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Osama today, Islam tomorrow: a new chapter of Islamophobia?

By Hussein Mohamud and Sahar Ghumkhor - posted Monday, 23 May 2011


In the days after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Native American advocacy groups objected to the use of the name Geronimo in the operation to kill or capture Osama. The analogous use of the name Geronimo to refer to a contemporary enemy of the U.S. is not a comparison lost on many. Geronimo was the Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache who resisted the U.S. government and eluded capture, raiding frontier settlements and killing settlers from the U.S. and Mexico until he and his band of warriors were finally captured.

Much like bin Laden, Geronimo was known for his ability to walk without leaving footprints, allowing him to evade thousands of Mexican and U.S. soldiers. This usage clearly perpetuates the stereotype of American Indians as enemies. For many Native Americans, it is incomprehensible how a cultural icon like Geronimo could be compared to a terrorist like Osama. 

What is ignored in the rush to step over the dead body of bin Laden for the hope of a new beginning in the Islam-West relationship is the way his death has been seen as a sacrifice for reconciliation. Should thinking people be so quick to accept that the tensions Muslims have faced since the appearance of bin Laden was entirely as a result of one man’s actions? Or are the discourses emerging about his death more about what prominent Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage elsewhere has described as ‘colonial necrophilia’ - a pathology involving a type of relation with those killed socially or politically. In other words, those who resist the imposed narrative must be killed, pacified, their voice silenced, in order for an ‘acceptable’ historical account to emerge. Whatever the case, now that Osama is dead, what does it mean for the fractured relationship between Muslims and the broader West? 

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It is not only Native Americans who want to distance themselves from the figure of bin Laden. Keen to provide an insight at what they perceive is a crucial time to hear Muslim voices, some Muslims like the Islamic Council of Victoria, have marked the moment as a call to improve relations between the West and the Muslim world.  These responses though are symptomatic of deeper issues yet to be addressed, such that they indicate an alarming naivety about the Muslim political condition.

The erroneous assumption that Osama’s death marks the decline in Islamophobia and its’ battering of Islam and marginalisation of Muslims throughout the West, needs to be revised.  Reports continue to show anti-Muslim incidents in the U.S. Two Muslim clerics were escorted off a plane recently, and the vandalism of a Muslim community centre spray-painted with the words “Osama today, Islam tomorrow”.

Furthermore, Islamophobia existed before the events of 11 September 2001. In the year that saw the assassination of bin Laden, we have also witnessed a feverish rise in Islamophobia:  the banning of veils and minarets in Europe, violent acts against Muslims around the world, and an incessant demand for Muslims to condemn any acts of terrorism involving Muslims. 

The current image of Islam and Muslims is one of violence, backwardness, misogyny and an irrational hostility to all things secular, caught between tradition and modernity.  Consequently, Muslims have been put on the defensive, expected to explain, clarify and negate such claims against Islam. After a decade of effort to dispel these stereotypes, for example the collective condemnations of terrorism by Islamic bodies around the world, it does not appear we have improved the image of Islam and Muslims.

What we don’t understand is how Islamophobia relies on a constant accusation and a permanent denial that assumes guilt. The Islamophobe states the religion of Islam is violent and Muslims are terrorists. The Muslim responds ‘No, Muslims aren’t terrorists, Islam is a peaceful religion’.

Islamophobia feeds on this reaction, as the persistent denial does not question the foundational premise of the argument: the Islamophobe’s logic. By and large, Muslims fail to tear asunder Islamophobia’s logic, which assumes a particular narrative of history, fixes the Muslim in pejorative terms, and imposes a parochial reading of terrorism.

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Correcting misconceptions of Islam mistakenly assumes that the hostility toward Islam and Muslims is founded on a lack of information and misunderstandings. However, what if it was also suggested that the rise of Islamophobia is a symptom of the increased visibility of Muslims and taking this visible difference as a sign of their unwillingness to integrate? It is in this regard that the discussion on whether to ban the burqa or not brings such tension to the fore. Islamophobia then is a way of permanently rendering entire Muslim populations as a problem through the fixed question: Is Islam compatible with the West?

As such, bin Laden should be understood as a figure who is dressed up in these phobias, who has been used as a quintessential point of reference to interrogate Islam.

Sometimes these anxieties and fears can also be embodied in other representations of a ‘Muslim threat’, such as the veiled woman who is often called on to hold Islam accountable for an arsenal of wrongs.

To return to the conflation of the historical figure Geronimo with that of the demise of bin Laden, it appears that the link is a recasting of historical confrontations as an American triumphalism over both external and internal enemies. Additionally, akin to Muslim efforts to ‘save’ Islam from the’ terror’ of bin Laden, is the Native American’s offense at such an association - revealing the appropriation of both indigenous and Muslim narratives in bolstering an American-centric account of history.

At stake here is more than the question of political correctness. There is no appropriate way to associate the name of a man, Geronimo, who fought against the conquest of his land to the death, to the operation to kill or capture Osama. Instead we should be putting the focus back on U.S. hegemony and how the resistance to that domination is being appropriated and retold.

Offering the death of Osama as a long awaited blessing in the bumpy relationship between Islam and the West is short-sighted at best. This is why the sad acknowledgement by the U.S. administration that terrorism will not go away with the death of Osama can be read as a silent recognition that the problem transcends one man and his irrational resentment of the West.

More than ever, the incessant personification of resistance to Western foreign policy in the ‘demonic’ figure of Osama, or the countless insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan attributed to his ‘version’ of Islam, continue to function to depoliticise the real world consequences of centuries long imperialist interventions in to the Middle East.

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About the Authors

Hussein Mohamud is a PhD researcher in migration, Muslim youth and the formation of Muslim political identity in the context of the 'War on terror' and the implications on agency. Hussein works with various community organisations on the manner in which policing and the criminalisation of young African people occurs in Australian society. He is also involved in academic development for Muslim youth as part of the Granada project.

Sahar Ghumkhor is a PhD researcher on Muslim women, the veil and the construction of Muslimness in Australian public space. Sahar is a political activist and blogger. She is currently working on development of Muslim women under the Granada project.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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