Globally, Islamophobia is for real. Many stereotypes, misunderstandings and hateful rhetoric have emerged, which unfortunately impact a large majority of Muslims who are proud, loyal, and patriotic citizens, but endure xenophobic reactions and innuendoes for no fault of theirs.
The storyline of constant suspicion, fear, and ignominy of getting ‘othered’ is increasingly normalised. The bigoted conduct of most Arab Sheikhdoms (and other Islamic regimes) does not make matters any easier for a common Muslim, as the tact of ‘whataboutery’ is easily abused in arguments, with the lazy assumption that somehow every Muslim is responsible and answerable for the conduct of their, usually illiberal, undemocratic, and authoritarian regime.
Therefore, whenever a country like Turkey (under a revisionist like Recep Erdogan) or Pakistan (fundamentally flawed, with its ‘two-nation’ underpinning) complain against Islamophobia, the argument never cuts ice, owing to their own dubious track record of regressive policies, diminishment of minorities and supremacism that discredits their mantle of ambassadors against Islamophobia.
Even Islamic regimes allied to the so-called ‘Free World’ are rife with amoral politicians and not transformational statesmen, who could posit credible alternatives of harmonious coexistence.
This leaves the fight against Islamophobia to odd individuals of Islamic faith, who face a double whammy from both sides, and must face unbelievable odds in convincing both sides towards reconciliation and understanding. The rare advent of Barack Hussein Obama on the centre stage of global imagination, alleviated many said and unsaid fears.
Even though Obama practised Protestant Christianity ~ he faced many false conspiracy theories about secretly practising Islam e.g., claims that he took the oath of office as a senator by placing his hand on the Qur’an, spending four years in a Madrasa in Indonesia, or that his middle name was, Mohammed etc. Obama’s father was indeed a Kenyan Muslim, and in the polarised world post-9/11, that was enough to trigger falsities and manufactured fears.
However, in more ways, than perhaps intended, Obama as a black man and ‘Muslim’ (wrongly attributed) allayed many apprehensions, and was possibly popular enough for a third term, had a term bar not come in his way. Counter-intuitively, the post-Obama era was the surreal Donald Trump age, replete with dog whistles, discriminatory policies and reckless prejudices that got a nudge from the Oval Office.
Democracies across the world started swerving hard right with majoritarian bluster ~ the odd leadership voices of reason, dignity and rationality were left to women leaders like Angela Merkel and Jacinda Arden.
The sudden arrival of the ‘Squad’ (six young Senators from the Democratic Party) shook things up with the promise of diversity, progressive thoughts, and representation from the suppressed.
Two of them were from the Islamic faith i.e., Somali-born Ilhan Omar and the other of Palestinian parentage, Rashida Tlaib. These two young senators stood up to a barrage of unfiltered vitriol from Trump and defended themselves. Ilhan was decidedly more combative and hence, more targeted.
Ilhan symbolised the unprecedented trifecta of societal hate i.e., being an immigrant, black and Muslim. Much was expected out of her, to sincerely fight Islamophobia, and the only way to do so would be if she could be truly honest, unbiased, and more of a stateswoman, as opposed to an electorally driven politician, posturing to be an ambassador!
Having escaped from a failed state like Somalia, which was given to extremism and violence in the name of religion, Ilhan was expected to be comparatively balanced in her views of the ‘Free World’, despite its many inequities. Yet Ilhan was repeatedly called out for her anti- Semitic rants. Another famous Somali exile, Ay- aan Hirsi Ali, coming from the same background as Ilhan, noted “hate is hard to unlearn without coming to terms with how you learned it”. Unlike Ayaan, Ilhan conveniently forgot the politico-societal environment that bred conditions like Somalia.
As a rising star with a talent to remain in the news, Ilhan upped (or downed) the discourse by commenting that support for Israel was, ‘all about the Benjamins’, suggesting buy offs. While the Jewish lobby is indeed very powerful, Ilhan’s accusation was not substantiated. But she got away using charged language on sensitive topics under the initial pretext of being a fiery and fearless senator ‘who spoke her mind’.
Soon she shockingly equated the US government to the likes of Hamas and Taliban, and her own party started getting queasy about her overreach. Ilhan was playing to the electoral gallery, and she was clearly a politician, like any.
The selectivity of causes became apparent as she invoked Kashmiris and Uyghurs but assiduously avoided commenting on Kurds in Turkey or Shias in Pakistan, as that would have ruptured her equation with leaderships therein.
Recently, Ilhan visited Pakistan and incredulously (though by now, not surprisingly) made a symbolic trip to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (POK). For unhinged politicians, optics and newsy moves matter, and Ilhan’s own Democratic Party dispensation had to scurry for clarification that her personal visit did not represent US government approval or policy substance.
Ilhan clearly overstepped, yet again. Well versed with the pernicious role of regimes like Pakistan and Turkey that have institutionalised ‘terror nurseries’ as recognised by the US itself, there was not a word of condemnation from Ilhan.
Whilst she was on Pakistani soil, a bomb blast struck a school in Kabul killing six people and leaving twenty-four wounded, almost all of them Shia Hazaras, under the boorish rule of Pakistan-supported Taliban.
But politician Ilhan kept mum, and instead tweeted about a group of Christians singing easter songs on an aeroplane, taking photos of the Indo-Pak borders and slamming her opponents who complained about her insensitivity as, ‘snowflakes’ having a ‘glorious meltdown’!
In the manner of an extremist Jewish lobby or a chauvinist Christian lobby, Ilhan Omar the politician too was creating her own ghettoised constituency, and not bridging the divide as hoped. Her choice of vocabulary, topics and even places to visit point to an electorally driven politician, who couldn’t care beyond the electoral sweepstakes.
Forget combating Islamophobia, as claimed, it is the likes of her with their selective politics, causes and grandstanding (like an Erdogan or Imran Khan) who fan distrust and suspicion of so-called ‘moderates’, rather than bridge the burning trust- deficit between communities.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)