Has anything changed for Muslims, since the latest in a long line of so-called jihadist terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 130 people on 13 November 2015? As in the aftermath of any terrorist act, there have been debates on Islam as a religion and on ″its″ role in the attacks. Europe has responded not only with tighter security measures, including calling a state of emergency in France, but also by declaring war.
The attack in Paris was probably not the last: European societies must now face the kind of day-to-day life that has long since become normal elsewhere, complete with attacks and dead civilians. In future, European societies in general and their Muslims in particular will have to deal with issues such as trade-offs between security and freedom. Muslims will continue to discuss what reaction is the most sensible and expedient. Distancing themselves from the attacks? Or condemning them? Do we need the umpteenth fatwa against terrorism in general and Daesh in particular? And if so, who actually needs it?
The European citizens who ascribe to Islam a fundamental affinity for violence? Or the young Muslims who are seeking religious orientation in the face of racial exclusion and the piecemeal return to their Islam? Presumably we will be revisiting these questions again and again in the near future.
What’s the impact on Muslims?
In this article, though, I would like to touch on something else that is in reality ubiquitous but scarcely ever addressed explicitly. Namely: what impact does such debate have on Muslims? What traces does it leave behind, what scars are inflicted on the Muslim self-image as a result of this discussion about Islam and terrorism? To illustrate, let′s start with a Facebook post. Recently, a well-educated, politically active adult Muslim woman posted on the occasion of the birth of her child:
“I gave birth to a boy in the Christian hospital XY, with nuns as nurses and a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf at the reception desk; I named him for the most beautiful person and prophet XY, with the most beautiful character and an exemplary life story. Above my bed hung a cross and a picture of the Virgin Mary and her son, the prophet Jesus. Religious symbols? For me, it was the perfect accompaniment for a wonderful new life!”
The post was probably prompted by the announcement by the editor-in-chief of an Austrian newspaper just a few days before that he was considering reviving the headscarf ban debate, at the suggestion of a representative of the Christian Democratic Party.
The post raises many questions: what causes a woman who is giving birth to new life for the first time and is likely to feel emotions of indescribable happiness to cast this unique experience in a political context? What is happening in the mind of this person? The answer to this question may lead us to one of the biggest challenges faced by Muslims today all over the world and especially in the West: Muslims are trapped in the discursive spider web of a pervasive discourse on Islam.
By this, I mean that it is no longer conceivable for Muslims today to think, or ultimately to exist, outside the widespread lore about Islam, which links them to discussions about terror, violence and the separation of religion and society. Simply to exist. To be a human being. To experience a birth without having to interpret the cross, the nuns and Muslim nurses apart from their humanity. To experience and live through a birth. To be free of everything that is constantly projected onto them.
In ″The Souls of Black Folk″, the pre-eminent African-American thinker W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) describes a condition he dubs “double consciousness”, by which blacks are only able to see themselves through the eyes of others (whites). They can thus never regard themselves as fully fledged human beings because they are always caught up in a dichotomy, wanting to be human – i.e. normal – but being black – and thus outside the norm.
Many passed down this inferiority complex to their children, encouraging them to make life easier for themselves by becoming invisible, as Jean-Paul Sartre shows in his preface to Fanon’s ″The Wretched of the Earth″. Today there are many Muslims who try to make themselves invisible because they want to be humans, in other words, normal.
And then there are those who publicly avow Islam and thus take on all the challenges and discursive conflicts that this entails. In their effort to counter the hegemonic discourse, they overlook how trapped they are in exactly this discursive web. They have to take a stand. They cannot remain silent. Because silence could be taken as tacit consent to this or that terrorist attack.
Trend towards self-discipline
Recently, a former class representative wrote on the Facebook wall of a Muslim girl who used to be a pupil of his: “To remain silent on the terror in Paris (and elsewhere) means to accept or even to endorse it”. If Muslims avow their faith, they are then compelled to answer for it. If they make themselves invisible, they escape that pressure.
In a second stage, this discursive pressure leads to Muslims beginning to discipline themselves. Parents avoid giving their children toy guns in order not to be perceived as radical. Mothers and in particular fathers do not allow their young daughters to wear a headscarf on the way to the mosque, so as not to attract disparaging glances from those who regard this as a sign of subjugation.
Parents begin to bring up their children according to standards that attempt to counter the negative stereotypes, conspiracy theories and horrific imaginings that are part of the discourse.
Caught in the discursive web, it would seem difficult to breathe the air of freedom, to be human, to live a life apart from all the allegations, innuendo and suspicion. And yet it is this very freedom that is the first and most fundamental condition for thinking and living as a human being. In dignity.
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
The submissive subject tries to evade this discursive pressure by making himself invisible. Psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon spoke in relation to Algeria of the desire of the formerly colonised subjects to be white.