Scapegoating Muslims has long been a convenient tool for promoting a far right political agenda. A recent Center for American Progress (CAP) report carefully outlines anti-Muslim fear-mongering in the United States, with the long-term hope that, by exposing the roots of anti-Muslim hostility, strategies can be developed to overcome such prejudice. However, relatively little attention is paid to “Occidentophobia,” or more appropriately (since it does not constitute a true “phobia”), anti-Western sentiments among Muslims. Is the Muslim anti-Western prejudice due to ignorance, or is it the consequence of a very selective view of Western society?

A recent international Pew Research Center report (PDF), with the innocuous title “Muslim-Western Tensions Persist,” discusses the extent of Muslim anti-Western prejudice. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Western stereotypes of Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Egypt, and Pakistan. A median of 68% of the Muslim respondents associated “selfish” with Westerners, while only a median of 35% of non-Muslims living in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, or Germany associated “selfish” with Muslims. One could conceivably attribute anti-Western hostility to the fact that Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries may not have come into personal contact with Westerners. After all, this Pew survey report did not provide data about the attitudes of Muslims living in the West. However, an earlier Pew Research Center report released in 2006 titled “The Great Divide: How Muslims and Westerners View Each Other” (PDF) also surveyed Muslims living in European countries and offered a fairly bleak picture of the anti-Western prejudice among European Muslims. Muslims in Britain had an especially negative response, as 69% of those surveyed attributed three or more negative traits such as “greedy,” “selfish,” “arrogant,” or “immoral” to Westerners. This antagonistic attitude was in sharp contrast to the comparatively positive views of the non-Muslim general public in Britain, of whom only 30% attributed three or more negative traits to Muslims.

The “selfish” or “greedy” traits attributed by Muslims in Britain to Westerners are especially noteworthy, since the majority of the top-ranking ranking countries in terms of charitable behavior, as measured by the World Giving Index of the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) (PDF), happen to be countries that are typically associated with “Western culture,” such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland, USA, or Great Britain. According to the CAF, people living in Western countries appear to be far more likely to donate money or volunteer their time than those living in predominantly Muslim countries. This even holds true for relatively wealthy Muslim countries such as the UAE or Saudi Arabia, which came in at ranks 50 and 86 for charitable behavior, whereas Great Britain achieved an international rank of 8. These facts therefore raise questions about the seeming misperception of Western culture. Is the Muslim anti-Western prejudice due to ignorance, or is it the consequence of a very selective view of Western society? Is such anti-Western prejudice perhaps fueled by organizations with a political or ideological agenda, similar to those that promote anti-Muslim prejudice as uncovered by the Center for American Progress? Does anti-Western prejudice of Muslims living in the West manifest itself differently in Europe and in North America?

It would be a fallacy to believe that prejudice and hostilities between Muslims and non-Muslims can be resolved by just asking non-Muslims to show more tolerance and understanding…

Western Muslims frequently emphasize the rich cultural heritage and diversity of Islam as a means to combat anti-Muslim prejudice. At interfaith or intercultural events, Western Muslims discuss poems of the philosopher-poet Rumi and depict the vast array of cultural traditions in the Muslim world, ranging from Indian and Pakistani Qawwali music to Moroccan cuisine. For many non-Muslim Westerners, the abstract entities “Muslim” or “Islam” that were previously associated with fear are thus transformed into vibrant human encounters and allows them to move beyond their prejudice.

However, when I discuss the concept of Western culture with Western Muslims, I often find that their perception of Western culture does not include the same desirable standard of openness. “The West” is regularly seen as some combination of loss of moral values, imperialism, drone attacks—a description reminiscent of the Star Trek Borg species that assimilates into and then destroys other cultures. Many struggle with recognizing their own “Western” identity and few seem to associate “the West” with its grand cultural heritage, which reaches far back to Plato’s The Republic but also includes Baroque music, Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” and the environmental movement. Even though Western Muslims do encounter Western culture and history during their grade school and university education, these encounters are frequently tinged with an unnecessary denigration of Western culture. Allowing Muslims in Europe and North America to appreciate the rich mosaic and diversity that comprises “Western” culture might be an important step towards overcoming anti-Western prejudice.

