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Opinion

Islamophobia is More Than Words

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Isobel Ingham-Barrow

In September last year, Zaynab Hussein, a Muslim mother from Leicester, was taking her children to school when Paul Moore ran over her with his car. Moore then proceeded to hit an eight-year-old girl in a hijab, before returning to the scene where Zaynab lay injured on the floor and running over her again.

Meanwhile, Islamophobic hate crimes recorded by the Metropolitan Police Force in London have risen from 1,115 in 2015/16, to 1,665 in 2017/18 – an increase of roughly 50% in just two years.

Examples such as these are overt symptoms of Islamophobia in our society. However, there are also symptoms that are much harder to detect:

– the CV that is passed over because it boasts a Muslim sounding name;

– or the British-Pakistani man who is repeatedly assumed a threat at the airport on the basis of his beard;

– or the child who feels unable to ask questions in class because she is worried she may be swept up into the apparatus of PREVENT.

Taking all these different examples into account, the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) for British Muslims recently launched an inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia. In line with that inquiry, Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) released their report “More than Words: Approaching a definition of Islamophobia” in an event in Parliament today. With contributions from leading academics and experts in their fields (such as Tariq Modood, Nazir Afzal, Todd Green, Lasse Thomassen, Aaron Winter, and Aurlien Mondon, to name but a few), the report is not intended to force a specific definition onto the APPG. However, it is important in its exploration of the roots and causes of Islamophobia, how and why it is fuelled, and its socio-political and personal consequences.

Islamophobia remains a contested term amongst political and academic debates. Some deny Islamophobia exists at all, and others resist attempts to define it for fear that it would be elevated to such a position that it cannot be ignored. However, a definition is important because it provides much-needed clarity in legislation that is intended to protect vulnerable minorities.

Once established, terms such as sexism, homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism became important tools to oppose and tackle the various discriminations and prejudices these labels embody.

It is now time to afford official recognition to a definition of Islamophobia.

While a full working definition can be found in the report itself, MEND’s definition of Islamophobia can be split into two parts:

The overt part: Islamophobia is a prejudice, aversion, hostility, or hatred towards Muslims.

The “hidden” part that affects all Muslims both as individuals and as collective groups: that is the discrimination that excludes or limits Muslims’ equal exercise of fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

According to MEND, the reasoning behind this definition is to secure Islamophobia, not just as hate crime and abuse, but also for it to be recognised in the ways that it works to exclude Muslims from all realms of civic life, whether that be through workplace discrimination, or through institutional Islamophobias that discourage Muslim voices from participating in democratic debates.

For some time, there has been considerable debate as to whether the term “Islamophobia” is appropriate, accurate or even counterproductive. This has led individuals and organisations to propose the use of other terms such as “anti-Muslim hatred”. However, MEND, along with the Runnymede Trust and various other experts in the field, argue unequivocally that the term “Islamophobia” is the most appropriate terminology.

Firstly, Islamophobia is a term that holds currency within public discourse and is well established within popular understanding. Many victims of Islamophobia may not have the technical vocabulary to fully explain their experiences. However, the long-standing existence and usage of “Islamophobia” means that the term has meaning for those whom it affects. Ultimately, if you want to help victims, you have to engage in a way that is meaningful for them. Therefore, “Islamophobia” is not a term that will be easily replaced within political, activist or victim vocabularies.

Secondly, differences between terms such as Islamophobia and “anti-Muslim hatred” reflect differences in focus and understanding of the phenomenon. Therefore, they produce different approaches and priorities in tackling it. If you don’t fully understand the problem, you are not going to solve it.

For example, while “anti-Muslim hatred” may be used to describe hate crime, verbal abuse, and harassment, it hides the damaging effects of anti-Muslim agendas within politics and media and, therefore ignores the dangers of discrimination and socio-political exclusion. In other words, “anti-Muslim hatred” covers the first part of MEND’s definition (hatred and hostility) but not the second part (discrimination and exclusion).

On the other hand, “Islamophobia” provides a broad understanding that explicitly identifies the phenomenon in all its forms and which, therefore, provides a useful tool in finding strategies for tackling it.

One of the main accusations against the word “Islamophobia” is that it is an attempt to stifle free speech and all criticism of religion. However, it has never historically, nor should it presently, be seen in this light. MEND’s report goes to great pains to highlight this point.

Islamophobia should not be understood as a protection against questioning or criticising religion. Nor should it be seen as an attempt to enforce restrictions on freedom of speech.

 

However, there is no absolute right to freedom of speech when it can harm others and society has always done what is necessary to protect individuals from abuse and violence. Indeed, under the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Act, 2006, Jews and Sikhs are protected against insulting, abusive of threatening words and behaviour. Therefore, including Islamophobia into this framework does not result in limiting freedom of speech further than what already has existing legal precedents.

