Academic journal article New Formations

Remembering Islamic Empires: Speaking of Imperialism and Islamophobia

Academic journal article New Formations

Remembering Islamic Empires: Speaking of Imperialism and Islamophobia

Article excerpt

Abstract In the aftermath of 9/11, debates about Islam and the West have taken some unprompted historical turns. In Europe and America many people who have spoken out, either as or for Muslims, have appealed to histories of Islam. Ordinary anti-war activists, public intellectuals, museum and gallery curators, even captains of industry: all have spoken of Islamic civilisation and empires of the past. These everyday representations of empires speak to postcolonial and cultural debates about the form and significance of contemporary colonial discourse, and also to controversies in academic and school history about memories of empires and languages of imperialism.

Representations of the Islamic past are both reactive and pro-active. First, they can be read as interventions against the colonial present: contesting Islamophobic ideology in the context of the war on terror by rejecting allegations that Islam is careless about liberty and human rights, primitive and uncivilised. This interpretation is qualified, however, with the acknowledgement that these histories are not consistently anti-imperial; they can better be described as anti-western. But, more pro-actively, these histories also advance positive ideals of tolerance and citizenship, using Andalucía to substantiate claims that Muslims did not simply or grudgingly conform to European ideals of tolerance and liberty; they pioneered these values. Moreover, these historical claims are brought to contemporary debates about how to make tolerance work, identifying points of contact between British values and Islamic histories, and showing how Muslims can imagine not only adopting, but actively shaping British citizenship and other forms of belonging in Europe and America.

Keywords Islamophobia, Islamic, Empire, Tolerance, Anti-Imperial, Anti-Western

We Muslims used to give full rights to the Jews, and they were all in the government offices. And their Hebrew language was allowed at that time. So we in Islam we are not - I give you the Qur'anic ayat that Allah tell the human beings not to kill each other, desjjise each other - so we are not here to kill anybody. We have to respect.

(Tawheed Rahman, 10 February 2007)'

In some interviews with Muslim-identified anti-war activists, conducted as part of a wider project on resistance to the war on terror and contemporaiy Islamorjhobia, I found conversations about the present taking unprompted historical turns. Tawheed Rahman, who identifies as British, Bangladeshi and Muslim, got onto the subject of what he called a 'long, long, long history' when asked about Western foreign policy in the Middle East.2 This had two main strands: one telling of injustices against Muslims, the other celebrating the Islamic past. Much has been written about the former, which has its epicentre in Palestine/Israel, and is by turns depressing, humiliating and infuriating for those who recite it. I shall focus instead on a different kind of history, which Rahman finds more positively inspiring and empowering. As quoted above, he referred to Islamic civilisation in ninth and tenth-century Andalusia, paying particular attention to the cosmopolitanism and tolerance said to prevail there. These sentiments were echoed by Asad Khan, a coordinator for Stop the War Coalition in Bury, a town in northwest England, who spoke with pride of Islamic colonisation and civilisation, which he contrasted with the barbarism and violence that came before, and resumed with Christian rule:

Well you have to go back to the origins of Islam, and Islam arrived in Arabia and I mean those people, without generalising you know, there was a lot of barbarism there, girls being buried alive for example and Islam was a welcome and refreshing change to that which is why it became popular. People often say that Islam was spread by the sword. Any Muslim who has studied histoiy and the Qur'an will tell you that that is a complete and utter lie. (Asad Khan, 22 June 2007):1

Islamic empires have been remembered and celebrated not only by Muslims, but also by others who have sought to stand with or speak for them. …

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