Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Australia: Conversations about Islamophobia

In Australia, conversations about Islamophobia are expanding as the Muslim minority community grows. As in the UK, the term “Islamophobia” is often used as a device to silence critics of Islam. In the following interview, I was asked a series of questions about Islamophobia by a university student newspaper that is researching the topic for the interest of its readers.
1. What is Islamophobia?
Islamophobia is usually understood to refer to a fear of Islam and Muslims that is irrational.
2. Where and when did it originate?
The term “Islamophobia” has its origins in a report entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for us all”, that was produced by the Runnymede Trust and published in the UK in late 1997. The report was commissioned by the British government and was officially launched in the British Parliament.
As for the origins of Islamophobia itself, rather than simply the origins of the term, such fear of Islam dates back many centuries, probably originally to the years following the death of Muhammad in 632 after which there was rapid expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East and into Europe through military conquest.
It’s worth noting that Islamophobia is one window into a complex set of historical relationships. The Muslim world and Europe were at war for much of the last 1400 years. Phobias of the other exist on both sides, so any discussion of Islamophobia – fear of Muslims by non-Muslims – needs to also consider irrational fears among Muslims of others as well – Westophobia, Christophobia.
Books and articles have been written on all the above phobias, but Islamophobia seems to have caught public attention in the West much more than the others.
3. How did 9/11 contribute to the notion of Islamophobia?
The 9/11 attacks were broadcast graphically on camera as the events unfolded. It took little time to learn that those responsible were radicalised Muslims who were part of the Al-Qaeda network. Al-Qaeda leadership eventually claimed responsibility for the attacks. Although such radical attitudes are not shared by the majority of Muslims, the details of Muslim diversity are not understood by non-Muslim populations as a general rule. So what should perhaps have shown itself as a fear of Al-Qaeda manifested itself instead as a fear of Muslims per se, in the minds of many people.
4. Is being labelled an Islamophobe a fair or derogatory term?
Nobody likes to be called an Islamophobe. Such labels are useful in one way in that they provide a means to succinctly encapsulate a set of attitudes. The problem is that such negative labels are also often used to close down discussion which may need to take place. Some commentators argue that the term “Islamophobe” has been used to censor critical but necessary comments about aspects of the history or religion of Islam.
All belief systems should be able to be subjected to critical scrutiny, including the religion of Islam. To engage in such critical scrutiny, if it is done fairly and rationally, should not attract accusations of “Islamophobia”. Unfortunately, this does happen on occasions.
5. Should we be labelling people as Islamophobes or does doing that contribute to a more divided society?
Name-calling is rarely helpful. If we disagree with the viewpoint of a person or group, it is far better to engage with those views and argue against them than to pin a negative label on the group. Everybody wants their ideas to be taken seriously but, if compelling alternative arguments are offered, most people will change their minds. But few people will change their minds simply because somebody pins a negative label on them.
6. In your research and learnings, is there a misconception of Islam? If so, what is it?
We live in an age of addiction to print and digital media. We are raised on a diet of soundbites and one-liners. Such a context inevitably produces misconceptions about a whole range of issues, of which Islam is just one. I have certainly encountered many misconceptions about Islam. The two macro-misconceptions are, firstly, that Islam is a religion of violence and jihad, and, secondly, that Islam is a religion of peace. Neither is correct in an absolute sense. Islam is incredibly complex and diverse, and it manifests itself in very different ways.
7. In your academic opinion, how do you view the word Islamophobia? Is it a rational fear or a cover up for discrimination?
I view the word “Islamophobia” in different ways. It is a useful short-hand way to refer to unreasonable negative attitudes to Muslim people. But it is also sometimes used as an instrument for censoring important discussion about sensitive matters to do with the religion of Islam.
8. Do you believe it will get better for Muslims in the years to come when dealing with Islamophobia?
It should be noted that some Muslims claim that the Islamophobia discussion is over-stated and that the problem articulated by the concept of Islamophobia is nowhere near as widespread as some people make out. Fear of Islam and Muslims, such as it exists, is more pronounced where radical expressions of Islam are prominent.
On the other hand, more modern, tolerant expressions of Islam do not attract the same kind of hostile response from non-Muslims. It is my view that Islamic communities across the world will become more open and tolerant, rather than closed and radicalised, in years to come. That will translate to less Islamophobic attitudes among non-Muslims.
This article first appeared in "Evangelicals Now" (http://www.e-n.org.uk/), November 2017, p21.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Indonesian President sets his sights on Islamist groups

