Over the weekend, prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates joined the fray of those who characterize Islam as inherently evil or misogynist with a series of rapidly criticized tweets indicting Islam for the rape of women in Egypt. Yet again, Islam is essentialized, demonized, and stereotyped as a violent and misogynistic faith, one from which Muslim women need to be saved. But no matter the rhetoric within which it shrouds itself, make no mistake: this is Islamophobia, a form of racism, and it does nothing to solve the problems of violence against women and patriarchal domination in general, because Islam is not the cause.
Let’s make something clear: the sexual harassment and rape of women in Egypt (as it is anywhere) is horrendous and unacceptable. Clearly, something is at play here, if that many women report being sexually harassed. I just don’t think that "something" is Islam. If it was, sexual harassment and rape would be limited to Muslim countries and communities. But as we well know, that is simply not true. Rape, sexual harassment, and violence against women are not isolated to a particular faith, but instead, they exist in every country, religion, and community that is patriarchal. The problem is not Islam; the problem is patriarchy.
Joyce Carol Oates conveniently left out the cases of sexual harassment, rape, and violence against women that exist in other faiths. She made no mention of the the Catholic Church, which has been embroiled in a worldwide scandal for the last decade in which priests sexually abused children and were often protected by the Church’s leadership. She said nothing of evangelical Christian leaders who openly endorse marital rape. She didn’t reference the community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, NY ostracized and belittled the victims of sexual abuse, rather than the rabbi who abused them. Sexual violence is not particular to Islam. It’s part and parcel of many religious sects that are violent and patriarchal in their expressions.
Islam is a favorite target of liberals and conservatives alike. From state bills banning Sharia Law (like the one in North Carolina that is now being used as a prop for an omnibus anti-abortion bill) to liberal comedian Bill Maher claiming that Islam is a uniquely violent religion, Islam is an easy target for ridicule and demonization. Because Islamophobia is a form of racism, a means of essentializing a group based on certain characteristics, it defies political ideology and runs through every political party and faction in America. Racism does not split on party lines.
The stereotype of the helpless Muslim woman, oppressed by her faith and her nation, is used by secular liberals and conservatives alike. All too often, Muslim women are used as pawns to justify Western imperialism, colonialism, and militarism. The Bush administration used Muslim women as a pawn in order to justify their imperialist “War On Terror,” and once the invasion began, Muslim women fell by the administration’s proverbial wayside. Bill Maher continuously characterizes Muslim women as oppressed at the hands of their men, playing on a racist caricature of a violent Muslim man, and yet he has done nothing to contribute to the eradication of sexism worldwide (and often actively perpetuates it, calling Sarah Palin sexist epithets). Muslim women become a way to fictitiously position oneself as opposing patriarchy without actually having to do any of the work.
Take the hijab, which has become a placeholder for Western stereotypes of Muslim men and women. It serves as a way for Westerners to fantasize about Muslim culture without actually having to engage with those who participate in that culture. Do Westerners ever bother to ask a Muslim woman why she wears the hijab? No. As Muslim woman and Rutgers Anthropology Ph.D student Donna Auston says, “There is a heavy dose of paternalism and imperialism that comes along, because no one ever asks Muslim women what we think.”
These kinds of statements are often used to justify bigotry against Muslims, and contribute to a Western culture in which Muslims are targeted, monitored, and ostracized. Yes, Islam may have patriarchal elements, but so does the Bible. So does every religion and culture, including our own. It is written into the fabric of how we interact and how we organize ourselves. To criticize Islam as a uniquely violent or particularly patriarchal religion is a racist characterization based on a narrow set of assumptions about who Muslims are and what faith they practice. Until we address the root problem, patriarchy, we will continue to trap ourselves in racist and xenophobic rhetoric that does nothing to create a world where every woman is free from violence and domination.
That brings us back to Joyce Carol Oates and the tweets that she sent last weekend. She essentialized a religion composed of a billion people as particularly violent and patriarchal, and instead of working to understand how patriarchy works or what she could do to help end violence against women, she joined the American fray of lazily characterizing a group based on a set of constructed assumptions about who those people are. Islamophobia may be a more politically correct form of racism, but it is still racism.
Until we begin to truly dialogue about the rampant racism, violence against women, and patriarchal control outside of Islam, we will simply continue to repeat the same cycle of racism that we continue to emphatically state is over.