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Global Affairs

Tracing the Origins of Islamophobia

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by Mohammed Khallouk

Recent polls conducted by a number of polling institutes indicate that, in the minds of Germans and Europeans, Islam – more than any other religion – is associated with negative feelings. The phenomenon of resentment towards Islam, which is widespread in society, has been ignored for a long time and has recently begun to attract some attention; in particular, there have been efforts to investigate, and publicly debate, its origins, heterogeneity, and repercussions, by a number of prominent representatives from various academic disciplines. One such effort has resulted in the present volume, edited by Thorsten G. Schneider, under the title “Islamfeindlichkeit – Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen” (roughly, “Islamophobia: When the Limits of Criticism become Blurred”), which draws a line from the slander of the Prophet Muhammad in medieval Europe all the way to contemporary internet-based incitement against Islam.

As the first chapter of the book, about the historical evolution of the European perception of Islam, makes clear, large parts of the European population have tended to stigmatise the dominant religion of ‘the Orient’ – in spite of the, at times, significant anticipation of cultural achievements in the Near East. From the mid-20th century onwards, due to the increase in encounters with Muslim immigrants and ‘guest-workers’ (as well as, more recently, the acceleration of globalisation), these sentiments have again surfaced more prominently.

However, as the first of the contributions by the theologian Thomas Naumann shows, by reflecting on the supposedly ‘darkest chapter’ in European-Islamic history – the age of the Crusades –  the direct encounter with Islamic culture sometimes also made it to possible to overcome feelings of resentment. When viewed from this angle, the present volume can also be understood as a manifesto for cultural dialogue with Muslims, with the goal of finding a consensus on values.

Since negative reports tend to have a stronger emotional impact on a non-expert audience than positive reports, some pundits with an, at best, reserved attitude towards Islam, have succeeded, time and again, in reviving historical legends about Islam, even in the context of what are essentially modern contemporary problems – thereby bringing outdated historical ressentiments back into public consciousness.

This might also explain the observation, well-documented by Werner Ruf, an emeritus political scientist, in his contribution based on an analysis of official NATO documents, that both the scenario of an ‘imminent threat’ from the Muslim world (a familiar trope in medieval and early modern Europe) and a feeling of cultural superiority (which has its roots in 19th-century imperialism) are enjoying renewed popularity in some political quarters and certain mass media.

The second chapter in the volume analyses the deep repercussions of the resentment that persists in European civil society towards the Muslim faith and its adherents. In particular, it creates barriers for the – politically desirable – integration of Muslim immigrants into German society, and for the recognition of legitimate religious demands, as far as the educational system, professional life and legal system are concerned.

The contribution by Navid Kermani, the Iranian-German scholar of Islamic studies, emphasises that the prejudice-laden image of Islam in parts of German society is, to a large extent, fuelled, and perpetuated, by the use of selective quotations from the Quran, which are taken out of context and then related to specific social problems or developments. As a result, any negative occurrences may then be blamed on Islam itself, whereas other attendant circumstances, such as political conditions, educational backgrounds, or the immigrant status of those involved are often ignored.

The role of the media in perpetuating and cultivating negative connotations of all things Muslim, is analysed in detail in chapters 3 and 4 of the book. What is especially problematic is that some, originally left-leaning, liberal intellectuals, have adopted a tone of wholesale criticism of Islam and ‘the Muslims’. The contribution by the editor, Thorsten G. Schneider, a political scientist and scholar of Islamic studies, unmasks the unsavoury methods by which some of those intellectuals (many of whom have never pursued degrees in Islamic studies or Orientalistik) pass off their warnings against an undifferentiated Islamic threat as an exercise in ‘casting light on the nature of Islam’.

In addition to these mildly depressing findings about the attitudes and behaviour among German civil society towards Muslims – who, after all, by now have become an integral part of it – the papers in the volume also present some reason for hoping that Islam might one day be recognised as on an equal footing with Christianity and Judaism. Several contributors point to the painful, but eventually successful, path towards equal treatment that, historically, was part of the Jewish experience in Christian societies and which might now serve as an inspiration for Muslims.

Even though the number of papers included in the volume – the total of which runs to 28 – might seem a little daunting to the layperson and casual reader, the diversity of disciplines and approaches represented by the contributors shows clearly the relevance of the phenomenon of “Islamophobia”, and its consequences, across society as a whole.

Thorsten G. Schneider (ed.): Islamfeindlichkeit. Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen
VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2009.
ISBN-13: 978-3-531-16257-7
Softcover, 485 pages, EUR 39.90

Mohammed Khallouk was born in Morocco and works as a political scientist and scholar of Islamic studies at the Phillips University of Marburg. His work analyses Islamic fundamentalism in Northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as the history of the Jewish community in Morocco. He also works as a translator of German contemporary literature into Arabic.

The German version of this article first appeared in Gazelle Magazin; translated and reproduced with permission. Translation: The Berlin Review of Books. All rights reserved.

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