On the face of it, asking a question like ‘why do we fear Islam?’ is easy to answer. Over the past fourteen years Islam has become almost synonymous in the Western imagination with terrorism and violence. We are all familiar with the images of the attacks on New York, London, and Paris, and we have ingested the news coverage of these and other events and have developed an acute fear – a phobia – of all things Islamic. Before September 2001, however, there were few who equated Islam with terror or violence, and yet even then Islam cast a foreboding shadow over the West. We have never been entirely comfortable with Islam.
It was in Stolkholm in 2004 when I first entered a mosque with friends to experience the Ṣalāt al-Jum’ah (Friday Prayers) of my Muslim interfaith colleagues. Seeing no difference in speaking to God as Allah (merely the Arabic word for God) – a difference I still do not see – I joined the men and boys as they formed lines to pray. All was perfectly fine until the voices around arose in a rhythmic drone of prayer – in Arabic. I was terrified. Quite why I was so shaken I may never be able to explain, but the familiar-yet-unfamiliar frightened me so much I wanted to get sick. Having nowhere to run, I stayed for the duration and eventually calmed down.
Reflecting on this reaction with the interfaith group later in the day I discovered that I was not along in my experience of fear. Our discussion that night was transformative in my understanding not so much of Islam, but of how we have constructed an outsider’s perspective of Islam; a specifically Western perspective of Islam. As a cultural, historical, and religious counterbalance to European civilization we have projected onto Islam – quite literally – our worst fears on this other; we have made it our very image of evil and all things dark and fearful. Without ever having had thought about it before that point, this was what William Friedkin was telling us at the beginning of his 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book The Exorcist. This film – widely considered the ultimate articulation of the West’s deepest psychological anxiety – opens with the Islamic call to prayer. Good versus evil.
Our very European fear of Islam; our Islamophobia, long predates Al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States. Modern political expedience, in the light of a few atrocities committed by fringe Islamic groups, has simply given us a hanger on which to hang our coat. In the midst of this very recent explosion of aggressive Western Islamophobia we – non-Muslims in the West – ought to reflect long and hard on the reality of our cultural hardwiring; our violence, now being perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims, was ingrained in us through our culture long before this wholly artificial Clash of Civilisations.