Vast inequalities prompted by white privilege have allowed entire groups, such as Muslims, to be dehumanised on a global scale. Not until proponents of Islamophobia are confronted, will this change.
It is difficult to know how to respond to the Christchurch shooting as a Muslim. The immense pain that one feels is salved only by the conviction that God will accept these people as martyrs whose lives were taken simply because of their faith.
The innumerable personal tragedies experienced by the victims’ families and loved ones have been amplified on a global scale by the news cycle and social media. While there is global revulsion at the massacre, Muslims are especially traumatised by the recognition that they were specifically targeted.
Muslims in the West carry multiple burdens in the so-called War on Terror. They are just as likely to be victims of an indiscriminate terrorist act perpetrated by a Muslim. The Western Muslim’s potential or actual victimhood is coupled with the frequent Islamophobic insinuation that they are also somehow to blame for terrorism that is, in most cases, a consequence of the Western occupation of Muslim-majority countries.
Alongside this unconscionable state of affairs, Western Muslims are also especially at risk of being targeted by white supremacist terrorist acts.
The violence of white privilege
Friday’s attack is only one of the latest instances of many decades of anti-Muslim violence on the part of the global structures of white privilege. White supremacists are the blunt edge of the structural inequality that is represented by white privilege, which allows for normalised violence against people of colour globally.
Whether it’s the vicious policing of ghettoised neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, to the bombing into oblivion of civilians in the Middle East for decades, the structures of racial inequality that normalise violence against non-white bodies are far more pervasive than most mainstream (and white) commentators are able to recognise.
Whiteness is a complex social construct that denotes more than skin colour. The Irish were not considered white in North America until relatively recently. In recent centuries, Ashkenazi Jews faced aggressive mainstream anti-Semitism in Western nations despite looking like the rest of their fellow Westerners. And in recent years, a black president was able to oversee the USA’s vast structures of global violence against non-white peoples as its Commander in Chief.
Whiteness, as scholars have elaborated extensively, denotes something of an ideology or a worldview that privileges some humans over others.
White privilege and the ‘War on Terror’
This is something that we would all do well to better understand. For underprivileged groups, such as Muslims who have been dehumanised on a global scale by the discourse of the War on Terror, developing our understanding of how such systems of prejudice work has an obvious urgency. But even those who benefit from the structures of white privilege can recognise how such systems cause one to lose part of one’s humanity.
In this context, it is worth acknowledging Islamophobia as a consequence of the globalised structures of white privilege. The forever war that is the War on Terror is part of a structure that allows for the use of one tragedy—the attacks of 9/11 which killed more than 3,000 people—to be used to justify visiting death and destruction upon non-white bodies on an epic scale.
By 2015, a US-based NGO, Physicians for Social Responsibility, estimated that the death toll of the War on Terror had reached “at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million”.
Four years later in 2019, with ongoing chaos in the Middle East that finds its origins in the Iraq War, one can only imagine how much the death toll might have risen. White privilege allows for such glaringly disproportionate responses to simply be ignored. There is nothing noteworthy about the disparity. It doesn’t even merit comment. This is not even considering the fact that the vast majority of these deaths are innocent civilians.
The Islamophobic Trope
In the outpouring of grief that has manifested among Muslims since Friday and from exemplary leaders such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, some of the most disturbing responses to the tragedy have come from Muslim public figures. That commentators like the Islamophobia enabler extraordinaire, Maajid Nawaz, would be among them is little surprise.
His Facebook post after the attacks urged Muslims to avoid blaming the “critics of immigration or Islam” and “the political right”, whom he has partnered with for years, in fanning the flames of Islamophobia and reinforcing white privilege.
Another example comes from the Muslim scholar, Abdullah bin Bayyah, who heads up the so-called Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS). Bin Bayyah issued a statement on his website and social media advising Muslims to be “patient and tolerant” in response to the atrocity.
The Islamophobic trope that runs through such a pronouncement is the suggestion that Muslims are a powder keg of violence simply waiting to explode. Rather than provide comfort to Muslims who are under attack from white supremacists, Bin Bayyah’s concern which takes up half of his statement is that “Muslim rage” is constantly liable of boiling over and thus calls for preemptive restraint.
In fact, Bin Bayyah is complicit in the culture of Islamophobia as the President of the FPPMS in line with the policies of its funder, the UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed (AbZ). In 2017, the same foreign minister warned Western governments that their Muslim populations were an “ulcer” in their midst, and that these governments would need to aggressively police them to ensure that the dangerous threat of terrorism posed by these immigrant communities would be kept at bay.
Using a familiar white supremacist shibboleth, AbZ argued that European countries were sleepwalking into more terrorist attacks because they were “trying to be politically correct” and failing to recognise that they were “harbouring terrorists and extremists” in their midst.
Getting real about structural Islamophobia
In the nearly two decades since 2001, Muslims have been targeted for vilification on the basis of a series of Islamophobic tropes in a global public sphere that is dominated by the paradigms of white privilege.
These have included the tropes of violence, terrorism, irrationality, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and paedophilia among a host of others. Such vicious generalisations about any sizeable group are likely to be inaccurate, let alone one with a global population of nearly two billion.
Until those with the power to influence public opinion and policy are willing to recognise the structural inequalities that underlie Islamophobia as a global phenomenon, little is likely to change. And until respected mainstream proponents of Islamophobia are treated as pariahs, whose race-baiting has directly contributed to the evils of white supremacy, the horrors of Christchurch will continue to be visited on Muslim bodies over and over and over again.
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