* Many people asked for a copy of my presentation at UCSC about Islamophobia so I’m posting my notes here. I haven’t organized them into a coherent speech (I may do that later) but only tried to highlight some of the main arguments that I made (so I apologize if the prose is choppy and the transitions are missing).
I’m going to do something a little different than what you might expect – I think that most of us in this room probably begin with a baseline assumption that discrimination against Arabs and Muslims is wrong, so I won’t try to tell you how bad it is for them.
It’s perhaps enough to list at the outset that Islamophobia since 9/11 has produced a 10 fold increase in hate crimes against Muslims (the greatest number of hate crimes per group capita in the US); a targeting of Arabs and Muslims by law enforcement agencies; a targeting of Muslim places of worship and Qur’an burnings; a number of ridiculous laws including ones that make it illegal to implement something called “Sharia law”; employment discrimination; racial profiling at the airport; etc.
It was a problem before 9/11 but the war on terror has definitely ratcheted up the scale and scope of the problem.
I think that we all begin from the premise that this is wrong and that something needs to be done about it. If we don’t begin with this premise, then much of this talk will seem like it is either senseless propaganda or irrelevant.
I’m also going to make a number of tendentious claims that will be developed in this presentation but I want to tell you what they are at the outset so that you have a sense of where this presentation is going to go
#1: The war in the middle east is intimately connected to Islamophobia (this is the Harry Potter thesis – the anti-war movement and Islamophobia cannot coexist) – Islamophobia and empire share a long history in Europe and the US. I study narratives and what I can tell you about the Islamophobia narrative is that it is designed to erase the footprint of American empire – Arabs and Muslims hate our way of life and not our policies, we didn’t do anything to them, they are simply irrationally angry. It then gets disconnected from its uses in foreign policy and affects us differently – I’ll talk about that, too. But in the main, it’s about American foreign policy.
#2: To fight Islamophobia consistently, one also has to be a consistent critic of Zionism
#3: Islamophobia is used to justify collective punishment against Muslims and Arabs as a kind of principle of first strike – everything we do to them is justifiable because they are going to do worse things to us.
#4: Islamophobia will get its most serious challenge from the activity of ordinary Muslims themselves (either in the US or in the middle east)
#5: The fight against Islamophobia is intimately connected to the fights against all oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia) – in fact, Islamophobia is used to short-circuit these movements in very specific ways
What I’d like to start with though is a little background about the attacks on people who talk about Middle east politics and the war and about Islam in the US. In 2003 I taught a class on Palestinian poetry (you see why I like tendentious claims. It became the source of some substantial controversy. But one of the things that it made me aware of that I didn’t know before was of the way that the academy is policed and certain ideas are not really tolerated. There is a right-wing conservative cabal that is hostile to all kinds of things from evolution to LGBT studies. There is also a pro-Israeli cabal that is hostile to any criticism of Israel. I’m going to talk about these cabals a little later because they are also the chief developers of Islamophobic literature in the US, they populate the airwaves and specifically Fox News, and they are pro-war. The level of scrutiny that they have placed on college campuses has meant that people who teach about the war critically or who teach ideas that undermine the claims of the state of Israel have been hounded from their jobs, have been denied tenure, have faced death threats, etc. They’ve also worked with law enforcement agencies to police the activities of activists and Muslim and Arab student groups. And have generally created a climate of fear on college campuses – I’ve written and talked about this at length, partly because I’m one of the original offenders in the post-9/11 era. But in many ways, what this also shows is the importance of ethnic studies curricula in the US academy as one of the few places where critical ideas can be developed and explored. I just want to give my thanks to the students on this campus who have been campaigning for ethnic studies as part of their understanding that knowledge production in the American academy should produce some ideas that are critical of empire.
What I want to do is explain where Islamophobia comes from, how it perpetuates itself and reproduces its own claims as common sense, and what can be done to combat it. In producing this explanation I am going to be offering up a historical materialist account of Islamophobia, by which I mean that I am going to explain how Islamophobia arises at a particular stage in the development of historical forces (in this instance European colonialism and American imperialism) and changes as those forces changes in their aims and needs. I take as a starting point the idea that Islamophobia is an invention, that there is nothing in human nature or religion as such which automatically produces hostility between Islam and Judeo-Christian and/or Hindu religions, and that the fear of Islam relies on some rather banal and easily identifiable tropes in order to capture the imagination of ordinary people. In doing so I want to argue that Islamophobia (like all chauvinisms) is fundamentally deployed in order to get ordinary people to do things and to support policies that are fundamentally against their own interests. So most people in the US do not benefit from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya – in fact their lives would be better if that money was spent on health care, jobs, education – but they end up supporting the war because they believe that they need to sacrifice in order to secure the nation against the imminent threat posed by Islam.
