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How western Islamophobia works in the Global South

International media cite religion as the culprit for a student's beating in Bangladesh, when a host of other factors are at play
Madrasa students sit in a classroom on the outskirts of Dhaka in 2009 (AFP)

Islamophobia in the West and the Global South work conjunctionally, not separately. Media coverage of a recent viral video about the merciless beating of a student in Bangladesh - indisputably an immoral and criminal incident - has been framed in a way that targets the religious and educational institutions of Muslims. 

Islam has been mobilised as an explanatory vector, creating the discourse of Muslims as barbarians by power elites in both the Global South and the West. For this discourse to prevail, members of the media conceal practices of beating in Hindu, Christian or other institutions, and they erase non-religious factors, such as outdated pedagogy. 

The DW report describes Bangladesh as a 'Muslim-majority country', while failing to describe India as a 'Hindu-majority country'

A Deutsche Welle (DW) report headlined “South Asian madrasa students face widespread corporal punishment” deploys sweeping generalisations typical of this kind of coverage. The report gives no data to back up its central argument, citing a survey that “didn’t specify the ratio of punishments between public schools and madrasas”.

So what is the rationale to sensationalise beatings in madrasas alone? As the report progresses, it becomes clear: this generalisation aims to demonise Islam and madrasas, a process that started with the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan and accelerated after 9/11. The article repeatedly equates the practice of beating with Islam and madrasas, and it continually overplays the religious factor, asserting that it is “Muslim parents” whose children attend madrasas.  

Preoccupied as it is with the religious cause of the punishment, the report repeatedly calls madrasa teachers “clerics”. This rendition is wrong. Madrasa teachers also teach languages, including English, and “modern” subjects, such as maths. They are not “clerics”. Contrast this fanaticism with media depictions of Hindu religious figures as “spiritual” gurus or “seers”.

Continuing along these lines, the DW report describes Bangladesh as a “Muslim-majority country”, while failing to describe India as a “Hindu-majority country”.

Wider trend

Depicting Muslims in exclusively religious terms is part of a wider trend. Last year, the Guardian described Jamia Millia Islamia as “Delhi’s Muslim-majority” university. But it did not describe Banaras Hindu University as Hindu-majority. 

Such a framing could be forgiven in a country widely known to be Hindu majority, but these instances add up. Prefixing “Muslim-majority”, especially about negative things linked to Muslims, is common in the media and academia alike. An Al Jazeera story about a Malaysian jailed “for insulting Islam” described Malaysia as a “Muslim-majority country”. According to the Independent, Kenya’s Lamu Island is “Muslim-majority”, but Kenya itself is not described as “Christian-majority”. 

Police stand guard as Muslims pray at a Dhaka mosque on 11 December 2020 (AFP)
Police stand guard as Muslims pray at a Dhaka mosque on 11 December 2020 (AFP)

This practice runs counter to the stripping away of religion from issues, even specifically religious ones, among Hindus. Coverage of bans on beef, or violence unleashed to “protect” cows, which are deemed holy in the Hindu religion, illustrates this. In western media, the religiously driven lynchings of Muslims on allegations of slaughtering cows are mostly erased, or mystified as “secular”. 

In contrast, the impulse to demonise madrasas is such that when the DW report apparently finds no other recent incidents of beatings in madrasas, it links out to an incongruous story about calls for reforms in Hindu ashrams, which references their “spirituality”. The spirituality of Islam and madrasas is apparently neither here nor there, and recalls VS Naipaul's dismissal of the religion as a "faith growing out of spiritual vacancy".

Weapon of authentication

To garner credibility, Islamophobia deploys the weapon of authentication from inside by using quotes from Muslims themselves. But the selected quotes, media scholars argue, tend to confirm reporters’ prior theories. In addition, disparaging writings about Islam by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin and others largely work as voices of authentication from within. 

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One way to combat the global narrative of uniformity at the heart of Islamophobia is to stress the multiple factors responsible for acts such as the student’s beating in Bangladesh, including local culture and socioeconomic asymmetry.    

The root cause of beating is not religion, but the supra-religious notion that to learn is to memorise; failure in memorisation thus leads to beatings, a practice prevalent in Hindu, Christian, modern and “secular” government schools across India, where most teachers and students are Hindu. Gerontocracy is another factor, preventing teachers from examining their own failures, including boring teaching methods. 

Abuse against children also occurs because most poor, illiterate, semi-educated parents who send their children for free education cannot hold the madrasa administrations accountable. In my research on madrasas in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, I found that in some madrasas, students pay tuition and boarding fees, and cases of beating are fewer there.  

To stop the barbaric practice of beating children, mere laws will not be enough, just as anti-dowry legislation has proved insufficient. Reforms must be both internal and external. Awareness of children’s rights, and socioeconomic empowerment of parents whose children attend madrasas, are vital. Without this, parents will not be able to hold madrasa authorities accountable.   

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Irfan Ahmad
Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute, Göttingen. He is the author of Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (2017) and editor of Anthropology and Ethnography are Not Equivalent: Reorienting Anthropology for the Future (2021). Earlier, he taught at Australian and Dutch universities. He [email protected]