The prospect of developing an official working definition of Islamophobia is hugely important in the challenge to tackling the hostilities, hatred, discrimination and exclusions that British Muslims face on a daily basis. Meanwhile, work such as MEND’s report highlights the importance of understanding all the different forms that Islamophobia takes and the mechanisms that drive it. It is only if we truly understand Islamophobia that we can effectively tackle it.

 

 

 

 

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Opinion

Reconsidering democracy

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Tahir Kamran

Critics of democracy in the Muslim South Asian ethos often invoke Allama Iqbal’s famous verses as an example of how it is a Western system imposed on the East (read Muslim society) by Western colonisers. The lines in rough translation are: “democracy is a system of government in which the subjects are counted, not weighed.”
I am not sure about how much scholars of political theory have investigated the role that regional context plays in the nurturing of democracy in general. Such questions of extraordinary import fall within the purview of political theory, which hardly fascinates Pakistani academics, particularly those dealing in Social Sciences. Thus, profound queries like mal-adjustment of democracy with our (read Asian in general) socio-cultural milieu should be addressed in a systematic manner with scholarly intent and rigour.
Democracy’s widely pervasive connotation designates it as a Western phenomenon, having been imposed on the countries and terrains of the Afro-Asian hemisphere by former colonisers. Many analysts, particularly the ones on the liberal side of the academic spectrum, tend to rubbish such a perception as clichéd, and contend that democracy as a Western construct was an argument propagated by dictators like Ayub Khan and ZiaulHaq to legitimise their rule. Both these military rulers contended that democracy is a Western system of governance which, as Ayub Khan once put it, is not consistent with the “genius of Pakistani people”.
To my understanding, pleading the universality of the Western version of democracy is a perception that is far too simplistic. Such Eurocentric notions skirt around the fundamental issue of the impact that socio-cultural imperatives cast on political realities. Underlining the fact that democracy was conceived, nurtured and evolved in the West and introduced in much of Asia and Africa through colonial regimes — and therefore is not congruent with the political traditions of the indigenous polities — may ring true but not entirely. The political elite engineered during the modern era, and unleashed by colonial rulers, was well-conversant with Western democratic norms and ideals. Leaders like M.A. Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru did not subscribe to the political tradition that had a monarch as the fountainhead of government.
Thus, the indigenous leadership was confronted by a duality: these leaders represented modernity in a socio-cultural milieu that had its roots in centuries-old indigeneity.
Most of the nation-states in Asia won their independence because of political action orchestrated and steered by such leaders, anchored in modernity, but with a very strong cultural reference. Nehru’s Discovery of India is a case in point. Similarly, Jinnah invoked a tradition steeped in religious episteme to achieve his goal, the nation-state of Pakistan, which was obviously a modernist project.
Both of these leaders reposed a firm belief in democratic order. But so far as its functioning was concerned, democracy in these countries reconfigured itself. It was markedly different from the Western prototype. The personal charisma of a leader, dynastic politics, and political patronage are the cardinal features of democratic politics in Asia.
Because of these reasons, democratic institutions have not evolved in the region. Institutional development is inimical to the sort of perpetuation that leaders tend to seek in Asian countries. Be it India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the pattern is almost the same. Political parties, their agenda and objectives revolve around the whims of the parties’ charismatic leaders. With a strong leader at the head, political parties fail to practice democracy among their own ranks. Thus, the political parties in Asian polities are devoid of evolutionary dynamism. It is primarily the reason for the phenomenon which, according to Saeed Shafqat, is represented in economic development coupled with political underdevelopment. China, Singapore, and even Malaysia and Vietnam are living examples of that pattern.
More so, in Asian polities, development — whether social or physical — is not contingent on the democratic system per se. Even if democracy is practised in these countries, social and cultural development hardly corresponds with the democratic system. Generally, arbitrary and autocratic decision-making determines the direction of the social movement there. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore or even Jawaharlal Nehru in India exerted their personal will to galvanise the social collective self of their respective countries in the direction they had determined to follow.
One may argue here with a measure of certainty that all the feats of development advocated by those countries could not have been achieved had Lee Kuan and Nehru opted for democratic means for the realisation of social advancement. It was the personalised rule of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Mahathir Muhammad that helped their respective polities to enter in the league of developed nations. One may add Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey in this list too. Erdogan is fast moving from democracy to an autocratic order. One must not lose sight of Kemal Ataturk’s autocratic rule disguised in a democratic garb.
Japan, despite having embraced a democratic system for many decades, has not been able to come to terms with its socio-cultural imperatives. Japan’s phenomenal development in the 1970s and ’80s can be attributed to the innovative instinct of the Japanese people, which had been consistently articulated since the days of the Meiji revolution. More importantly, Japan was absolved of its responsibility towards its own defence and was overseen by the United States after the Second World War. Those imperatives allowed Japan to invest all its energy and resources in technological advancement, and its technological progress stunned the world in the 1970s.
This growth did not happen due to democracy. The same holds for India. Despite having a leader of immense stature like Nehru at the helm for no less than 17 years, the democratic experience was slightly more than a cosmetic one. It boasts of being the largest democracy in the world, but supposedly liberal values have failed to unhinge the caste system that ensures Brahman supremacy in Indian society. Now the curse of Hindutva has overtaken the country. How democracy and Hindutva can be reconciled, and how they can allow each other to exist are phenomena yet to be seen.
While it might seem that this article is building a case against democracy as a system incongruent with the political make-up of the Asian people, I vehemently believe in democracy as the best system. What I am pleading here is that we must review the democratic norms being practised in Asian polities, so that we may come up with a new political synthesis whereby the socio-cultural tradition and democratic ethos are conjoined and made into a workable proposition.
I leave it to my readers to ponder over this question, which I think is integral to any future course that democracy in Pakistan must take.

