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The Times They are a-Changin

In his 1964 song The Times They are a-Changin' Bob Dylan sang about political, social and cultural upheaval. Four decades later, Tahir Abbas examines the starkly different social phenomenon the USA finds itself embroiled in: that of Islamophobia.

‘The Times They are a-Changin’ sang Bob Dylan in 1964. He was referring to the tremendous political, social and cultural developments to US civil rights, equality, post-modernity and geopolitics at the end of that decade. Four decades later the USA finds itself embroiled in a very different social phenomenon; one that has traversed the Atlantic Ocean and has become a firmly-placed European problem – Islamophobia. But how could the great nation, defender of freedom and liberty the world over, succumb to the forces of a sordid European problem.

Racism has been a deep-seated problem in the USA and it was the civil rights movements of the late 1960s that finally helped to shape a world-view to resist its deleterious consequences and ensure that humanity sees no colour. It came after a bloody struggle, which included fighting off the yoke of southern slave masters who fought the pro-British northern states. But the problems of racism did not abate once the laws changed – rather they shifted tack. Just as in it mainland Western Europe, with their long historical contact with what became post-colonial immigrants, racism has been fought with legislation. However, throughout the Western world, inequalities on the basis of race, class and culture remain with distinct issues relating to discrimination and prejudice repeatedly found to surface in all aspects of society and its workings. While the conscientious intellectuals and political overlords fight the fight, another more sinister ugly head has appeared in the form of Islamophobia.

For some the term itself is an abomination – a ruse to mask what are clearly cultural problems in Muslim groups. Indeed, there are problems within the communities but nothing quite impacts on lives than the totalising impact of Islamophobia – an phenomenon that has global reaches and local outcomes – that engulfs the national psyche as much as it has become entrenched in media and politics. And this is where we have the cross-over. In the post-mass immigration phases of the 1960s-1970s, ethnic Turks, Algerians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi were just that – their ‘Muslimness’ was clad in a post-race ethnic classification system indeed to champion nationalisms over religious identities. This period in recent history also saw the debunking of religion per se and the need to move towards a wholly rational scientific approach to the social and physical world. But the seeds of Islamophobia were sown not during this period but in the very origins of modern Europe itself, which emerged in opposition to Islam itself. This Islamophobia born in post-Westphalian Euro-land intensified during the post-WWII immigrant phases of arrival, settlement and incorporation, and has intensified since the events of 9/11 and the onslaught of the global ‘war on terror’. Western Europe increasingly defines itself in opposition to the greatest fear it has always had – that of Islam from the East. This has been compounded by a view that suggests the Islam found among 20m Muslim minorities in Western Europe is equally threatening and thus there is a need to defend against it.

Before 9/11, Muslims in the USA were relatively invisible. Numbering around 5m in total, they represent a tiny proportion of all groups and of all minorities per se. And yet their public profiles since the events of 9/11 have increased in the negative sense, culminating in the recent events around the ‘ground zero mosque’ project; a relatively innocuous gesture on the part of leading Muslims in the USA, aimed at reflecting the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and in the context of reaching out to other faiths in a faith-driven USA, it has been a national political football, kicked vociferously by the new Right, whose views towards Islam, Muslims and Barack Obama are wholly consistent with a racist agenda. The USA once tolerated and absorbed difference like no other nation. It is a nation of immigrants, much like the UK, but there are signs that memories are short and preconceptions are long. While Western Europe retreats into its self, arguably through removing the very essential fabric of equality and opportunity for all, the disease spreads to the USA. A little known Florida-based pastor seemingly holding the entire Muslim world to ransom in relation to burning copies of the Qu’ran in exchange for shifting the location of the ‘ground zero mosque’ was a news story that spanned the globe. Eminently wiser people finally got him to stop but not after a near disaster of US public relations with the Muslim world nearly ensued. And all this based on mis-information, mis-direction and misleading commentary. This ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ is actually an Islamic cultural centre to be used by all and, more interestingly, there is indeed already a mosque in the area and it is closer to the site of Ground Zero than the new planned venture. While various political figures and news channels promote the view that ‘Muslim Saracens’ are leaving a mark at a place they have apparently conquered, polls carried out by reputable providers suggest that one in five Americans think that Obama is a ‘secret Muslim’. The fact that was he born and raised as a Christian and that his late father was born a Muslim but became an atheist before his untimely death in Kenya at the age of 46 is easily overlooked.

