Special issue of TOPIA examines Islam in light of cultural politics

The spring 2008 issue of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, titled "Islam and Cultural Politics", is devoted to looking at the role culture plays in determining how people relate to Muslims and Islam, especially in light of events over the last decade that have brought Islam to the forefront of the public consciousness.

What people think about Muslims and Islam depends on their cultural framing or their understanding of and relationship with Muslims and Islam. This cultural framing can causes people to see Muslims and Islam as either threatening and fanatical, or subordinate and victimized.

"The dominant view of culture tends to see it [culture] as a set of fixed values, attitudes and traditions. The world is thus seen as consisting of a plurality of "civilizations" or cultures each distinct and unique," says York Professor Ilan Kapoor, undergraduate program director for the Faculty of Environmental Studies and guest editor of the spring issue of TOPIA, along with Wilfred Laurier University Professor Shahnaz Khan. This view of culture then determines how someone views or relates to someone of a different culture.

Several of the articles in TOPIA examine how this view of culture results in the what’s known as the phenomenon of "othering", placing people in separate categories, while other articles explore the gender dimensions of cultural "othering". In Safia Lakhani’s article "Sporting the Veil: Representations of Asmahan Mansour in the Canadian Media", Lakhani argues that whether people condemn or defend the decision to expel a hijab-wearing Muslim girl from a soccer tournament, as happened in Quebec, the result is the same. The girl is seen as a passive female victim, voiceless and without agency.

Similarly, in her article "From Rescue to Recognition: Rethinking the Afghan Conflict" contributor Shahnaz Khan, looks at how Afghan women are depicted in mainstream media images as veiled and non-speaking subjects without historical or social context, which stereotypes and objectifies them.

"Despite multiculturalism and the commitment to the equality of cultures, a dominant national identity is normalized by the state, social elites, or the mainstream media, thereby subordinating others," says Kapoor.

Kapoor argues that media reportage and state policy in Canada has tended to project security concerns onto issues, such as funding for Islamic schools and Shari’a law. "The inclination has been to appeal to a sense of ‘Canadianness’ to distinguish ‘authentic’ Canadians from threatening others, and sometimes to even identify Islamic religious practices as evidence of Canadian Muslims’ ‘terroristic tendencies.’ The result has been the normalizing of dominant Canadian identity as modern, secular and white, and the demonizing of Islam."

Another view of culture, what Kapoor calls a post-colonial view, makes culture dynamic, not static, as well as plural and hybrid, rather than whole, which is then reproduced and propagated by institutions, sometimes with negative consequences. With this notion of culture, labelling a woman as a "true" or "real" Muslim woman is an attempt to contain, control or hierarchize women.

Left: llan Kapoor

"Many of the contributions in this issue aim at unsettling the propagation of powerful stereotypes that reduce Islam or Muslim culture to a religious category, equate Muslims with terrorism or sexual perversion, or assume Islamic religious practice to be monolithic or static," says Kapoor. "The post-colonial view of culture shows that culture does not only mediate our lives, but is also the very site of agency and change."

This can be seen in Jasmin Zine’s article – "Honour and Identity: An Ethnographic Account of Muslim Girls in a Canadian Islamic School" – a study of Canadian Muslim girls who challenge the gender-segregated spaces within their schools and attempt to negotiate a position that accommodates the status of women in Islam.

"All of this lays bare notions of the West as necessarily culturally hegemonic, of Islam as homogeneous and fixed, and of Muslims as victims in need of rescue," says Kapoor.

The special theme issue of TOPIA is being published tomorrow. TOPIA is published twice a year by Wilfred Laurier University Press and Cape Breton University Press.

Kapoor’s teaching and research focuses on critical development studies, post-colonial/cultural studies and environmental politics. He is the author of The Postcolonial Politics of Development (Routledge, 2008).