In addition to these anecdotal experiences, analytical studies such as the one conducted by the Center for American Progress are also necessary to help uncover the extent and roots of anti-Western prejudice among Muslims living in the West. The efforts to understand and combat anti-Muslim prejudice need to be accompanied by equal efforts to understand and combat anti-Western prejudice. The discussions about Muslim anti-Western prejudice and hostility are currently often confined to far right organizations in Europe and North America and are thus coupled with a specific agenda to malign Muslims using outrageous assertions and exaggerations. However, the analysis of Muslim anti-Western hostility deserves more serious scrutiny. Muslim anti-Western prejudice is sometimes treated like an elephant in the room that is ignored, even by liberal-progressive organizations and movements. It would be a fallacy to believe that prejudice and hostilities between Muslims and non-Muslims can be resolved by just asking non-Muslims to show more tolerance and understanding, without demanding reciprocity from Muslims.

Jalees Rehman

Jalees Rehman, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also a German Muslim with an interest in the philosophy of science and religion. Some of his articles on science, culture and religion can be found on his Huffington Post blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter @jalees_rehman.

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5 Comments on ““Occidentophobia&#8221: The Elephant in the Room

  1. “Is the Muslim anti-Western prejudice due to ignorance, or is it the consequence of a very selective view of Western society?”

    Not only is this a false dichotomy, but the two are pretty much the same point. This sort of laughably flawed logic continues throughout the piece. I’ll tell you what “is sometimes treated like an elephant in the room that is ignored” in this piece: the possibility that perceptions of Westerners as “selfish” might be grounded in their disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources, or their violent, imperialist legacy.

  2. Dear Putnam,

    Thank you for reading the article and your feedback.

    Regarding the first point: Anti-Western prejudice could be based on the ignorance of what truly constitutes “Western culture”. People living in non-Western countries may not be aware of the cultural heritage, history and diversity in “Western culture”, just as people living in Europe or North America often are not aware of the diversity among cultures in Africa or Asia.

    This ignorance is distinct from having adequate exposure to and knowledge of other cultures, but choosing to ignore their diversity or complexity and just viewing it as a monolithic entity for the purpose of promoting or confirming a stereotype.

    Regarding your second point: I am not sure that the disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources in the West is an “elephant in the room”. Most people (Westerners and non-Westerners) are aware of it. I do think that it would be a worthwhile project to explore whether the association of “greed” and “selfishness” with the West are truly due to the perception that the West is disproportionately consuming resources. Emerging economies are rapidly increasing their consumption of resources, and in many ways catching up with what has been traditionally viewed as “the West”. I wonder whether the association of the terms “greed” and “selfishness” with Westerners will then change among Muslims living in Muslim or Western countries.

  3. It is indeed an elephant in the room, one of many.

    An important question to ask from the proactive Westerner’s point of view is also why is it that the members of these Western movements and organizations fail to acknowledge or address it.

    To start with one possible extreme: Could it be that they themselves are suffering from Occidentophobia?

  4. I wrote some comments on this article at my blog:

  5. Putnam Pius and Ayman have nailed it. Laughable false dichotomies, spurious equivalencies and tremendous leaps of logic characterize this entire screed. Basically it is the equivalent a of bigot screaming “No you are the real racist” to deflect charges of his own rancid bigotry.

    I guess being a so-called “Progressive Muslim” amounts to nothing more than providing disingenuous apologia of Western iniquities all in a transparent attempt to prove that there is no such thing as Islamophobia.

    Oh and Jalees, it is not merely a “perception” that “that the West is disproportionately consuming resources”, it is just plain old reality, which you cannot obfuscate with your non sequitur about (context less) charity giving figures. If you take an entire three course meal from your neighbour and then give him back two toothpicks as “charity”, then you are not really being very generous.

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