How did Muslims become objects of fear and dread? And, how are we all harmed by it? Anne Norton considers these issues in her excellent new book, On the Muslim Question (Princeton University Press, The Public Square Book Series, 2013).
Anne Norton is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She was educated at the University of Chicago, where she earned her doctorate in political science. She is the author of Republic of Signs: Liberal Theory and American Popular Culture (1993); Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (2004), and 95 Theses on Politics, Culture, and Method (2004).
In On the Muslim Question , Norton challenges the irrational fear of Muslims in all its ugly forms, especially in Europe and America. But, ultimately Islamophobia will be defeated by the communal way we live together. ‘The Muslim question’, she writes, ‘spans continents. It unites politicians, philosophers, the press, pundits, and talk-radio ranters in a common anxiety over the clash of civilisations. Yet there is, in these democracies, a popular response that speaks against this. On the streets of the West, ordinary people - Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, and the rest – are crafting a common life together’.
Anne Norton discusses her new book in this exclusive interview:
What was the inspiration for your new book?
Anger at injustice. My country was engaged in wars I – and many others - condemned. I saw bigotry against Muslims on the web and heard it on the radio. I heard more and more about the ‘clash of civilisations’ but as I looked around me I began to see that it was really a clash in civilisations. I speak for the side that wants equality and a West that is not merely Western.
Why do you see ‘the Muslim question as the Jewish question of our time’?
In the simplest [and most important] sense, Jews once marked the line where the West’s
commitment to ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ was tested and failed. Now that line is marked by Muslims.
The debate over Jewish emancipation in 19th century Europe involved more than the status of the Jews. It involved fundamental questions about the place of religion in politics, and the relation of economic to political equality. When Westerners talk about Muslims and freedom of speech or Muslims and discrimination against women, I find that they are often talking about the problems, anxieties and injustices of our own Western societies.
Why are Western societies so wary of Muslims?
They aren’t. Western politicians, philosophers, politicians and journalists are often wary of Muslims and critical of Islam. Yet when you look out of the window – in big city or a small town - you don’t see the ‘clash of civilisations’ you see people making their lives together.
I see women in the hijab everyday – in my classes, writing parking tickets, working in the grocery, or pushing strollers on the street. There is a mosque a few blocks away from my university. Many of the lunch trucks sell halal food. My father’s doctor is Muslim. We take this for granted: It is the normal fabric of our lives.
Does the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory carry any weight today?
Of course, but it shouldn’t. Samuel Huntington’s theory has inspired speeches by British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as Benedict XVI and Derrida. People have built careers on that theory. But it is based on a profound misunderstanding. We do not have a civilisation, we have civilisations. In America, our universities teach texts from every civilisation we know. Learning that began in some other place - in Turkestan with Al Farabi or in Tunis with Ibn Khaldun - flourishes here. Faiths that were once foreign flourish here as well. We nourish ourselves, body and soul, on newly transplanted things: Hummus and tabbouleh, Sufism and Edward Said, the tulip and the rose. Isn’t it that way in Muscat as well? My Palestinian students read Kant, my Saudi students read Hilary Mantel. We no longer craft our lives from the materials of one civilisation alone. We are more civilised than that.
Do you agree with Paul Krugman that ‘Islamofascism is nothing but an empty propaganda term’?
I’d put it more strongly: The term is a lie. Krugman is right that the term is propaganda, but there is nothing empty about it. It is filled with guilt and history. Fascism is Europe’s shame, and Europe should take responsibility for it. In my new book, I take Paul Berman to task for propagating that word and for using it to stir up hatred and encourage unjust wars, policies and alliances.
Why do you think Islamophobia is a growing global phenomenon?
I hope it isn’t. It’s grown too large already. Unfortunately, the media has been very indulgent of people who try to profit from civilisational theatrics. People who could not get a minute on the news, who are rightly ignored even by their neighbours can command days or even months of global news coverage when they perform some offensive act. I favour a free press, and free speech, but that does not excuse such lapses of judgment in determining what is newsworthy. Political parties bear responsibility as well, for seeking to advance themselves by inflaming public sentiment.
Are there hopeful signs that Muslims are creating a space for themselves in the American public square?
There aren’t just hopeful signs; there are hopeful streets, towns, and cities. Much of my book is harsh. In showing how Americans and Europeans use questions about Muslims to talk about defects of our own we cannot confront directly. I look at prisons and Abu Ghraib, at radical economic inequality and threats to freedom of speech and human dignity in the West. I look at the bigotry directed at Muslims. There is, however, a happy ending. Though I saw much to regret in the news, when I look out of the window I see people welcoming what Muslims and Islam bring to America.
In America’s past, Catholic Christians, African slaves, Irish immigrants, Chinese labourers, Mexican migrants, Jews, immigrants from southern Europe, Italy and Greece – all suffered discrimination. Some considered these people unworthy citizens because of their race, their culture, or their religious beliefs. Yet there were always people who argued for them, sided with them, saw in them the future we were building together.
[Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at University of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia]