslim women from Muslim men, or even paradoxically saving Muslims from Islamophobia.

This form of Islamophobia often uses a series of caveats to simulate the legitimacy of anti-racist language, but which serve only to conceal the very same racist logic at play against Muslims, albeit in a new “culturally aware” tone.

A principal example of this phenomenon is the underlying claim Professor Abdullah Saeed made recently in an article for The Conversation. He suggests that “unfortunately” such cultural norms as segregation are the result of “dubious interpretations” and ”selective reading” of religious texts, which are ultimately responsible for the worrying practice of “forcing women to sit in the back of the theatre”.

We should learn to ignore these caveats that interrupt Saeed’s argument. He peppers his assumed claims with words like “sometimes”, “occasionally” and “some Muslims” as if to hint that he is aware of the social error in generalising.

However, the underlying message is clear: the problem is always bad Muslims.
We also see in Saeed’s article another sacrifice. The “dubious” Muslim is the “integrated” Muslim’s sacrificial lamb. Its sacrifice allows for the lure of a fantasy that only “bad” Muslims stand in the way of Australia accepting a “good” Islam.

More disturbingly in highlighting the inherent link between racism and Islamophobia, Saeed locates the problematic Muslim as the Muslim beyond Australia’s borders. He suggests, without any reference, that “there are some Muslims who do not believe that men and women are equal”.

These Muslims apparently “assert that women should not have a public presence”, and “occasionally Australian students who travel … sometimes come back with these ideas as well”.

By problematising the foreigner in this way, Saeed not only entrenches the racist logic of the suspicious Other, but just as importantly — or perhaps more so — entrenches the fundamental fantasy upon which racism is based: namely the purity of whiteness, insisting that evil is inherently foreign.

But this approach is also counter-productive. What we neglect to see is that this suspicion heaped upon a “dubious” Islam will not remain neatly focused on “cultural” Muslims who read “dubious” selections of Islam. It will overlap onto all Muslims.

Stating that 99% of Muslims are not terrorists is irrelevant. The 1% is the percentage that is used to do all the work for Islamophobia. It translates into suggesting that any of the 99% could potentially be that one terrorist. It takes little stretch of logic to then suggest that all should be treated as such.

The selective outrage at gender segregation when discussing Muslims suggests there is more at play than meets the eye. It also points to a worrying trend whereby Muslims internalise the logic of Islamophobia and thus figure other Muslims as the source of all evil.

The history of racism has taught us that discrimination can easily be carried out under the noblest of banners and neutral terminology. For this reason, critical vigilance is required when dealing with minority groups, particularly in this current context of Islamophobia, lest even those with the best of intentions serve such oppressive ends.

Disguising Islamophobia under the cloak of gender equality only harms the plight of both Muslims and women.

Mohamad Tabbaa is a PhD candidate in Criminology and Law at the University of Melbourne. Yassir Morsi is a research fellow at the international centre for Muslim and non-Muslim understanding, at the University of South Australia.

[This article was first published at rightnow.org.au.]

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