Lifting the veil on Islam; women and islamophobia
Just a day after the shock of the Brexit, the decision of the British voter to leave the European Union, disturbing reports appeared in the media about incidents of explicit racism. Neo Nazis took to the streets to demand the repatriation of immigrants, witness accounts flooded Twitter and Facebook of Brits harassing Polish waitresses, Pakistani businessmen and, inevitably, of Muslim women.
It was as if Brexit was the catalyst for a deep hatred for immigrants and especially Muslims which had been smouldering for so long and which had been exploited by politicians to their own electoral advantage. Not just far-right politicians, but main-stream politicians as well.
Look, for example, at this poster by the extremist British party UKIP, in which immigrants and Muslims are depicted as a large stream of ragged human waste, about to parasitise the hard-working Brit, all because of the EU, which forces them upon Britain. The poster is very similar to the antisemitic Nazi-propaganda of the thirties. And let’s not forget Cameron, the prime minister who just resigned over the Brexit who likened the fleeing refugees to a ‘swarm’.
Hatred for foreigners
Brexit was never about resistance against the overkill of European rules and laws which the British felt restrained their freedom and possibilities, never about ’taking control of our own country again’. It was always about xenophobia, about an irrational hatred for foreigners and immigrants. A striking illustration of this is the Welsh town Ebbw Vale, lavished with EU subsidies, where hardly an immigrant is to be seen, but where the majority of the inhabitants nonetheless voted to leave the EU because, as one of them was quoted in the British paper The Guardian, ‘what has the EU ever done for us?’
‘It’s wild once you realize that white people will actually sabotage themselves for racism’, a young black woman sneered on Twitter, adding the letters ‘LMAO’, meaning’, of course, ‘laughing my ass off’.
A bit mean perhaps, but wholly accurate. The British have shot themselves in their foot campaigning against the British membership of the EU by blaming it for the imaginary threat of immigrants and islam.
And of course the first to suffer the dire consequences were foreigners, immigrants, Muslims and particularly Muslim women.
This is not a phenomenon limited to the UK, unfortunately. On the European mainland many such incidents have been reported these past years, with Muslim women even being stabbed and kicked by racist white men. An infamous case is that of the pregnant Marwa el-Sherbini, a German woman of Egyptian origin, who was murdered in a German court by a white racist in 2009. In France a pregnant Muslim woman was kicked so hard by Neo-Nazis she lost her baby.
Recent research shows that Muslim women are always and everywhere in Europe the first to be targeted by aggressive Islamophobes. For instance, a new report by the European Network Against Racism shows that in the Netherlands, over 90 percent of the victims of Islamophobic incidents reported to the organisation Meld Islamofobie in 2015 were Muslim women. In France, 81.5 percent of Islamophobic violence recorded by the Collective Against Islamophobia in 2014 targeted women, most of them wearing a visible religious symbol. Tell MAMA in the UK reports that 54 percent of the off-line victims of threats and verbal abuse were women.
Don’t think white feminists stand up for these women. There’s a whole bunch of them who simply claim that you cannot be Muslim and feminist, or feminist and veiled and that these women should be liberated first. French minister Laurence Rossignol even compared veied women to ‘negroes who accepted slavery’. I’m guessing that’s white privilege: claiming a term and then excluding anyone who doesn’t tick the box.
Verbal and physical violence often mix, as well as racist and sexist insults or gestures, and incidents often occur in public spaces.
Visible religious symbols
Why are mainly Muslim women the targets of islamophobic violence? It is often explained by the ‘visible religious symbols’ these women wear, like a headscarf. These make them easily recognizable as Muslims. This may be part of the explanation, supported also by the many reports of Sikhs being attacked because their headgear is often mistaken for an Islamic religious garment.
And of course women are supposed to be members of the ‘weaker’ sex. A man may risk less physical harm by attacking a woman than by attacking a man, prone to fight back. Seeing as how Neo-Nazis don’t tend to be the bravest of men, often operating in packs, this could be a possible explanation too.
But I think one has to go beyond this surface to find the explanation. Muslim women, often pregnant women, are attacked by islamophobes because there is an ideological goal behind it. There is actually an extreme-right, racist rationale behind it, propagated by politicians at the heart of the European democracies, the parliaments, and spread by the media like it’s just another solution for our faltering economy.
