Spreading hate

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

The book dissects the stereotyping of Muslims in the West.

AS with any seismic event, 9/11 produced a rich crop of best-sellers and provided a good market for the likes of Bernard Lewis, tutor to Dick Cheney, and Fouad Ajmi who contributed their own mite to Islamophobia. It is older than Dante, the Crusades, the Reconquista in Spain, Europe's imperial expansion, the British Raj in India and its hegemony in West Asia; older than Zionism and the state of Israel and much older than George W. Bush's War on Terror.

This splendid book is published by one of the world's most highly regarded publishers. Peter Morey is Reader in English Literature, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of East London. Amina Yaqin is Lecturer in Urdu and Postcolonial Studies at the famous School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. They dissect the ways in which stereotypes depicting Muslims as an inherently problematic presence in the West are constructed, deployed, and circulated in the public imagination, producing an immense gulf between representation and the complex reality. The stereotypes are not solely the province of demagogues and tabloids, but are spouted as well from the lips of supposedly progressive elites, not excluding those who presume to speak from within on Muslims' behalf. They draw attention to a circulation of stereotypes about Muslims that sometimes globalises local biases and, at other times, brings national differences into sharper relief. The work is based on nuanced analyses of cultural representation in the United States and Britain.

It all boils down to one question: Can Muslims ever fully be citizens of the West? The question is unfair to both these great countries and to the innumerable Muslims who have contributed to them as their distinguished citizens while living up to their faith.

The authors' thesis is best set out in their own words. The subject of this book is, properly speaking, those images of Muslims that are repeatedly circulated in the cultures of Western countries, in particular at the present time. It seeks to trace the restricted, limited ways that Muslims are stereotyped and framed' within the political, cultural, and media discourses of the West.

Far from being accurate or neutral, contemporary images of Muslims presented by politicians and in mainstream media and cultural forms are almost always tied to an agenda that simultaneously announces its desire to engage' with them while at the same time forcing debate into such contorted and tenuous channels as to make a meaningful flow of cross-cultural discussion almost impossible.

A chronically one-sided dialogue that Muslims are invited to join but not change, or forever remain outside the boundaries of civil debate, doomed to be spoken for and represented but never to speak themselves. Such a situation does a gross disservice to the variety and vitality of Muslim life, beliefs, and cultural forms of expression, as well as being a bad idea for those who are genuinely concerned about addressing pressing social problems.

The authors' focus is on the mainstream or mass media and the political forces that use its channel of communication. It is still the case, even in the age of diffuse and multinational media forms, the governments will seek first to establish agendas through the tried and tested (and perhaps more) controllable vehicles of the imagined community, television, and the press. One of our key arguments is that the frequency with which Muslims are framed' in such discourses has a complex definite relation to lived experience. The framing of Muslims amounts to a refraction, not a reflection, of reality.

In India, the Muslim Uncle Tom has been much acclaimed, especially by the Sangh Parivar. In Britain a number of high-profile Muslim Members of Parliament were summoned by the Prime Minister [Tony Blair] and ordered to sign a statement supporting military action [against Iraq]. Most of the signatories subsequently disowned the statement, citing coercion and spin, and a number of Muslim local councillors were then pressured to indicate their assent to the invasion instead. In any case, it was clear that the government was of the opinion that the intervention of a few of its own supposedly tame Muslim politicians would have a mitigating effect on the protests they were expecting from the broader Muslim population.

Does this not ring a bell to Indian ears? The Establishment's search for the Sarkari Musalman is of a piece with Blair's quest. Muslims are expected to condemn acts by Muslim perpetrators. No such demand is made of the Sangh Parivar. This is an erudite work. Its analyses are carefully nuanced. Its relevance to the situation in India needs no elaboration.

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