Reframing the notion of Islamophobia and reclaiming the Muslim narrative

Unless Muslims set their own narrative, we will find ourselves living out a story, not of our own making, worse yet, we become the main actors.

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Unless Muslims set their own narrative, we will find ourselves living out a story, not of our own making, worse yet, we become the main actors.

Terrorism. In reading that word, what images came to your mind? Be honest. For many of us, it – reflexively and without us even thinking conjures images of armed Muslim men. This includes our Muslim readers. Why? The answer is both simple but also critical; we think through frames – consciously and subconsciously. Frames are those set of ideas, words and images through which we make sense of the world around us. They can be as simple as hearing the word “four legs” and thinking of a cat or a table. In many instances, a complex frame becomes a simple frame by a simple analogy.

An example of a complex frame is the ongoing debate between those who advocate the need for a welfare state – the provision of resources – and those conservatives who argue that argue against the welfare state and the provision of resources to disenchanted segments of the populace. The latter, in trying to legitimise their complex frame draw on a simple analogy: do not give a man fish but rather give him or her a fishing rod. It seems commonsensical and thus the frame sticks. More so, the analogy becomes part-and-parcel of the frame itself (I will return to this point later on). The fact that we think through frames is simple enough. But what is often overlooked is the ways in which a particular term, idea or image evokes a dominant frame, as is the case with the word “terrorism” or other words like “democracy” and so forth.

This is where things get all the more important; in trying to counter a particular narrative, let’s say, Islamophobia, to what extent to we inadvertently evoke the very same frame we are trying to denounce? Why is it that so many of us fall into this trap? Again, the answer is quite simple; when a particular frame becomes dominant it not only produces a certain representation of reality but also provides the language and ideas through which that frame can be – and falsely so – engaged both positively or critically. George Lakoff, a famous neuroscientist and pioneer in the study of frames puts forth a simple but illustrating example. He tells his students: do not think of an elephant. The first thing that comes to mind is an elephant. In “postcolonial” society, so-called third-world intellectuals sought to counter the Western-bias frame, which states that the non-West is undemocratic and backwards by arguing that they are – contrary to colonial bias – both democratic and modern. In other words, they drew on the very language and ideas of the frame and/or narrative they sought to counter. In a self-defeating move, not only do they then re-evoke the Eurocentric frame but also legitimise it and in turn, a Eurocentric frame becomes the frame – the ultimate parameters of any engagement.

This brings us to our Islamophobia frame, one of the dominant frames that pervade mainstream media, public culture and academia. If Islam is inherently violent, then it follows that Muslims are violent and that a fear of Muslims is not only legitimate but also completely natural. Let us look at one way in which this frame plays out: as with many frames, the Islamophobia narrative constructs a Villain-Victim-Hero frame. The hero is the altruistic West, an unheard “Moderate Muslim”, the victim is the general populace, and the villain is the radical Muslim e.g. the Islamic State. According to this Villain-Victim-Hero frame, Islamophobia is nothing but – and exclusively so – a response to Muslim violence.

Another way in which the Islamophobia narrative is played out is through the Policy-Principles-Relations. This policy, in this case, would be de-radicalization programs, the principles are Western multiculturalism and human rights and the relationship being that of a paternal and altruistic West and a violent Muslim world. Thus far, many individuals and Muslim organisations have sought to counter Islamophobic narratives by trying to appropriate those principles arguing that Islam is indeed compatible with – for example – “American” or “British” principles. Just like our third-world intellectuals, the responses to the Islamophobia narrative have been nothing short of self-defeating. In what has how now become a cliché trope, we find ourselves responding by claiming that; “Islam is a religion of peace” or that “these terrorist acts do not represent Muslims”. That is to say, the Muslim puts him or herself in a seemingly unending defensive posture and in doing so evokes the Islamophobia frame and reinforces the Villain-Victim-Hero frame. More so, in responding to the Islamophobia narrative by limiting our condemnation to ISIS or other “radicals”, we reinforce the idea that there is one villain and ultimately the villain. In many cases even legitimises it in appealing to Eurocentric conceptions of human rights, individual freedom and legitimate violence. In short:

  1. We step into the opponents language-games and thus we give their frame more attention that is what everyone will remember.
  2. We are now on the defensive rather than adopting a more pro-active and offensive posture.
  3. We misplace the burden of proof. It becomes the duty of the Muslim to prove that Islam is indeed a religion of peace.

So, how then do we proceed? Instead of working within a dominant frame, we need to channel our energies towards reframing the debate. This begins by complicating the dominant frame by exposing its latent biases and conceptual errors. Let me return to the previous example that conservatives in regards to fishing rods. The analogy/frame sets up two supposed solutions, a false dichotomy: Either one can provide the poor with fish or one can provide the poor with a fishing rod. The commonsensical option would be the latter. Now let us try complicating this frame. Instead of succumbing to one of the two options provided by the frame, let us call into question its underlying logic. An example of such is the following counter-argument: your false-analogy assumes that the poor have access to fishing rods. Similarly; those who do not have fish to eat – maintain their basic survival – cannot learn how to use a fishing rod.

In the same way, we can complicate the simple analogy, we can also complicate the Islamophobia narrative. To do so, as we did above, we must call into question the seemingly two-commonsensical assumptions of Islamophobia. Firstly, the fear of Muslims is a natural response to Muslim violence (the Villain-Victim-Hero frame). Secondly, the idea that such violence can be remedied through multiculturalism and human rights (the Policy-Principles-Relations frame).

In tackling these frame-shaping assumptions we can begin by asking: what are the real origins of the fear of Muslims and Islam? This is in contrast to accepting the idea that the origins of the Islamophobia is Muslim violence and thus the impulsive desire to claim that Islam is not violent or that those villains – and their acts of violence – do not represent Muslims. To complicate the “Islamophobia is a response to Muslim violence” logic one need only to identify the historical origins of Islamophobia and the fact that it preceded, by centuries, the emergence of al-Qaeda or ISIS. Zackary Lockman explains that: “It was in part by differentiating themselves from Islam…that European Christians and later then nominally secular descendants defined their own identity”. Or as Mohja Kahf explained, “if there is such a thing as a European outlook on the world, a sense of what is European as distinct from not-European, it began to develop and define itself in opposition to Islamic civilisation.”. An elusive fear of Muslims is as old as the West itself. In fact, this fear of the Muslim other was a constitutive element in the development of the West as an idea and identity[1].

Another way of complicating, more so, deconstructing the Islamophobia narrative would be to pay attention to the Policy-Principles-Relations frame. This begins by calling into question the principles and relations that underlie the frame and its propositions. To what extent has multiculturalism and human rights in the West secured social, political and economic harmony? More importantly, to what extent does the underlying secular worldview beneath those principles promote tolerance as opposed to – for example – perpetuate an “Othering” of the Muslim subject and promote an exclusionary logic in which the State and the State alone is allowed to engage in “legitimate violence”?

The Qur’an employs a similar strategy. Muhammad’s (Sallallahu ‘Alaayhee wa-Salaam). When calling upon Quraysh to: “follow what Allah has sent down” the antagonists retorted: rather we will follow what we found our forefathers practising. They argued that the Prophets radical message contravened the dominant frame, it opposed the “religion of the forefathers” and the “millah [path] of Ibrahim”– the dominant principles that relationships constituting their dominant frame. In responding, the Qur’an calls into question the very foundations of that frame. It asks: Wasn’t it the case that their ancestors didn’t understand a thing and were void of guidance”. In responding to Quraysh’s evocating of the dominant frame the Qur’an calls into question the very rationality of its underlying principles. In other parts of the Qur’an, the villain – for whom Quraysh was none other than Muhammad – is radically redefined and identified by introducing the concepts of tughyan and dhulm. Far from appropriating the dominant frame, the Qur’an created its own narrative, more importantly, a narrative grounded on radically different principles and concomitantly new ways in understanding the world we live in.

To be clear, these counter-arguments are just some examples that I am employing in order to illustrate my point about frames and reframing and are in no way exhaustive of the possibilities that lay ahead. If Muslims in the West and abroad want to gain an authentic voice, now is the time to shift the debate and stop being apologetic. Unless Muslims set their own narrative, we will find ourselves living out a story, not of our own making, worse yet, we become the main actors.

by Ali Harfouch

[1] For more on this topic see ‘The Origins of Islamophobia.’ SOAS University, Ali Harfouch.

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