Disguising Islamophobia

By Mohamad Tabbaa and Yassir Morsi
Glenn Hunt: AAP Image

By Mohamad Tabbaa and Yassir Morsi

[Editor’s note: This article was edited on 15 May 2013 to correct any misapprehension that the authors intended to make definitive statements about the intentions of any journalists or newspapers.]

What do a conservative leader and a radical feminist have in common? More than we would have guessed, it seems.

Recently an Islamic group held an event at the University of Melbourne. The seating was arranged according to gender, as is common with such events. A reporter from The Australian newspaper attended the event, we can only presume because the event was advertised as discussing Jihad.

However what The Australian uncovered was something much more sinister than the excitement of war and violence: gender apartheid. The experience of witnessing men and women seated in different parts of a lecture theatre is obviously traumatising, and so needed to be discussed on a national level. And of course, there is only one place to go when you want an opinion on Muslims, and so The Australian naturally sought out the opinions of a religious conservative politician, and an anti-religious feminist academic.

The difference between the two characters, Catholic Tony Abbott and feminist Sheila Jeffreys, could hardly be more striking. In any other scenario, they would quite happily be at each others’ throats, but in this particular instance they have made uncomfortable bedfellows, quilted beneath the warmth of Islamophobia.

Abbott declared that he expects “members of parliament … to be up in arms about this”. Jeffreys concurred almost identically: “There needs to be great outrage about this”. Apparently the richness of the Liberal Party bemoaning gender inequality was lost on Abbott, despite Gillard’s recent reminder to this effect. Jeffreys also appears unaware that Western feminism has attempted to move beyond the racism of the second-wave, which constantly claimed to know what was best for “Othered” women as it universalised a specifically privileged white subject.

Those interested in overturning the stifling powers of patriarchy might see their energy better spent questioning men in power, rather than spend most of that energy in focusing on marginalised foreigners. But that’s precisely the point of this controversy. It’s a classical displacement, focusing on a foreign patriarchy to ignore the local patriarchy. It is less threatening to challenge the Other than to challenge oneself.

And while it might be comforting to dismiss the above outrage as political opportunism (on the part of both conservatives and feminists), the unholy alliance points to a deeper underlying issue: namely that Left and Right politics, while agreeing on little else, can be relied on to come to a common agreement on the exclusion of Muslims. The ideological marriage of Abbot and Jeffreys also represents the marriage generally of the Left and Right on this particular issue.

Within the public’s imagination in these continuing discourses, the Muslim is not simply a Muslim. It is a name that ratifies an anxiety about the Other’s intrusion. This anxiety is the underlining and common link that will tie together such an unholy alliance. All things work on their state of exception, and the Muslim is today that exception that can suspend political disputes about issues of national security and culture, prompting cooperation in the face of a common Enemy.

Islamophobia is not simply an irrational hatred of Islam. It is the over-determining and inappropriate heaping of suspicion on all things Islamic.

The rare bipartisan support for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is a prominent example of this relationship, as is the ongoing mutual cooperation of the ever-expanding anti-terror measures, whose discriminatory effects on Muslims have been noted consistently. And neither is this trend confined to Australian politics, as the French demonstrated with the bipartisan support of a Bill banning the Burqa, which was in fact drafted by the leader of the Communist Party.

But there is still a problem here: how do we know whether these acts are in fact Islamophobic and not merely issues of gender equality or security? Modern forms of racism are less explicit than their historical counterparts, and so are sometimes more difficult to discern for the untrained eye. One technique for distinguishing Islamophobia from legitimate concerns is to analyse whether such concerns are applied consistently, and this is where the abovementioned outrage shows its true colours.

A quick glance at the society we live in shows segregation along the lines of gender to not only be heavily entrenched, but also widely accepted and respected. Many gyms offer women-only sections, many of our most respected schools are separated along lines of gender and even our most private public space, the toilet, is dictated along gendered lines.

