The other day I was reading Deepa Kumar's Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire while traveling on a bus from Rajshahi to my home district Bogra. I was enjoying what I was reading as well as the journey. The weather was pleasing and the bus not so crowded. But my sense of contentment vanished the moment I took a close look at the man sitting beside me. The thing that startled me was that he was a bearded man, wearing a prayer cap, a kurta and a pajama a tiffin box and a cell phone in his hands. Quite unaccountably, I began to think that the tiffin box could have a bomb inside it. A feeling of anxiety gripped me. For a while, I was in a state of shock. What should I now do? All sorts of thoughts came to my mind. Perhaps he was a member of some suicide bomber group? But, I also began to wonder why I suspected him to be that kind of person on the first place. After all, he could very well be a pious Muslim just like me. Was it because of the current political climate worldwide or his physical appearance which seemed to correspond to the media-propagated image of a Muslim terrorist since the 9/11 cataclysm? No doubt I could also have been so apprehensive because it was a remote area which I was traveling through then, but surely it would be difficult to find a member of an international terrorist group here? But my feeling of insecurity kept increasing and I kept apprehending danger.
A little later, I heard the man talk on his cell phone. As I listened intently, I realized that he was talking to his unmarried daughter who was probably studying in a madrasa and lived in a hostel. He wanted to have lunch with her. He urged her to have his lunch ready by the time he would reach home. He then offered some advice to his daughter. He forbade her to go outside alone. He warned her not to have any male friend for this was un-Islamic. I began to feel relieved slightly realizing he couldn't be a suicide bomber. Still, some suspicions kept bothering me, so when he eventually got down from the bus, I checked to see if he had left his tiffin box behind!
I returned to my reading but could not concentrate on the book. I was turning over the pages absent-mindedly and reflecting on the prevailing images of Islam and Muslims circulating across the globe. This got me thinking about the historical associations between Islam and the West. By chance, I came across these lines in Kumar's book, “Ruling elites in Europe throughout the history have constructed particular images of the “Muslim enemy” to advance their political ambitions. In short, the history of “Islam and the West,” as it is commonly termed, is a story not of religious conflict but rather of conflict born of political rivalries and competing imperial agendas.” For such reasons, over time, Islam and Muslims have often been associated with violence, irrationality or backwardness and oppressive politics associated with gender and sexuality in the dominant western discourses. Perhaps these representations have some basis or they could be what Salman Rushdie dubs as a “version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.” Europe, on the other hand, would imagine itself as superior to the rest of the world and would link itself to the democratic political systems of the Greek and the Roman civilization, especially during and after European Renaissance. It was during the Renaissance, when Europe shed off its medieval garb and entered the modern era that a rather indifferent attitude was shown to Islam until the inception of the Ottoman Empire. At the earliest phase of the Ottoman Empire, some Christians welcomed the Turks partly for the Ottoman policy of “live and let live” and partly to evade religious persecution at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Even during the Crusades, some Muslims and Christians fought together at different points against their rival brothers out of territorial interest.
It is thus that in different moments of history the world had witnessed complex, dynamic or contradictory encounters between Islam and the West. It was never then a question of any simple “clash of civilizations”. But now we are in a phase of history where mostly the bitter and hostile relationship between Islam and the West is being highlighted. Especially after 9/11, in the dominant western discourse, Islam is being often seen as an inherently violent religion. Muslims are thus being indiscriminately “othered” as terrorists and threats to world peace and are having to live under the cloud of constant suspicion. Hostile narratives of Islam and Muslims have recurrently been re-presented in the western media.
Indeed, the 9/11 cataclysm has created a crisis in the relationship between Islam and the West. At stake also seems to be the perception of declining western dominance over the world. More specifically, it is symptomatic of the insecurity Americans have of no longer being an uncontested superpower of the world. To sustain power and control, Americans have declared “War on Terror”. This “War on Terror” rhetoric has generated a renewed hostility between Islam and the West though it has been made clear that the war was not only against Islam. But the indiscriminate associations of terrorist activities with Muslims have got worldwide media coverage. The link of the 9/11 terrorists with the Muslim world have contributed largely to rising tension in the relationship between Islam and the West. And the crisis has left its impact even in remote corners of the world.
Amid my speculations, I noticed the man departing the bus with his Tiffin box. Nonetheless, his departure left me with all sorts of thoughts. I kept pondering why the sight of a Muslim man dressed in attire typical of men of his belief in the region had produced such suspicion and anxiety in my mind. I thought too of the dysfunctionality of the global media since 9/11. The frequent imaging of Muslims as terrorists in the global politics and media had left a deep mark on my psyche as well! Perhaps that is why the sight of the man had alarmed me so initially. What kind of world am I living in where I am always forced to think of security? Why don't I get a world where people coexist not as a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew or a Hindu but as a human being? Such questions kept preoccupying me in the rest of my journey.
The writer is a Lecturer in the Department of English, Varendra University, Rajshahi, Bangladesh.