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Opinion

Is Congress pro-Muslim?

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Zakia Soman

We are witnessing manoeuvres by different political parties in the run-up to the 2019 general election. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent meeting with eminent Muslims is one such measure. The Congress needs to rethink its politics not for the sake of Muslims but to salvage its own image as a party committed to constitutional principles of pluralism, secularism and social justice. By doing this, it would be reminding all Indians about the original Indian National Congress’s commitment to ideals of justice, equality and democracy. It will have to do a lot more if it is serious about enabling genuine participation of Muslims.
The Congress responded to the BJP’s criticism by clarifying that it is not a pro-Muslim party. Political point-scoring apart, Muslims themselves are under no such illusion. This is made evident by Muslim voters’ increasing preference for regional parties such as the SP, BSP, TMC, RJD and others in different states. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Indian Muslims have consistently become poor and marginalised socially and politically under Congress rule. They were already in a miserable condition when the BJP came to power in 2014. The Hindutva onslaught has aggravated their plight.
The Census figures suggest that Muslims have consistently slided into backwardness and poverty since independence. In recent times, the Sachar Committee (constituted by the UPA government in 2005) found that Muslims live in poverty, with low education levels, without formal jobs, without access to government facilities on credit and without healthcare provisions in ghettos. It found that only four in 100 Muslims are graduates and merely 13 per cent of Muslims hold salaried jobs. The report highlighted that Muslims live with a sense of alienation under a perception of fear and insecurity from communal riots. The Congress was prompt in constituting the Sachar Committee to assess the condition of Muslims soon after forming the government at the Centre in 2004. But it totally reneged on implementing the recommendations for alleviating the condition of Muslims. A number of reports suggest that there were no efforts during the UPA’s 10-year rule towards the inclusion of Muslims in educational, economic, health and housing programmes. It is an irony that the Gopal Singh Committee, constituted in 1983 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had found much the same problems that Sachar panel identified as pulling down the community. There seems to be a pattern here — the focus is on the optics and not genuine inclusion.
It is ironical that some of the Congress actions have given rise to the bogey of Muslim appeasement, whereas in reality Muslims have come to be amongst the poorest and most marginalised socio-religious communities. Besides, India has witnessed communal riots with an alarming consistency. Large sections of Muslims have borne the brunt of communal riots through the 1980s and 1990s — Aligarh, Moradabad, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Nellie, Ahmedabad, Bhiwandi, Surat, Bombay, the list is long. Reports by various inquiry commissions indicate how Muslims suffered huge loss of lives and property during these riots. Besides, there was no legal justice in most cases.
Demonisation of Muslims as terrorists began globally in the wake of the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks. It arrived in India when several Muslims were falsely picked up and incarcerated as terrorists following bomb blasts in Ajmer, Malegaon, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad. Most of them have been acquitted by various high courts and the Supreme Court as they were found innocent. These wrongful arrests happened under the watch of the Congress. This can hardly be called appeasement.
On the one hand, the Congress gave no special attention to the participation of Muslims in various government schemes for the poor. On the other hand, it provided leverage to the BJP by allying with the conservative patriarchal elements during the Shah Bano controversy in 1986. This classical Congress behaviour continues till date over the issue of triple talaq. Nobody knows what its stand on triple talaq is. Like Muslim conservatives, it has failed to see the writing on the wall about the changing aspirations of the community. The Congress has totally overlooked the Muslim women’s movement for gender justice. It is of no consequence to the party that its politics undermines the efforts of those engaged in reform within the community. The Congress doesn’t care that its politics reinforces the regressive patriarchal stranglehold over ordinary Muslims. Several Muslims feel that it suits the Congress to keep Muslims in wretched conditions. But its so-called Muslim faces continue to be persons with no ground-level perspective. Even under its new president, the party has failed to see the tremendous support received by Muslim women from the Indian public. Or perhaps, the party president will begin supporting the Muslim women’s movement after a decade or so, just as it has taken so many years now for him to visit temples. One wonders why the Congress has failed to understand that like all Indians, Muslims too are changing. Why does it fail to understand that like all Indians, Muslims too have aspirations for a better life?
The Congress does not have to be pro-Muslim to regain its lost ground. Nor does it have to be a B-team of the BJP. Its policies towards Muslims or Dalits or the poor should be guided by the democratic principles of inclusion laid down in the Constitution. It needs to adhere to its founding principles with honesty, courage of conviction and consistency.

