09 June 2017
Terrorism. In reading that word, what
images came to your mind? Be honest. For many of us, it – reflexively and
without us even thinking conjures images of armed Muslim men. This includes our
Muslim readers. Why? The answer is both simple but also critical; we think
through frames – consciously and subconsciously. Frames are those set of ideas,
words and images through which we make sense of the world around us. They can
be as simple as hearing the word “four legs” and thinking of a cat or a table.
In many instances, a complex frame becomes a simple frame by a simple analogy.
An example of a complex frame is the
ongoing debate between those who advocate the need for a welfare state – the
provision of resources – and those conservatives who argue that argue against
the welfare state and the provision of resources to disenchanted segments of
the populace. The latter, in trying to legitimise their complex frame draw on a
simple analogy: do not give a man fish but rather give him or her fishing rod.
It seems commonsensical and thus the frame sticks. More so, the analogy becomes
part-and-parcel of the frame itself (I will return to this point later on). The
fact that we think through frames is simple enough. But what is often
overlooked is the ways in which a particular term, idea or image evokes a
dominant frame, as is the case with the word “terrorism” or other words like
“democracy” and so forth.
This is where things get all the more
important; in trying to counter a particular narrative, let’s say, Islamophobia,
to what extent to we inadvertently evoke the very same frame we are trying to
denounce? Why is it that so many of us fall into this trap? Again, the answer
is quite simple; when a particular frame becomes dominant it not only produces
a certain representation of reality but also provides the language and ideas
through which that frame can be – and falsely so – engaged both positively or
George Lakoff, a famous neuroscientist and
pioneer in the study of frames puts forth a simple but illustrating example. He
tells his students: do not think of an elephant. The first thing that comes to
mind is an elephant. In “postcolonial” society, so-called third-world
intellectuals sought to counter the Western-bias frame, which states that the
non-West is undemocratic and backwards by arguing that they are – contrary to
colonial bias – both democratic and modern. In other words, they drew on the
very language and ideas of the frame and/or narrative they sought to counter.
In a self-defeating move, not only do they then re-evoke the Eurocentric frame
but also legitimise it and in turn, a Eurocentric frame becomes the frame – the
ultimate parameters of any engagement.
This brings us to our Islamophobia frame,
one of the dominant frames that pervade mainstream media, public culture and
academia. If Islam is inherently violent, then it follows that Muslims are
violent and that a fear of Muslims is not only legitimate but also completely
natural. Let us look at one way in which this frame plays out: as with many
frames, the Islamophobia narrative constructs a Villain-Victim-Hero frame. The
hero is the altruistic West, an unheard “Moderate Muslim”, the victim is the
general populace, and the villain is the radical Muslim e.g. the Islamic State.
According to this Villain-Victim-Hero frame, Islamophobia is nothing but – and
exclusively so – a response to Muslim violence.
Another way in which the Islamophobia
narrative is played out is through the Policy-Principles-Relations. This
policy, in this case, would be de-radicalization programs, the principles are
Western multiculturalism and human rights and the relationship being that of a
paternal and altruistic West and a violent Muslim world. Thus far, many
individuals and Muslim organisations have sought to counter Islamophobic
narratives by trying to appropriate those principles arguing that Islam is
indeed compatible with – for example – “American” or “British” principles.
Just like our third-world intellectuals,
the responses to the Islamophobia narrative have been nothing short of
self-defeating. In what has how now become a cliché trope, we find ourselves
responding by claiming that; “Islam is a religion of peace” or that “these
terrorist acts do not represent Muslims”. That is to say, the Muslim puts him
or herself in a seemingly unending defensive posture and in doing so evokes the
Islamophobia frame and reinforces the Villain-Victim-Hero frame.
so, in responding to the Islamophobia narrative by limiting our condemnation to
ISIS or other “radicals”, we reinforce the idea that there is one villain and
ultimately the villain. In many cases even legitimises it in appealing to
Eurocentric conceptions of human rights, individual freedom and legitimate
violence. In short:
We step into the
opponents language-games and thus we give their frame more attention that is
what everyone will remember.
We are now on
the defensive rather than adopting a more pro-active and offensive posture.
