As the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire once argued, you cannot hate something that you do not love passionately. Muslims, more than any other figure in modern times, fit this description to perfection. There is a global resurgence of cultural nationalism and, to varying degrees, a common adversary is sought to be found in the Muslims. The Muslim is a common figure of hate and envy in North America, in Europe’s refugee crisis and in the process of othering and exclusion that has been unfolding in Asia.
Much of this is linked to the false antithesis that underlies the proposition of “clash of civilisations” and the global propaganda against oil-rich Muslim nations. Yet, both cannot sufficiently explain why the narrative was so readily accepted across a wide range of social and historical contexts. Even if the fixation with Muslims is false, it is “real” to the extent that a majority of populations and citizenry feel that it is real. This tendency can be said to reflect either the new global hegemony or, as Marx pointed out, ideas become material forces when they come to grip the popular imagination.
One has to break the phenomenon into its constituent parts in order to inquire into why Muslims have become the new global “other” and what they can do about it. At a sociological level, Muslims and their religious practices, as part of the traditions of a revealed religion, strike a deep contrast against what the Polish philosopher Zigmunt Bauman had called “liquid modernity”.
Liquid modernity is when “everything that is solid melts into thin air”. Bauman theorized it as when social relations become contractual after going through a process of secularisation. In liquid modernity, social relations are marked by ad hoc commitments rather than meaningful intensity.
Standing out in deep contrast against liquid modernity is the idea of Muslim brotherhood, communitarian optics and public demonstration of a religiosity based on deep belief. These make the Muslims stand out in stark contrast against liquid modernity. As a result, from the outside, Muslims as a community come across as deeply invested from within and drawing emotional resources as if somewhat delinked from other communities that coexist with them.
With the emptying out of deeper cultural and emotional bonds in ‘community’ and other kinds of cultural formations, the Muslims come across as closed, inward-looking and self-enclosed. This is then interpreted as regressive and viewed as an eyesore and source of envy for those who are seeking a more intense kind of bonding in their own social contexts. Then again, as the Polish cultural sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, all community is a fantasy that does not exist in real time. But the Muslim becomes a simile, a symbol of that fantasy.
It is well known that Muslims are as heterogeneous as any other community but in times of “liquid modernity” they appear, to those looking in at them from the outside, more solid, unified and tightly bound.
The Muslim therefore evokes a sense of emptiness and becomes a nagging reminder of the pervasive lack of emotional content. In India today, in spite of Muslims slipping on all social development markers they are perceived to be appeased. The sense of “appeasement” is not merely about relative material mobility but about community bonds. Today, the mere sight of a Muslim can evoke the sense of being challenged. Even the silence of Muslims has come to be perceived as mocking.
If there is a single organisation that is in “love” with Muslimhood, it is not the secularists but the RSS or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Most programmes that the RSS takes up reflect a specific kind of reading of what Islam has come to mean to them. Among other things, to the RSS, Muslim means holding a strong sense of unity, discipline, brotherhood and mutual affection. It means being prepared to sacrifice for each other and even go to war for the sake of community. These ideals are close to a sublime fantasy in the modern world.
Muslims, in spite of being the worst target of genocidal violence, continue to come across as “superior” on spiritual, moral and emotional registers. Each of these values is intangible and non-verifiable. How the Muslims have come to be represented in such terms is a complex combination of factors that can hold together only in a contingent manner.
It has to do, as the American journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria points out, with the rent-seeking economy of West Asia that has given rise to a specific version of Wahabism that stands for a conservative social ethos. As oil reserves are getting exhausted and Saudi Arabia attempts to move towards a more industrialised economy, it has started loosening the hold, for example on women, by allowing them to hold driving licenses and move in public spaces without being accompanied by male family members.
Similarly, Muslims, as the largest religious minorities in many nations, also allow for the production of specific kinds of cultural habitus or orientations. The Muslim community is itself facing a crisis of modernity and debating whether or not it needs a renaissance. However, what it needs to recognise is how it has come to be both the target of desire and thereby of envy and hatred.
If this reading of Muslim-hatred holds in most, if not all, contexts then we need to shift the discourse from Islamophobia to ‘Islamoenvy’. If Islamoenvy defines our times, then it would also explain why it is difficult to project Muslims as victims even when they are targets of mass violence.
Jean Jacques Rousseau expressed the outcome of the emotional disturbance and vacuum that modernity has inaugurated in his theory of ressentiment (hostility or resentment). That idea found expression lately in Pankaj Mishra’s 2017 book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Ressentiment, it would appear, has remained unanswered and is looking for a resolution.
While the 20th century was an ‘Age of Revolutions’ and technological innovations, at the turn of the 21st century the revolution that is waiting to happen is one of human emotions that have lost their anchor. Muslims across the globe are both victims and targets of this hollowing out of emotions. While internally it has led to the rise of phenomenon of global jihad, with ISIS as its most barbaric representation, externally, the Muslims have come to suffer as custodians of [everybody else’s] lost emotions.
The political aggression of the Right in India stands testimony to some of this analysis. What Muslims in India could do is reflect not merely as “victims” but as conduits of this great historical transition. Even as material inequalities are rising, the world is post-material in the sense of connecting to material issues through the lens of cultural recognition and emotions.
Muslims would have to be acutely aware of how they have come to be perceived in these times of crisis of modernity. It could be an irony of history that it is the Muslims who will have to find ways to extend communitarian bonds to those beyond the shores of their own religion. Yet, hope lies in the possibility that what has come to be perceived as insularity could well be the strength on which Muslim politics may refigure itself.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Views are personal.