Counterview: Not all Islam is Islamofascism, but Islamofascism is in fact Islam

To call Islamofascism opponents Islamophobic, suggests that there is only one way to be a Muslim and only one kind of Islam.

by Nazneen Sayyad & Sajida Sheikh

We are activist-scholars: precisely the kind who are criticised by the Muslim right. As members of the Feminist Critical Muslim Studies Collective, we are committed to examining how the religion called “Islam” has been constructed, both in academic research and in Muslim communities. We write both as religious studies scholars and as independent women scholars who start from a secular viewpoint. We hope that we can share insights that our field brings to an understanding of global Islamofascism.

As scholars of religion, we are acutely aware of the ways that colonialism and racism have played a role in shaping academic perspectives on the world. We know that knowledge is never neutral, and that what we study and how we teach has real consequences — sometimes dangerous and violent ones.

Thus, we must always consider what is at stake for others when we do our work. As teachers of Muslim traditions, we think it is vital that we learn how to think critically about what we ourselves have been taught — both in universities and in our communities, while also recognising how caste and social power continue to shape Muslim traditions.

As scholars of religion, we see how Islam is deeply intertwined with Islamofascism. At the Dismantling Global Islamofascism conference, we have repeatedly heard that “Islamofascism is not Islam”. We assert that although not all Islam is Islamofascism, Islamofascism is in fact Islam. We believe strongly that we must begin not by denying the Islamic origins of Islamofascism but by realising that Islamofascism is a powerful, vocal, and insidious form of Islam.

When we assert that they are separate, Islamofascism continues unnamed in the guise of “Islam”. That is why it is necessary for all of us who research Islam or who live in Muslim communities to reflect deeply on what elements of Muslim tradition and practice are so easily co-opted by Islamofascism’s Islam.

Muslims who insist on parsing words by arguing that “Islamofascism” simply means Islam forget that words take on different meanings over time, depending upon how they have been used. People who insist that Islamofascism means “Islamic” seek to hide their politics through appeals to ancient etymologies and grammar as opposed to historical and political realities.

As scholars of religion, we do not see religious traditions as having essential qualities, or as acting on their own. When people try to “combat” Islamofascism by saying Islam is a religion of peace or non-violence, they contribute to the problem by suggesting that Islam is a universal entity, an agent that does something.

Ironically, a universal Islam is precisely what Islamofascism seeks to promote. Islamofascism is always, no matter the context — explicit or inexplicit — drawing upon and taking power from Islam. And that, therefore, has implications for everyone who identifies as a Muslim or who practices Islam.

Islamofascism works in multiple ways — it can look or feel differently in various settings. We may all be familiar with the images of Islamofascists in India and elsewhere in the Islamic world rioting and waving flags. But the global, identity-centred ideology of Islamofascism is also at work among Muslim diaspora in more subtle ways, when for example the Indian Muslim Students Council in a North American college campus only sponsors Muslim festivals and rituals, obscuring the distinction between Muslim and Indian.

It is also present when children in the diaspora are taught about Islam. The way in which children learn today in mosques and madarsa classes tends to present Islam in a homogeneous, monolithic way. Each of us has conducted research in Muslim educational spaces where we have found that curricula often conflate Islam with the wider Muslim umma elsewhere and promote the notion that being a good Muslim means not just learning about its traditions and personalities, but is also about linking Indian Islam to the greater Muslim umma for the stated aim of making it the dominant world religion.

These lessons often uncritically plant the seeds for the forms of exclusivist ways of thinking about religion and community that are at the core of Islamofascism. Even when they are not explicitly Islamofascism-oriented, many of the global institutions and organisations that seek to foster Muslim identity bolster Islamofascism’s aims.

In “secular” democracies, it has become common practice for people to claim religious identities alongside national ones. Such identity-politics have become a way to participate in civil society and multiculturalism. Claiming a Muslim identity looks and functions differently in India, the UK, Canada, the US, or Trinidad.

However, the very notion of a collective Muslim identity that transcends various sectarian, regional, and cultural differences is often leveraged in the service of Islamofascism. Indeed, the idea of Muslim as a personal identity is a fairly recent construction that has been shaped by colonialism and nationalism.