     Indonesia’s moderate Muslim President, Joko Widodo, has raised eyebrows amongst a strange assortment of civil libertarians, human rights activists, and radical Islamists, with a recent presidential decree declaring that groups which do not adhere to Indonesia’s national ideology will be banned. By doing so he has attracted accusations of being an old-style dictator, determined to suppress individual freedoms in the process.
     There is a very clear subtext to this debate. In the early years of the 21st century, radical Islamist groups in Indonesia used newfound political freedoms to try to win a significant presence in the nation's parliament. However, in national elections of 1999, 2004, and 2009, such groups struggled to garner more than 10% of the popular vote. While this gave them some parliamentary representation, it was insufficient to move them forward in their stated desire to turn Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, into an Islamic state.
     Matters took a different turn in 2016. The much-publicised elections for the Governor of Jakarta were notorious for the campaign carried out by radical Islamist groups to unseat the incumbent governor, who came from the Chinese Christian minority. The underlying motives of this campaign by radical Islamists were clearly racist and anti-Christian, though couched in terms of defending the honour of Islam in the face of supposedly blasphemous statements by the ex-Governor of Jakarta. That unfortunate figure, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, now languishes in prison, serving a two year sentence after being found guilty of blasphemy.
     The success of the mass protests organized by radical Islamists during the Jakarta gubernatorial elections has given these groups a new boldness, enabling them to move beyond their relative lack of success at the ballot box. They realised during the elections for the Governor of Jakarta that public pressure on police and on legislators bore dividends. This has given them a taste of success which augurs well for their cause ahead of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections across Indonesia.
     It is notable that these radical Islamist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front, propose the creation of an Islamic State in Indonesia under Shariah law. Such a platform runs directly counter to the national ideology which is based on equal rights for all citizens and a pluralistic approach to religion, whereby no faith is privileged over any other. So radical Islamist groups reject one of the nation’s foundational pillars which equates Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. This has provided the President with an opportunity to face up to his adversaries.
     President Widodo was a close ally of the defeated Jakarta governor who is now serving time for blasphemy. He witnessed the fall of his ally to standover and bullying pressure from radical Islamist groups. The President realises that he faces the same prospect in the presidential elections of 2019. So he has moved to declare by presidential decree last week that any groups which do not support the national ideology of Indonesia will be banned. This brings groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front directly into the firing line.
     Of course they have complained bitterly, promising to challenge the decree in the Constitutional Court. Paradoxically they are receiving support from human rights groups who have otherwise been very concerned by the pressure tactics of radical Islamist groups but who, in this instance, share the concern about the apparent challenge to freedom of speech.
     This debate has some way to run in Indonesia. Interestingly it is largely an intra-Muslim debate, with the President speaking for millions of moderate Indonesian Muslims who want nothing to do with a Shariah state, against a minority of hard-line Islamists influenced by world events and pressures, who are calling for an Islamic state based on Shariah. The 2019 presidential and Parliamentary elections will be a key moment as Indonesia negotiates its future in an increasingly fractured society.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Philippines: The Islamic State looks East

Marawi City was virtually unknown outside the Philippines until May 23 last, when hundreds of jihad warriors stormed the sprawling urban metropolis of 200,000 residents and claimed large parts of it for the Islamic State.  Since then the Philippines Armed Forces have struggled to regain control and the fight is ongoing at the time of writing.
The background to this crisis has deep roots and is multi-faceted. There has been a long history of regional separatism and sectarian strife in the southern regions of the Philippines where the country’s six million-strong Muslim minority is centred.
When the Spanish first colonised the Philippines from the 16th century onwards, their most difficult enemy was the Muslim communities of the south. Indeed, had the Spanish not arrived in the region, the Philippines would probably have ended up being a Muslim-majority nation like neighbouring Indonesia.
The Spanish colonial authorities never succeeded in subduing the Muslim south. Neither did their colonial successors, the Americans, who ruled the Philippines from 1898-1946.
Regional rebellions
Since the Philippines gained independence following liberation from the Japanese, the national government centred on Manila in the north has had to face a series of regional rebellions from the Muslim south.  The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded in 1972 and, under the leadership of Nur Misuari, it conducted a series of military campaigns against the Philippines Government until a peace agreement was brokered in 1996.
A breakaway group from the MNLF, which styled itself as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), fought for southern Muslim (or Moro) independence in a number of insurgency campaigns between the late 1970s and 2011.
But it is the more recent radical Islamist movements that rejected the willingness of the MNLF and MILF to negotiate with the Government that are calling the shots in today’s southern Philippines.
In 1991, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) emerged under the leadership of Abdurajik Janjalani and, while it embraced an increasingly Islamist rhetoric, its primary early activities were banditry, piracy, kidnapping and murder. Some of the most notorious incidents involving the ASG were the kidnapping of tourists and foreign workers and either ransoming them or beheading them, as happened with the unfortunate American hostage Guillermo Sobero in 2001.
In recent years, the ASG under the leadership of Isnilon Hapilon has aligned itself increasingly with international Islamist terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda and lately Islamic State.  From 2014 ASG affiliated itself with IS and swore allegiance to the Caliph of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Radical terrorist factions tend to emerge in multiples. Another group of similar ideological leanings is the Maute group, which took its name from two brothers from Marawi City who are committed to establishing an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
Video found
The Philippines authorities recently released a video that was found on a mobile phone belonging to a jihadi captured in an army raid.  The video shows part of a meeting that involved Ipsilon Hapilon and two of the Maute brothers, plus others, planning the raid on Marawi City. The attack was scheduled for the beginning of Ramadan on May 26, but had to be brought forward three days because of government raids.
The Philippines authorities were taken by surprise by the size and strength of the armed insurgents who attacked Marawi City, the largest Muslim-majority city in the Philippines and regarded in local popular culture as the Islamic heartland of the southern Philippines. Since the initial attack, the insurgents have taken many hostages, especially targeting Christians, and destroyed a number of buildings, including the local Catholic cathedral.
Deaths have run into the hundreds, with army sources claiming that 120 insurgents have been killed.  These include local Filipino jihadis but also ominously a number of foreign fighters: Indonesians, Malaysians, Chechens, Saudis, Yemenis and other nationalities.
This last fact points to a matter of great concern to governing authorities in both the Philippines and its Southeast Asian neighbours.  As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria collapses, with its demise imminent in coming months, clearly international jihadi groups are looking for alternative locations to set up mini Islamist states with all the usual hallmarks: terror, murder, beheading, persecution of minorities and so forth.
The wild and almost ungovernable regions of the southern Philippines represent  fertile ground for the international jihad movements. The fight taking place in Marawi City at present may only represent the beginning of regional troubles, as jihad warriors from the Middle East seek to establish an alternative caliphate in Southeast Asia.

This article first appeared in "Evangelicals Now" (http://www.e-n.org.uk/), July 2017, p9.