Islamophobia and the new clash of civilisations

The Muslim and non-Muslim worlds are becoming increasingly intolerant of each other

Gideon Rachman

It is now getting on for 20 years since the attacks on New York and Washington of September 11 2001, and the idea that international politics should be organised around a “war on terror” is no longer fashionable. But suspicion and hatred of the Muslim world, inflamed by 9/11, has not faded with the passage of time. On the contrary, Islamophobia, as it is often called, is now a central part of politics in most of the world’s major power centres — from the US to the EU, China to India.

At the same time, countries that were once seen as strongholds of moderate Islam — in particular Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan — are witnessing a rise in radical Islamism. The overall picture is that both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds are becoming increasingly intolerant in their attitudes towards each other, with politicians more and more inclined to pander to fear-driven views of the world.

The most startling recent development has been China’s decision to imprison more than 1m Uighur Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang in mass internment camps, in an effort to “re-educate” them. This policy seems to be a wildly exaggerated response to a relatively minor threat of domestic terrorism, combined with the Communist party’s increasing paranoia about social, political and regional conformity. The internment process has been unfolding since early 2017 and is belatedly attracting international condemnation. A UN human-rights panel has called on China to release illegally detained Uighurs. And, this month, Turkey became the first major Muslim nation officially to condemn Beijing’s policy towards the community.

The outside world’s slowness to respond to China’s actions in Xinjiang stems partly from a reluctance to antagonise the emerging superpower. But it may also reflect an increasingly hostile attitude to Muslim minorities in other parts of the world.

India, Asia’s other emerging superpower, has been governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party for almost five years. BJP militants make little secret of the fact that they regard Islam as alien to India. About 14 per cent of the Indian population is Muslim, but there was not a single Muslim among the 282 BJP members elected to the national parliament in 2014. The fear of Islamist terrorism in India has surged following a suicide-bombing in Kashmir that killed 44 paramilitary police. With elections looming, an increase in communal tensions seems likely.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has also flared up in Myanmar, where more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee the country by army offensives, amid reports of rape and murder. Most are now living as refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The plight of Muslim refugees, however, is not a particularly popular cause in the west. Since 9/11, many more American civilians have fallen victim to school shootings than to Islamist terrorists, but anti-Muslim rhetoric by politicians has become more pronounced. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, then US president George W Bush visited a mosque and asserted that “Islam is peace”; 15 years later, Donald Trump won the presidency after campaigning to ban all Muslims from entering the US.

In recent years, Islamist terrorism has hit Europe far more frequently than the US, with France suffering particularly badly. The fear of terrorism, combined with the arrival of refugees from the Middle East and north Africa, has produced a surge in support for nationalist and Islamophobic parties. Parties that campaigned against Muslim immigration are now in government in Hungary, Austria, Italy and Poland — and they are powerful opposition forces, shaping the debate, in Germany and France.

The anti-Islam radicalisation outside the Muslim world is coinciding with the rise of intolerant Islamism in some Muslim countries that used to be relatively immune from that ideology.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, once lauded in the west as the model of a modernising democrat, is increasingly despotic and given to bitter conspiracy theories about the west. Turkey’s secularists are on edge, fearing an Erdogan-driven effort to Islamise their country.

The situation has been worsening in Pakistan for decades. Islamists are using blasphemy laws as a weapon to persecute religious minorities and political opponents. Salman Taseer, a former governor of the province of Punjab who spoke out against the blasphemy law, was assassinated in 2011. His murderer has become a hero of the Islamist movement. Imran Khan, the current prime minister, defends the blasphemy law.

Campaigns against blasphemy have also become a political weapon in Indonesia, the world’s most populous majority-Muslim country. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), a Christian and former governor of Jakarta, was imprisoned in 2017 after being convicted of blasphemy. Ahok was a protégé of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi. But, running scared of the rising tide of Islamism, Jokowi has selected a conservative Muslim cleric as his running mate in April’s presidential election.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there were endless discussions about a “clash of civilisations” between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds. It is no longer quite so fashionable to discuss the concept. But something that looks strikingly like a “clash of civilisations” is emerging nonetheless.

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