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The Muslim as Monster: Re-Defining ‘Muslimness’ Beyond False Binaries

by in Identity on 25th November, 2021

There’s something about those crackling, black and white movies and the feeling they elicit. That Sunday afternoon comfort of a duvet and a movie with all of its warm and reassuring familiarity. There is good, there is evil. Good triumphs, credits role, and we go about our business with that sweet aftertaste of justice and a lingering theme tune echoing through our day.

Humans are naturally drawn to the sequential pattern of stories. The predictable transition from a hopeful beginning, the dramatic build up of an arc, and the conclusive and finite end. This narrative topography satisfies an innate appetite – all the pieces of the puzzle so absolutely in place to reveal a greater image of truth and goodness. It appeals to our most primordial self, and distracts us from the narrative of life which is entirely unpredictable and which leaves no hint or suggestions to our own inevitable ending.

We depend upon the stark, black and white opposition of good and bad and the certainty and righteousness it brings. We need to see the world defined in these neat, assuring compartments that validate our own moral sense of self. That help us self aggrandize, and identify with something greater, outside of our individual selves.

We determine meaning through these binaries on both a molecular and broad scale. Psychologically and linguistically we can attribute meaning to black because we know it is the opposite of white. Socially we derive value from good as the opposite of bad.

These binaries exist within a hierarchical structure that is purposed by our social setting – weak is undesirable and strong is desirable. The predator has value and the victim is devalued. These symbols form a social contract we are all innately familiar with, which we are born into and the confines within which we live.

How society defines and positions these semantic fields constitutes our world view. Historically, Hollywood has asked us to put our trust in the cowboy, as a beacon of Western progressive liberalism, and to feel disdain towards it’s opposite the supposedly savage and obscure ‘Indian’. This duality exists to give the watchful audience a self-affirming assurance – a greater, validated identity of ‘we’.

These tales uphold wider meta narratives regarding liberal, Western democracies and their time and place as global forces, within history. The cowboy represents European colonialism and we are invited to celebrate it, and all that it stands for, in cinematic emblem. The figure of the ‘Indian’, as constructed by modern cinema, serves only to affirm Western identity. It acts to prop up the identity of the cowboy and American exceptionalism, and to camouflage a whole host of social anxieties regarding American imperialism. It serves no other purpose than to contrast and attribute meaning to the good, worthy and triumphant. These symbols have tenuous claim to reality and are crafted to reassure the viewer by providing a simple moral code of virtue and goodness which acts as a smoke screen for the death and destitution American history has left in its wake.

While all this may seem obvious, attempts to consolidate the liberal, secular identity and hypercapitalism as an ideology, by creating the figure of a boogie man, bleeds into arenas of non-fictive, public life – media, law, health, education. The stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we feed on as a society follow these cinematic patterns of reassurance.

Socially, we create identities of monstrosity by projecting our own anxieties onto an empty signifier. The supposedly deviant identities which we create culturally, only serve as a crutch, to distract from and cleanse dominant norms and identities. And this has far reaching and insidious consequences that we may not give a lot, if any, thought to.

For marginalised communities in the context of Britain, whose very identities are colonised for that single purpose – to validate the western, liberal, secular identity – a process of self-deviation exists. When your cultural diet is one which renders your very identity as aberration, this impacts your most intimate self-impressions in acute and often unknown ways.

These less obviously fictive identities – our ‘real life’ ‘villains’ – form the underbelly of the binaries which define wider society. They carry the ideological burden of supporting this egotism. And these meaning-making structures form and consolidate damaging ideas which devalue minority communities, and breed cultural complacency. Society creates monsters because dealing with their own demons is too real and too cumbersome.

While we, as minority communities, might think we understand these damaging stereotypes and actively work to disavow them, it’s the ideological paraphernalia that comes with them that will haunt our thinking and clutter our individual and collective minds. We might think we know that all races are equal, but we will denigrate symbols associated with cultures that are undervalued in society. We will distance ourselves from these symbols or practices because affiliation with the ‘strong’ grants us greater social capital and better self esteem.

If we take arguably one of the most popular real life tropes – the Muslim as Monster – we see how this empty symbol of the Muslim identity acts to absorb a whole host of deep rooted issues in majority society. The Muslim acts as a leveller to simplify these complexities and pacify wider society by providing a supposedly inverted mirror image of themselves.

The Muslim as barbaric, to contrast and enhance rational, secular humanism. The Muslim as rapist to divert from issues concerning sexual morality in wider society. The Muslim as terrorist, serving to distract from the existential crisis facing Western Imperialism. And of course, the Muslim as stateless, to compound citizenship, identity and belonging at a time where public disquiet around national borders and identity is most frantic. The cultural mythology of the Muslim as borderless, both individually and collectively, satiates the need for assurance around issues of individual and national identity at a time when it is most confounded.

Let’s start with the most popular of all racist ideologies – the ‘other’ as disease-carrying, threatening to pollute the waters and body politic. It’s no coincidence that despite Muslims only forming 5% of the UK population, during the height of the pandemic we constituted what appeared to be 100% of the covid stock images, with images of visible Muslims dominating press stories concerning the spread of the virus.

This association was cemented by a wilfully misleading article in The Telegraph which stated half of the imported covid cases in the UK came from Pakistan – a Muslim majority country and a cultural identity which is often conflated with Islam in British, public imagination. The article referred to the June period in which 30 individual cases came from Pakistan, during a time in which thousands were suffering from the pandemic domestically.