But let us first look at the origin of European Islamophobia, and the way it developed. How the relatively tolerant European mainland, with the tiny Netherlands as its moral figurehead, became so fearful of immigrants and Muslims and turned into a hotbed of right-wing extremism, even reinstating Nazi symbolism.
Until the end of the eighties European citizens were hardly aware of Muslims living among their midst. There were migrant workers from Turkey and North-Africa, modest men with moustaches who ate no pork and sometimes maybe looked at “our” women with a lustful eye. This would sometimes result in some exchanging of blows, maybe a few rocks thrown, but never anything uncontrollable. Anti-nazism was strong, many Europeans had seen with their own eyes what the combination of racism and fascism had resulted in.
Besides, the migrant workers where not here to stay. They would return to their countries. Until everybody realised they would not. Their wives and families came over. They became an integral part of society. They prayed in mosques, had their own shops and barbers.
And then the fatwa over Rushdie came. Writer Salman Rushdie had written a book, The Satanic Verses, which was blasphemous in the eyes of the Iranian Mullahs. They ordered Rushdie to be killed. A translator was indeed killed, as was a publisher. And the migrant workers, at least some of them, took to the streets on protest demonstrations, to demand the death of a writer.
This was a shock to many. The people they had worked with for so many years, who were their neighbours, who maybe were a little strange and whose food smelled funny, suddenly turned out to be bloodthirsty bigots wanting for the death of someone who had offended their religion.
Horrible slaughter practices
Here the seed of islamophobia was planted. Migrant workers of Moroccan and North-African descent were now regarded mainly as Muslims. Distrust grew, fear smouldered. In fact, in the Netherlands it was not the far right who pointed out the potential danger of Muslims living amongst the indigenous people of the working class areas practising their religion and observing the cultural habits they had brought from their homelands. It was the progressive Socialist Party, noting that
‘One should imagine which ghettos will arise from obsolete and dangerous – to us at least – immigrants when we not only accept their horrible slaughter practices but also their discrimination of women, their patriarchal-autocratic presumption, their submission of their children, their tribal feuds. Why should we accept from these newcomers what we ourselves already did away with in our customs and laws?‘.
This was written even long before the fatwa on Rushdie. While far-right parties where scorned and shunned because they warned against immigrants undermining our social security state, it was the left that started to sow divisiness and distrust between Muslims and non-Muslims.
This all came to full fruition after 9/11. When Islam was officially declared the enemy of the free world. It became harder now for Muslims to live in Europe. At best they were questioned all the time by often well-meaning people about their beliefs and loyalties, but discrimination of Muslims and violent attacks on mosques became more and more frequent. The horrific murder of Pim Fortuyn, a populist politician and the heinous murder of director Theo van Gogh made matters even worse.
People started pulling off the headscarves off Muslim women, politicians pleaded for a the prohibition of headscarves and even the Quran. This was when Geert Wilders, possibly the world’s best known islamophobe, became influential. Wilders, originally from the well-respected liberal-right party the VVD, formed his own anti-islamic Freedom Party PVV and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Reprimanded by his fellow politicians of the right and left at the beginning for his uncivilized choice of words and the harsh, provocative tone with which he entered every debate, the rest of the political spectrum soon began to echo his rhetoric and indeed, it is at the moment not always easy to see the distinction between the PVV and for instance the social democrats, who speak freely about humiliating Moroccans, want immigrants to sign a contract in which they promise to respect “our” values and spout outright lies about immigrants and Muslims being susceptible to extremist views and forming a danger to our free democracy.
In the context of these developments aggression against Muslims grows in volume and fierceness, while politicians hardly even recognise the need to monitor anti-Muslim violence as for instance anti-Semitic violence is monitored and dealt with. Many intellectuals and politicians make the case that islamophobia does not exist and that criticism of a religion is not racism. Totally ignoring the grim violence of many so-called ‘Islam-critics’, they argue that Muslims should learn to cope with satire and criticism.
But islamophobia does exist, and it is strikingly similar to anti-Semitism.
Just like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia started as mainly a critique of people’s religious practices and beliefs. Where Jews in 19th century Europe were urged to assimilate and do away with their Jewish identity altogether to be fully accepted as European citizens, so are Muslims now pressured to adapt to the way of life of their secular fellow citizens.