To claim any religious identity is politically fraught. To claim religious identity is to engage in a politics of belonging that necessarily involves forms of inclusion and exclusion. To say one is a Muslim is to signal that one is not something else. And while that very experience of belonging can involve powerful affective experiences and feelings of love, it is also the same kind of thing that produces the hate that we see in Islamofascism’s many forms. This is one of the greatest threats and challenges that Islamofascism’s Islam poses to other forms of Islam.

Islamofascism’s Islam is rapacious: it professes radical inclusivity, desiring to subsume all other Muslims and versions of Islam throughout the globe into its fold. In doing this, the rhetoric employed by Islamofascism leaders often belies reality. It not only seeks to include those who identify as Muslim but also all “dhimmis and “kaffirs”.. The dhimmis include those originally considered people of the book like Jews and Christians. Kaffir refers to those outside the pale like Hindus and Yazidis, considered idolaters and worshippers of the devil. Making them Muslim obviously involves the use of coercion or other forms of ‘persuasion’ to convert to the ‘one true faith’.

A person’s identification with Islam can easily become an entryway into participation in Islamofascism. In the diaspora, in particular, Muslim identity has become an important way of naming and comfortably inhabiting one’s difference.

Finding community in this identity can be a very positive and affirming experience for many. Islam is seen as inseparable from traditions and family, foodways, languages, art forms, and rituals.

Recognising the power of identity can help us to understand the strong pull of Islamofascism’s organisational offerings, be they camps, school programmes, or opportunities for civic participation. What moves people to support Islamofascism is often more about emotion than politics.

Islamofascism organisations play on emotion and religious sentiment when they use the language of “Islamophobia” or speak about how Islam and Muslim ways of life are under threat. The power to instil fear is a useful weapon. When people are repeatedly told that what is being threatened is their religion, and that the things that they hold most dear — their family customs, sacred sites, image of the divine, children’s relationship to their heritage — are in danger, it is not surprising that they jump to its defence.

In stoking fear, Islamofascism leaders also need to identify an “other,” a threat. In the case of the Dismantling Global Islamofascism conference, the “other” is academics. But on the ground, those “others” whose bodies and lives are at stake are primarily members of those seen as lesser Muslims and non-Muslim communities, especially Hindus.

Islamofascism leaders actively seek to control the production of knowledge about “Islam” both in the academy and in various public contexts. They often frame this in terms of wanting to wrest control of scholarship about Islam away from white colonial professors and back into the hands of “real” Muslims.

But despite being scholars of Muslim heritage, we are among the people that Islamofascism forces do not want as producers of knowledge — because we do not support their understanding of Islam. This is also why Islamofascism leaders find diaspora groups like Muslims for Human Rights so threatening. These other perspectives on Islam challenge the vision of a unitary Islam that is so important to Islamofascism ideology.

When violence is enacted in the name of Islam, it is tempting for progressive Muslims to denounce and distance themselves from these forms of tradition as an aberration. But hateful forms of religion are still iterations of the tradition, and they are powerful precisely because they speak in the language of religion.

We know that the tools of religion, the symbols, the language, the rituals of religion, theology have been wrapped up in Islamofascism formations from very early on. When Islamofascism violence is sanctioned by appeals to religion, the divine, or sacred texts, it becomes more easily justifiable than other forms of violence.

When those who identify as Muslim want to denounce Islamofascism, it requires a denouncement of these forms of Islam. It requires a critical analysis of how the same texts that one group may use to call for love are being deployed to call for hate. It also requires naming, actively rejecting, and undoing aspects of the tradition — such as Muslim supremacy and the enslavement and killing of infidels — that have historically been and continue to be used as justification for oppression, marginalisation, and violence.

In this vein, parsing out Islamofascism’s rhetoric can be particularly complicated because it is often contradictory. In recent days, we have seen Muslim advocacy groups say, on the one hand, that Islamofascism is not Islam, and, on the other hand, that any attack on Islamofascism is a direct attack on Islam.

When we say that Islamofascism is a form of Islam, we are told we are Islamophobic, attacked on social media, and sent death threats. But to call us Islamophobic for making this claim suggests that there is only one way to be a Muslim and only one kind of Islam. But as scholars we approach Islam as a tradition that can be used to wage war or peace, and which has sacred texts and traditions that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

We must also address the way that Islamophobia is now being used by the Muslim right. It is essential to acknowledge how religion and race are intertwined. Muslims in the diaspora experience discrimination and violence for two reasons: first because they are brown, viewed as “others,” in a white Christian society and second, because they normally live in separate communities without mingling with the natives and dress distinctively in a manner which marks their identity.

Second, because of colonial perceptions and misperceptions of Muslim traditions, they may be seen as fanatic or dangerous. In both cases, anti-Muslim sentiment emerges in the context of white Christian supremacy. We do not, therefore, wish to suggest that Muslims in the US, or elsewhere, do not ever experience violence or discrimination. However, we believe that it is critical to locate its origins, which are undeniably linked to Islamophobia and white supremacy, rather than to critiques of Islamofascism.

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, we wrote that the use of “Islamophobia” is little more than a smokescreen for Muslim supremacy. The term co-opts the language of social justice activists and explicitly tries to make an equivalency between Islamophobia and the experiences of racial minorities in the US like African-Americans and Hispanics.

We want to close by reiterating that to truly challenge Islamofascism, we must start by acknowledging that Islamofascism is in fact Islam. Islam is not unique. Almost every religion has political iterations that are not separate from and are deeply informed by tradition. In turn, these forms of political, ideological religion change the face of traditions in profound and often disturbing ways.

The challenge before Muslims who do not want Islamofascism to own Islam is no small thing. It requires a serious reckoning with the perniciousness of hatred for non-Muslims, Hinduphobia, racism and misogyny in our communities.

This conference was organised in a way that centres secular scholars of South Asia, including ourselves. It has not centered the voices of Hindus and those belonging to Indic faiths like Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism who have experienced the impact of Islamofascism most acutely and whose perspectives must be heard. The conversation thus far has been primarily among Muslims themselves — both religious and secular — who continue to reap the benefits of Muslim identity and privileged status in all kinds of ways.

To move forward, we must ask whether we are asking the right questions about Islamofascism. Are we creating meaningful spaces for dialogue if those most affected cannot feel safe at the table?

Nazneen Sayyad is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Women & Gender Studies at Mount St Clare College, Elmsford, Virginia in the United States.

Sajida Sheikh is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Religion at Providence College in Shrewsbury, Tennessee, in the United States.

The piece above is based on an article titled “Counterview: Not all Hinduism is Hindutva, but Hindutva is in fact Hinduism” by Shana Sippy and Sailaja Krishnamurthy, both based in the US and Canada and participants in the “Dismantling Hindutva Conference” held there recently.

I have replaced the occurrences of Hinduism and Hindutva in their article with Islam and Islamofascism respectively, to generate a feature which now reverses the stereotyping of Hindus by the left.

It is practically word for word the same, with only minor emendations. I have also replaced the Hindu sounding names of the two authors with Muslim sounding names for greater authenticity. Both persons referred to as the authors of this piece are imaginary and teach in institutions which do not exist, in places you cannot find on any map.

My aim is to show how easy it is to mirror the same facile, lazy arguments used to critique Hindutva by leftist and so-called secular intellectuals and reverse the argument by doing an appropriate word for word replacement. I also aim to show that the extreme forms of any religion are actually similar in their thinking and in their violent approach to opposing views.

We are however conditioned to believe that out of all these extreme groups, it seems that it is only the Hindutvadis who are the greatest threat to constitutional democracy and to the idea of India as a nation state. For obvious reasons since the majority of Hindus live in India itself, one would think that their reach would be confined within the geographical confines of India. However, in an attempt to equate Hindutva with a global jihadi threat which actually exists, Hindutva has now been given a global dimension in these anti-Hindu fulminations and has now allegedly emerged as the greatest threat to world peace since Adolf Hitler and the nuclear bomb.

It is very clear to a disinterested observer that a certain type of religious violence is always excluded from close examination and that any reference to this is instantly perceived and called out as Islamophobia. This kind of wilful blindness to the ongoing atrocities perpetrated by extreme Islamist groups like ISIS in its various avatars, the Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizbul Mujahiddin and many others in Pakistan, the Harkat-ul-Jihadi al-Islami and the JMB in Bangladesh, the Arakan Rohingya groups in Myanmar, Boko Haram and various jihadi terror outfits in West Africa and the Sahara, Jemaah Islamiiya in Indonesia, and other jihadi groups too numerous to mention, is simply unacceptable.

by Ramesh Sukumaran

This is the original article —

Ex Indian Air Force fighter pilot and retired civil aviation captain, interested in history science and literature avtion