It has been said, to the point of exhaustion, that we live in the age of information. We have access to vast amounts of technical knowledge about anything under the sun, and all it takes is a phone and a curious mind. From why cats bite our toes, to why the sky is blue, or even how to make fajitas… everything is readily available.
That’s truly a great thing, since knowledge never hurt anyone, and I am a passionate advocate for the unending quest, consumption, and production of it.
Maybe that’s why I enrolled onto a module, as a part of my Master’s, which I ended up finding problematic. The module in question was called “Muslims in Europe”, and it aimed at better understanding a population integrally rooted in contemporary European society.
As a non-Muslim with visions of equality and justice for all, I originally imagined the module as a prospective tool to tackle pressing socio-political issues. For example: To effectively argue for the acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers, or to combat racist/xenophobic arguments targeting non-white, non-Christian individuals settling in Europe.
That idealistic view eventually faded away.
Academically speaking, the module was well structured with some parts of the reading list being pertinent enough to a range of topics. And had it mainly been focusing on governments, institutions, policies, historical developments (etc), it would have been a very interesting and constructive module indeed.
The problem, though, lied in the fact that we were analysing human beings.
Even if the whole thing was built on good intentions (which I believe it was), it eventually hit me like a ton of bricks: We were following in the Orientalist tradition of putting human beings under the microscope (ironically, Edward Said was part of the reading list). We should simply know better by now.
We did tackle the course mainly from a so-called ‘social justice’ perspective, with a critical approach to stereotypical, racist, and xenophobe attitudes towards Muslims. But the problem was not the approach itself, but rather the existence of such a course.
The Epiphanic Moment(s)
There were many instances along the way where I questioned the module. I will try to convey such epiphanies from two main perspectives: ‘Rational’ and ‘Emotional’.
The rational approach started to arise based on the fact that I did not stumble upon any homonymous module placing ‘Christians’, ‘White’, ‘European’, or any other groups under such open scrutiny. There are a million and one reasons as to justify such an absence, but the implication is clear: Muslims in Europe need to be understood, scientifically.
When going down that road, one plays into the hands of those claiming that Muslims are a foreign body encroaching on European soil. According to such rationale, since Muslims have never been in the continent before and are becoming so impactful on this here land, they need to be studied in order to avoid misunderstandings and conflict.
Consequently, when singling-out a whole group of people by labelling them as demonstrably foreign, one begins to head dangerously towards visions of wildlife creatures migrating and entering habitats they never been before. Therefore –since we don’t know the fullest impact that these species might have on local populations–, we must rush to study them and their subsequent impact.
In order to avoid sounding too inhumane, the narrative can be framed as being a compassionate one. For example, alluring to the fact that we are trying to protect the new species from their local counterparts.
No matter how it is presented, the rhetoric is just plain wrong, dangerous, and reminiscent of the days of eugenics–or, dare I say, the Holocaust.
These are real people, with individual personalities and traits, cultures, nationalities, languages, ethnicities, etc…
It is simply ridiculous to have a whole module dedicated to studying Muslims in the European continent. ‘Muslims in Europe’ in opposition to ‘Muslims in the Middle East’ (or elsewhere in the world), implies that there is something inherently puzzling with such bodies in said piece of land.
The inference is clear: There are continents where Muslims belong, and therefore do not need to be studied there, because that state of affairs is ‘normal’; And there is the European Continent, where Muslims are outside their ‘natural habitat’, and there is a consequential need to academically solve the puzzle of such displaced foreign bodies.
There are not enough good intentions in the world to circumvent this, because by hosting a module under the pretence that Muslims should belong, you are already implicitly excluding them.
The emotional argument is the one that made me feel conflicted every time I walked into that classroom, and probably pushed me to write this article.
My ex-girlfriend of five years is a Muslim. At the time, she was probably the greatest intellectual, emotional and moral influence I had on my day-to-day life. She is the reason I pursued a higher education to begin with, by pointing me in a direction that I lacked the foresight to see for myself.
One of the assignments for this module required a Muslim in Europe to be interviewed. Such interview to be then contextualised with the literature explored in class.
Naturally, I asked my former partner if she would help me with the assignment. And as soon as I started drafting the questions, it hit me: “I am about to socially dissect my partner. And for what? A grade?”.
The realisation was extremely dreadful. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a person inhabiting a ‘foreign land’ for decades, who was being asked to be the subject of an exercise exploring why I am how I am, and why are my experiences different from the rest of society.
I was about to probe into the person I loved most in the world, and my intellectual criticism of the module became instantly layered with negative emotions. At this point I felt simultaneously ashamed, sad, and angry for being an active participant in this module.
In a world where racists/xenophobes/white-supremacists/neo-Nazis say “they (Muslims) do not belong here”, instead of turning a deaf ear I was on the other side of the aisle saying “‘they’ do belong! let me get my surgical tools and show you that they bleed the same as ‘us’!”. I was put in a position where I was actively treating Muslims as ‘They’, and not ‘We’. And it sickened me.
In other words, the whole issue made think of the cliché: ‘the opposite of love is not hate (and vice-versa), it’s indifference’. It tore me inside (my brain and heart), to not able to be indifferent towards any type of argument that did not acknowledge those of the Islamic faith as being the same as everyone else who was not under this module’s microscope.
Overall, it bothered me profoundly that in a world-renowned university –a space which literally thrives on thinking about social issues– there was a module so short-sighted that it missed such a painfully obvious point.
In an age where people’s differences are used as excuses for violence against them, places of intellectual activity should be rowing towards the removal of labels rather than their placements. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, it is one thing to examine countries, history, policies (etc), and it is something hauntingly different to subject individuals, in real time, to the same treatment for no good reason other than a benevolent narrative and an academic credential.
In spite of everything, this module would have not appeared so problematic if the world we inhabit was not going through such a violent period of contemporary history, that gratuitously targets Muslims as the ones to blame for everything under the sun.
The moral of the story is that we should be striving, especially in academic and socially relevant institutions, towards giving ALL individuals the dignity of choosing their own path regardless of faith. If a White-Christian-European native can choose to be a criminal, academic, beggar, terrorist, priest, good, bad, ugly, and still not be a rat in some Social Sciences laboratory, the same basic decency should be extended to Muslims.
In a nutshell, if someone singles-out a whole group of people –even if with good intentions– that person is part of the problem and not the solution. Between those who discriminate with intent to ‘save’ and those who discriminate to ‘hate’, there is the common ground of discrimination.