These are a layman’s thoughts on Human divisions. The innumerable slits, cuts and boxes that divide people, century after century, are of our own devise. Given the wars, skirmishes, riots, discrimination, apartheid, systemic-racism and sexism thriving in our post-modern societies, the jubilant theme of ‘celebrating diversity’ seems more like wishful, sentimental rhetoric, witnessed only in artificially conjured greenhouses; it feels like talk not walked. To foster Tolerance, if not true Diversity, the roots of division need to be examined and understood again and again.
1. Xenophobia: A Sort of ‘They’
“All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!”
― Rudyard Kipling
Mutual mistrust between people of different races, ethnicities, communities or tribes – I will argue – is only human. It would have sent shudders through upright spines when Neanderthals first laid eyes on a band of modern humans. Even had they known it, they would not have been comforted by the fact that the difference in their DNA was a mere 0.12 percent. Sure, in time, they would even interbreed. But one may speculate that a tribalist instinct would have remained in both camps. That is human nature for you: we fear the Unknown. We compare, we distinguish, we discriminate. Even in the post-Enlightenment world, this phenomenon manifests itself in the form of irrational fear, hatred, and suspicion of Others: aliens, foreigners, infidels, atheists, homosexuals, Aboriginals, immigrants, midgets, hermaphrodites and so on. This fear has a name.
The Primitive Roots of Xenophobia: Clearly, Xenophobia is culturally-inculcated and socially-transmitted but it also has historical roots. During primitive times, humans noted the benefit of intra-group cooperation that went beyond selfish motivations or wanting to help close kin. Pooling energy, efforts and resources – even among strangers – achieved better survival or economic results for a group. Thus cooperating with strangers set humankind apart from animals. It also led to the development of social institutions based on common goals and ambitions.
But this cooperation often stopped short of an ‘outsider’ i.e. a non-member of a defined group. Such interaction was more likely to bring harm (or loss of profitable exchanges), rather than benefit. It is also possible that outsiders were viewed as ‘free-riders’ (an Other), not party to the group’s cooperation norms, yet intent upon getting a share of the group’s public goods. It was in the group’s and the individuals’ interests to thwart this attempt. This exclusionary behavior also strengthened the coherence of groups.
It’s easy to assume xenophobia to be a fancy term for racism but that would be confusing. Firstly, racist mentalities are a type of xenophobia. And secondly, despite its dictionary meaning, in common parlance the word ‘racism’ has become inextricably intertwined with the American experience of the white oppression of black peoples, thus altering its political implications. This is partly why terms like ‘reverse racism’ and ‘white guilt’ emerged in Western discourse on Racism.
While ‘racism’ has been used to describe many other instances of discrimination, the sheer volume of discourse, cultural depictions and artifacts produced about American racism often skews its meaning. Thus the economic exigency of 17th century America is brought to overshadow the xenophobia that was systematically cultivated to rationalize slavery (e.g. Negroes have no souls). Xenophobia, on the other hand, is a larger, wider and more common phenomenon, so common that we often do not recognize it in ourselves. Ironically, the reason why we don’t find the word ‘xenophobia’ in books quite as frequently as we do ‘homophobia’, ‘racism’ or ‘Islamophobia’, may just be that xenophobia is so universal a syndrome.
I will also contend that generally, such fear or hatred is not very intense, unless triggered, shaped, nurtured by confirmatory opinions or experiences. Learning, dialog, interaction, art and travel may largely allay it, as evidenced in highly cosmopolitan cities like New York or London.
So it can be said that people tend to have a categorical awareness of other races, genders, ethnicities, religion and/or tongues (variations in lesser discriminators – castes, professions, hair colors, addresses, church affiliations – hypothetically, will create weaker impressions). And that leads to a comparison with only other dataset available: people’s own. Are they shorter? Are they louder? Do they sleep naked? Do they think and dream like us? Are they as principled? Do they have the same goals? Do they worship our God? Do they like Robin Thicke? Do they subscribe to my notion of propriety and tradition? Do they hate me too?
Naturally, this cannot be an active cognitive process. Or else most people would just stand around processing new data as they encountered new individuals. It is more like PRISM, running in the background lapping up conversations and ‘intel’ to be stored under particular categories. The level of activity varies with – among other things – the intensity of the interaction and the perceived, inherent appeal or significance of the observed specimen. Some psychologists argue that distinguishing between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ is a neuro-psychological capacity.
