Maleiha Malik: Personal contact and overcoming anti-Muslim prejudice

Prejudice against Muslims has a long history in the West, says a British legal scholar. Personal contact is the antidote, and churches have a crucial role to play in making those contacts, she says.

Many stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that became prevalent after 9/11 build upon long-standing prejudices that Europe and the West have had about Islam and Muslims, said Maleiha Malik, professor of law at King’s College London.

“That idea of Muslims as aggressive and a threat to European civilization has existed throughout European history,” she said.

FuMalikeled by new communication technologies and stereotypes in movies and other popular culture, anti-Muslim prejudice spreads easily today.

Fortunately, one of the most powerful ways of combating the stereotypes is through personal contact, Malik said.

“One promising thing we have found in Britain is that people understand that Muslims have been misrepresented,” she said. Many people in Britain know Muslims and so realize that portrayals of Muslims in popular culture are not accurate.

In the United States, churches have a crucial role to play in making those contacts and building relationships with Muslims, she said.

“One thing that’s worked in the U.K. is to approach interfaith issues by first working on a project together rather than just trying to have a conversation about religion.”

Malik’s research interests include jurisprudence and legal theory, feminist theory and discrimination law. She is the co-author of “Discrimination Law: Theory and Context” and the editor of “Anti-Muslim Prejudice in the West -- Past and Present.”

She was at Duke recently to lecture at the Duke Islamic Studies Center on the history of anti-Muslim prejudice and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You maintain that understanding the history of anti-Muslim prejudice in the West is crucial for understanding the relationship between the West and Islam today. How so?

In Europe, many stereotypes about Muslims that became prevalent after 9/11 and after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London build on long-standing prejudices that Europeans have had about Islam and Muslims.

Europe has a very long memory of Islam. As early as the 10th and 11th centuries, Europe was aware of this other civilization on its borders. Europeans were aware that there was this alternative civilization that posed not just an intellectual threat or a religious threat to Christianity but also a military threat. Muslims were trying to expand into Europe.

That idea of Muslims as aggressive and a threat to European civilization has existed throughout European history and has been portrayed in painting, literature, art and political thought.

Another set of prejudices with a long history in Europe is prejudices about Islam and women. Between the 10th and about the 16th century, many stereotypes that Europeans have today about Muslim women being oppressed were actually reversed. At that time, Muslim women had more rights and exercised more political and legal power than European women.

In romance literature and French plays of that period, Muslim women were portrayed as strong and politically active. But that position became reversed in the 17th to 19th centuries, with the European colonization of the Muslim world. As European women became more emancipated and included within European legal and political rights, these stereotypes emerged that Muslim women were oppressed and needed rescuing.

Q: How did colonialism bring about this changing view of Muslim women?

Europeans colonized large parts of the Muslim world, [including] the French in Egypt and the British in South Asia and India. As Europeans came into contact with Muslims, they tended to construct Islamic culture and Muslim treatment of women as being backward, as being not valid in terms of European practices.

So Europeans who came into contact with Muslim practices regarding women, such as veiling, for example, tended to treat it as barbaric. To them, it indicated that Muslim women were less educated, less capable of intellectual thought and autonomy than Western women.

Q: So it wasn’t that practices had changed from that earlier time, when Muslim women were portrayed as strong and powerful, but that Europeans were now seeing those practices differently?

Yes. They were mapping onto the fact that they came across cultural or religious differences. Western women no longer practiced veiling; Muslim women did.

Instead of trying to understand that difference culturally or religiously as a valid way of living a human life, they tended to construct that and other practices as a sign of backwardness.

It wasn’t European. It was therefore an uncivilized way of living. The encounter with non-Western others or with Muslim women wasn’t between equals. The Europeans had more power. They were colonizing those cultures, and they mapped certain racial-cultural stereotypes onto Muslims and Muslim women.

Q: More recently, you’ve found that many current stereotypes about Muslims in Great Britain are very similar to the stereotypes about Jews in Britain 100 years ago. Tell us about that.

That came out of some academic research I did. I looked at how British Muslims were represented in the British media from about 1990 to about 2005 and compared it with the media treatment of Jews in the East End of London from about 1880 to about 1920.

That period in the East End is interesting. There has been a Jewish presence in Britain at least since the 11th century, with various episodes of expulsion and persecution and massacres. But in the late 19th century, Jews from Eastern Europe migrated into the East End of London, triggered by persecution in Russia, but also Lithuania and Poland.

There are a lot of parallels in how these new British Jewish migrants in the East End were represented. They were represented as barbaric because they wanted to follow their own religious law, including religious slaughter of meat. They were represented as backward because they had beards and some of the women practiced veiling. They were represented as being incapable of assimilating into British political life.

Some did have what were new political ideas at the time. Some were anarchists; a few were Bolsheviks. They organized politically in the East End, so you had this amazing coverage in British newspapers representing these Jewish immigrants as extremists and a threat to British public life.

A royal commission was set up in the early 20th century to investigate the threat these people posed and what could be done.

Q: In one article, you quote a young British politician who said they were part of a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization.” And that was …

It’s a young Winston Churchill writing about these Jewish immigrants for a [London] newspaper. But to be fair, he was writing soon after the Russian Revolution. It was a crisis moment for both the British and European establishments and the political and economic order. There was a real panic, and part of that panic was to racialize the problem, to say that Bolshevism was actually a conspiracy.

One of the main ways that anti-Semitic discourse happened in the early 20th century was through the lie that it’s all part of an international Jewish conspiracy to cause revolutions and to replace European governments.