The selective outrage at gender segregation when discussing Muslims suggests there is more at play than meets the eye.

We must then recognise that Islamophobia is not simply an irrational hatred of Islam. It is better defined as the over-determining and inappropriate heaping of suspicion on all things Islamic. It is the placing of a burning spotlight on the Muslim. Islamophobia is not in what the spotlight reveals, but rather the fact that everything revealed is placed within the narrative of suspicion.

This suspicion works to maintain the dominance of white culture and white nationalism in Australia. Indeed, the political spectrum of Left and Right have a structural affinity in their fantasies about controlling foreigners; the debate is really about the proper way to control the ethnic object.

What makes Islamophobia so unique is that it can be articulated in a form that looks like anti-racism. It is like a virus that has evolved to appropriate its initial cure. It is often hidden behind claims of saving Muslims from bad Muslims, or saving Muslim women from Muslim men, or even paradoxically saving Muslims from Islamophobia. This form of Islamophobia often uses a series of caveats to simulate the legitimacy of anti-racist language, but which serve only to conceal the very same racist logic at play against Muslims, albeit in a new, “culturally-aware” tone.

A principal example of this phenomenon is the underlying claim Professor Abdullah Saeed made recently in an article for The Conversation. He suggests that “unfortunately” such cultural norms as segregation are the result of “dubious interpretations” and ”selective reading” of religious texts, which are ultimately responsible for the worrying practice of “forcing women to sit in the back of the theater”. We should learn to ignore these caveats that interrupt Saeed’s argument. He peppers his assumed claims with words like “sometimes”, “occasionally” and “some Muslims” as if to hint that he is aware of the social error in generalising.

However, the underlining message is clear: the problem is always bad Muslims.

We also see in Saeed’s article another sacrifice. The “dubious” Muslim is the “integrated” Muslim’s sacrificial lamb. Its sacrifice allows for the lure of a fantasy that only “bad” Muslims stand in the way of Australia accepting a “good” Islam.

More disturbingly in highlighting the inherent link between racism and Islamophobia, Saeed locates the problematic Muslim as the Muslim beyond Australia’s borders. He suggests, without any reference, that “there are some Muslims who do not believe that men and women are equal”. These Muslims apparently “assert that women should not have a public presence”, and “occasionally Australian students who travel … sometimes come back with these ideas as well”.

By problematising the foreigner in this way, Saeed not only entrenches the racist logic of the suspicious Other, but just as importantly – or perhaps more so – entrenches the fundamental fantasy upon which racism is based: namely the purity of whiteness, insisting that evil is inherently foreign.

But this approach is also counter-productive. What we neglect to see is that this suspicion heaped upon a “dubious” Islam will not remain neatly focused on “cultural” Muslims who read “dubious” selections of Islam. It will overlap onto all Muslims. Stating that 99 per cent of Muslims are not terrorists is irrelevant. The one per cent is the percentage that is used to do all the work for Islamophobia. It translates into suggesting that any of the 99 could potentially be that one terrorist. It takes little stretch of logic then to suggest that all should be treated as such.

The selective outrage at gender segregation when discussing Muslims suggests there is more at play in the above discussion than meets the eye. It also points to a worrying trend whereby Muslims internalize the logic of Islamophobia and thus figure other Muslims as the source of all evil.

Our history of racism has taught us that discrimination can easily be carried out under the noblest of banners and neutral terminology. For this reason a critical vigilance is required when dealing with minority groups, particularly in this current context of Islamophobia, lest even those with the best of intentions serve such oppressive ends.

Disguising Islamophobia under the cloak of gender equality only harms the plight of both Muslims and women.

Mohamad Tabbaa is a PhD candidate in Criminology and Law at the University of Melbourne. Yassir Morsi is a research fellow at the international centre for Muslim and non-Muslim understanding, at the University of South Australia.


