In 2007, six years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I was traveling through Europe and North America. I had just published a novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and as I traveled I was struck by the large number of interviewers and audience members at question-and-answer sessions who spoke of Islam as a monolithic thing, as if Islam referred to a self-contained and clearly defined world, a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of “the West.”
I recall one reading in Germany in particular. Again and again, people posed queries relating to how “we Europeans” see things, in contrast to how “you Muslims” do. Eventually I was so exasperated that I pulled my British passport out of my jacket and started waving it around my head.
“While it’s true the UK hasn’t yet joined the eurozone,” I said, “I hope we can all agree the country is in fact in Europe.”
Six years on, a film inspired by the novel is in the process of appearing on screens around the world, and I am pleased to report that those sorts of questions are a little rarer now than they were in 2007. This represents progress. However, it is modest progress, for the sense of Islam as a monolith lingers, in places both expected and unexpected.
Recently I was told by a well-traveled acquaintance in London that while Muslims can be aggressive, they are united by a sense of deep hospitality. I replied that I remembered being in Riyadh Airport, standing in line, when a Saudi immigration officer threw the passport of a Pakistani laborer right into his face. If that was hospitality, I was not sure we had the same definition.
Islam is not a race, yet Islamophobia partakes of racist characteristics. Most Muslims do not “choose” Islam in the way that they choose to become doctors or lawyers, nor even in the way that they choose to become fans of Coldplay or Radiohead. Most Muslims, like people of any faith, are born into their religion. They then evolve their own relationship with it, their own, individual, view of life, their own micro-religion, so to speak.
There are more than a billion variations of lived belief among people who define themselves as Muslim — one for each human being, just as there are among those who describe themselves as Christian or Buddhist or Hindu. Islamophobia represents a refusal to acknowledge these variations, to acknowledge individual humanities, a desire to paint members of a perceived group with the same brush. In that sense, it is indeed like racism. It simultaneously credits Muslims with too much and too little agency: too much agency in choosing their religion, and too little in choosing what to make of it.
Islamophobia can be found proudly raising its head in militaristic US think tanks, xenophobic European political parties, and even in atheistic discourse, where somehow “Islam” can be characterized as “more bad” than religion generally, in the way one might say that a mugger is bad, but a black mugger is worse, because black people are held to be more innately violent.
Islamophobia crops up repeatedly in public debate, such as over the proposed Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan (the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”) or the ban on minarets in Switzerland. And it crops up in private interactions as well.