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MEMO in conversation with Prof Salman Sayyid

Our interview with Prof Salman Sayyid

November 4, 2020 at 9:00 am

Has Islamophobia gone global? Can it be said that there is a common thread connecting Uyghur Muslims held in concentration camps in China; the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; the rise of Hindu nationalism and the systematic attacks on Muslims in India and Kashmir; Israel’s ongoing occupation and brutal treatment of the Palestinians; and the growing hostility towards Muslims in the West?

These were the questions posed during MEMO’s conversation with Professor Salman Sayyid yesterday. The academic from the University of Leeds, whose major publications include: A Fundamental Fear, Thinking Through Islamophobia and Recalling the Caliphate, began by fielding questions on the definition of Islamophobia before describing the global dimension of anti-Muslim racism.

Islamophobia, explained Sayyid, is “a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness and perceived Muslimness” while offering a definition that tried to capture current manifestations of hostility towards Muslims. He said that it is important to focus on “Muslimness” and not Muslims per se, pointing out that that non-Muslims are often attacked because they look like Muslims. One of the first people killed following the 11 September 2001 terror attack in New York was a Sikh person who was mistaken for a Muslim.

Acknowledging that Islamophobia as a term to describe racism towards Muslims is contested, Sayyid pointed out that every social category used to define racism, including anti-Semitism, has faced resistance from people insisting on their right to peddle racism by calling it free speech. He noted that there are clear markers of Muslim identity; the “Muslim body” has become “racialised”. Dismissing the common refrain that you can’t be racist for criticising Islam because it is a religion and Muslims are not a single race, Sayyid insisted that, “Islamophobia is a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness and perceived Muslimness.”

“Turning to the broader question as to whether Islamophobia has gone global, Sayyid observed that there is a “family resemblance” in the way that states deploy language to suppress Muslims. “They are connected not in any conspiratorial way but simply in that they are using similar techniques.” He reflected on how, once perfected, techniques — whether social, political or scientific — are transported across the globe. For Sayyid races are constructed by racism.  They are socially constructed rather than simply biologically determined, and what we are seeing in Islamophobia is the racialisation of Muslims.”

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Governments around the world, not least those in Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, use Islamophobic discourse to explain their suppression of “Muslimness,” Sayyid argued. With Muslims beginning to articulate themselves politically, governments have problematised their own citizens in an effort to contain them within the nation state. “Islamophobia is a response to Muslim public identity.”

Tracing the early manifestations of Islamophobia, Sayyid maintained that modern political projects have been about isolating Muslims and containing them within the nation state. He pointed out that some of the most Islamophobic governments have been in Muslim majority countries. Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Iran under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Baathists in Iraq, Arab nationalists and the current regimes in the Gulf and the wider Middle East are amongst the long list of governments that have sought to position themselves around a very narrow definition of what constitutes a nation.

Focusing on the Gulf monarchies and the current Arab regimes, Sayyid observed that the clash being played out is a “contest between forces of absolutism against forces of accountability”. Middle East governments fear “Muslimness because it undermines and delegitimises them,” he suggested. “They wish to create these neo-nationalist projects which would have Muslims reproduced in their own images.” The questions that remain unanswered in these countries are the role of “Muslimness” in the construction of the states and whether “Muslimness” can ever be something that can and should be tamed.

Islamophobia is a response to the modern figure of Muslims and their effort to give primacy to their religious identity. Islamophobes are trying to “discipline and regulate how Muslimness can be expressed publicly,” argued Sayyid, listing the many ways that governments have sought to “domesticate and erase” Muslimness. “Getting rid of Islam was their way of becoming modern.”