We misplace the
burden of proof. It becomes the duty of the Muslim to prove that Islam is
indeed a religion of peace.
So, how then do we proceed? Instead of
working within a dominant frame, we need to channel our energies towards
reframing the debate. This begins by complicating the dominant frame by
exposing its latent biases and conceptual errors. Let me return to the previous
example that conservatives in regards to fishing rods. The analogy/frame sets
up two supposed solutions, a false dichotomy: Either one can provide the poor
with fish or one can provide the poor with a fishing rod. The commonsensical
option would be the latter. Now let us try complicating this frame. Instead of
succumbing to one of the two options provided by the frame, let us call into
question its underlying logic. An example of such is the following counter-argument:
your false-analogy assumes that the poor have access to fishing rods.
Similarly; those who do not have fish to eat – maintain their basic survival –
cannot learn how to use a fishing rod.
In the same way, we can complicate the
simple analogy, we can also complicate the Islamophobia narrative. To do so, as
we did above, we must call into question the seemingly two-commonsensical
assumptions of Islamophobia. Firstly, the fear of Muslims is a natural response
to Muslim violence (the Villain-Victim-Hero frame). Secondly, the idea that
such violence can be remedied through multiculturalism and human rights (the
In tackling these frame-shaping assumptions
we can begin by asking: what are the real origins of the fear of Muslims and
Islam? This is in contrast to accepting the idea that the origins of the
Islamophobia is Muslim violence and thus the impulsive desire to claim that
Islam is not violent or that those villains – and their acts of violence – do
not represent Muslims. To complicate the “Islamophobia is a response to Muslim
violence” logic one need only to identify the historical origins of
Islamophobia and the fact that it preceded, by centuries, the emergence of
al-Qaeda or ISIS. Zackary Lockman explains that: “It was in part by
differentiating themselves from Islam…that European Christians and later then
nominally secular descendants defined their own identity”. Or as Mohja Kahf
explained, “if there is such a thing as a European outlook on the world, a
sense of what is European as distinct from not-European, it began to develop
and define itself in opposition to Islamic civilisation.”. An elusive fear of
Muslims is as old as the West itself. In fact, this fear of the Muslim other
was a constitutive element in the development of the West as an idea and
Another way of complicating, more so,
deconstructing the Islamophobia narrative would be to pay attention to the
Policy-Principles-Relations frame. This begins by calling into question the
principles and relations that underlie the frame and its propositions. To what
extent has multiculturalism and human rights in the West secured social,
political and economic harmony? More importantly, to what extent does the
underlying secular worldview beneath those principles promote tolerance as
opposed to – for example – perpetuate an “Othering” of the Muslim subject and
promote an exclusionary logic in which the State and the State alone is allowed
to engage in “legitimate violence”?
The Qur’an employs a similar strategy.
Muhammad’s (Sallallah u ‘Alaayhee wa-Sallam). When calling upon Quraysh to:
“follow what Allah has sent down” the antagonists retorted: rather we will
follow what we found our forefathers practising. They argued that the Prophets
radical message contravened the dominant frame, it opposed the “religion of the
forefathers” and the “Millah [path]
of Ibrahim”– the dominant principles that relationships constituting their
dominant frame. In responding, the Qur’an calls into question the very
foundations of that frame. It asks: “Wasn’t it the case that their ancestors
didn’t understand a thing and were void of guidance”. In responding to
Quraysh’s evocating of the dominant frame the Qur’an calls into question the
very rationality of its underlying principles. In other parts of the Qur’an,
the villain – for whom Quraysh was none other than Muhammad – is radically
redefined and identified by introducing the concepts of tughyan and dhulm. Far
from appropriating the dominant frame, the Qur’an created its own narrative,
more importantly, a narrative grounded on radically different principles and
concomitantly new ways in understanding the world we live in.
To be clear, these counter-arguments are
just some examples that I am employing in order to illustrate my point about
frames and reframing and are in no way exhaustive of the possibilities that lay
ahead. If Muslims in the West and abroad want to gain an authentic voice, now
is the time to shift the debate and stop being apologetic. Unless Muslims set
their own narrative, we will find ourselves living out a story, not of our own
making, worse yet, we become the main actors.