Is islamophobia limited to the non-Islamic world? Perhaps not. One of the more overlooked forms of islamophobia is the variety of islamophobia in Muslim majority countries. It seems counter intuitive, however islamophobia in some Muslim countries can be much more severe and vicious because the people responsible for it are Muslim themselves; and this leaves very few avenues of reform. People suffering under these circumstances are often unaware, and may be unable to articulate it as such because that is what they have been born into and have not seen anything better. It becomes very obvious only to someone who has been sensitized to it living in the West, upon their visit to a Muslim country, eventually coming to that realization by experiencing it first hand. In essence, in parts of the Islamic world, the religion of Islam is associated with draconian laws and backwardness, blamed for economic failures and other pertinent national problems, and is under constant reform for liberal modernity.
What could be a possible reason? That is not too difficult to figure out. Colonization, which has cut Muslims from their roots, traditions, and history, is a major factor. In the neo-colonized era of today, local ruling classes have basically replaced the western powers, but little else has changed. These ruling classes essentially maintain the older colonial systems and traditions. Islamic practices (whether pertaining to food, dress, tradition, rituals, or values) are all considered out of place in the modern world, and are seen as something that only poor or ignorant people partake in. Cultured and enlightened members of society largely stay away from religion in general, and Islam in particular.
Islam Seen as Backward
Countries like Pakistan and Egypt in particular often have citizens which find themselves amidst identity crises that they have been left with in the aftermaths of their colonial histories. Judging success and infrastructural development of their countries with a post-colonial mindset, Islam is often associated with all things anti-progressive. This is because during the colonial years government was largely separated from religion, and the current common mindset is to attribute the past successful economies to the secular governments.
Today, due to large populations of these countries’ poor also being religious, religion is also seen as a form of escapism for the uneducated. Leaving religion as something only for the uneducated poor, a dilemma often develops in which middle class citizens find themselves in- a dilemma where people are left questioning whether their national cultural heritage takes precedence over conservative religious culture, as was often the historic custom prior to colonization.
Furthermore, current epidemics of violence and terrorism plaguing Muslim countries have had the effect of associating religion with flawed ideology that is dated, unpractical, and dangerous. Groups like IS have been responsible for an increasingly internalized negative perception of Islam by some Muslims in Muslim countries, strengthening trends towards secularization and modernization, and in their view away from dated forms of thought. Countries like Pakistan which have suffered majorly in the past decade from terrorism often find themselves victimized by exremist Muslim groups, leading to further misplaced blame. This unfortunate association is addressed by Mehmet Yanmis, a scholar from Dicle University in Turkey:
“We are not supposed to make generalizations out of some specific examples [of terrorism], but hearing all this stuff from various quarters leads one to think that this is a social phenomenon and that islamophobia is on the rise…”
Reforms to Islam in the Islamic World
Moves towards liberal modernization of Islam in countries like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Morocco are a result of a growing polarization between religious and secular peoples, with both divisions often strengthening each others’ biases towards one another. For the silent minority of urbanized and well-educated liberal youth and one percent in the Islamic world, a persistent secularization movement of Islam is underway. The problem lies with the measuring guide of reform that is used; it is one that is Eurocentric and as a result often times islamophobic. Fundamentally, to reform Islam is to silently accept its inferiority to other forms of thought. Many of the said causes above have led to an internalized antipathy for religion and have had the intended effect of classifying people into categories of extremist and moderate Muslims. This leads to the victimization of religious parties in Muslim countries where governments are hostile and threatened by non-secular thought. The polarization of religious and non-religious extremes has some citizens fearing being labeled religious-sympathizers, and such sympathizers are by extension believed to condone terrorism and all other things backward.
Because Islam is on many levels embedded into the social fabric of many Muslim countries to one degree or another, the islamophobic reforms manifest themselves in almost every aspect of daily life. This includes reforms to language, education, dress, and government systems.
As a result, regional and native languages like Urdu (in Pakistan) are in many places today considered something that lower classes uses. Traditional emphasis on Arabic (outside of the Arab world) has disappeared- replaced by rise of English and French. This is because cutting people away from their language is one of the most effective ways of cutting people from their roots. One of the first things Mustafa Kamal Pasha in Turkey did to cut off people from Islam was to replace the script from Arabic, where within a span of a few decades the new generation was completely cut off from thousands of years of information written in old Turkish. To advance, people are generally forced to adopt one of the western languages.
Education is also targeted. Often times Muslim countries have dual education systems – western style/secular systems necessary to advance, and local systems relegated to poor and the ‘uneducated’; these are the ones who have no voice or place in the modern world. For example, in Pakistan more and more schools teach curriculum prescribed by Cambridge. The dual system perpetuates class systems and continues to push the people more and more away from their tradition, and in this case, Islam.
Dressing and clothing is such that in Muslim countries Western dress is the norm – traditional/regional dress is again considered a sign of backwardness. Some commercial places may refuse individuals entry if the patrons are in local dress. Having a beard could cost somebody a job, or at minimum refusal to enter certain places.
Certain institutions like in Muslims countries like the military, government, education, and judiciary are also highly westernized.
Worst of all is what results from this islamophobia- Muslim inhabitants in the Islamic world have lost their own narrative – who they are, who they should be, and what they should be; what is right and what is wrong is now defined by somebody else.
Islam is held Responsible
Islam is for some of the above reasons blamed for developing countries’ issues; these include a lack of progression and education. All shortcomings in the Islamic world which have been experienced post-colonially are attributed to religion. In some of these countries like Pakistan, the islamophobia and criticism of Islam takes a subtle form- as open critique of the religion is still not possible. In the Islamic world, secular groups use of critical rhetoric to describe all of the actions of religious groups acts to indirectly attack Islam.
This rise of islamophobia can be attributed to seeing Islam as backward and holding it responsible for all of the shortcomings in developing countries. Turkey before Erdogan and Iran before the revolution are classic places to study to understand how islomophobia was practiced and its long-term effects. Today countries like Egypt, Jordan, the U.A.E., and Morocco are prime case-studies for those seeking examples for islamophobia in Muslim countries. The resulting reforms of Islam in these countries can originate from a place of islamophobia, and have the intended effect of separation of peoples from their original faith. As Yanmis describes:
“In the West, we speak mostly of hatred for Islam because of fundamentalist attacks. In the Muslim world, this is manifested as an estrangement from Islam — first by shunning religious symbols and rituals and then, perhaps as an ultimate form, estrangement on the level of faith.”
For further reading, here are two pieces on islamophobia in Egypt: