The Paroxysm of Human Absurdity: Reflections on Islamophobia

The current ongoing Islamophobic rhetoric in popular media has probably not gone unnoticed by the Bizarre Culture reader. It certainly got two colleagues at Durham University Business School (DUBS) thinking. Here’s a conversation that happened between them.

“Hello! My name is (blank) and I am from Sa’udi.” I am taken aback when the next thing she says is, “I am not ISIS.” The expression on her face read that she was only partly joking.

Why does every American I meet not feel the need to supplement their introduction with “. . . and I don’t have a gun”, for example?

This was a vivid portrayal of the impact the widely prevalent anti-Islam rhetoric is having on Muslims worldwide. If intellectuals engaged in scholarly activities at top Universities in a country as open minded and as supportive of freedom of speech as the UK are feeling such impact, I fear the greater impact on young children or teenagers around the world.

Imagine a young 15-year old who has been raised with perfectly acceptable values. What would go through his mind when he/she would hear stories such as this, of a Muslim person being thrown out of London Tube because he closed his iPad when someone glanced over it out of subjective suspicion? I would understand if Muslims feel as if their very identity has been threatened. When their identities and entire belief systems are called into question, only those with adequately supportive friends and family are probably able to preserve their self-esteem and deal with the immense pressure. Under different circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine that a few individuals are unable to cope with the pressure in any way other than to try and fight it.

 

 

A friend of mine shared this video (above) on my Facebook profile and I hesitated beforehand about whether or not I should share it as well. The video consists of two Dutch men notating violent passages from the Bible that dictate certain punishments for certain human behaviors. The twist is that they disguise the Bible as the Quran and read these passages to the public in its name. The results are harrowing. The idea of these two young Dutch men was, least to say, well-sought and the result of their experiment was, more unsurprisingly than not, quite revealing.

I opened the Bible twice in my life so far. Once I was in a church keeping company for a good friend of mine to celebrate Easter. The second time, I was discovering the impressively imposing Durham Cathedral and took a few moments to go through some passages. This is to admit my complete ignorance of what this Holy Book tells (and hides). Yet, as a Muslim, I undeniably believe that the Bible is the book of Jesus.

I ended up not sharing the video. In a blink, I saw the faces of my non-Muslim friends of all different faiths and none. Yet, in particular, I thought of my closest Christian friends who I interact with every day in university, and in my neighborhood. I felt it will probably cause them some discomfort to hear violent verses from the Bible being read publicly and to see how people were quickly uncloaked, imparting those snap judgments Malcolm Gladwell marvelously recounted in his thought-provoking Blink. For the fortunate enough who have enjoyed reading Blink, isn’t in such moments that we recall this “locked door” in our brains? And the dark side of “thin slicing” and how these trap us in making impulsive decisions and judgements?

 

EDL march

EDL anti-Islam March in Luton

 

I could hardly feel the importance of reading works such of Gladwell’s and Banaji and Greenwald’s Blind Spot than I do today. I feel this impact now because of the connection we only tend to feel when we suddenly feel ourselves embroiled in that similar turmoil that once implicated “others”. How can’t I feel concerned today? I write here as a Muslim living in the West, wearing a headscarf  for more than a decade before coming to England to pursue a PhD. Kindly understand that I am not shading “concerned” within the umbra of “fright”. I mean “concerned” in the sense that some new, yet, sadly tormenting questions start to emerge in my head more acutely. In other terms, these questions narrowed the ounces of blind tranquility I enjoyed so far.

Will it be surprising if I say that this blind tranquility is now rattled because of what my ears and eyes fail to escape every day from all that is exhibited on all sorts of media?

Should I infer that these furtive gazes in the streets unconsciously associate my persona with what is now spread out in front covers of newspapers and fearfully presented in newscasts? Considering the exponential raise of Islamophobic attitudes in France, Denmark, England, Netherlands, Belgium, and the US and elsewhere on earth – all meticulously detailed and repeated over and over – will my concern turn into fear?

Gladwell mentions staggering results of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which he took himself and found out that just like the fifty thousand African-Americans who took the IAT, he shows a “moderate automatic preference for whites”. He further recognizes that this is plain evidence as when living in North America “we are surrounded every day with cultural messages linking white with good” (Blink, 85). Mahzarin Banaji, a leader of IAT research who teaches psychology at Harvard University responds, “You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group, but you are required to. All around you, that group is being paired with good things. You open the newspaper and you turn on the television, and you can’t escape it.”

You and I won’t necessarily show attitudes paradoxical to our conscious beliefs. However, what does really pan out behind our locked doors nowadays in diverse social contexts? The plethora of research experiments that Gladwell, Banaji and Greenwald (among many other psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists) discuss demonstrates that “our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values” (Blink, 85).

When wondering whether I should even start to care about the presence of these gazes and spend a further few seconds wondering what would probably be the presence surrounding me “thinking without thinking”, I feel pity for the decadence of my own shrewdness and potential acumen.

Straight from my guts, what is spoiling my tranquility now is not questioning others’ blinks, but realizing that the energy and time allocated to more important matters in life is compromised by a necessity to raise a hand (or thumb), comment long and talk hours about what I so far believed was merely a commonplace behavior: humans are free and diverse, resemblance is lightly nuanced by aspects of our “mother nature” and the universality of morality. Human morality admits diversity and associates it with respect and appreciation. Human morality recognizes freedom of choice and treasures freedom of thought. It all sounded evident to me as I believed this is the main attribute of humans, where our true wit’s elevation dwells. Consequently, I am afraid to say that breaching these foundations of human morality simply signifies broaching its demotion, paving the way down to absurdity. Namely, it is also a possible freefall of human being’s genius.

I like to think that despite the misery some powers want to blindly drive us to, millions of people disregard sources of pointless debates and controversy. I like to think that these wake up every day with meaningful preoccupations. Architects, laborers, engineers, farmers, nurses, artists, doctors, graphic-designers, researchers and teachers awakened by the feeling of commitment to their occupations, utterly infatuated by the hunt for inspiration. I like to think that this is still the majority that cares about fostering continuous, worthy and life-easing progress and refuses to stop at discrete undeserving and asphyxiating thoughts and attitudes. These minds challenge the gravitation of some illusive opinions, and you know what?  When they blink they don’t fear; they just blink.

Hajar makes an important point based on Gladwell that reminds me of what Luke said about power, that it is sometimes woven into the system of the society: no one explicitly exercises it. [1]

Reflecting upon the experience of writing this piece, several things struck me.

Firstly, referring back to the video, taking passages from 2000 year-old text out of context is almost always going to make little sense. This could be said about the Bible, or the recently celebrated and much revered Magna Carta. We distance ourselves from cultural norms and practices from even 100 years ago (remember slavery? The Suffragette movement?)

Secondly, fear of the unknown materialises as anger. We like to ‘other’ things. For instance, when we talk of slavery, we distance ourselves from ‘those evil capitalists of 100 years ago’; when we talk of equality of the sexes, we blame those before the suffragette movement – each time not recognising what we are doing and what we are not doing right now, today.

Thirdly, this video illustrates how bias is subconscious and is within all of us, and highlights the importance that we must fight it in order to do better by our fellow humans. We are all in this together. There is no us versus them. There is only us. The man towards the end of the video sums it up when he says, and I paraphrase, that he thought he wasn’t biased, but apparently he had been all along.

It is no accident that newspapers are filled with Islamophobic stories. They are fully aware that this is going to sell their papers because these are the kinds of stories that tap into unconscious judgements, these copouts and prejudices that are easy for some to accept.

The news story about the video illustrates a valid point. The myth of Islam not being a ‘modern’ religion, a violent religion, or a radical religion based on some passages taken out of context from an ancient book, is in many ways not different from anti-Semitist sentiments. It is very easy to look back and judge history – we scoff at Nazis, we loathe Hitler. But how is the growing Islamophobia of today different from the Nazism of yesterday, pre WWII?

Upon further reflection on the process, as an atheist, I didn’t imagine how sharing that video might or might not offend any religion. The impact such media rhetoric has is as much reflected in the process by which the piece came about. It is reflected in the hesitation Hajar felt when confronted with that video for the fear of offending people of other religions. I suspect that is because she knows what it feels like.

[1] (Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A radical view (Vol. 1). Macmillan: London)

Words by: Hajar Raouf and Gaurish Chawla

Cover Photo by Opposition24.de