It has been demonstrated that even grouping based on trivial distinctions like ‘the color of shirts’ create strong in-group favoritism (Tajfel, 1970) People choose to associate with others who are similar to themselves in some salient respect. Among the salient characteristics on which this choice operates are racial and ethnic identification, and religion.
In another study, exposure to (unfamiliar) faces of African American males (by comparison to the faces of European Americans), European American subjects exhibited heightened activation of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear processing (Phelps 2000).
Either way, in the long term, this leads to the formation of stereotypes, which are meant to act as a template for understanding Others, but are often ethnocentric, misinformed, prejudiced and injudicious in general. Common examples stretch from drawing inferences based on hair color (blondes are dumb) to professions (lawyers are crooks), from economic status (the poor are lazy) to nationalities (Canadians are boring). Herein lies the beginnings of ethnocentrism: the attitude that one’s own group or culture is superior to that of others’.
2. Othering: Leaders As Stepmothers
Human collectives have long relied on ‘Others’ to give meaning to their own existence, preferences, traditions, practices, beliefs and behaviors. How they view a particular Other is naturally tinged by Xenophobia, Ethnocentrism (superiority complex), racial bias, prejudice etc. As groups evolve into tribes, empires and nations – leaders must organize and consolidate their identity, mythologies and heritage; simultaneously, the need to better define corresponding Other(s) also becomes more urgent.
Leaders of tribes, empires and nations have long been proffering such distinctions. In fact, leaders have indeed been cultivating it to Otherize (i.e. make distinct as aliens) inconvenient, intractable or threatening minorities. Othering (orOtherizing) is useful: not only can it provide a canvass to contextualize the dominant identity and thus improve social-coherence, it can also deepen divisions, fuel sectarian violence and unify an apathetic collective. Fanning a hatred of or distaste for Others has also proven to be an extremely effective electioneering strategy (e.g. pandering to anti-immigrant sentiments). Thus, through leaders’ actions, a society’s superiority, in relation to an Other’s inferiority, becomes ingrained in legislature, history, governance and foreign policy.
With systematic Othering, it is the difference between groups that becomes prominent, and not what binds them together. The result is an overly-competitive environment, reduced inter-group collaboration and group members who prefer group gains to his/her own benefit or to that of the Others.
All nations that came to believe that they possessed the one, absolute Truth, have used that belief to elevate themselves above neighboring tribes and nations. The Jewish ascribe(d) to the notion of the ‘Chosen People’. By definition that meant that the rest had not been chosen and were, therefore, unworthy. Hindus subscribed to systems of caste that helped divide and distinguish its believers. In 6th century Arabia, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah – by defining specific faith parameters to be considered a ‘Muslim’ and thus separating true believers from non-believers and traitors – started a tradition that Otherized all other faiths. Combined with subsequent East-West conflicts and conquests, Islam’s exclusivist nature may have laid the foundations for a massive counter-Othering project to take place in the 21st century. In this century of nation-states, Othering reduces a target community (or a group of Others) to the point where action against it can be justified, even celebrated as national achievement.
Laws are only one of the ways Othering is implemented. Black Codes (1865, USA), Chinese Exclusion Act (1923, Canada) Nuremberg Laws (1935, Germany), Apartheid Laws (1948, South Africa), Absentee Landlord Laws (1950, Israel) and Anti-LGBT Laws (2013, Russia) are visible symptoms of a course of Othering adopted against each relevant group. At the time, each of these provisions were used to glorify and protect a group, by demeaning and attacking another. That is the essence of Othering.
Naturally, Othering is more often used against weaker races, nations, tribes or communities. This is the privilege, the prerogative, the fetish and the destiny of majority rule. Othering is achieved through various means: portraying Others negatively in national myths, commissioning and producing ‘knowledge’ of Others, indoctrination of fear through education, consistent & selective demonization of Others, portraying rivalries with (and treachery of) Others, holding Others responsible for collective misery, surveillance & policing of Others, shaping of media narratives, influencing of art, literature & cinema and sustenance of a general environment of fear.
The Hutu used ‘Human Virtues‘ to slander the Tutsi in Rwanda. Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich chose ‘Purity of Blood‘ as a discriminator to Otherize the Jewish community. Before that, ancient Romans considered the ‘degree of civilization’ – as illustrated by the term ‘Barbarians’, used to contrast Roman citizens – to Otherize the Turkish, Persian or Germanic peoples.
Hutu extremists used a foul-mouthed ‘Hate Radio‘ that directly issued kill orders. Nazi Germany unleashed a hate campaign that has virtually become a model for dehumanization. “Today,” Hitler proclaimed in 1943, “international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus.”
Having a distinct fear of Others may not be harmful per se. But an inevitable outcome of systematic Othering is that it reduces people: it essentializes them down to a race, gender, ethnicity or caste. This, in turn, opens up avenues that lead to what I will call the “4Ds ofOthering”: discrimination, demonization, dehumanization and domination.
Discrimination may be thought of a preliminary phase where an Other is clearly separated from a (usually superior) group. Consider how White people working abroad are dubbed ‘expats’, while all others are ‘immigrants’. Note howmore stringent visa requirements apply for citizens of developing countries. Dehumanization examples abound in recent history. Some are explicit and oozing with hate. In the instances cited earlier, there was systematic Othering of the Tutsi, Jewish and Oriental peoples. The Jewish people were dubbed ‘rats’ and the Tutsis, ‘cockroaches’.  The self-proclaimed Herrenvolk (Master Race), in describing the Polish, called them “an East European species of cockroach.”
Other dehumanization attempts are more sophisticated in nature and operate under the guise of civility. Until the 1920s and 1960s respectively, women and Black people were not allowed to vote in the USA. In 1947, the French instituted a two-tier parliament as an attempt to include Algerian Muslims in decision-making. But they made one European’s vote equal to seven Muslim votes. Until this day, the Saudi government bans women from driving. Such legislation only reinforced the prevailing notion that women / Blacks / Muslims were a subhuman species.
Whatever the manner, the end result of dehumanization is that it makes cruelty against the target population permissible. In case of the Jewish people in Germany or Tutsi in Rwanda, Othering escalated to virulent hate-campaigns, ghettoization, oppression and bloodshed against the victims, without decisive soul-searching, opposition or rebellion on the part of the aggressors. It may be said that dehumanization of the Other had been completed in these societies, allowing citizens to condone, or at least tolerate, actions against a dehumanized minority. This is what Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame) calls the ‘Lucifer Effect‘.
What must be noted is that periods of motivated, systematic and institutional discrimination, slander and dehumanization preceded violence and bloodshed in each case. It was not generic xenophobic reactions, but organized campaigns of hate with political motives that enabled the violence to take place. Othering is, therefore, a deliberate exercise of political power.
3. The Others: Browns Are the New Blacks
In 1967, while China was busy detonating its first Hydrogen Bomb, British psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd released their album Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. During the same time, in the United States, mobs of white parents were trying to turn away black children from newly-desegregated schools. Today, such outright, naked racism is quite unthinkable but this indignation is a 1970’s trend. We need to recognize that a powerful idea, leadership, legislation, bloodshed, civil disobedience and endless dialog had to come together to root it out of a modern, 21st century, democratic society. There may be two lessons here. Firstly, to even modern societies that Otherize, it may seem like the perfectly normal and ethical thing to do at a given time. And secondly, the primitive and spontaneous nature of Xenophobia (first component of the Othering funnel) means that it is routinely overlooked in evaluating how progressive a society is.
While, in the West, systemic racism against blacks has been largely reduced, new ‘blacks’ have sprung up in every direction. With rising immigration, mixed marriages, human trafficking and study abroad programs, largely white nations have been flooded by Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, Africans and Indians. Note that I use the social, non-scientific, construct of ‘race’ to describe these new Others. This is merely to convey the idea that the racism may appear diminished because its targets are more diffused, underlying reasons more varied, and forms of oppression more sophisticated.
In the 21st century, every nation has a hierarchy of Others: a ranking of the reviled/resented to the highly preferred collectives. This is a fundamental identity component of the nation state. In addition, there is a consensus – enforced by superpowers, economic blocs, supranational organizations, organized conflicts and corporate media – identifying a global hierarchy of Others. As it was with Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, declared rivals consolidate the identity of a society (what do we stand against?) and thereby improve goal-coherence. Manipulation of information allows consistently blaming an Other for society’s miseries (e.g. immigrants stealing jobs, bankers siphoning off savings etc). Thus the Other is the constant, governmental scapegoat.