But Jews, however much they integrated, were never fully accepted. They would always stay Jews and regarded as such, second-rate citizens, to be mistrusted and kept at bay. While anti-Semitism in the Middle-Ages was mainly a question of Jews not accepting Christ, in the 19th century Jews were supposed to have inalienable Jewish qualities, biologically determined to be Jews.
The same goes for Muslims now. Muslims are said to inherit by birth a hatred for Jews, women and homosexuals. So even the most secular Muslim will never ever gain the trust of his non-Muslim fellow citizens. Islamophobes even dug up an old, forgotten concept from the Shiite tradition called Taqiyya: the permission for Muslims to lie about their beliefs when pressured by enemies. So even if a Muslim loudly declares him- or herself to be a staunch democrat and a lover of peace, the islamophobe knows he’s lying because of Taqiyya.
The Muslim patiently awaits his chance to join the quest for a world-wide caliphate. To submit the world to islam.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is islamophobia, a paranoid conviction there is a global conspiracy to dominate the world, and every Muslim is in on it.
Now back to our central question: why is that Islamophobes prefer Muslim women to be their targets? It could have something to do with Muslim women being easier to be recognized as Muslims than men because of their head-scarves. It could be because big strong dangerous white men fear women less than they do men.
But I say the cause lays deeper. It is part of the islamophobic ideology.
Two years ago a member of Dutch parliament, Machiel de Graaf of the anti-immigration party PVV, which represents about 20 percent of the Dutch voters, said in a debate about the integration of immigrants:
‘Dutch uniqueness, identity and culture are being destroyed by immigration and the womb.’
De Graaf was referring to a popular theory spread by islamophobes all over the world on blogs and in books, that islam is spread by way of the Islamic womb, by producing as many Muslim babies as possible, by Muslim women. This is called the policy of the womb and islamophobes believe this is how Muslims hope to rule the world one day, by simple outnumbering all the non-Muslims.
Recently Turkish president Recep Erdogan urged Turkish women to have as many babies as they could. When it comes down to it, the fascist world view is really very simple: it’s us against them an in order for us to win it’s of the utmost importance to have as many of us as possible, by fucking our brains out.
Wombs on legs
Muslim women are therefore regarded as an even bigger threat than armed-to-the-teeth Muslim men about to let their bomb belt go off. And a pregnant Muslim woman, well, that’s just enough to make an Islamophobe see red and go berserk.
In fact, after the mass killing by the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who declared Machiel de Graaf’s leader Geert Wilders was his huge inspiration and who killed almost eighty young members of a leftist Norwegian political party on a camping trip, this horrendous act was justified by Dutch islamophobic activists who declared that Breivik had mainly targeted girls because he regarded them as ‘wombs on legs’, who would in time give birth to little socialists, responsible for handing over Europe and the rest of the free, democratic Western world to the Muslims.
One activist wrote on his blog, ‘if you look at it rationally, you cannot help but admire the thinking behind this.’
Again, these are not the words of some isolated nutcase spouting his hatred on a blog. He died in a traffic accident a few years after and was hailed by the main stream media and by well-respected public figures as someone who stood up for freedom and values and who had ‘enriched the debate.’
And indeed, his observation of Breiviks female victims as ‘wombs on legs’ would be applied to Muslim women later by a well-respected MP at the heart of our democracy, our parliament.
War against Islam
So when Neo-Nazis kick a pregnant Muslim woman in order to make her lose her baby, when a racist stabs a pregnant woman to death or when an Islamofobe hits a Muslim woman so hard it leaves her with a concussion, while he calls her a ‘cancerous Muslim’, when an Islamophobe pushes a Muslim woman onto the tracks at a train station, this all serves a higher ideal. They do their part in the war against Islam, for the uniqueness of their country, their culture and their identity, which is threatened by the womb, the Islamic womb.
At the same time, there’s something very schizophrenic about the far-right: because they claim to be against islam out of love for women. They hate to see them oppressed and not enjoying the fruits of the free world. Women are free in our societies, they claim. They are respected, it is the muslim men who oppress them and defame them.
Well, let’s take a look at a video:
— Marion Keete (@okeetje) 23 januari 2016
This was a few months ago. People were demonstrating against Syrian refugees because the men were depicted as rapists who come to the European shores solely to rape white women and girls. Never mind them fleeing war and bombs and all the misery. They undergo the dangers of crossing the sea, just to come and rape ‘our women’.
