The portrayal of Islam by western countries and cultures as a religion that subjugates women, inspires violence through jihad, and has leaders who are despots has evolved since the 17th century, and has inspired stereotypes still at work today, was the message of Columbia Law Professor Joseph Massad, who discussed his book Islam and Liberalism at a lunch time talk at Rutgers Law School.
His book discussion traced the relationship between America and other western powers towards Islam and countries that are predominantly Muslim – to give a better perspective on current conflicts.
Massad’s visit was hosted by the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Religion and its Director, Professor Sahar Aziz.
Massad said that as white Christian Protestantism began to grow and flourish in Western Europe and America, western leaders started demonizing Islam and aspects of its religion, starting with the leaders of the Ottoman Empire. They made sweeping cultural generalizations about Islam and began linking it to despotism and anti-Democracy, while Protestant Christianity was linked with Democracy and capitalism.
“So Islam becomes related to feudalism and other economic systems, but not capitalism,” he said. Massad brought up the following points:
As European countries colonized places around the world – including India, Africa, and Indonesia – they criticized those countries and applied their own norms to countries that practiced Islam, though they never sought to answer their own shameful history of slavery or the genocide of Native Americans.
Though women couldn’t vote in America in the late 1800s, western governments sought to portray Islam as having women who were enslaved and needed to be rescued, but never addressed their own treatment of women. “In Islamic studies in the U.S., stereotypes were adopted by American scholars even past World War II,” he said.
Starting in the 1980s, western governments began to support countries that had “liberal Islam” and secular groups, continuing to believe that Muslim countries “lacked a civil society.” The thought that Muslim women needed to be rescued continued and the ideology that western women had better lives, resulted in the U.S. ignoring its own treatment of women.
When crimes happened in Muslim countries, western powers blamed it on the culture, but when similar crimes happened in the U.S., they were blamed on individuals.
While these viewpoints about Islam were always from a “white European Protestant perspective” it was presented as a universal point of view, said Professor Massad. His talk provided an insightful historical context for current events where Muslims and Islam are misrepresented in the media and in public discourse.