Because Othering is a deliberate exercise of political power, the responsibility to pinpoint the Other and highlight the factors that set them apart invariably falls on the powerful. Because wealthier nations can invest more in Othering, their narratives are more likely to make it to the mainstream. Thus, in the post-Soviet, unipolar world, the United States and its closest allies have emerged as the final arbiters of who is an ally and who, an Other.
Lost for Words: Appropriation of Descriptive Terms
A key problem in the global narrative on discrimination is that current patterns do not fit the template of (anti-African) racism, which is irredeemably imbued with historic meaning and significance and, as such, does not lend itself to current forms of discrimination. The tragic saga of slavery, overt discrimination and oppression of the progeny of African slaves in the USA has virtually appropriated the term ‘racism’ in Western narratives. Perhaps, it is deemed too deep a historical wound to have to share nomenclature with other, regular tragedies. However, in doing so, ‘racism’ has been stowed away on a pedestal as a historic phenomenon, to be studied, researched, featured in blues songs and recreated in Hollywood.
Secondly, racism has become politically appropriated to describe the white experience with transplanted, black populations. In some view, slavery is a sacrifice made at the altar of economic progress, necessary birth-pangs for the US emergence on the world stage. That is precisely why so many (mostly white) commentators asserted that “racism is over” after Barack Obama was elected to the Oval Office. For those not on the receiving end, it is easy to think that a black president cancels out centuries of crimes against humanity with its deadly historical, legislative, social, attitudinal and educational legacy. The modern racism narrative is not as much an upheaval against discrimination, as it is an apology for such events of the distant past.
There have been attempts to conceptualize modern divisions. For instance, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia may be treated as more specific or semantic attempts at overcoming the severe limitations on language. But unlike ‘racism’, where the reason for discrimination is built into the term, Islamophobia only describes symptoms, not root causes. Unlike racism, which could be retroactively understood to mean a quasi-unified set of policies, practices & attitudes, these terms are immediately applied to events on a case-by-case basis, causing boundaries (of meaning) to remain in a state of flux. This renders them weak and unstable as a framework for analyzing modern patterns of discrimination.
Currently, if you do an online search for xenophobia you will see that it relates almost exclusively to recent stories from South Africa, where (black) South Africans are attacking and killing Somali, Ethiopian and other migrants. While this is indeed a spurred on by xenophobia, a world that understands discrimination based only on ‘race’ runs the risk of coming to understand xenophobia as being intra-racial. Like with ‘racism’, this term too is being appropriated to apply to a particular time and space. What this all means is that the language to describe and analyze other varieties of discrimination is being drastically constricted.
To recap, a chain-reaction of Othering (discrimination, demonization and dehumanization) and subsequent oppression has repeated itself over and over again in world history. Building on xenophobia, Othering is a deliberate process used to political ends. As Othering intensifies, it spills from political rhetoric onto legislation, media, education, commerce, literature and art, which come together to form a system that decisively, irrevocably disenfranchises a (weaker) group. In an increasingly polarized post-WWII world, the USA and its closest allies have the power to dictate which group/nation is an Other.
Muslims – having inherited the curse from the Soviets – have been the target of a strong wave of discrimination over the last three decades or so and especially after the nearly-mythological 9/11 attacks. The ‘Muslim World’ (not a geographic entity but an approximation of a spiritual unity) has been singled out by the War on Terror, causing anti-Muslim sentiments to percolate into various spheres of public life. These symptoms have been given the label of ‘Islamophobia’ – a catch-all term to embody and explain away every anti-Muslim sentiment, content or act. But by applying the Othering framework, I will argue that ‘Islam’ is not the root-cause for Islamophobia; rather it has more to do how Muslim immigrants are systematically Otherized and how they are viewed as a result of such a process.
The Problem With ‘Islamophobia’
Islamophobia is an inadequate concept. Consider that 100% of Islamophobic sentiments, speeches, incidents et cetera – almost by definition – take place in Western, non-Muslim majority countries. Islamophobia is a notion that has its roots in the West, presumably because it was necessitated by events that transpired in the West. In the UK, Islamophobic attackers were found to be predominantly (75%) white males (Hopkins, Peter 2014). But let us note that roughly 1400 years of Islam in the so-called Orient did not give rise to it; virtually no Muslim was ever accused of being Islamophobic. It manifests itself as domestic, garden-variety backlash against Muslim immigrants (Others), for perceived large-scale or international aggressions by their coreligionists. Almost invariably, it takes place in a non Muslim-majority, white land. Islamophobia, then, is a construct wherein native Westerners come to terms with their attitudes and behavior towards Muslim immigrants. To apply the same framework to incidents in Muslims countries is to ignore the age-old domestic, political conflicts.
Secondly, all of the Islamophobic attacks – operating under the assumption that the ‘Muslim Ummah’ connects all races, sects and colors of Muslim – are retaliatory and symbolic. They are carried out in non-Muslim countries, against Muslim immigrants. It is noteworthy that in popular perception, a Muslim is of a non-White ethnicity and an outsider regardless of his/her citizenship status. Thus Islamophobia, residing in non-Muslim minds, is a system of reconciliation of fear and hatred towards Muslim immigrants.
In Islamophobic acts, Muslims are mere subjects to whom horrible things are done. It is also a construct widely accepted by the same immigrant community to showcase their victimhood and thereby obtain concessions or be viewed with empathy in foreign lands where they seek to settle down. Had these attacks been carried out against blacks, they would be called racist. Had Muslims carried out these attacks, they would be labeled terrorists. But white supremacist terrorists are kept away from these regular Othering narratives and dubbed Islamophobic. Perhaps the phrasing succeeds in apportioning part of the blame to Islam.
Thirdly and most crucially, Islamophobia only has meaning when studied as a response to global terrorism. Terrorism provides a sort of preemptive, sociological rationalization for Islamophobic attacks. For example, anti-Muslim attacks increased 500% following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Similar spikes were recorded in the aftermath of 9/11. But as it stands, ‘Islamophobia’ is an inadequate term for analyzing scenarios where Othering or violence is used as a tool of aggression, and not only as retribution. It undermines Western excesses in Muslim lands. To understand how Muslims are being Otherized, situations must be extricable from the black-and-white narrative of ‘Islamic’ terrorism and the binary lens of good vs. evil that it hinges on.
Due to these limitations of the current understanding of Islamophobia, I shall continue with the framework of ‘Othering of Muslims’. While Western accounts from the early 1300s demonstrate a measure of respect for certain Middle Eastern peoples, this vanishes with the decline of the Islamic Golden Age and the rise of an industrialized Europe. Edward Said’s seminal work on ‘Orientalism’ argues that this culture of stereotyping Eastern peoples arose as a rationalization for Western colonialism and therefore provides a broad understanding of the Othering of Orientals. Said critically examined the binary relationships of subject and object, of the dominant Occident and the inferior Orient. He noted how laws, fact-finding missions, books and anecdotal accounts of the ‘Oriental man’ depicted him as a man with low morals, little courage and infinite greed. To understand the European view of Orientals, consider this statement about eighteenth century colonizers: “By the process of Othering, the colonizers treat the colonized as ‘not fully human’, and as a result, it dehumanizes natives. Othering codifies and fixes the self as the true human and the other as other than human. The Colonizers consider themselves as the embodiment of “proper self” while label the colonized as “savages”” (Moosavinia et al, 2011).
It is only in the past century, coinciding with waning European colonialism, that we see the USA involved directly in dealing with the Muslim World. The USA, unlike European countries, was a colony itself and that has had important ramifications for brand of Orientalism it has produced and engendered. Said argues that there never having been American colonies in the Muslim world or other avenues for direct contact with what is thought of as the Orient, American Orientalism is very indirect and made up of broad abstractions (as opposed to experiences). It is much more an intellectual exercise. It is no surprise then that the line of reasoning used to Otherize Muslims today, is of an intellectual nature. And we see evidence of such Othering in a variety of social expressions.
The first aspect to examine is that of the origin of national myths, dramatic anecdotes or narratives that serve as nations’ symbols. ‘Manifest Destiny’, ‘American Exceptionalism’, ‘Muslim Ummah’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’, ‘Mao’s New Democracy’ are some other examples of political myths. Until modernity, most of such myths were deeply infused in religious morality and/or royal imagery. In modern times, myths are more terrestrial and borne by memorialized heroes and eulogized martyrs. The Orientalist ‘white Savior’ myth, now frequently reviled and discredited, served to posit the greatness of Europe over other continents. A diverse range of characters and organizations have been used to further this notion, starting from the British East India Company to Lawrence of Arabia, from David Livingstone to Tarzan. The so-called ‘USA as the World Police’ or ‘Democratization mission for the Orient’ are newer derivations of this very view.
The latest, shared myth emblazoned on collective memory, began with the destruction of the Twin Towers in the terrorist attack of 11 September, 2001. The blatant attack ‘by Muslims’ was recorded, relayed, interpreted and forever embedded in the global psyche. The story that followed has defied detractors, swept aside scientific evidence and helped legitimize at least one illegal war, to become an enduring instance that epitomizes ‘Muslims vs. America’ sentiments. The post-9/11 political and media narratives clearly articulated that ‘Muslims have attacked America’ (hence, they are not one of us). A second theme that flitted across televisions screens was the notion that Muslims are inherently violent, and as such, may be considered guilty until proven innocent. In the decade that followed 9/11, this myth has dominated the conversation and served as an able wingman to the US national security hegemony.
The power of national myths lies in their extraordinary ability to interpret the past, generate consensus and guide policy. The 9/11 myth has made ‘terrorism’ the dominant framework for illegitimate, political violence. It has inextricably associated terrorism with Muslims. But its greatest achievement may be turning Othering of Muslims into a profitable industry, complete with its own thinkers, producers, advertisers and consumers.
It is in the shadow of the 9/11 myth that Islamist terrorism started gaining disproportionately high mentions and preventive funding. Until today, the FBI’s ongoing sting operations (targeting Muslim, would-be terrorists) consistently elude the label of ‘entrapment’; mosque trawling programs are authorized. Profiling of Muslim-looking persons is now a recorded practice. Notice how each example serves to overplay crimes committed by Muslims.
A second aspect involves knowledge production. A millennium of overt conflicts between what may be imagined as East and West, starting with the crusades, continuing through colonialism and culminating in WWI, has coincided with a massive imbalance in knowledge production. This was buoyed by Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press. As much as Muslim nations enjoy delving in their glorious past of empire, wealth, knowledge, scientific discovery, art, literature and technology, the plain truth is it is over. The current monopoly on knowledge production operates from the United States and Europe.
The market economy is rapidly privatizing knowledge. Copyrights, patents, closed communities of academics and price tags on journals – among other factors – have created a finite pool of acceptable knowledge that, instead of circulating in society, stands stagnant in echo chambers, offering itself to paying consumers. The price tag gives it legitimacy and the suppression of dissent is completed by labeling everything outside it as fringe or conspiracy theories. To seal the deal, any one not subscribing to this knowledge orthodoxy is not admitted into academia. Presently, this vulnerable body of knowledge is being distorted by corporate motives, leading top oil companies to fund environmental research and pharmaceutical companies to contribute to knowledge that favor their products. In 2005, more than half the scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.” This testifies to frequent political interference in academic work.
It is not difficult to imagine the outcome when strong-willed state agenda meets weakened standards of academic rigor. For example, despite a surge in terrorism research and literature that suggest the opposite, a majority of ‘experts’ and mainstream media continue to treat terrorists as purveyors of mindless violence and devoid of any rational thought (the academic consensus is the exact opposite). This omission of rational motives behind political attacks and insurgency – problematized as terrorism circa 1973 – only magnifies the appearance of irreconcilable ideologies. Today, Terrorism experts constitute an “industry,” funded and organized by the state and other elite interests (Chomsky 2001).
Terrorism is only one field where Western knowledge production is monopolizing meaning. The history, culture, beliefs, conflicts and wars of the Orient are sometimes described and interpreted by Western ‘experts’. When Western experts are called upon to explain everything from African poverty to the Arab Spring, from Indian gods to Iranian people, it reinforces the interpretive hegemony. ‘Native’ experts are almost always Western educated. The entire system has been made foolproof by the advent of Internet searches, which, theoretically, have the power to limit the spectrum of content accessed by a user.
