Are there more taboos about popular culture or Islam?

Is 'Star Wars' Islamic?
Is 'Star Wars' Islamic?

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Is 'Star Wars' Islamic? 01:03

Story highlights

  • H.A. Hellyer wrote about relationship between Star Wars and Islam, asking if there was more of a relationship between two than Islam and ISIS
  • It wasn't Islamists that took umbrage at the piece at all -- it was Islamophobes and anti-Muslim bigots, says Hellyer

H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Centre for Middle East Policy, and International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)It seems that every other week, a new incident takes place to remind us that there are many who will respond to critiques of Islam in a violently disagreeable manner.

Rightly, our response is always to reject vigilante, criminal violence of all kinds -- regardless of how affronted they feel. There are, at the same time, other taboos with regards to Islam in our societies in the West -- with dramatically fewer consequences, but still concerning.
On Saturday May 16, some of those fault lines showed themselves again: at a "National Security Action Summit," Republican presidential hopefuls and others raised the fears of "civilizational jihad," complaining about how "Christians can't come into this country but Muslims can." That wasn't about radical Islamism like ISIS or al Qaeda-style ideology: but about Muslims en masse, and Islam as a religion.
    I recently ran afoul of that same sentiment, in a highly unexpected way. CNN recently published a satirical piece I wrote about the relationship between Star Wars and Islam, and whether there was more of a relationship between the two than Islam and ISIS. It was clearly a sardonic offering, just from the bio that preceded the piece (unless the description of me as a Jedi knight is to be taken seriously), let alone the rest of the piece. There was a plethora of reactions at this ironic piece looking at how easy -- and incorrect -- it was to ascribe to Islam and Muslims the acts, extreme or otherwise, of a few.
    Much of that reaction was positive, with many sending messages privately and publicly about the humorous, while not mocking, engagement with a serious and delicate subject. But it was the negative responses that were particularly instructive. Unsurprisingly, some of those were ISIS supporters, who are not exactly known for appreciation of humor.
    But contrary to what one might expect, the most vitriolic opposition wasn't from radical Islamists who couldn't take a joke. Islam is discussed in media, academia, and public life in a variety of ways, usually in relation to the "How Islamic is extremism" question.
    But taking a popular Western cultural icon, "Star Wars," and jokingly comparing Islam to it in a sympathetic fashion, turned the question on its head, especially in a mainstream media outlet, and broke a taboo.
    Over the years, I've criticized the Muslim Brotherhood, a variety of Arab autocrats, and international governments. Needless to say, I've received my fair share of shall we say negative missives.
    But the hate mail I received on account of this piece was quite astounding, even to me. The pieces elicited received hundreds of Tweets, emails, and Facebook comments that clearly felt affronted that the piece did not attack or criticize Islam on the one hand, while on the other besmirched "Star Wars" by comparing it to this evil, wicked, dastardly (other words were used) cult of Islam.
    It wasn't Islamists that took umbrage at the piece at all -- it was Islamophobes and (let's call a spade a spade) anti-Muslim bigots. In the midst of the messages encouraging me to embrace Jesus (who, ironically, is deeply revered in Islam), there were various notes about the satanic evils of Muslims, the Prophet, and Islam. (Incidentally: I received other messages telling me "Star Wars" is Hinduism for popular culture - others invoking Jesus's protection from the attempts of CNN to spread Islamic doctrine -- and ISIS fanboys insisting it isn't "Star Wars" that is Islamic, but "Dune.")

    'Playful way with serious issue'

    The discussion about the Islamic credentials of ISIS and how "Islamic" ISIS and extremism is something I've looked at elsewhere, via academic considerations of religious authority in Islam, as many academic colleagues have problematized. Earlier this week, a social media campaign called "#MoreIslamicThanISIS" did the same. The CNN piece was a playful way of looking at a serious issue. The reactions, however, raised another serious topic altogether -- the seeming audacity of writing about Islam, without portraying it as the sole and inevitable root of radical extremism.
    Messages suggesting that the piece brought CNN, my cultural background as someone who is English (among other things), and Brookings as a political analyst, into disrepute, brought to mind a lot of contemporary and historical accusations of "cultural apostasy." In earlier centuries, when English sailors would convert to Islam, they'd be described as "turning Turk."
    When Lindsey Lohan was snapped carrying a Quran earlier this month, despite no suggestion she was actually a Muslim, much of the press took a deep interest into it -- although it is hard to see why that might be newsworthy if someone were carrying around the text of another religious tradition. When the Canadian TV show, "Little Mosque on the Prairie" tried to introduce Muslims as normal parts of popular culture, reactions to it brought to mind early opposition to series that did the same for African-Americans and other minority groups.
    Years ago, Sherman Jackson, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Southern California, would talk about conversion to Islam in contemporary America as being considered "cultural apostasy." Today, it seems that kind of nervous antipathy on a deeply rooted cultural level remains. The cultural wars still exist -- even today -- and it means many of us show more concern for a fictional university made up of made up creatures and storylines, rather than respect for a living, breathing population of more than 1 billion people. Indeed, those wars meant a massacre in Norway perpetrated by Anders Breivik in 2011, and more recently could have meant another in upstate New York.
    As I ponder on what is easily the most hate mail I've ever received in a 48-hour period, from the comfort of my own universe as an analyst in Western think-tanks, I ponder two questions. The first is -- what does that kind of reality mean for the internal cohesion of our own societies in the West, where so many of us find it so distressing for Muslims and Islam to be a normal, genuine and sympathetic part of popular culture, even jokingly? The second is -- how much are our own analytical frames affected by that reality, when we as analysts, academics and scholars look at issues pertaining to Muslims and Islam on a daily basis? Are these issues always to be condemned to the cognitive framework of "the Other?"
    I'm not sure what the answers to those questions are -- and it's odd that a satirical piece about science fiction brought them up. But the fact that they did is probably something to ponder further -- and be concerned about.