I included that quote from Churchill to show the power of racial stereotypes to corrupt even the most intelligent politicians. We really need to make sure that we don’t analyze political, economic and social problems in ways that racialize problems.

Q: What’s your assessment of the state of Islam-Christian relations in the United States?

Speaking as a law professor, I think that the domestic situation of Muslims who are American citizens is reasonably robust, because the American constitutional structure is protecting the civil liberties of Muslims.

You get the odd case in America -- for example, a woman who is refused employment because she wants to wear her headscarf. But when she turns to the legal system, her rights as a citizen are upheld. So to that extent, the situation in the U.S. is more promising than in Europe.

Even with the issue of all these anti-Shariah organizations that have been popping up in various states like Tennessee or Florida or Oklahoma -- the politics around these issues have been manufactured, so that is worrying. But even so, the courts have struck down anti-Shariah laws.

What I’m more worried about is that we’re now starting to get evidence that certain extreme political forces within the United States are forming links with far-right anti-Muslim organizations in Britain and in Europe.

That is very worrying, because it suggests that there is trans-Atlantic traffic that is going to make the situation in Europe worse and also keep aggravating the political situation here.

Q: You contend that these kinds of controversies do not arise on their own but are deliberately manufactured by these groups. How so?

I think it is being manufactured. I think political beliefs and some political leadership -- but also very deliberate funding -- are manufacturing a discourse that is not always in tune with the very good relations between American Muslims and their neighbors.

Racism is at its most dangerous when you don’t have political leadership challenging it. The role of political leaders, locally and nationally, is to allow tolerance and good relations between Muslims and non-Muslim Americans to flourish.

Leadership is absolutely crucial, and at the moment I think the far right is making that impossible.

One advantage we have in Britain is that these very far right political forces may have links with American political movements, but they’ve got no political vehicle in Britain. The British Conservative Party won’t give them any political space.

It’s a different situation in the United States. Certain of these political forces have been able to find a foothold within a mainstream conservative party, and that’s a dangerous situation -- not just for Americans. It’s becoming a dangerous situation for Europeans and the British, because these politics are spilling over and having political and legal effects in Britain.

Q: How important have new communication technologies been in spreading these kinds of tensions? Ten years ago, we would never have heard of Terry Jones burning a Quran in Florida or the fake video in California. But with the Internet, the whole world hears about it.

That’s a really important issue, actually. It means that people who are on the extreme of a religion or a religio-political movement can capture the debate and claim that they’re speaking on behalf of a whole religious population, whether it’s Pastor Terry Jones or extremist Muslims.

The Internet encourages that. Small blogs are having a disproportionate effect on debates about Islam and Muslims. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who murdered 77 people last year, was heavily influenced by American anti-Islam bloggers.

We need to be very careful. Muslims need to understand the importance of freedom of speech for Americans and within European political life. But at the same time, the extreme misuse and abuse of freedom of speech by some people is a real risk.

Q: What about the role of popular culture? One writer in “Anti-Muslim Prejudice” argues that much anti-Muslim prejudice stems from American movies and their caricatured portrayals of Muslims.

All the studies that we have show that the representation of Arabs and/or Muslims in American popular culture does have an effect on how Middle East politics and Islam are perceived.

My own view is that rather than trying to restrict speech, we need more speech. That’s the way to deal with it. If Muslims are misrepresented in popular culture, one solution is to counterbalance those stereotypes by producing other images so we have an actual debate, and let people decide.

One promising thing we have found in Britain is that people understand that Muslims have been misrepresented. At certain points, the press coverage of Muslims has been terrible, especially visual images that represent Muslims as barbaric and uncivilized. But polls suggest that most British people understand that Muslims have been misrepresented. They recognize that the press representation of Muslims is inaccurate.

That’s really promising. What’s probably going on is that many people in Britain know Muslims. Their doctor or nurse or teacher is a Muslim. They have had contact with Muslims, so that helps them understand that the representation of Muslims in popular culture isn’t a true representation of their doctor or their nurse.

Personal contact is a very powerful way of shifting racial stereotypes.

Q: What do you see that gives you hope for improved Christian-Muslim relations?

There has been dialogue at a high level that’s very hopeful. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is an outstanding example of a very thoughtful scholar who has engaged deeply with both Islam as a global religion and the presence of Islam in the West. He’s provided important religious leadership to protect the rights of British Muslims during quite difficult periods.

But hopeful signs are also happening locally, signs that interpersonal relations are improving at a community level in Britain.

Q: What should churches be doing?

Churches, particularly in the United States, have a crucial role to play. Interfaith work at that level is important to make American Muslims feel more integrated.

One thing that’s worked in the U.K. is to approach interfaith issues by first working on a project together rather than just trying to have a conversation about religion. Work on a project together and build trust, and then move on and tackle more difficult issues.

Deal with the easy issues -- the “green light” issues -- first: Let’s organize a bake sale to raise money for our local school that all our children attend.

And then you can move on to the “orange” issues: What does your religion say about Christ? And what does my religion say about the nature of God or the nature of Christ?

And then you can move to the “red light” issues: Why is there so much violence in the Middle East? And why is it that wherever you have Islam, you tend to get oppression of women?

It’s important for Muslims that the dialogue be a genuine dialogue in which they are accepted as Muslims without needing to be converted.

That’s the challenge -- that it be a real dialogue. That would be a good way for American churches to move forward in establishing a relationship with American Muslims.