It was shortly after the murder that took place against journalists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris in January 2015, that I was invited to the famous Austrian TV debate on Sunday evening. They had invited a group of people to discuss ‘Europe in Fear: The End of Tolerance?’ following the attacks, which were perpetrated by what we commonly refer to today as Jihadist terrorism.
When the lady of the Austrian broadcast TV (ORF) called me on my phone, she eloquently invited me to participate, referring to my longtime work on Islamophobia. She argued that she would love to include a discussion on the challenges that terrorist attacks like this would stir up, including animosity towards Muslims. I agreed.
But my interviewer’s last question distracted me. She asked me whether I was Muslim or not. I told her frankly: If she wants a Muslim, she is free to invite one. If she wants a political scientist, she is free to invite me. Immediately, the interviewer tried to explain why she was interested in my religious background given my name. But I only repeated my first answer. At the end, they had invited me, without having heard a declaration of my faith.
To my surprise, the first question the moderator asked me in the live debate was, why I did not answer the question of religious affiliation put forward by her colleague. My answer was short, maybe too short. “Because this is part of the problem,” I said.
I knew that any other political scientist sitting at this very same place would have never been asked this question. A white man or woman, a philosopher, scientist, writer or artist would just have presented their ideas. Maybe the white person would have talked about her religion on their own. But never would a white person representing a certain profession be asked what their religious affiliation was.
To me, it is obvious why I was asked about my religion. Because the assumption was – if I was Muslim – that I could play the role of the defender of all the imaginations the dominant society has towards the religion of inferiority, backwardness, violence and everything else, which is deemed the antipode of the – invisible superior – white.
James Baldwin’s reflections in a debate with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King together with moderator Kenneth Clark on May 24, 1963, reflect this very insight into the problems of the dominant societies in the West:
“But the Negro in this country … the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright as dark as the future of the country … What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I am not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him… I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question”.
This pressing question is unsolved until today. And it afflicts our societies – especially in what we call the Global North – until today. It may change its name with the object of the most humiliated and bottommost in the socio-economic hierarchy. But it still operates in the same way.
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