Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Irrational fear abounds, jetting the Malay psyche!


Irrational fear abounds

MUSINGS By MARINA MAHATHIR

Prejudice and discrimination, both rooted in fear of the unknown, can always be dispelled with better knowledge, at least in those willing to learn.

TEN years ago the world turned a decidedly nastier place for Muslims. Although Islamo­phobia already existed before Sept 11, the events that day ratcheted it up several notches. Suddenly Muslims in the United States and all over the world found themselves under intense scrutiny, much of it hostile.

Stereotypes abounded. Although Islam is a religion of peace, all Muslims were branded terrorists, undemocratic, violent, oppressors of women.

The only images seen in the media were of angry bearded men wielding weapons and shouting threats to the West. Only Muslim women covered head to toe in dour black, were seen. It did not help that some Muslims themselves provided fodder for these images.

Tales of aggression against Mus­lims abounded. Headscarves were pulled off, insults hurled and, at airports, anyone with the slightest tinge of an Arabic name was pulled out for special inspection. Some people suffered even more violence, resulting in injury and even death.

New perspective: One of the biggest boosts to the image of Islam and Muslims has been the Arab Spring where young Muslims, including women, were seen at the forefront of the revolution. – Reuters 
Sometimes entirely wrong people became victims of the prejudice. A Sikh man got shot because he wore a turban, a bunch of Orthodox Jewish rabbis were pulled off a plane because they were praying in a language other passengers didn’t understand.

Fear ruled and with it came prejudice and discrimination, much of it fuelled by the media. Most of it stemmed from ignorance about the world of Islam, which is not only large but also diverse.



A Muslim in the Middle East is culturally different from a Muslim in Asia, but that was not appreciated in much of the West. Indeed Middle Eastern Muslims comprise only 15% of the entire Muslim world. Further­more there are many Western Muslims who look and act no different from their fellow citizens.

Meanwhile, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only angered Muslims, who then reacted in ways that ingrained the stereotypes about them.

The early post-Sept 11 Islamo­phobic madness only lessened when much better information and knowledge about Islam and Muslims became available. This took two forms.

One, many Muslims took it upon themselves to educate non-Muslims about Islam, and in particular reached out to other faith communities to talk about their commonalities, rather than differences.

And two, thousands of students flocked to universities to learn more about Islam. Both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Islam did much to teach students about the real religion, rather than the one perpetuated by the media.

Ten years later, although it cannot be said that Islamophobia has disappeared, Western perspectives on Islam have become more measured and based on better knowledge. One of the biggest boosts to the image of Islam and Muslims has been the Arab Spring.

Suddenly the images of Muslims were young, modern, and protesting not about the West but about their own corrupt leaders. Although they did not explicitly talk about religion, in 2011 the Middle East became associated with the yearning for freedom and democracy, one not too different from what developed countries enjoyed.

Women were seen at the forefront of the revolution, both head-scarved and not, and changed the image of the oppressed Muslim woman.

It just goes to show that prejudice and discrimination, both rooted in fear of the unknown, can always be dispelled with better knowledge, at least in those willing to learn. There are of course many who simply refuse to open their hearts and minds to such enlightenment, but progress has been made in incremental steps.

It is also clear that very often those who steadfastly refuse to eliminate their prejudices do so because they think it is politically profitable to them. The loudest Islamophobes always seem to be politicians trying to win the populist vote. And the only way they maintain those votes is by keeping people ignorant. Hence, their refusal to engage at all with Muslims.

Every phobia about groups of people who are different from us works in the same way. They rely on stereotypes and on the fear that allowing these minority people the same basic rights as others would mean that they would demand more.

Thus, although no Muslim ever asked for it, some people in the US insist that there are plans to impose syariah law there. The media stokes the hysteria and stigmatisation. Unjust accusations and calls for depriving them of citizenship becomes the norm.

Although those baying for blood are small in number, they still make innocent people suffer. People who have never harmed anyone else suffer distrust and hostility from their former neighbours. Violence against them is justified, sometimes with religious backing. The entire atmosphere is poisoned by hate.

This past week, where some people seem to be proudly picking on the powerless, has reminded me of that Islamophobic hysteria. I fear for our country and where we are heading.

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