Global Currents article

Islamophobia Beyond Christchurch: Muslims as Tamed Others

Ruined building converted into a modern market (Bali). Photo Credit: Siegrid Saldaña

As Islamophobic tragedies grow more and more frequent and “normalized” in our day-to-day life, it has become easy for us to set aside “smaller” Islamophobic incidents while our attention is diverted to large-scale tragedies such as Christchurch. The New Zealand attack was easy for the media to digest, for it featured a white nationalist shooter who killed many Muslims while deliberately presenting a clear Islamophobic and racial motive. However, we also know that structural violence like Islamophobia does not only come up when a white racist opens fire in two packed mosques in the midst of Friday Prayers. Rather, Islamophobia is intertwined with state-sponsored violence and securitization, narratives of nationalism, and the flows of the global market and commodification. Drawing from my reflections at an April 16 panel on the Christchurch shooting, this essay will discuss how state securitization and market commodification perpetuate Islamophobia.

Today’s Islamophobia is more than just a specific form of racism. The scholar-activist Arun Kundnani and scholar of Islamophobia Tania Saeed argue that we should expand our understanding of racialization within hegemonic Islamophobic societies. Kundnani is concerned with the “racialization of socio-political, religious, and cultural contexts” that expands the exclusionary boundaries of Islamophobia. In this case, the definitions of “Islam” and “Muslim” are being re-drawn based on what is to be protected, and no longer on what is to be excluded. This means that we can no longer attend to one generic Islamophobic exclusionary line around “Muslim minorities in a White-Christian majority country,” but rather we must attend to multiple specific exclusionary lines that are drawn based on different threat perceptions in Islamophobic societies. In addition, this also means that “Islam” and “Muslim” have multiple meanings and signifiers (skin colors, attire, languages, customs and traditions, etc.) that are perceived as objective threats against the said Islamophobic society.

Looking into those contextualized boundary-drawings, Tania Saeed uses the term “degrees of alterity” in order to show the different limits of accommodation—or should we say “tolerance”?—that an Islamophobic society would express when dealing with those who deviate from the dominant normative order. In this context, the benchmark of acceptance would be the White Male Universal Self against whom the Others must be judged based on their “likeability”/ “acceptability.”

Seeing “alterity” on a spectrum, rather than in absolute binaries, allows us to probe the grey areas where Islamophobia is not readily apparent due to its intermingling with other forms of structural violence, such as those sponsored by both modern nation-states and the global market. This is the case because the spectrum of alterity takes into account the superficiality of “tolerance” and “diversity” that rarely genuinely embraces the presence of the Others, but rather commodifies it within the context of the Global Cultural Bazaar. This bazaar is understood as the global marketplace where global images and global dreams are disseminated and consumed through films, television, music, fashion merchandise, and other products. Furthermore, the spectrum of alterity is also useful in understanding a form of Islamophobia that comes into being within the framework of state-sponsored violence and securitization, which I will elaborate on later in the essay.

The Global Cultural Bazaar also can be seen as a globalized context in which articles and expressions of “cultures” and “religions” of the marginalized Others are sold and consumed by the privileged Self (Mohanty, 2017). The Global Cultural Bazaar is a perfect, abstracted context in which we can see how the “tamed alterities” of Muslims are commodified as products to be consumed. From Rumi’s poetry to designer-labelled sarongs, “Muslimness” can be tolerated (or even embraced) in so far as it is presented in neat consumer goods that serve to remind consumers of their positions as the Subject, that is, as owners of capital who are allowed to objectify those goods. In other words, reproducing the violent binary of “good Muslims, bad Muslims”, the Global Cultural Bazaar uses Islamophobia as a filter to distinguish tolerable alterities from intolerable ones.

In my field research among Indonesian female migrant workers (FMWs) in Singapore, I found that the expansion of Islamophobic commodification into the field of unskilled labor has turned even the Muslim FMWs’ religious praxis into yet another factor that reduces their “marketability” in the global market. Women I spoke with shared how Muslim FMWs are prohibited by their agencies or employers to wear their hijabs inside the employer’s house (their workplace as caregivers) in order to exude a “friendlier” face in their non-Muslim workspace. Other workers are tricked into and/or forced to eat pork in order to accommodate employers who find their unwillingness to consume a specific kind of meat to be somehow threatening. As the process of commodification can practically turn almost everything into products to consume, these FMWs are obliged, due to their positions as laborers in the global market, to increase their “market value” by taming some of their Muslim alterities.

“Say No to Burkas” Mural in Newtown Australia. Photo Credit: Newtown Grafitti

The oxymoronic tension between the voyeuristic preservation of Others in the Global Cultural Bazaar and the taming of absolute alterities is brilliantly encapsulated in Sara Ahmed’s term “stranger fetishism.” This specific way of relating to Others (or “aliens” in Ahmed’s language) allows for the Human Self to perceive the threats posed by the presence of the “aliens,” yet it also enables him, from a comfortable position, to admire the “non-human” qualities that the Others espouse. Not unlike a museum specimen, the Others in this context are to be seen, touched, discussed, and pondered, but never to be engaged with in human conversation.

When a Muslim Other does not live up to the benchmark of “likeability” (i.e., when a Muslim is a “bad Muslim” according to white, neo-liberal societies), her/his presence would fall under the securitization narrative that identifies him/her as the embodiment of everything that is “beyond human.” This means that the very embodiment of “Muslimness” is the ultimate signifier of everything that is foreign and hostile. It is also important to note that the identification of a Muslim as the ultimate other is gendered, both in its framings and in its implications.

The recent accusations of anti-Semitism against Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar illustrate this final point well. Vanessa Taylor, in her analysis for The Intercept, argues that the singling out of Ilhan Omar in this case cannot be separated from the reproduction of imageries of an “angry black woman” with an anti-Black Islamophobia that associates Black Muslims with anti-Semitic tendencies. Furthermore, as a hijabi woman of color who was also a refugee, Rep. Omar could only be two things in an Islamophobic lens. She is either an oppressed Muslim woman of color whose “freedom” is curtailed by her innately patriarchal faith, or she is a “double-agent” whose hijab is the very reflection of her disloyalty to the cause of the modern nation-state.

Securitization of “Muslimness” (understood widely here as any sociopolitical, religious, and racial signifier that makes a person “Muslim” regardless of her/his real religious belongings or lack thereof) is a mechanism that nation-states employ in order to keep these ultimate Others in check, or worse, to completely eliminate them from within their borders. From body surveillance to ethnocide and genocide (think about the Chinese Uighur Muslims and the Myanmar Rohingya Muslims), many nation-states are committed to constructing “Muslimness” as one of the biggest “threats” to their existence, in spite of the many Muslims doing their best to showcase their national loyalties. From this perspective, the point is not whether or not Muslims are patriotic, but rather that their “Muslimness” renders them to be repositories of all that is alien. The Muslim Others will never be “Us.”

Lailatul Fitriyah
Lailatul Fitriyah is a Ph.D candidate and Presidential Fellow at the World Religions and World Church Program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She holds a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research is focused on the construction of feminist theologies of resistance in post-colonial Southeast Asia, feminist theologies of migration, and feminist interreligious dialogue.