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Opinion

Pak army has picked the wrong fight

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By MIHIR SHARMA

Nawaz Sharif – dodgy businessman, convicted criminal, and thrice Prime Minister of Pakistan – showed Friday, in his triumphant return to Pakistan, that he remains by far the country’s most popular politician. Infuriatingly, he also represents Pakistan’s best chance at becoming a “normal” country anytime soon. As he fights what looks very much like an attempt by the military to decide the next election, the rest of us should hope he succeeds.
True, neither Sharif nor the army are actually running. The generals don’t need to get directly involved in the vote, to be held in under a fortnight. Their long history of using proxies in Afghanistan and in India seems to have convinced them they can simply do the same in domestic politics – in this case, through ex-cricketer Imran Khan, whose 20-year quest to become prime minister may be within days of being fulfilled.
As for Sharif, he’s not allowed to take part. The military dictator Mohammad Zia Ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan in the 1980s, had as part of his Islamization process inserted a clause into the constitution demanding that all legislators be “honest and righteous.” In April, five judges of the Supreme Court decided that a three-time prime minister on the brink of reelection was, in fact, the only person in history worth disqualifying for life under the clause.
In addition, a court recently sentenced Sharif – from a family of wealthy industrialists – to 10 years in jail for not convincingly explaining his purchase, decades ago, of some expensive apartments in London. (The Pakistani establishment, when it decides to get rid of someone, doesn’t hold back.) Sharif was, in fact, in London at the time, visiting his ailing wife; many expected that he would stay in exile. Instead, he decided to fly back. He landed in Lahore on Friday as demonstrators loyal to his party were tear-gassed in the city. Sharif and his daughter were sent straight to jail near Rawalpindi, the seat of army headquarters.
Sharif – who served his political apprenticeship under Zia – is an unlikely vehicle for liberals’ aspirations, and not just because his party killed a white tiger during its campaign in 2013. For one, his Pakistan Muslim League has had a history of coddling religious fundamentalists. And not all accusations of corruption against his family are part of the military’s attempt to discredit Sharif, although many are.
Still, we must hope that he wins his battle with the army and the intelligence agencies seeking to control Pakistan. Sharif will never trust a military establishment that has never allowed him to complete a term in office. As for the military, they see Sharif’s attempts to foster a private sector-led economy as a genuine threat to their vast, entrenched interests. The military needs Pakistan to stay poor, stay dependent and stay angry. Sharif threatens that vision.
Many will argue that Sharif’s personal popularity is irrelevant; the rule of law and respect for institutions requires that he be shunted quietly into prison. Frankly, though, that’s a laughable argument in the Pakistani context. If anything, recent Pakistani history shows how easy it is to turn democratic institutions – the media, the courts, anti-corruption agencies – against true liberal democracy.
Elections aren’t free if they aren’t fair. And Pakistan’s election has been anything but fair. Shahbaz Sharif, brother to Nawaz and the chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province, described the military-backed caretaker government’s conduct of elections as “naked rigging.” League workers have been arrested en masse. Twitter is filled with testimony from those who claim to have seen the authorities tear down the party’s campaign material while leaving Khan’s in place. Candidates have been intimidated. Khan’s opponents are denied permission for rallies.
The media environment is also anything but free. Pakistan’s most respected newspaper has had its circulation informally curtailed, leading its owner to write in the Washington Post of an “unprecedented assault” on the freedom of the press. Military officials have openly identified individual journalists as threats to national security; others have been kidnapped and assaulted.
Self-censorship, out of fear, is now the norm. The country’s most watched cable network, Geo, was forced off air after cable operators received calls telling them to cut off the station. When asked by whom, one operator told Reuters: “I can’t say the name, you know, Big Brother, the boots.” Geo stayed off air till it promised to change its political coverage. In a deal with the military, Geo reportedly agreed to be more supportive of the “establishment” and the Supreme Court, and to attack Sharif.
If, after all this, Khan wins the election, it’s hard to imagine his government will be seen as legitimate. Another administration suffering a crisis of credibility is the last thing Pakistan needs. The army may still be Pakistan’s most respected institution. But I suspect that, in years to come, the generals will rue their decision to take on Sharif. – Bloomberg Opinion

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