I’m reading Bruce Bawer’s Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom. So far it’s unremarkable: standard issue right wing paranoia about Islam, obscuring what should be real concerns about the political implications of conservative Muslim religiosity.

It’s interesting, however, how Islamophobic literature distorts Muslim religious terminology. Jihad always means holy war. Dhimmi isn’t a reference to historically “protected” non-Islamic minorities within Muslim empires, but a word used to condemn Europeans seeking an accommodation with devout Muslim minorities.

I’ve become used to this sort of thing, but every now and then, it’s the Islamophobic use of much more minor Islamic terms that catch my attention. For example, Bawer has an offhand reference to taqiyya, the practice of protective dissimulation that is supposedly encouraged when Muslim interests would be harmed if Muslims revealed their true religious beliefs. Bawer calls Tariq Ramadan “a habitual practitioner of the Islamic art of taqiyya—which essentially means saying one thing in Arabic and another thing in English or French.” I’ve run into this sort of thing on Islamophobic web sites as well. The implication is that the practice of taqiyya is another reason not to trust Islamists (or Muslims in general): they’re encouraged to conceal their true intentions.

But if you think of it, that’s a strange notion for most Muslims to endorse. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni. And where it is dominant, Sunni Islam has historically been both the religion of the popular majority and the political establishment. Sunnis would have no reason to dissimulate. Shiites, on the other hand, have often been despised, politically distrusted minorities. (Shiite dominance of Iran is relatively recent.) Indeed, endorsement of taqiyya is primarily a Shiite practice, not part of the wider Islamic mainstream. And in the historical context of repeatedly persecuted Shiite populations, it made good sense—taqiyya is not some kind of endorsement for concealing true beliefs for underhanded reasons. And it is not, usually, part of Sunni practice.

Now, interestingly, accusing conservative, politically active Muslims of taqiyya used to be very common in Turkish secularist circles as well, particularly around twenty years ago. The secularist fear was that the Muslim conservatives were not truly committed to democracy, and that they were lying to gain political advantage. I’d be curious to know more about the history of the accusation, because I imagine that when it first surfaced, taqiyya would be a particularly delicious political insult. By saying a conservative Sunni is performing taqiyya, a secularist could insinuate not only that he was lying, but also implying that the Sunni was practicing an art associated with the distrusted Shiites. And I imagine that both the secularists and their targets knew exactly how the secularists were pressing the term taqiyya into service for political theater. But when I first got used to seeing it, it had already become an ossified, ritual accusation, with no humor in it. Later on, it became clear that in many respects, Turkish popular Islamists were more democratic in their political attitudes than the secularists.

And now, taqiyya is used, even more superficially, as part of Western Islamophobic rhetoric. I’d be curious about how that came about as well. Did the Westerners originally pick up the idea from anti-Islamist Turks or Iranians? Whatever the history, the way they use it now just illustrates how many so-called “critics of Islam” are more interested in Muslim-bashing than understanding what they are ostensibly criticizing.

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