An Interview with Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Todd Green conducted the following interview with Myriam Francois-Cerrah on July 10, 2014.
1. Why do many non-Muslims in the West have such strong feelings about Islam even though they know very little about Islam?
I think the most dangerous type of knowledge is false knowledge, the perception that you do know something about an issue when in fact your understanding is either very superficial or highly biased in nature. And so what we have, I think, is a lot of misinformation about Islam and about Muslims that floats around quite a bit and is reproduced through various means, particularly in the media. As a consequence of that, people feel that they do know what Islam is about. If you asked most people, I think they might say that they know a little bit about Islam, but the question is what do they think they know. That’s possibly the more critical question. And what they might know is based on a very distorted view of Islam and of the Muslim community, and that view informs opinions, understandably so.
2. What is the best way to address the media’s negative portrayal of Islam?
I’d like to think that we have a responsibility to address all inaccurate portrayals, whether of Islam or any other religion for that matter. If there’s a biased representation of any given issue, then there’s a responsibility to try to redress that. On this particular issue, there are a few ways in which people can and do try to redress them. The one obvious way is to make your voice heard. Journalists tend to be relatively receptive to feedback about their pieces. Ultimately, we rely on viewers in television or readers in print, and so if we get a lot of negative feedback about something, that does inform how we respond in the future. So one of the things is to make your voice heard and to engage with the people making those representations in the first place.
The second way is to start making your own representations. I didn’t go into journalism with the idea that I wanted to create alternative representations of Muslims. But it just so happens that now that I’m here, I do have the opportunity when I report on an issue pertaining to Islam or Muslims to try and reflect a more accurate picture. By and large, I would say many journalists are open to hearing feedback. Most journalists go into the profession because they want to report accurate stories.
So there’s this creation of alternative narratives, and I think that should extend beyond what we might call the formal journalistic trade to the arts and to all other forms of creative expression which allow people to shift their perception on issues. For example, was part of a video – the range of videos called “The Happy Muslim” videos that were part of the Pharrell Williams trend. I agreed to be a part of the project because I like the idea of Muslims defining themselves outside of the usual debates. In some ways, it’s impossible to escape the matrix. Some would say that the reason you participate in a video like this is precisely to respond to negative perceptions, and I think it would be wrong to dismiss that entirely. At the same time, many of those who participated in the video relished the opportunity to just be. To just be ourselves. To just reflect a few seconds of a person having a laugh, who just happens to be Muslim. It’s a window into a community that doesn’t often get public airtime on such neutral ground, if I can define it in those terms.
So there are creative expressions that provide an alternative narrative. I just think generally – whether it be in politics or whether you do it on a microscale in your work place – there are ways of trying to help people better understand your community and your issues. Everyone has a means of doing that, whether you’re working at the local co-op or if you’re the editor of a magazine. There are ways in which you can create platforms that allow others to engage with topics that are of interest to you.
3. What is the one thing you wish more people in the West knew about Islam?
I wish they would know less about the politics and more about what I call the meat of Islam – spirituality. Because of the fact that Islam is highly politicized in many parts of the world, it is often perceived as a political project, and the fact is, for most Muslims, day-to-day Islam means praying. It means being conscious of God, kind to your neighbors, fair in your dealings, honesty with others. Islam essentially means trying to live an ethical life. I do think that that sort of recall message is completely lost most of the time.
4. What can Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?
From within the community, I think it’s important to avoid and “us” versus “them” narrative. So one of the issues that I’m very firm on is not falling into a victim mentality and not allowing it to become Muslims against everyone else, as if we are somehow under siege. I think it’s really important to recognize the allies that we do have, and to recognize ultimately that Islamophobia is just one form of injustice. It should be something that anybody with a conscience would oppose. It is not an issue that should be sectarian in the narrow sense or of concern only to Muslims. And so in that sense, I would hope that it would be an opportunity to take the principle that underlines why we would combat Islamophobia and apply that more broadly.
I would hate for Muslims to become a narrow interest group, only focused on combating Islamophobia. Surely what we’re talking about is combating bigotry, intolerance, and in some cases violence. So we have to be true to that principle across the board, whoever it is that may be the target of that. I think that idea is to learn from the tests that come your way, and hopefully, they will help you improve, as an individual and as a community. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to recognize that historically the Muslim community has not always been entirely tolerant of divergences within and without, even though as a Muslim I believe that the principles of tolerance are a part of Islam. So part of recognizing the need for allies is learning to better understand that tolerance and how central it is to Islam.
5. What can non-Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?
I would still want to avoid Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate being viewed in an essentialist fashion. I think that the roots of bigotry are sadly much broader, and that it’s the focus of that bigotry in various points of history that shifts. I would want to emphasize the idea that there is no need for Muslim exceptionalism.
What I sometimes hear is, “Well, I don’t agree with the [Muslim] faith, but people have a right to practice the faith.” I think that’s a very fair position. None of us should have to agree. What a boring world it would be if we did. But I suppose the danger as well is ending up with a cultural relativism in which we think there is nothing to critique and any critique becomes Islamophobia. Part of assessing where those boundaries lie is having a good relationship with Muslims and other communities. A strong relationship between different communities enables us to determine in a frank way where our areas of divergence are. I think it’s really important in coexistence to recognize our disagreements rather than a wishy-washy interfaith engagement in which we don’t really like to tread on areas of divergence at the risk of creating rifts. The healthiest relationships are those that recognize the areas of divergence and that learn to manage those areas.
6. Are you hopeful that Muslims will face less discrimination and hostility in a generation from now?
Quite a difficult question to answer. If you had asked me this question maybe a year ago, I would have said that things are getting better. But this past year has been quite a difficult year for Muslims, at least in Britain and perhaps in Europe. There’s been an expansion of what’s considered problematic within the Muslim community, from issues related to terrorism to now basically illiberal views becoming the focus of criticism.
The question increasingly is this: Can Muslims ever truly be European if they hold illiberal views? The question marks a dramatic shift in the discourse. It’s also a very problematic question. Europe is still trying to come to terms with its loss of homogeneity, its new diversity, and therefore Europe is wrestling with identity issues. If we define ourselves by what Prime Minister David Cameron refers to as “muscular liberalism,” I fear that we are in danger of creating much more friction in the future. Are we going to move toward a Europe that can deal with its diversity through a liberalism that allows for a range of views to coexist, or are we moving toward a Europe that is increasingly committed to a narrow understanding of liberalism that seeks the eradication of illiberal views? If the latter, I believe that Muslims and other religious communities will find life getting increasingly hard.
What happened with the tragedy of Lee Rigby’s death is that we ended up taking a step backwards, almost back to the way things were around 7/7. It set us back dramatically, it set us back to the idea that there is this dangerous minority continuing to pose an existential threat to us. That is the kind of discourse that arose from Lee Rigby’s murder. And I should say that happened very much against his family’s wishes. His family was extraordinary in pointing out that his murder should not be instrumentalized to foment anti-Muslim hate. They were fantastic about making that clear. But it has been the consequence. It has generated a discourse over whether Muslims are an intractable minority that we’ll always have concerns about.
Moreover, we have the question of how do these two young British men, raised in the UK, end up doing what they did. You could have recognized them easily as South London lads. They were the type of guys you’d see on the bus, or you’d know them from school. How do these guys walk up to somebody in the street with a machete and kill him. If they can do that, what about your work colleague, what about the bus driver, what about the man serving you in the restaurant? The level of suspicion, the big question mark hanging over Muslims, really reemerged. And as I said, the broader debate that came from that is what are we doing as a society that’s allowing these primarily young men to develop radical views. The response to that has been that we are not imposing liberal views enough, and that these guys are given the right to acquire extremist views. But it’s a dangerous route to go down to suppose that the solution is some sort of liberal indoctrination, to assume that the reason we have terrorism is that we have not properly indoctrinated all citizens with liberal values.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is an author, journalist, and scholar in Britain. She contributes articles to major publications such as the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, and the Huffington Post. She participates regularly in public debates pertaining to Islam on programs such as Sky News, BBC Newsnight, BBC Big Questions, and Channel 4 news. She is currently conducting post-graduate research at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco.