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Laith Saud

The Othering: Justifying the persecution of the world's Muslims

Muslims have been accused of 'occupying' and 'invading' the West [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2016

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Comment: Inventing some barbaric enemy allows the equally false creation of one's own heroic identity, writes Laith Saud.
"We should have it in us to take the law in our own hands in an area where we are a majority and scare [Muslims]." In fact, "we didn't want the Muslims here and we don't want their mosque here anymore either". To keep them out "we will build a fence with our bones if necessary".

These quotes may seem obviously from a Donald Trump rally, where anti-Muslim rhetoric is paramount.

But they are not. The first quote is from a close ally of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the next is from a Christian militiaman in the Congo - and the last is a common chant heard at rallies held by Ashin Wirathu, a prominent Buddhist monk. 

Why are Muslims so central to the political discourses of places geographically separated? 

Foreigners in a native land?

Muslims face persecution all over the world, but I do not believe such persecution is motivated by religion.  Obviously, much of that persecution is driven by talented demagogues - like Wirathu, proud to be a Buddhist radical - who find resonance with their audience by provoking anti-Muslim sentiment. 
Anti-Muslim provocateurs in Burma argue that Muslims are not 'native' to Burma, but actually come from Bangladesh

In Myanmar, Burmese Muslims have been denied citizenship since 1982; laws prevent Buddhists from marrying Muslims or converting to Islam and Muslim properties can easily be confiscated. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned democracy activist, recently indirectly took power through the overwhelming election of her political party, the National League for Democracy. Her key aides made it clear that Burmese Muslims are not a priority.

Anti-Muslim provocateurs in Burma argue that Muslims are not "native" to Burma, but actually come from Bangladesh. 

In China, Muslims have been ordered to sell alcohol - something unanimously considered against the religion - and government employees and children have been prohibited from attending religious services. The Uighurs of Xinjiang are a major focal point of Chinese Islam; they too are seen as ethnically different, speaking a Turkic language and espousing separatism. 

In France, following the Paris attacks of last year, French authorities dedicated themselves to closing more than 100 mosques; the connection between terror and Islam is often made by looking at Muslims as essentially "other". 

Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party accused Muslims of "occupying" French territory, in an apparent allusion to the Nazi occupation of France.

Read more: 'Othering' - Charlie Hebdo emulates the narrative it claims to oppose [comment]

In all these cases, Muslims are identified as the "other", a notion familiar to academics and academic circles. 

"The Other", in phenomological terms, refers to the normativisation of one's self-image by juxtaposing such an image with an artificial image of the other, the outsider or the foreign.

Frantz Fanon and Edward Said were especially eloquent and incisive in uncovering how the Black, Arab or Muslim plays such a dominant role in western self-perception. Said argued that "the orient is an integral part of European culture", insofar as a largely imagined barbaric, uncivilised and cruel East could be used to illuminate - with unintended irony - an equally imagined enlightened, civilised and benevolent West.

But to point this out is not exactly new. Many have seen the parallels between Fanon's masterful analysis in Black Skin, White Masks and the perception of Africans and Arabs in the west. 

Meanwhile, Saidian observations are ubiquitous for an "Oriental" living in the west. What is new, however, is the common role played by Muslims as the "other" in disparate parts of the world. 

Read more: Rationalising violence - the powerful ideology of'otherness' [comment] 

Empire, nation-state and nation

Samuel Huntington, the late and controversial political scientist, pointed out that Muslims belong to an Islamic civilisation that happens to basically border all other civilisations. 

In this respect, "Islam's borders are bloody," he claimed.  But there is something to the geographical location of Muslim-majority societies; only Muslim-majority societies border European, Slavic, African, Indic and Chinese entities. 

Prior to the formation of nation-states throughout the world, all these societies bordered Muslim empires, where belonging was not due to ethnic nationality but simply imperial presence. 

Empires are multi-national by definition. And one of the major shifts of the 20th century was the movement to politically organise people according to ethnicity. 

The British and French made ethnicity a central component to their imperial ventures, wherein whites sat atop the racial hierarchy, legitimising mandates and national dominance over "lesser peoples". This was, of course, Kipling's "White man's burden".

But what I would like to point out is the racialisation of politics was born out of the emergence of the European nation-state itself, in which the national "people" are synonymous with the sovereign will. 

In parts of Europe, India and large parts of Africa, geographies formerly imperial, the Muslim evokes the not-so-distant imperial past, where a "national" Indian or Bulgarian identity did not exist, but was subsumed under a Mughal or Ottoman identity. 

The Muslim is the perfect - and imagined - foil to who the "true" Indian or Bulgarian is today. And today, with the quantitative demands of both democracy and social media becoming increasingly high, in order for politicians to show their patriotism the Muslim is both physically present and historically noxious enough to be a rallying cry for a rabid new nationalism. 

The Muslim stands in for the Ottoman or Mughal, which by definition "negates" the Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian or Indian, etc.

But this does not explain the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. Yet there is a connection. America has always imagined itself as having a revolutionary colonial past similar to that of Asians and Africans. Americans fought off the same colonial masters - the British - after all. 
The many are... bearing witness through Snapchats of Trump rallies

The idea that America is being invaded reinforces a sentiment, an entitlement, where one can "remember" how they are "a true American". And the largely brown and black background of many Muslims reinforces their whiteness and, naturally, the apocalyptic challenge to Christianity.

Christians from the east, incidentally, rarely feel this way about Muslims. 

These ingredients allow someone who subscribes to this type of patriotism to live out one hell of a battle, at least in his or her own head. In the post-modern world, described by Weber as "disenchanted", the many are scrawling meaning on the pages of Facebook, declaring the truth through tweets and bearing witness through Snapchats of Trump rallies. 

And nothing allows someone to be more self-righteous than being able to declare someone "different" a deviant; with Muslims living in the places they do now - the Muslim may still be declared the devil in many places for a long time to come.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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