The small group of women in the clip are demonstrating for the refugees and against the hate and fear mongering. And what does that white, liberal, caring father with his daughter on his arm tell them? This concerned citizen who’s afraid men will come over to rape his wife? He tells them they are gross, they want to be raped, that they want a penis and that they’re too ugly for a white penis.
I find it heartwarming, this eloquent defense of us women. Now this of course was after the hoax of Cologne where refugee men were accused of raping a staggering 1000 women without a single shred of evidence. After a while it became clear that no refugees were involved and many complaints were false. But that has received little coverage, naturally. Women, like myself, who questioned the reports on Cologne, were told we should be raped. So, in the eyes of extreme right, rape sometimes is a proper punishment, when the rapist is white and the woman either black, coloured, muslim or just independent enough to think for herself.
You see, this is not just about Islam or Muslims, it’s about people who stand out, be it because of the colour of their skin, religion, sexuality. People who dare have a different view of the world. I recently met Belgian writer Tom Lanoye and he summarized it aptly: the threat always comes from poor people, religious people and foreigners.
Have I depressed you yet? It all sounds very gloomy, doesn’t it. It is. It really is and fighting it feels very senseless at times, because there’s no way to beat the mainstream media and shameless politicians as an individual.
However, cracks are beginning to show, thanks to the internet and social media where other voices are gaining ground. Slowly but gradually and they’re even getting organised politically.
I have another video:
Indifference will be punished
The lady we just saw is Sylvana Simons, a former tv-presenter turned activist who now has political ambitions. She has just joined a new political party founded by two Turkish MP’s who left the party they were aligned with. I’ll spare you the details. When she announced the news that she’s entering politics, a tsunami of hatred was poured over her. People threatened her, they demanded she leave the country, the same ol’ same ol’ when a non-white woman dares to have an independent opinion. A white guy in the video tells her she could have expected the outrage as a black woman entering politics.
Wow. That really deserves a wow. And where are the cracks, I hear you ask: Sylvana perseveres. Others persevere. New voices are finding their way into mainstream media and new platforms are successful. Alternative narratives are told and heard. People are standing up against the negative fear and hate mongering. There’s a big block of people in the middle still quiet, too afraid to speak out, too indifferent perhaps. But if the Brexit, we’re back to where we started showed us one thing: indifference will be punished and the punishment may be irreversible.
Standing by and not doing anything is not an option. Racist propaganda is and always has been venomous. And it should always be fought. It takes courage, you’ll take a lot of shit for it, but it’s not about me, or you individually, it’s about us. About living together in a society where everybody is free and equal regardless of nationality, religion, skin color, sexuality, you name it. It’s about human dignity, about the right of not being called a rapist, just because you’re a refugee, about the right to claim feminism with your head scarf on and the right to have an opinion without being threatened.
It’s all about human dignity and reciprocity. Do you like your freedom? Well, guess what: others do so too. And your opinion of their beliefs is irrelevant. Reciprocity. It is so tragically underestimated, but reciprocity is the basis for an equal society.
I hope many more cracks will appear on the surface and the silent majority regains its voice. We need it.
This is a lecture held at the South African Arts Festival this weekend. Hassnae Bouazza is a Dutch-Moroccan writer, journalist, Middle-East watcher and translator. She received the Arouwad Award in Beirut in 2015 for her work on the Arab world. Dutch islamophobes consider her a front soldier of the islamisation of The Netherlands. Together with former MP Femke Halsema she made a documentary series about women in the islamic world, Sex and Sin.
op 03 07 2016 at 21:54 schreef MNb:
“reciprocity is the basis for an equal society.”
I quote Mikhail Bakunin:
I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.
op 04 07 2016 at 11:07 schreef Paul Hoekveld:
Hele mooie column. Ik moet er nog over nadenken en wellicht nogmaals lezen maar de eerste indruk zegt spijker op de kop.
op 04 07 2016 at 12:56 schreef hiepokritica:
Het blijft fascinerend, vooral onbegrijpelijk te zien hoe Sylvana verstoken blijft van woede of enig cynisme tussen de belerende blanke mannetjes, die zo mogelijk nog walgelijker zijn dan de piemol- roeper.
op 05 07 2016 at 15:59 schreef Hilde:
Wat een uitmuntende analyse, Hassnae. Hartelijk dank, niemand kan zich naderhand achter zalige onwetendheid verschuilen, dankzij de inspanning van denkers zoals jij.