Imran Khan’s ‘anti-Islamophobia’ narrative and its pitfalls

Posted originally to Surkhiyan.com on 19 June 2019.

Collective ideology drives people and holds large, diverse nations together. From the perspective of security – which is Pakistan’s utmost priority for reasons of political, historical and geographical reality – the value of a national ideology in keeping the nation from splintering along potentially violent faultlines is evident to a wise leadership. It also helps forge meaningful bonds with states and peoples abroad whose own identities find appeal in it. Perhaps the Imran Khan government has become cognizant of this, given its emphasis on Islamophobia at international forums.

As with any ambitious initiative that takes as its central driving force something as serious as religious identity, the potential gains to Pakistan from the political, ideological and even strategic standpoints of the countering-Islamophobia initiative are also accompanied by potential pitfalls and hazards with real consequences.

Actionable rhetoric versus directionless posturing

Physical distance between the Pakistani nation and the highly platformed, well-funded contemporary intellectual circles most ‘concerned’ with fighting Islamophobia isn’t the only thing separating their worldview, understanding of ‘Muslim problems’ and thus their methods of ‘Muslim activism’. These clusters of anti-Islamophobia activists and figures – by who’s work the catching of Imran Khan’s eye has no doubt convinced him of the gains to be made by fighting Islamophobia globally – are based mostly in the West and thus in the ‘belly of the beast’ when it comes to both Islamophobia and wars of aggression against Muslims states.

The focus that these Muslim activist and civil society networks maintained with countering Islamophobia in terms of anti Muslim bigotry was much needed in the early 2000s when Islamophobia peaked. However, the intensification of this fixation as of the last few years of over the years has become suspect owing to a number of reasons Pakistan’s leadership would do well to be aware of provided its sincerity in narrative-crafting with regard to Islamophobia.

The firm conviction on the part of such activists that Western liberalism is a natural incubator for their anti-Islamophobia work creates certain perils for genuine activists – be they individuals or in Imran Khan’s case a state looking for narrative-building – who look toward this particular model of Western Muslim activism for inspiration.

Muslim states around the world – including Pakistan – need hard, goals-oriented activism (e.g in Pakistan’s case, advocating the freedom and right to resist of Kashmiris under Indian occupation). Modern Western liberalism, and the current ‘anti-Islamophobia’ Western Muslim activist paradigm, hinges around ignoring the most consequential, policy-relevant issues for simplistic ones pertaining mostly to speech, language and what public figures say as opposed to what they do.

The endless pit of divisive tags, name calling and virtue signalling

Yelling ‘Islamophobia’ has become as fashionable as yelling ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’ at everything and petty identity politics have become an easy, cheap source of faux-credibility for Muslim activists.

This brand of liberalism thusly renders the most concentrated centers of activism effectively distracted from asking the real questions and pressuring their governments to cease their criminal activities in their ancestral lands abroad.

The petty identity politics factor based on labels, tags and accusation-mongering common in the Western Left has left its mark on the Muslim community in highly visible ways. It has ensured that Muslim communities in Western countries are as vulnerable as other groups, divided based on pseudo issues and tags, to sheepherding by federal candidates who profess great ideological difference to their rivals yet do not change anything about the policies of war ravaging Muslim lands.

Groups such the renowned Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) which are the world’s leaders in ‘fighting Islamophobia’ have certainly gone down this route and in fact epitomize this problem.

Skewed priorities and political choices based on shallow criterion

The endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, for example, by American Muslims in the US Presidential Candidate race and by CAIR and similar Muslim groups represented these skewed priorities. Despite Clinton’s grizzly past record when it came to sanctioning and attacking Muslim countries based on false pretexts, groups such as CAIR eagerly joined in her portrayal as a ‘liberal’ compared to first-time candidate Trump’s ‘conservative’ tag.

Trump, despite at least during his candidacy period suggesting a sane policy toward Syria compared to the condemnable Obama-era one of using deadly extremist groups as proxies to destabilize the government there, was shunned in favour of Clinton. As Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton’s past record of militarism against Muslim states was a grim one.

The endorsement of a politician with a record so terrible in Muslim countries from Iraq to Libya to Syria over a (then) non-interventionist Trump merely for the latter’s provocative rhetoric on Muslims demonstrated a greater concern with public image and language on the part of Western Muslim activists rather Muslim welfare and safety itself.

Pakistan needs a lot more

There are multiple ways to betray one’s people and not all of them involve a conscious abandonment of the collective struggle or adopting of practices and political affiliations that present an anathema to the sensitivities of the nation in question. This betrayal may take a softer and less direct form. By not aligning one’s political life with the true needs and priorities of the nation via devoting their attention to the most pressing issues and problems in the right order, such folk recuse themselves from fulfilling core duties toward the nation through their aloofness toward its greatest struggles and devotion to pseudo-activism.

For Pakistan to pivot its rhetoric and the subsequent activist trends of the supporters of the current ruling party toward the commercialized, shallow and misleading current paradigm of ‘fighting Islamophobia’ would do it no practical good.

For developing countries such as Pakistan, coming into existence in the post-colonial period and experiencing multifaceted challenges which no part of the society truly is shielded completely from, the burden to dedicate one’s mind and heart to real issues and not cosmetic ones is all the larger.

Pakistan would do better to tailor its Islamic rhetoric and activism to its real context and needs. An emphasis on the justness of Muslim struggle against foreign aggression, and the raising of the issue of constant wars of aggression against Muslim states would be a more appropriate endeavour for Khan’s government.

Whether such can be achieved using a platform such as the OIC remains to be seen, but the need for it is no less urgent as Pakistan’s own traditional enemy to the east brims with Hindu supremacist-based revilement of Muslims and warmongers against it. Pakistan also has the indigenous ingredients for a narrative of fighting not Islamophobia, but policies by certain states of aggression against Muslims based on hatred of Muslim identity; namely, the Kashmir freedom struggle.

To deny itself a potent, practical and appropriate Islamic narrative in preference of a shallow and cosmetic one would be a grievous mistake.

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