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Remembering Islamic Empires: Speaking of Imperialism and Islamophobia

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In the aftermath of 9/11, debates about Islam and the West have taken some unprompted historical turns. In Europe and America many people who have spoken out, either as or for Muslims, have appealed to histories of Islam. Ordinary anti-war activists, public intellectuals, museum and gallery curators, even captains of industry: all have spoken of Islamic civilisation and empires of the past. These everyday representations of empires speak to postcolonial and cultural debates about the form and significance of contemporary colonial discourse, and also to controversies in academic and school history about memories of empires and languages of imperialism.

Representations of the Islamic past are both reactive and pro-active. First, they can be read as interventions against the colonial present: contesting Islamophobic ideology in the context of the war on terror by rejecting allegations that Islam is careless about liberty and human rights, primitive and uncivilised. This interpretation is qualified, however, with the acknowledgement that these histories are not consistently anti-imperial; they can better be described as anti-western. But, more pro-actively, these histories also advance positive ideals of tolerance and citizenship, using AndalucĂ­a to substantiate claims that Muslims did not simply or grudgingly conform to European ideals of tolerance and liberty; they pioneered these values. Moreover, these historical claims are brought to contemporary debates about how to make tolerance work, identifying points of contact between British values and Islamic histories, and showing how Muslims can imagine not only adopting, but actively shaping British citizenship and other forms of belonging in Europe and America.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 13, 2011

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  • new formations is an inter-disciplinary journal of culture, politics and theory. It covers a wide range of issues, from the seduction of perversity to questions of nationalism and postcolonialism.

    'essential reading for those who want to understand politics in the light of the most important trends in contemporary theory' Chantal Mouffe.

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