Another major contributor to knowledge production has been mainstream media and entertainment. The “Top 12 Television Channels in the World” list does not contain a single Eastern name. Besides Al Jazeera, there are very few international news channels that are not based in the West. Media reports use leading questions as their premise, such as are Muslims to blame for terrorism?” or “is the Qur’an inherently violent?” As seen in media reporting of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, by essentializing Muslim perpetrators, their Muslimness is instantaneously held accountable.
It is here that we start to see the processes of demonization (reminder: demonization starts with the under-reporting of good deeds and over-reporting of crimes by a targeted community). According to Dixon and Williams (2014), past research has documented that news programs over-represent African Americans as criminals and over-represent whites as victims and officers (Dixon & Linz, 2000a, 2000b; Entman&Rojecki, 2000; Gilliam &Iyengar, 2000). A similar, contemporary study reveals that Muslim perpetrators were much more likely to be portrayed as terrorists (81%) than to actually be terrorists in U.S. society (6%). However, the finding that in the U.K., Muslims give most in charity, ahead of Jew and Christians, is largely ignored in programming.
Fictional content in the realms of art and literature also play their part in Othering. For long, Subcontinental peoples have been portrayed as servile, Africans as ignorant and Middle Easterners as violent. In movies, Muslims are portrayed as villains, traitors and people of low morals in general. The cartoon Aladdin originally featured a song that referred to a place where “they cut off your nose if they don’t like your face”. Shaheen (1997) notes that in contemporary Hollywood movies, Muslims (especially Arabs) were represented as entities trying to get hold of media conglomerates (Network, 1977), demolish the world’s economy (Rollover, 1981), kidnap Western women (Jewel of the Nile, 19850), direct nuclear weapons at Israel and the United States (Frantic, 1988) and influence foreign policies (American Ninja 4:The Annihilation, 1991).
Muslims thus become villains who die at the hands of white heroes. They become physically, militarily and intellectually inferior enemies, backward peoples hungering for the democracy and freedom of the white man, or petty, corrupt warlords and mercenaries without a just cause. They become minions stirred to action only by the likes of T. E. Lawrence.
The movie portrayal of Muslims becomes even more interesting when we consider that governments and intelligence apparatus often directly influence historical/political movies. The CIA regularly organizes tours, provides resources, obtains rewrites of scripts and places former agents as ‘advisors’ on movie-sets. A number of rewrites were requested and obtained by the agency for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, based on the hunt for and end of Osama Bin Laden. For another example:
“[Former CIA agent BiltBeardon took the advisory role on] Charlie Wilson’s War, the story of US covert efforts to supply the Afghan Mujahideen with weaponry during the Soviet occupation of the 80s. In reality, this was a story that ended badly, as the Afghan freedom fighters helped give birth to the terrorists of al-Qaida. In the movie, however, that was not the case. As Beardon – who had been the CIA man responsible for the weapons reaching the Afghans – observed shortly before the movie came out, the film would “put aside the notion that because we did that [supply arms], we had 9/11″.” (The Guardian, November 14, 2014).
A New Phase of Othering
There’s been a paradigm shift in the Othering campaign. Anti-Islamic content and acts are not only tacitly allowed, they now have their own market, with financial investments and incentives. Milder forms include sheltering, recognizing and glorifying persons with Muslim heritage who can be utilized to further a broad criticism of Muslim culture and orthodoxies. Salman Rushdie, Ayan Hirsi Ali, TaslimaNasreen and Malala Yousufzai are widely viewed as the faces of dissent-suppression, genital mutilation and general repression of women (respectively) in Muslim countries.
A more virulent form of paid Othering takes place through institutional support for anti-Muslim activities. A study by the Center for American Progress identified seven think tanks and/or charitable foundations that had disbursed US$42.6 million to Islamophobia think tanks over 10 years since 9/11 (Fear, Inc. 2011). These recipients, in turn, draft policy-briefs, write articles, produce documentaries or develop websites that further the ‘America vs. Islam’ narrative. Creeping Shariah Laws and the Ground Zero Megamosque are two stories that stemmed from this very myth.
