Why we must not weaponise the term ‘Islamophobia’
The world must be free to criticise Islamism if we are to avoid a cycle of ethnic and religious violence
How can we prevent another atrocity like Christchurch? Watching New Zealanders of all faiths mourn, this has been the question on my mind. So far, few answers have come close to the truth.
What the massacre revealed was the need for a clear understanding of the weaponisation of ethnic, religious and political identities going on throughout the world. This was Brenton Tarrant’s evil aim: to contribute to a polarisation of the West – and to a parallel phenomenon in the Muslim world.
His actions, which eerily resemble those of Isil and other Islamist terror groups, were calculated to intensify the hostility and suspicion that already exist towards Muslims in the West. They were also designed to elicit a response from Islamists and so encourage a cycle of violence. We must not let him, or anyone else, succeed. But this means acknowledging the causal factors of the violence we see in so many parts of the world. As a Muslim, this leads me to questions that require difficult but honest answers.
It is obvious from Tarrant's manifesto that he is an unabashed white supremacist. Yet the historical references it contains are also evidence of a fixation upon nearly 1,400 years of armed conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, and an acute awareness of moments when the tide of Muslim conquest, which repeatedly threatened to inundate Europe, was turned back.
From there, the attacker's fixation turned to more recent events: repeated Islamist terror attacks in Europe. As much as it may be uncomfortable for many, this deserves more focus.
The targeting of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch comes after nearly two decades during which Islamist atrocities have been a pervasive feature of news bulletins around the world. The massacre in New Zealand would likely be inconceivable if divorced from this context, in which Islam has become synonymous with terror in the minds of many. Sadly, from an Islamist perspective, the Christchurch atrocity is simply part of an ancient cycle of violence.
Of course, most Westerners do not see themselves as being “at war” with Islam. But to a significant percentage of Muslims, this is because Westerners have been enjoying the peace of the victor, which Islamists seek to challenge. This is why Christchurch is such a dangerous moment.
Ending the cycle of violence requires addressing not only the motivations and ideology of someone like Tarrant, but also the historical framework he shares with many Muslims. That is, that Muslims and non-Muslims are and shall remain in a state of permanent conflict, until the end of time (according to Islamists) or the disappearance of Islam (according to advocates of a “counter-jihad”).
There is an urgent need to address those obsolete and problematic elements of Islamic orthodoxy that underlie the Islamist worldview, fuelling violence on both sides. Jihadist doctrine, goals and strategy can be traced to specific tenets of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice. This includes those portions of Sharia that promote Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity towards non-Muslims and require the establishment of a caliphate. It is these elements – still taught by most Sunni and Shiite institutions – that constitute a summons to perpetual conflict.
If Muslims do not address these key tenets, anyone can harness them to defy what they claim to be illegitimate laws and butcher their fellow citizens. This is what links many current events, from Syria to the streets of London.
There is a desperate need for honest discussion of these matters. This is why it worries me to see Western elites weaponise the term “Islamophobia”, to short-circuit analysis of a complex phenomenon. It is factually incorrect, for example, to define Islamophobia as “rooted in racism”, as proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. In reality, it is the spread of Islamist extremism primarily contributing to Islamophobia’s rise.
That is why it is vital to challenge the prevailing “Muslim mindset”, predicated upon enmity and suspicion towards non-Muslims, often rationalising violence in the name of Islam. Otherwise, non-Muslims will continue to be radicalised by Islamist attacks and by large-scale Muslim migration to the West.
We appeal to people on both sides of the political debate in the West, to stop weaponising Islam for partisan advantage, and join us in the struggle to reform Islamic orthodoxy, rather than bequeath a tragic legacy of hatred and violence to future generations.
• Yahya Cholil Staquf is general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organisation.
- © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)