‘The big problem is that laymen can draw conclusions about Islam’

What’s the origin of Islamophobia and religious ignorance

The Russian Muslim Religious Directorate has addressed the UN asking to evaluate a call for the shutdown of all Muslim schools in Sweden. Head of the directorate, member of the Russian Civic Chamber Mufti Albir Krganov characterised this initiative as “Islamophobic.” In his next article for our newspaper, Realnoe Vremya’s columnist, expert of the Islamic World Research Centre Karim Gaynullin reflects on the nature of this phenomenon and urges people to differentiate between Islamophobia and disagreement with Islam.

Islamophobia: definition of notions

A phobia has existed as long as humans have existed. It is closely connected with the nature of human existence. But a human’s phobia about a human is a completely different thing, it is often linked with politics. It is necessary to differentiate between everyday phobia, that’s to say, a phobia related to a person’s psychological experience and a phobia from a political perspective. The latter can be defined as an attitude to a group of people as an existential enemy. Existential here means posing a threat to our existence.

German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt defined the concept of the political via “existential enemy.” Schmitt himself had a very successful career during the rule of the Nazis in Germany securing a spot as a professor at the University of Berlin. At the same time, he left a big trace in the political theory of different ideologies: for instance, this is why Left-Schmittianism was founded as well as the liberal polemics with its heritage; it will be more correct to consider Schmitt as one of the ideologists of conservative revolution than consistent Nazis. Though it is also important to see the presence of a link between his thought and the ideology of Nazi Germany.

According to Schmitt, the political is determined through an opposition between big groups through the lens of “friend-enemy” relations. Schmitt insists that this opposition must be expressed “as seriously as possible,” that’s to say, with the constant potential possibility of war, a war of destruction. The enemy, as it has already been said, is an existential, absolute enemy, living in peace with him is impossible by default. In his works, Schmitt latently defends the political, thus supporting a war.

Another philosopher who is specialised in culture, Edward Said, a Palestinian Arab Christian by origin, is also an important character to understand the roots of the “fear” of Islam. In his fundamental work Orientialism, Said studies how the Western world depicted the East for centuries. It is an image of the wild, illiterate, immoral (but at the same time mysterious). The West considered the East Different, that’s to say, absolutely strange in its attitude to culture, morals, civilisation.

By uniting these two thoughts, we can finally define Islamophobia. Islamophobia is an idea of Islam as an existential enemy peace with which is impossible by definition due to the alleged absolute opposition of Islam of civilisation.

It is necessary to distinguish between criticism of Islam and disagreement with Islam and Islamophobia. A person may not agree with some dogma or rule that has its roots in the Islamic religion. But for an Islamophobic, disagreement is an existential need. An Islamophobic doesn’t see absolutely anything good in Islam. For him, the existence of this religion is some historical anomaly. A Christian’s disagreement with Islam in itself isn’t Islamophobia. At the same time, it is obvious that, for example, a Christian can find a lot of positive things in Islam (from a perspective of Christianity), theism, faith in prophets, angels, general social conservatism. The left does racial equality and a big role of charity. But an Islamophobic will consider even these phenomena negatively.

Of course, this is fair and reciprocal — a Muslim can also be phobic.

Islamophobia and fundamentalism

Schmitt’s “seriousness” can be linked with fundamentalism, while a serious attitude to things can be called a fundamentalist attitude. Many talk about Islamic fundamentalism. But fundamentalism doesn’t necessarily have to be connected with the traditional religion.

Moreover, totalitarian ideologies of the modern day openly warred against the traditional religion pushing for their physical destruction. “Secularism” of theorists of new ideologies was to be a new religion. Italian communist Antonio Gramsci wrote that socialism was the religion that was to kill Christianity, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered that democracy should formulate a civic profession of faith whose provisions must be established by a sovereign.

France President Macron’s project on “religious separatism” made public in 2020 should be understood from this angle. It is noteworthy that one of the signs of this “phobia” is the constant invention of new words that have a blurred meaning to describe the reason for the enmity towards Muslims.

So the phrase “Islamic separatism” in fact has little meaning. Macron added that “Islam is in a crisis around the world.” It is comic that a president of the country that is an heir of the colonial power that killed millions of Muslim Arabs during the Algerian War alone just last century says that. The colonial relations between France and Africa, in fact, still exist, and this phenomenon is called Françafrique.

Secularism is a social contract — an agreement between different communities that aim to co-exist in a common state — is an alternative to “fundamentalist” secularism. The Constitution of Russia was created in the same way where in Article 3.1 there is a guaranteed right for worship, customs, teaching a religion, religious education, religious upbringing, choice, change and distribution of religious convictions and action according to them (including the creation of religious associations). It is just necessary to live in accordance with constitutional rights.

Islamophobia as ignorance

A person’s simple unawareness of religion is often the reason for Islamophobia. Some Russian mass media outlets recently showed an example in this respect. They called “the radical movement Ashʿarism violating women’s rights” was the ideology of the Afghan Taliban*. What is Ashʿarism? Why is it radical? Ashʿarism is a theological school followed by Sufis in Dagestan, most scientists at Al-Azhar University, Egypt, all Northern Africa. Some part of the Taliban, including Salafis, can share Ashʿari dogmas.

One of the key postulates of the Ashʿarite school is that God not only knows it all but also possesses Knowledge; any and all human acts are created by God, etc. Why are these dogmas radical?

Drawing an analogy, Ashʿarism touches those issues Thomas Aquinas dealt with in Christian theology. His study — Thomism — was recognised by the official Catholic church for centuries. Also, it was recognised by the Inquisition that probably followed the same theological model in Summa Theologica. Does this make Thomism radical?

What is more, some religious symbol — beard or hijab — aren’t a sign of radicalism either. A beardy hipster doesn’t become a religious radical, while in the Islamic world, there are a lot of owners of gorgeous beards among the most peaceful preachers, including Russian muftis. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s spouse Reham Khan covers her face completely. However, the same Pakistan actively fights against with the terrorist organisations Tehrik-i-Taliban* and Al Qaeda**, which consider the whole Khans family apostates.

Radical rhetoric is a real sign of radicalism: calls for regime overthrow, anti-Constitutional actions, separatism and terrorism. All this can be characteristic of a non-religious person, which we know from the history of the early past century.

The big problem is that laymen can draw conclusions about Islam. These people often don’t have related education. Even though a person is Arabist, this doesn’t speak about his competence in Islam. Neither does the specialisation in France or Italy make a person a specialist in Catholic theology.

*The Taliban is an organisation that was recognised as terrorist by the Russian Supreme Court’s rule as of 14.02.2003.

**Al Qaeda is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.

Karim Gaynullin

The author’s opinion does not necessarily coincide with the position of Realnoe Vremya’s editorial board.

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