There is also anecdotal evidence that anti-Muslim initiatives and campaigns receive institutional support. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the magazine received more than 30 million Euros in donations – including from states and mega-corporations. It is reasonable to speculate that the expectation – if not the knowledge – that anti-Muslim propaganda will garner funding and/or support – is out there. That is why Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the anti-Islam protests in Phoenix, USA in 2015, promptly came out with a plea and a crowdfunding plan. Because he had risked so much in going up against the Muslims, he reasoned, he should receive US$10 million. Whether Ritzheimer got the money is irrelevant. But the fact that he feels so entitled, says something about prevalent expectations from American citizens.
But all of the above is ignored in mainstream conversations. The Islamophobia lens ignores aggression and only purports to address backlash against Muslims. It portrays anti-Muslim aggressors as monsters or deviants, stirred to action by their own bigoted/hateful worldview, but never motivated by group/community sentiments. It steers clear of the terrorism label, designating white perpetrators (such as Stockham, Breivik or Roof) as lone actors or mentally handicapped individuals. The Othering framework, in contrast, recognizes the role of the state in reinforcing xenophobia and thus contributing to unleashing a series of events that are retroactively dubbed ‘Islamophobic’.
Elected to the unenviable position of ‘Global Other’ to the fabled, undefeatable, indefatigable West, the Muslim world has been forced to grapple with its own ancient power vacuums, fractures and ossified myths. While all eyes are on Muslim communities, they will do well to remember that such major shifts in global relations do not come about organically. Such policy shifts have to be conceived, planned and executed with statesman-like vision, general-like strategy, merchant-like wealth and soldier-like strength. What that means is that between two social collectives, heightened rivalry, jingoism and hatred have to be cultivated. This realization has the power to shift popular perception away from the prophets, presidents and propagandists who claim that people’s happiness, freedom and development are constantly being obstructed by faceless nemeses.
It would be a stretch to conceptualize a world without Othering. I hold that, in this regard, Huntington was not too off with the core of his ‘civilizational conflict’ hypothesis. He and I part ways in our thinking when it comes to the motivation and forces that cause these conflicts. In the end, I think a major thrust comes from economic, not civilizational, forces. Othering is profitable for some. The resulting allegiances, famines, revolutions, sanctions, credit structure and rebuilding profiteering are strong economic incentives. For the power elites – whoever they may be – continuing along the divisive route is the rational choice.
Quick Recap of Key Arguments
As any patient reader might have noticed, my essay tries to tie together three salient points: there are now global ‘Others’, Otherized not only for ideological or cultural, but also trade and cooperation reasons. This is indicative of a strong hegemony of thought on the global stage and, with the possible exception of the Nazi Party, never have so few done so much to demonize so many. Islamophobia singles out alleged criminals like Craig Hicks (the Chapel Hill shooter, 2015), labeling them as monsters and aberrations. But the Othering framework takes into account the role of state machinery in creating requisite environments and fomenting xenophobia.
Secondly, the growing xenophobia against Muslims should not be expected to convey meaning all by itself – it is better viewed as part of a pattern of periodic Othering for political motives. Then the flimsy and inadequate construct of ‘Islamophobia’ can be contrasted against historic instances of Othering and thus, perhaps, be understood as a politically motivated campaign on a massive scale. Such a frame – elaborating on the impersonal nature of anti-Muslim matters – could potentially stem impassioned resistance and thus help the ailing stream of conversation between Muslim immigrants and natives. It can also help undermine the radical premise that America is at war with Islam. Thirdly, I touched lightly upon the hegemony of knowledge production and the various means employed to sustain this hegemony. While there are much better informed and argued critical analyses of the ethnocentricity of knowledge production and dissemination, the phenomenon itself forms a part of the Othering framework as propounded in this essay.
Even today, Rohingyas in Myanmar, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Biharis in Bangladesh, Kurds in Iraq, Hazara in Afghanistan, Uighurs in China, Aboriginals in Australia and Canada and dozens other such groups still face grievous discrimination. Unlike the African-American community, their voices are seldom heard. They are the invisible Others, existing largely to give meaning to the glorious inheritors of their respective lands. There is a systematic process of Othering being planned, financed and executed against each of these groups. Unless this machinery is taken apart and analyzed, we will not understand why societies hate or fear each other so. It is high time we held a mirror to our own faces.