It was shortly after the murder that took place against journalists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris in January 2015, that I was invited to the famous Austrian TV debate on Sunday evening. They had invited a group of people to discuss ‘Europe in Fear: The End of Tolerance?’ following the attacks, which were perpetrated by what we commonly refer to today as Jihadist terrorism.
When the lady of the Austrian broadcast TV (ORF) called me on my phone, she eloquently invited me to participate, referring to my longtime work on Islamophobia. She argued that she would love to include a discussion on the challenges that terrorist attacks like this would stir up, including animosity towards Muslims. I agreed.
But my interviewers last question distracted me. She asked me whether I was Muslim or not. I told her frankly: If she wants a Muslim, she is free to invite one. If she wants a political scientist, she is free to invite me. Immediately, the interviewer tried to explain why she was interested in my religious background given my name. But I only repeated my first answer. At the end, they had invited me, without having heard a declaration of my faith.
To my surprise, the first question the moderator asked me in the live debate was, why I did not answer the question of religious affiliation put forward by her colleague. My answer was short, maybe too short. “Because this is part of the problem”, I said.
I knew that any other political scientist sitting at this very same place would have never been asked this question. A white man or woman, a philosopher, scientist, writer or artist would just have presented their ideas. Maybe the white person would have talked about her religion on their own. But never would a white person representing a certain profession be asked what their religious affiliation was.
To me, it is obvious why I was asked about my religion. Because the assumption was – if I was Muslim – that I could play the role of the defender of all the imaginations the dominant society has towards the religion of inferiority, backwardness, violence and everything else, which is deemed the antipode of the – invisible superior – white.
James Baldwin’s reflections in a debate with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King together with moderator Kenneth Clark on May 24, 1963, reflect this very insight into the problems of the dominant societies in the West:
“But the Negro in this country … the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright as dark as the future of the country … What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I am not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him… I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question”.
This pressing question is unsolved until today. And it afflicts our societies – especially in what we call the Global North – until today. It may change its name with the object of the most humiliated and bottommost in the socio-economic hierarchy. But it still operates in the same way.
As political scientist Achille Mbembe has noted in his Critique of Black Reason, Islamophobia today is nothing but an extension of the global colonial expansion based on the colonial heritage to classify people, put them into hierarchies and differentiate between them.[i] Filmmaker and political artist Raoul Peck used this quotation from Baldwin from 1963 as the closing quote of his acclaimed documentation movie ‘I am not your Negro’,[ii] because I think it really tells us something about the most serious maladies we find with individuals in the dominant Western societies.
Some may now argue that there is a great deal of difference in that blacks are not able to escape their black skin. Maybe if Farid Hafez calls himself Friedrich Hafen, he would be able to escape, not his brown skin, but his Muslim-sounding name and thus a possible marking as ‘Muslim’. But this is really not what it is at stake. It is not the color of skin or any kind of religious attire. It is as Sartre said: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him”.[iii] Or as Edward Said put it in his magnum opus Orientalism that the imagination of the Orient was based on “desires, regressions, investments, and projections”.[iv]
In contrast, so was the question of the interviewer and moderator: It was not about some information of what religion means for all of the guests, since the debate was not about religion. Rather, it was a political debate on violence and terrorism, fear and freedom. And within this political grammar, there was an assumption of a political (potentially violent) identity in the Muslim. In our world today, there is little interest in religion, also not in Islam as a religion. But there is a desire to mark the Muslim, be s/he real or invented. Because s/he tells us more about the dominant society than the Muslim. S/he tells us something about the anxiety and desire of this very society.
Farid Hafez is a political scientist and senior research fellow at the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University.
[i] Mbembe, Achille. Critique de la raison nègre. La Découverte, 2013.
[ii] Peck, Raoul, and James Baldwin. “I am not your Negro.” (2017), 108-9.
[iii] Sartre, Jean Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew: Jean Paul Sartre Translatedby George J. Becker. Schocken (1948), 8.
[iv] Said, Edward. “Orientalism. 1978.” New York: Vintage 199 (1979), 16.