By Sharmin Ayman
The post 9/11 era has been marked more recently by protests, Islamophobia, populism and the growing support of the far-right across Europe and the US. Hostility and discrimination against Muslims in the UK has peaked, manifesting in hate crimes with 1260 incidents recorded in the 12 months preceding March 2017 by the Metropolitan police.
Undoubtedly, the proponents of anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe and America stretch wider than Donald Trump or the EDL’s Tommy Robinson. And there is no smoke without fire – the media’s role in misreporting Muslim-related stories has created a culture of fear, capitalised by so-called terrorism experts and pundits. The media has become a vehicle for all types of extremists to target anything associated with Islam to the extent that they have created buzzwords feared by society. Here are a few common buzzwords we come across everyday.
When you come across the words “Islam” or “Muslim”, one’s mind is usually filled with images of brown bearded men, burka-clad women, ISIS and so on. A search on Google images will confirm these perceptions, and is a direct result of the context in which Muslims are continually portrayed in the West. Only when one looks past the sensationalist headlines that shape our perception, can one appreciate what Islam is truly about.
We are all too familiar with tabloid headlines be it in The Sun, Daily Mail or Daily Express, misreporting the facts. Such deliberate styles has led to increasing hostility toward Muslims as suggested by a report published from the University of Cambridge and the University of Leicester earlier this year. Those who argue that Islam and violence cannot be separated, often dismiss the fact that Islam originates from the Arabic root word ‘Salaam’ which translates as peace. It is peace acquired by submitting one’s will to God. Some might be surprised to learn that Muslims even believe that Prophet Muhammad (saws) is also a direct descendant of the Prophet Abraham through Ismail and, that there are many parallels between Islam and the original Judeo-Christian tradition.
‘Terrorist shouted Allahu akbar’ allegedly, often make headlines on the newspapers. Miqdaad Versi, who works for the MCB and the man behind identifying and correcting stories about Muslims makes a key point that ‘Such blatant misrepresentation of the facts has real consequences’ and tars the credibility of journalists. Just last year, Greater Manchester police apologised for using the phrase in a terror attack simulation as part of a training exercise. Critiques condemned them as reinforcing stereotypes and provoking Islamophobia. Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Versi said, “by using this word [in the terror training], Muslims around the world are being associated with terrorists”.
Whether in Canada, Australia, the UK or US, the phrase has been stripped of its meaning. Its meaning is ‘God is the Greatest’ in English, but has much more depth to it, as it is recited in the call to prayer, and in the five daily prayers itself.
The Muslim women’s modest dress sense has long been under scrutiny through the orientalist lens that has often depicted them as creatures of intrigue and mystery. Such vague understanding has facilitated and empowered a culture of fear and hatred of the visible Muslim women.
The burqa remains a contentious topic and has been over the past decade where countries including the UK, France, Germany and other parts of Europe have wrestled with the issue of banning the burqa. But from where does this irrational fear of the burqa come? Often, critics of the burqa-an oversized maxi dress, relate it as either; a security concern, a hindrance to integration or as unconducive to liberal democracy. But, there is barely any data that support such claims. Although there is no ban on Islamic dress in the UK, remarkably, a 2016 YouGov poll found that 57% of Britons supported one. Such intolerance transcends beyond the burqa for Muslim women who often fall prey to the islamophobes and bigots of our time.
By far, jihad is probably one of the most controversial buzzwords, and has been taken out of context many times. Recently, Linda Sarsour, an American Muslim activist saw herself in the midst of such controversy, when delivering a speech to a predominantly Muslim audience in an Islamic convention in Chicago, she quoted a saying from the Prophet Muhammad (saws) as to the best form of jihad – ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad’.
Sarsour faced backlashes amongst the conservative media, misconstruing her words as ‘waging war against the Trump administration’. She clarified that this meant standing up for those who are oppressed by their leaders locally and globally, that includes the islamophobes, facists and white supremacists.
Jihad has numerous meanings, one of which is an inner struggle against oneself. Today, many Muslims use it to describe their personal struggle such as waking up for the early dawn prayers or giving up a bad habit. To understand the other definitions of Jihad, it must be contextualized, not as violence against innocent people, but primarily as a form of self-defence. In fact, Islam was the first empire to establish laws of conflict, prohibiting harming civilians, women, the elderly and even the natural environment, during battle.
Terrorism is the context in which Muslims are most often talked about, be it in the media or in Hollywood. It is no stranger to the feared vocabulary list, and seems to be exclusive to crimes committed by those belonging to the Islamic faith. But fear no more, as a recent report by the Investigative Fund at the National Institute revealed that “right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents” as terror acts associated with those identified as “Islamist domestic terrorism”. Between 2008-2016, the report identified 63 incidents motivated by religious-political ideology committed by groups such as ISIS, while white supremacists were responsible for 115 incidents. Yes – white angry men get radicalised but do we see an anti-radicalisation programme for them?
It is unfortunate that such facts go unnoticed by our governments as the threat of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is only acknowledged when convenient and, used as a tool to alienate the ‘other’ whether through domestic policies or embargoes and sanctions on a nation state.
It is time to take a stance against these fallacies, and reclaim these concepts to their original meaning, that have been hijacked by the media and instilled fear in our hearts for too long.