The selective outrage at gender segregation when discussing Muslims suggests there is more at play than meets the eye.
We must then recognise that Islamophobia is not simply an irrational hatred of Islam. It is better defined as the over-determining and inappropriate heaping of suspicion on all things Islamic. It is the placing of a burning spotlight on the Muslim. Islamophobia is not in what the spotlight reveals, but rather the fact that everything revealed is placed within the narrative of suspicion.
This suspicion works to maintain the dominance of white culture and white nationalism in Australia. Indeed, the political spectrum of Left and Right have a structural affinity in their fantasies about controlling foreigners; the debate is really about the proper way to control the ethnic object.
What makes Islamophobia so unique is that it can be articulated in a form that looks like anti-racism. It is like a virus that has evolved to appropriate its initial cure. It is often hidden behind claims of saving Muslims from bad Muslims, or saving Muslim women from Muslim men, or even paradoxically saving Muslims from Islamophobia. This form of Islamophobia often uses a series of caveats to simulate the legitimacy of anti-racist language, but which serve only to conceal the very same racist logic at play against Muslims, albeit in a new, “culturally-aware” tone.
A principal example of this phenomenon is the underlying claim Professor Abdullah Saeed made recently in an article for The Conversation. He suggests that “unfortunately” such cultural norms as segregation are the result of “dubious interpretations” and ”selective reading” of religious texts, which are ultimately responsible for the worrying practice of “forcing women to sit in the back of the theater”. We should learn to ignore these caveats that interrupt Saeed’s argument. He peppers his assumed claims with words like “sometimes”, “occasionally” and “some Muslims” as if to hint that he is aware of the social error in generalising.
However, the underlining message is clear: the problem is always bad Muslims.
We also see in Saeed’s article another sacrifice. The “dubious” Muslim is the “integrated” Muslim’s sacrificial lamb. Its sacrifice allows for the lure of a fantasy that only “bad” Muslims stand in the way of Australia accepting a “good” Islam.
More disturbingly in highlighting the inherent link between racism and Islamophobia, Saeed locates the problematic Muslim as the Muslim beyond Australia’s borders. He suggests, without any reference, that “there are some Muslims who do not believe that men and women are equal”. These Muslims apparently “assert that women should not have a public presence”, and “occasionally Australian students who travel … sometimes come back with these ideas as well”.
By problematising the foreigner in this way, Saeed not only entrenches the racist logic of the suspicious Other, but just as importantly – or perhaps more so – entrenches the fundamental fantasy upon which racism is based: namely the purity of whiteness, insisting that evil is inherently foreign.
But this approach is also counter-productive. What we neglect to see is that this suspicion heaped upon a “dubious” Islam will not remain neatly focused on “cultural” Muslims who read “dubious” selections of Islam. It will overlap onto all Muslims. Stating that 99 per cent of Muslims are not terrorists is irrelevant. The one per cent is the percentage that is used to do all the work for Islamophobia. It translates into suggesting that any of the 99 could potentially be that one terrorist. It takes little stretch of logic then to suggest that all should be treated as such.
The selective outrage at gender segregation when discussing Muslims suggests there is more at play in the above discussion than meets the eye. It also points to a worrying trend whereby Muslims internalize the logic of Islamophobia and thus figure other Muslims as the source of all evil.
Our history of racism has taught us that discrimination can easily be carried out under the noblest of banners and neutral terminology. For this reason a critical vigilance is required when dealing with minority groups, particularly in this current context of Islamophobia, lest even those with the best of intentions serve such oppressive ends.
Disguising Islamophobia under the cloak of gender equality only harms the plight of both Muslims and women.
Mohamad Tabbaa is a PhD candidate in Criminology and Law at the University of Melbourne. Yassir Morsi is a research fellow at the international centre for Muslim and non-Muslim understanding, at the University of South Australia.