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  • ES

    This is an important contribution, and should be read widely (likewise the piece two days ago in Loudspeaker). I do feel that there’s a convenient misrepresentation of radical or gender feminism here, though: Jeffreys is not the only radical feminist, and her views are widely challenged from radical perspectives. Many gender feminists oppose gender segregation in all forms, including toilets, schools, and gyms. (The purpose of women-only spaces for these feminists is that the patriarchy is so invasive and damaging that women simply aren’t safe in non-segregated spaces. The onus here is on male behaviour, not some sacred femininity.)

    Gender feminism argues for the breakdown of gender binaries, seeing gender as a power binary. I wonder if this (however insightful–and importantly, damning of the disingenuous left) is concealing another motivation: a conservative one in which gender inequalities (present in almost all cultures) is going unread. It is not enough to hear that women “choose” to be segregated: there needs to be some analysis of what motivates and dominates “choice”. Globally, women “choose” to participate in activities which, in the long-run, compound their own oppression. Should we respect women’s autonomous choices to remain in abusive relationships or to consume dangerous and expensive cosmetic surguries? Yes. But seeing women as their own agents does not prohibit a critique of the oppressive structures that can inform such choices.

    I don’t think that a “liberal” or even a “radical” non-muslim person is in a position to begin making these criticisms of Australian-muslim cultures. We have enough gender misrepresentation to deal with in our own (dominant) culture. There are more than enough radical, and vocal muslim women in this country to hear from, but their voioces aren’t being heard. Not enough, anyway. And it’s our own selective “liberatory” biases on the left that are preventing these women from being heard.

  • Raymond Nonnatus

    Good to see Right Now robustly promoting free speech, but perhaps the editors should heed the countervailing right to protect one’s reputation. By allowing the author to lazily defame the reporter from the Australian as a racist in the second paragraph, the editors seem to have breached their duty in respect of her human rights:

    “the promise of discussing Jihad at the event must have lured the newspaper into seeing an easy opportunity to vilify Muslims”

    Will Right Now offer the reporter from the Australian right of reply, or make a correction and offer an apology? Or does the author have proof that her motivation really was “to vilify Muslims”?

    • Andre Dao

      Hi – our intention in publishing this article was to present an alternative perspective on this issue. As with all of our articles, we hope that it will open up debate rather than stifle it. To that end, we would be very interested in publishing a reply, either by Rachel herself, on anyone else that has an interest in this issue. Please feel free to contact me at andre@rightnow.org.au.

  • Gender segregation is un-Islamic. There is no basis for it in Islam. It’s an innovation that should never have taken place. It has created great gender inequality that didn’t take place during the time of Prophet Muhammad. More Muslims must speak out. There are progressive Muslim groups in Australia who agree.

    • Thanks for your comment. You raise an important point. Among the Australian mainstream there is a problematic tendency to paint all Muslims with a broad brush – overlooking the wide variety of views and opinions within Islam on all manner of issues – including gender segregation. It should not be a surprise to anyone that Islam, like other religions, has both conservative and progressive movements, and a whole spectrum of opinions in between.

      (Right Now editor)

  • Islamophobia is a problem in society.

    But this article sorely misses the point by saying the issue was merely one of ‘segregation’. Going to the back isn’t ‘segregation’. It’s subjugation. It’s saying that the women attending the lecture don’t matter as much, and so can be hidden towards the back.

    If this was just an issue of segregation, women could have been seated on the left, men the right. But being sent to the back is being sent out of sight. And that’s not something that dignifies the women in this situation, who have intellects and opinions worth as much as those of the men.

    P.S. I’m a friend of the reporter this article claims was ‘searching for controversy’. I point that out only by way of full disclosure.

    • It’s probably worth noting that I’m not disagreeing with the whole article. Just the bit that brushes away what happened as being similar to segregated toilets.

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  • TR

    However, gender segregation is offensive, sexist, and wrong and this is widely agreed upon. Period.