In press rooms across the country, there is always the elastic figure of the Muslim Monster on which to deflect issues which cause social unease and existential crisis for the majority population. The same is true of Trojan Horse and anxieties around the institution of schooling, the Tower Hamlets fostering case, and the culture of Prevent to desist conversations concerning the family and home in changing and uncertain times.

And of course these issues of crisis are heightened and felt more acutely as western liberalism faces its greatest challenge to date, as it’s relevance and dominance is questioned and it’s economic and cultural influence wanes. The linear idea of progress on which secular humanism is built upon and on which it depends, is eroding as we face an apocalyptic future of climate emergency and its own political impotence.

And it is doubling down hard to avoid facing a whole host of issues regarding the values that underpin it. In order to avoid holding up a mirror to itself, British mainstream society chooses to distance itself from these issues by projecting them onto the figurative Muslim. And so, while majority identities are debating the unbearable lightness of being, adherents to Islam are living the unbearable politicisation of being Muslim.

But how does this impact British Muslims?

In many ways, it is the insidious nature of these stereotypes that cause the most damage. That this process remains largely unnamed and unknown, existing only on the surface level of headlines and cinematic plots which seek to dehumanise is perhaps its most damaging feature. It means we don’t possess the everyday language to define this phenomenon, and therefore combat it ourselves. The conceptual Muslim remains an amorphous figure, ready to adapt to the shape of the next social angst. It is quite literally undefinable, and in politics today we are still debating how to word Islamophobia and what linguistic shape this form of hatred takes.

As Muslims, we have absorbed on a molecular, non-verbal level, this binary that has come to define the world around us.

We will always fall into the habit of justifying our existence and practices, and define ourselves either by or against this binary. We will feel an inclination to distance ourselves from symbols of Muslimness that are too Muslim and not repackaged in liberal terminology. To do anything for the sake of God, or for a higher purpose that doesn’t revel in the shallowness of the surface of self, creates a reflexive, knee-jerk repulsion, and the strength and unconscious nature of this impulse alone is telling. To some extent, we have come to see ourselves as the shape-shifting, nefarious Muslim.

Terror groups such as ISIS, for example, feed off of the warped perception we have of our own selves. If the Muslim comes to be everything that isn’t rational, speakable, humanistic, then the more irrational, inhumane, unspeakable something it becomes a marker of how ‘Muslim’ we see it.

We have effectively created a positive correlation between ‘Muslimness’ and barbarism.

Take Shamima Begum’s account of why she joined ISIS – ‘I wanted to be a good Muslim.’ How woefully tragic and utterly depressing that a young girl saw what ISIS represents as the ultimate expression of Islam. This barometer of Muslimness as the ultimate symbol of bestiality, and how it impresses upon our finer instincts means that the greatest victim of Islamophobia is ultimately our faith.

The unspoken, illegitimate construct of Islam is only compounded by a Prevent culture which drives expressions of Muslimness underground as illicit, further convoluting and polluting our impressions of our faith.

The idea that Islam in its purest form is the most monstrous and brutish of things has coloured our language in other ways – to introduce qualifying terms such as ‘moderate (Muslim)’ or ‘extreme’ to our lexicon.

To overcome this descent into the linguistically nebulous is of course to give our religion shape and meaning on terms rooted in Islamic scholarship, and not secular myths and fallacies. To give Islam the oxygen of language – fill this gaping rhetorical space – and to air it from the bind it’s been held in at the benefit of opposing identities.

To understand this is a debate that secular liberalism is having with itself, which we need only to disentangle our religious heritage from. To stop allowing our identity, belief and practice to be dependent upon and intimately tied to others.

Secular notions of progress are linear, with Enlightenment as the apex of human development. That is, modern anthropology tells us that monotheism was bred from tribes refining themselves into nation states, and with that, man worshipping multiple gods to the refinement and concept of a single god. That the trajectory of humanity reached its final and most edifying destination by celebrating human intellect alone. It is the self that is great.

Conversely, the Qur’an teaches us that Islam is the destination, and height, of progress – man was blessed with fitrah and deviated, only to be reminded of the Oneness of Allāh by successive Prophets. Our religious idea of progress does not follow this linear model which places the birth of the nuclear bomb and warfare as its crowning jewel.

Our meta-narrative teaches that there is something greater than us, Allah, and we understand this through humility to Him and not aggrandizement of the self. In fact, it teaches us that human intellect is fallible, and gives us the tools to overcome complacency and not engender it. It teaches us that we can make mistakes without damning ourselves – we need to confront and tackle our inadequacies rather than wallow in the self-indulgence of hubris and distraction. That these weaknesses are opportunities for strength, in shā Allāh. That not all social influence is good, and certainly not all of it is bad. It teaches us nuance, the quest for continual self progression and dignity. All values that secular, liberal ideology is labouring to achieve. And while our default position as social animals when it comes to discerning meaning and value is to fall back lazily on binaries, Islam encourages a more reflective, conscious and active means by which to understand and shape the world.

While humanity has been debating the duality of the body and mind – Christianity traditionally denigrating its demands and late-stage capitalism celebrating and centring unadulterated its pleasures, Islam teaches us that the perfect practice exists when we engage both – an act gains barakat through both intention of the mind and practice of the limbs.

This means we need to be conscious of how we allow other false binaries to root themselves in our thinking and practice.

Perhaps it is time for us to relearn and reclaim our identity on more nuanced, honest and self-reflective terms. To question those unthinking, impulsive urges. To confront our weaknesses rather than distract from them. To look beyond ourselves, to a greater and wider narrative, but certainly not for the purpose of unquestioningly affirming oneself. To be humble. And off the back of all this, help secular humanism learn a thing or two, in sha Allah.

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks