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Politics of refusal


July 12, 2017

The politics of condemnation is an iteration of respectability politics that is activated without fail after every violent and morally objectionable event involving Muslims, forcing them to answer for what Joseph Massad describes as the ‘atrocity exhibition’. Seeking to dissuade an increasingly hysterical public, whose anxieties - whipped up by dramatic media images and political rhetoric - demand frequent addressing, Muslim leaders and representatives plead Islam’s case. Marking Muslims with the stain of terrorism, proclamations of Islam’s peaceful nature, how it has been hijacked by perverted readings, and Muslim commitment to the fight against terrorism, are piled on in a fraught tone.

Caught within this binary of good Muslim/bad Muslim, the conversation over the years has been stifled within its disciplinary folds. In these series of negations, Muslims cannot speak without reference to their pejoratives.

This dichotomy of good and bad Muslims sustains the semblance of tolerance at the heart of Australia’s multicultural liberalism. The type of community imagined in this process of continued splitting and projecting is essentially a perverse communion - a national investiture, one might say, in the figure of the bad Muslim.

For those who make the demand and can speak in the name of the nation, this fantasy provides a boundary of non-belonging, a way of excluding any possible overlap between perceived self and others. In this sense, the vacillation between good and bad Muslims doesn’t so much offer a dialogue within Australian multiculturalism; it renews a commitment to a national identity without fracture.

It is in this post-colonial scene that critics of empire such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak realised that the politics of representation is not simply about misrepresentation of the other; it is about the coming to being of ‘The West’ and its others.

Islam is something that is brought into meaning through antonyms that mobilise speeches, debates, academic studies, the culture industry and the personal questions often asked of Muslims: Islam and the West, democracy and Islam, women and Islam, Islam and human rights. Is there an Islam without its ideological gatekeepers? Can Muslims speak beyond them? The politics of condemnation demands that Muslims first prove their right to speak.

As Muslims are held between the demand to speak and the invalidation of one’s voice, Islamophobia rages across the globe, captured in countless polls and studies. These sentiments are most visible in the increasing scale of controversies: halal certification, segregation debates, mosque protests, and the banning of Muslim women’s dress. With the focus on ‘deradicalisation’ (from ‘what to where?’ is rarely discussed) the community is perceived as a potential enemy within, subject to surveillance, and questioned on so-called national loyalties.

Spouting the sanctity of purging terrorism from Islam, Muslim public figures who occupied the media landscape for years - often without expertise or with little consideration of the implications of their words - would pontificate how Islamophobia was the result of a lack of knowledge about Islam. Refusing to reassess their response, we were told that the public just needed to know the ‘truth’ about Islam.

Strangely relying on the narrative churned out in the speeches of Western politicians, who remind us that this is a ‘war within Islam’, Muslims are called on to rescue Islam from itself. Promoting Islam in the best positive light is to salvage Islam. But this strategy reveals a naive understanding of not only the geopolitical landscape by reading it as ‘culture talk’ - as a product of the war of ideas, but also of how racism works.

Not only does it implicate the victims of racism by positioning them as responsible for the fear and anxiety they trigger in the public, the politics of condemnation also assumes that racism is driven by a failure of knowledge. By correcting people’s perception of Islam, it presumes that this hostility will cease. Indeed, Islamophobia appears as persistent questions about Muslims: What is Islam? Why do Muslims hate us? These questions are driven by unease, suspicion and fear that no answer can satisfy. They attempt to create, what Judith Butler - reflecting on white paranoia - called the ‘intent to injure’, by repeatedly reminding the public of the trauma of past attacks.


This article has been excerpted from: ‘From politics of condemnation to politics of refusal’.


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