The Islamophobia that now enters the American psyche is similar in nature to that found in Western Europe. The fear or dread of Islam and Muslims is linked to fears of cultural relativism, a security threat to the nation and questions over the loyalty of Muslims to the state. Moreover, Islam is presented as a monolithic entity in the sense that it is fixed in violent history and all Muslims are the same, but hostility to immigration and the niqab debate are yet to arrive. Perhaps these are on their way. This is fascinating given that the 5m Muslims in the USA are diverse, affluent, professional and limited in political presence while Western-Euro-Muslims are less diverse (country by country), poorer, less-skilled but have a greater political and cultural profile. Both instances say everything about Europe and the USA and little about Muslims and Islam. That is, the sense of loss of identity that Europe now faces in the context of globalisation and Europeanisation is also in the context of a Christian ‘club of nations’ vs. ‘Others to the East’. This, however, is especially intriguing as Turkey, which is the bridge between Asia and Europe, feels confident enough to not to need to sit with either at the global political and economic top tables. Moreover, with the USA indented to China it has to contend with India and Brazil, too. The underlying theme underscoring this wider Western Islamophobia is a fear of the loss of power and identity.

Islamophobia is no longer a curious European diseases fighting off various attempts to neutralise the virus, rather it has become a pandemic, sweeping all of Western liberal powers. This says everything about the purchase of the ideology behind the concept but also also about how narrow and limited we all now are because of it. Obama needs two terms to make the kind of impact his first 100 days suggested he could and would. With various attempts made to derail his efforts, the mid-term November 2010 elections could see that dream turn into a nightmare. At the same time, Europe needs to wake up to the reality that Muslims and Islam are here to stay and each day their number and confidence grows.

In the context of shifting discourses in relation to race, class and rights – with the Republicans gaining ground through a firm right-wing agenda – it is certainly destabilising Obama’s plans for great things. In Western Europe, Geertz Wilders in the Netherlands and the English Defence League in the UK, for example, firmly attack the religion of Islam itself. This new found global Islamophobia is established in addition to racism and discrimination. It is not a substitute or a complement – it is an additional layer. Thus, the pattens in the USA reflect that of Western Europe – deeply racist societies, which because of binding anti-discrimination laws, cannot be as explicitly racist as they would wish, highlight the issues of ‘Muslimness’ as the problem. In effect, the problems are with the nation-states under question, and in particular the deleterious consequences of a post global-credit crises. We all need bogeys to project onto others all that we loathe about ourselves and to define ourselves in opposition to it. Enter Islam.

Dylan’s lyrics inspired a generation of change that led to significant social change for decades to come, but all of that is at risk as nations and societies retreat into an artificial sense of themselves. Globalisation has softened certain limits in relation to employment, travel, cultural interaction, educational opportunities, but while it does so it as the expense of the nation-state, which makes a last-ditch effort to keep its identity intact. The solutions to our immediate Islamophobic problems lie in precisely these nation-states having the courage and confidence of their own conviction. The world is a much smaller place than ever in the history of this planet yet humans beings have never been further apart from another, separated by pierced and actual differences, which are perpetuated and promulgated by existing modes of domination and subordination, defined through the lens of religion, or, rather, the fear of Islam. Something drastically need a-Changin, and fast.

Tahir Abbas FRSA is Associate Professor of Sociology at Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey; and author of Islamophobia, Multiculturalism and the State (2011, forthcoming), Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics (2010, in press), The Education of British South Asians (2004), editor of Islam and Education (2010, in press), Muslim Britain (2005) and Islamic Political Radicalism (2007), and co-editor of Honour Violence Women and Islam (with MM Idriss, 2010) and Immigration and Race Relations (2007, with F Reeves).