In recent times, Islamophobia has become a hold-all concept that has been indiscriminately used to refer to violence against Muslims. Such usage obscures, rather than captures, the sources of violence and what can be done to mitigate it. Phobia refers to a fear of the unknown or ‘irrational fear’.
By default, it also implies that violence carried out is random and has no discernible pattern other than fear and demonisation of Muslims. Islamophobia is a category that is relevant to Europe, and more so, to North America, where violence against Muslims is born out of a phobia of Muslims – who are viewed as an unknown variable, except for the impression that they are aggressive and prone to violence.
The attacks on Muslims in the US are random and episodic and not organised. In some instances, Sikhs were mistaken for Arabs and attacked in public places. Phobia of this kind is possible in advanced capitalist countries with extreme modes of individuation, and lack of any concrete imagination of the ‘other’. This phobia is mediated through digitised images and since people there do not have access to any other concrete experiences, they imagine or rather conjure a phobia of the Muslim.
In Europe, this was a later day possibility, after the ‘problem’ of immigration from Islamic countries and the policy of multiculturalism that, in order to maintain harmony, instituted social ghettoisation as a state policy. Europe is now realising the failure of this policy since it has only led to more separation and violence rather than co-existence. Political philosopher Slavoj Zizek refers to this as the problem of ‘difference as distance’. States celebrate differences by creating social distances between communities, which results in concealed racism and xenophobic violence, reflected in the recent resurgence of the Neo-Nazis in Germany.
India is a vastly different case. Public intellectuals and popular media have created a false narrative about the nature of violence in India being Islamophobic. Violence in India against Muslims is not born out of the fear of Muslims being an unknown entity. The recent spate of events has more to do with prejudice and the narrative of ‘historical injury’.
The histories of both – the Hindu and Muslim – communities are too inextricably entangled for there to be any chance of the Muslim being unknown or foreign in concrete social terms. Muslims have been the ruling elites in this country, constituting a sizeable middle class before the partition of India, when most of the well-to-do migrated to Pakistan. Urdu was also the official language in many parts of India.
What has taken over the public discourse in India, thanks to a sustained campaign, is a deep sense of historical injury born out of the belief that Muslims dominated and used violence against the majority Hindu community. There is hatred and prejudice against Muslims, and an organised political process of ‘othering’ them. The nature of this violence in India, unlike the Western nations, is neither random nor episodic; it mostly takes the form of an organised pogrom linked to many reasons, including economic interests.
Political Scientist Paul Brass in his book on Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India, notes that most ‘communal violence’ and riots are organised and well planned and are seldom spontaneous. Many of the recent lynchings by the cow vigilantes were linked to the ‘cow economy’ and took place with tacit state patronage. They were neither random nor born out of an unknown fear of Muslims.
In contrast, they are born out of the rationalisation of violence and a certain kind of knowledge about Muslims – in terms of the economic activities they are involved in, food habits, cultural lifestyles and places of habitation. It requires concrete imagination, including the nature of vulnerability that they suffer from.
In my own experience, Gujarat is the only society that has anything close to Islamophobia leading to xenophobic hatred. The social ghettoisation of Muslims is so complete that communities are separated physically and spaces where Muslims reside are routinely referred to as ‘Pakistan’.
In no other part of India, including the Hindi heartland, is there such a deep separation between the communities. The Muslim continues to be a regular figure in a common market place. Someone clad in a skull cap and a long beard attracts no extra attention. Co-existence of communities has been part of a long history of lived diversity, even if there were periodic eruptions of violence between communities.
In fact, one of the crises of the mobilisation of the extreme right-wing in India has been its failure to conjure up a violent and militaristic image of the Muslim. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself said in an interview that there is no homegrown ‘Muslim insurgency’, which is a compliment to the democratic process in India. Muslims have always remained invested in and played a significant role in determining electoral outcomes since the days of the Constituent Assembly debates on the nature of political representation.
What the Muslim suffers from is regular exclusion, cultural discrimination and historical prejudice that have amassed a certain public sanction from the majority community. Muslims, unlike the Dalits, are not stigmatised either. Instead, the nature of prejudice has more to do with class and living in ghettoised slums without proper civic amenities. In fact, the popular imagination of the Muslim today is one of chronic poverty and poor living conditions. The right-wing language, therefore, is one of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or of ‘termites‘ – a term recently used by the BJP president in his public speeches.
There is an impending need to re-frame the question of the nature of violence against Muslims, outside of a catch-all category like Islamophobia. In fact, such a ‘culturalist’ construction of violence against the Muslims displaces the social question of unequal and unjust modes of discrimination against the Muslims. There is a need to disconnect the nature of violence and the micro-narratives that are locally constructed to legitimise it. Even if from a distance it all looks the same.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He recently published India after Modi: Populism and the Right (Bloomsbury, 2018).