Islam has become the bogeyman number one for many in the West. Justified fear of violence in the name of Islam intermingles in the minds with racial prejudices and Islamophobia where all Muslims are labelled as dangerous. Islamophobia feeds violence because it marginalises Muslims both within western societies and globally which, in turn, “radicalises” young Muslims. One may wonder whether this “radicalisation” contains a pirate effect. When pirates knew that the enemies would soil their pants for fright at their sight due to their wild reputation, pirates of old, like Blackbeard, consciously constructed a terrible public image. When a marginalised young man of today knows that growing a beard and shouting religious slogans in Arabic will turn him from the local petty gangster into a public enemy number one, the attraction is obvious.
But why has Islam become such a threat in the minds of the West? Below, I attempt to sketch one partial explanation.
Islam as the religious religion
According to Prof Zachary Calo (Hamad Bin Khalifa University college of law, Qatar) in the West, Islam is regarded today as a muscular faith. It is perceived as having strict rules and Muslims really believe in their religion, literally. In comparison, according to him, Christianity is generally regarded as an ethereal religion that provides loose guidelines for life and ethics.
The Islamic revolution in Iran was an early major event contributing to the change in the western perceptions from seeing Islam as relatively marginal and irrelevant to a real threat. This was the first time that the term “Fundamentalism” was used outside of its original Christian context. Ayatollah Khomeini, his supporters and other oppositional forces ousted the ruthless dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had amassed incredible amounts of riches for himself through oil trade with the West. The Shah was strongly supported by the USA. One dimension of the revolution was hatred against the USA as a neo-colonial power. This hatred was manifested especially in the hostage crisis where the US Teheran embassy personnel were kept as hostages for more than a year 1979-1981. In the West, this action was labelled as religious fanatism whereas from the Iranian perspective, they were trying to pressurise the USA to hand over the former Shah to be tried for his alleged crimes.
Since then, the public image of Islam in the West has increasingly turned more negative. Islam has become the paradigmatic bad religion. It is depicted as irrational, violent, misogynist etc. Information on forms of Islam that are rational, non-violent or affirm women does not change the image but are rather seen as interesting exceptions. The “real” Islam appears as the “extremist” – and representatives of groups labelled as such are all too happy to confirm to the outsiders that just their position is the normative one. In this manner, western prejudices against radical Islam make it the primary representative of that religion.
One may wonder whether the fear of Islam is, at least in part, basically fear of religion in general. Prof. Calo seems to point to that direction when suggesting that the relative acceptance of Christianity is due to its image as a kind of “religion light”.
Irrational religion vs. Enlightenment rationality
Perhaps one of the roots of Islamophobia can be found in the Enlightenment mentality. The Enlightenment, in line with its name, builds on the myth of medieval religiously oriented darkness followed by the rational scientific Enlightenment. In much of Enlightenment thinking, religion, or at least what is seen as irrational religion, functions as the other against which one can project the rational self.
In the Nordic region, the juxtaposition of Enlightenment and religion was not as sharp as e.g. in France but in many parishes, Enlightenment-minded Lutheran priests propagated for the new vision. Revival movements, often led or at least launched by lay persons, functioned as the opposite ideological pole in the Nordic countries but also elsewhere. For the Enlightenment rational priests and educated laypersons, revivalist emotional and mystical religion was backward.
In the 20th century, the newly introduced radically conservative forms of Protestantism, Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, partly inherited the role of the irrational other. Anthropologist Susan Harding has argued in her seminal essay “Representing Fundamentalism” that in the eyes of the outsiders, the Fundamentalists appear as a “repugnant cultural other” – even for the anthropologists who were otherwise proud of being radically open towards all kinds of cultures.
These forms of Protestantism portray similar characteristics of muscular religion as Islam does. Religious texts are taken at face value, more or less literally. Religious regulation of life is superior to secular. All these forms of religion can also be seen as reactions against Enlightenment arid rationalism that reduces religion’s role and nature.
Also, no matter if Fundamentalists and Muslims do their best to argue rationally for their positions, these attempts are regarded as irrational because religious argumentation is irrational by default. The radical forms of Protestantism are depicted as radically other by the Enlightenment-minded public. This serves, to an extent, the radical Protestant agendas. Fundamentalist Christians see the secular societies as lost in direction, and themselves as the proper alternative. Pentecostals, in turn, with their emphasis on conversion, often maintain that in conversion, the whole life is completely changed. Thus, the outsiders’ exotic views on Pentecostalism are more in line with Pentecostal self-image than lived reality.
Domesticated religion as the ideal
These forms of Protestantism were portrayed as dangerous to the foundations of the free and civilised society. This danger was not seen in the alliance between conservative Christians and trigger-happy extreme rightists, to begin with, but rather in the sphere of values and competing truths. The danger was not in threat of violence but in the muscularity of religion. The US public has woken up to the dangers of radicalised Christianism – combination of violent political rightist activism and militant religiosity – only recently. Europe has been saved from that phenomenon, thus far.
Summing up, Enlightenment seems to need a religious other against which to define itself. This other needs to be such that it does not accept Enlightenment primacy in defining the truth and values. Today, primarily Islam plays the role of the big bad religion. For Enlightenment mentality, domesticated religion is good religion. It is entirely a different topic whether this domestication of religion is good or bad.