THE exaggerated image of Islam as “uncivilised” and “violent” in the Western media has been instrumental in stirring the wave of anti-Muslim racism linked to Islamophobic discourse.
The said discourse has manifested itself in the form of cultural racism before and after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.
Put in another way, anti-Muslim racism has been around for centuries and Muslims living in the West, especially in the US, are feeling the heat of Islamophobia.
It is worth noting that Islamophobia is multidimensional, and that the inferiorisation of Muslims had gone through many phases.
When, for example, the relations between the European empires with the Islamic empires turned from an imperial relation into a colonial relation, Muslims in the late 15th century Al-Andalus were seen as people with the wrong God.
This racist imaginary was then projected and transformed in the post-colonial and post-civil rights era in the form of cultural racist discourses against Muslims.
Today, one of the cultural racist arguments levelled against Muslims is their “patriarchal and sexist abuses of women”.
This is essentially a continuation of the manufactured image of Muslims as inferior human beings in relation to Western peoples.
On their part, Western patriarchs and conservatives have tried very hard to portray an image as the defenders of feminism.
Former US president George W. Bush’s main argument to invade Afghanistan, for instance, was the need to liberate brown women from the atrocities of brown men.
The hypocrisy of this argument is crystal clear for all to see when the Bush administration was actively defending Christian patriarchal fundamentalism, opposing abortion and women’s civil and social rights during the eight years of his administration, while using a women’s rights argument against the Taliban to invade Afghanistan.
The rhetoric of “white men as saviour of women of colour from coloured men’s patriarchal abuses” goes back to colonial times.
It has served historically to conceal the real reasons behind colonisation of the non-West.
We now know that the real reasons behind the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and president Barack Obama’s continuity are due to geopolitical strategic location and importance in terms of its closeness to oil and gas in South Asia.
Immediately after the invasion, occupied Afghanistan provided legal permission to transnational gas and oil corporations to build pipelines over its territory.
Islamophobic representations of Muslims as savages in need of Western civilising missions are the main argument used to cover up global, imperial, military and economic designs.
The colonisation of Islam by patriarchal tendencies is not unique. We can see the same abuses against women among Christian and Jewish men.
We can also find many patriarchal and sexist arguments in Christian, Jewish or Islamic texts.
What is presented in the Western media, however, is solely the image of Islam as sexist and patriarchal while there is a self-censorship on the patriarchal oppression of women as practised by Judaism and Christianity in the West.
It is worth highlighting that Islam is the first religion in the world to grant women the right to divorce. I am saying this not to justify patriarchal abuses of women done by some Muslim men but to question the stereotypical racial representation that highlights Muslim men as the source of abuses against women.
The stereotypical image of Muslim men is false and it only serves Western global and imperial designs.
What we have today is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of fundamentalism and a clash of patriarchies.
The Bush administration defended Christian fundamentalist arguments to characterise the Islamic enemy as part of the crusade wars, while Islamic fundamentalists used a similar language.
The former defend a Western form of patriarchy while the latter defends a non-Western form of patriarchy.
Islamic feminists, however, have argued that patriarchal versions of Islam are inherently un-Islamic and this is primarily due to the fact that the interpretation of the Quran and Hadith were monopolised by men throughout the history of Islam.
The same thing could also be said of the Jewish and Christian sacred texts whereby interpretations that were controlled by the patriarchs became the dominant perspective in these religions.
It is therefore misleading to talk about a single patriarchal system in the world when there are multiples patriarchies in the sense of several systems of gender domination of males over females.
It is therefore important to keep in mind that Western views of Islam are informed by racist exotic and inferior representations.
These orientalist representations of Islam after the 18th century were preceded by 300 years of occidentalism (the superiority of the West over the rest).
Orientalism has enabled the West to construct with authority the Islamic “other” as inferior.
This is crucial because Islamophobia is not exclusively a social phenomenon but it is also an epistemic question.
Unless and until epistemic racism is challenged, Islamophobia will continue to dominate the imaginary of the West.
The writer is director of Center for Policy Research and International Studies in Universiti Sains Malaysia