9/11 was a watershed moment in history. Many see it as ushering in a new era of terror, insecurity and conflict. Many Muslims see it as ushering in a new era of Islamophobia.
But terrorism and Islamophobia, have long and distinct histories. We should not see the rise of militant ‘Islamism’ as the backbone of Islamophobia. This merely legitimises anti-Muslim hatred as a response to our violence. Islamophobia has much deeper roots. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia put it aptly when they declared that Islamophobia ‘post September 11 drew heavily upon pre-existent manifestations of widespread Islamophobic and xenophobic attitude.’
So, where do the origins of modern day Islamophobia lie and why is it important that we understand the history behind it? Well, collectively forgetting history allows for the proliferation of misinformation and prejudice. To counteract Islamophobia, we need to disrupt the harmful stereotypes people have learned through a one-sided retelling of the past.
Taking a look at the last century’s key events is a good way to start this journey – to subvert the single story which has been told. Of course, we could go much further back and look at the Crusades and Europe’s emerging colonial expansion. So why a century? Well, 100 is a nice round figure and it just so happens that the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed a century ago.
The Sykes-Picot agreement defined the borders of Middle Eastern nations formerly under Ottoman Empire control. Britain and France wielded a degree of power over the newly defined territories, disregarding the pledges of freedom they gave to the Arabs. Iraq and ‘Transjordan’ fell under British administration, whereas Syria and Lebanon fell under French administration.
Not only did Britain & France draw up borders without due consideration for ethnic, sectarian and regional differences, but it used these borders to exploit oil reserves and exert political influence over the region. In Syria, the French reinforced the previously marginalised Alawite minority as an ally against the Sunni majority. Meanwhile, the British supported Sunni King Faisal’s rule over the Shiite majority in Iraq. Britain and France’s colonial mindset of inherent superiority over the Muslim ‘East’ allowed them to demarcate and exploit the Middle East for their own gain, their divide-and-rule imperialism leaving behind an ugly legacy of authoritarianism and violent dissent.
How does all this Middle Eastern history relate to modern-day Islamophobia? Well, the Middle East today is undeniably beset with conflict. Whilst the Sykes-Picot agreement is not a catch-all for the region’s tensions, it does help explain why Syria and Iraq, in particular, have been disproportionately plagued by religious and territorial disputes. The tension in these two countries is stark and tragic and unrolling constantly before our eyes. And this means the conflict in Syria and Iraq consequently figures heavily in the public imagination of Islam.
However, if you compare Syria and Iraq to other predominantly Muslim nations, it is clear that violent conflict is certainly not a pervasive problem in the Muslim world. Indonesia, for example has the largest Muslim population in the world and is a largely safe & peaceful democracy. Kuwait and Qatar sit above the UK in the Global Peace Index.
We live in a world which likes to paint Muslims as barbaric, backwards terrorists, which is willing to accept Christian refugees over Muslim refugees, and whose only tangible solution to the Syrian crisis is to launch drone strikes. Now, more than ever, we must remind ourselves of who had a stake in the Middle East’s conflicts, and how notions of Muslim inferiority and irrationality are as dangerous now as they were in 1916. As George Santayana said, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’