At its core, Islamophobia is designed to produce an elegant and inaccurate pseudo-history and pseudo-science which stands in the place of real history and real knowledge, in that it utilizes clichés, stereotypes, and anecdotes to take the place of any real understanding of the lives of Arabs and Muslims. So, violent Islamist ideology is supposed to be rooted in the Qur’an and not in the selective recruitment and training of Islamist ideologues by the US. Terror is supposed to be a part of the Arab and Muslim psyche, with every Muslim a secret terrorist just waiting to be activated, and not the result of a century of European and then American imperialism in the region. And Arab and Muslim backwardness is a cultural fact and not the product of American and European meddling in the governments of every single Arab and Muslim country in the region.
Islamophobic ideas are easy to understand, they don’t require overmuch thinking, and they are easy to find examples of in the real world, thus confirming the notion that fear of Islam is normal and those that are opposed to Islamophobia are apologists for Islam’s violent and oppressive nature. Because if we didn’t believe the narrative about “why they hate us”, we would have no reason to be at war, we would have no reason to support Israel over the Palestinians, and we would have no reasons to voluntarily suspend our civil liberties. Ultimately it undermines any credibility in American foreign policy in the middle east in its entirety.
I want to say something else at the outset as well: it’s important to differentiate between the different sources of Islamophobic rhetoric and activism because it structures the kinds of campaigns that can be organized.
- Official Islamophobia
i. Foreign policy, official narratives, legislation
ii. Requires nothing short of a complete overhaul of the state to do away with this and large scale organizing.
iii. Part of the argument that I want to make is that the persistence of Islamophobia has less to do with the civilizational or cultural values of the west (some like Stephen Sheehi, for instance, with whom I agree much of the time, like to argue that it is hardwired into white people as part of white supremacy) and more to do with the persistence of imperial policies and imperialism which requires control over the region where Arabs and Muslims live. And so, Islamophobia persists as long as imperialism persists.
- Populist Islamophobia
i. News, books, ideologues
ii. This is the sort of campaign that is produced by organizing hysteria around things like the “ground zero mosque” or the “islamo-fascism awareness week” and it has clear personalities and organizations that are connected to it.
iii. It might be important to note that this is one of the ways that Zionist and Hindutva organizations have made themselves part of the American mainstream is by sharing their respective hatreds for Islam with the American right.
iv. The primary function of populist Islamophobia is to skew the debate very far to the right so that official Islamophobia looks reasonable by comparison: as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, by differentiating between good Muslims and bad Muslims (i.e. Muslims who support the war and those who are opposed to the war) official Islamophobia acquires a patina of moderation in contrast, and allowed Bush and Obama to say things like “our Muslim friends” all the while pursuing policies that were detrimental to most Muslims.
v. Can be confronted with group organizing
vi. The fundamental point of this is winning greater numbers of activists to the cause of being consistent fighters against Islamophobia
- Interpersonal Islamophobia
i. Usually a response to real economic/social grievances that find no outlet
ii. Very hard to confront individually but can be challenged in the context of larger political shifts.
Islamophobia is a direct result of American foreign policy in two ways: first it produces the very Muslims that it claims it needs to fight and then it produces an ideology which gives cover for that fight. I’ll explain. During the course of the Cold War, the US consciously groomed Islamist groups in order to fight the Soviet Union and its secular allies throughout the middle east and Africa. The best account of this is really Mahmood Mamdani’s GOOD MUSLIM BAD MUSLIM in which he shows how the American established produced a narrative of saving Islam from itself in order to justify its own foreign policies: this sometimes included propping up dictators (who were friends of the US); supporting dissident groups (against enemies of the US); and defending American values selectively in those places where America was trying to gain a foothold. The Taliban were trained by the Pakistani ISI at the behest of the US; bin Laden was recruited by the CIA to fight the Soviet Union; Hamas was propped up in part by Israel in order to undermine the PLO, etc. In country after country where a secular socialist organization existed to challenge the state, the US saw the communist menace looming and cultivated an Islamic organization to challenge it.
One index of this is that the textbooks that were used in the madrassahs on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan were written by graduate students at the University of Nebraska — Omaha. They literally found a strain of Islamic thought that was an irrelevant fringe and then gave it money and supplies and resources and trained it to fight the Soviet Union everywhere. This also changed from time to time – they didn’t always cultivate good anti-communist Muslims. Sometimes they also just let the old racist ideas seep back in, for instance, in the wake of the oil embargo led by OPEC in 1973, you saw the rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab chauvinism in Hollywood. The best account of this is REEL BAD ARABS by Jack Sheheen.
After the Cold War, the US was able to erase its footprints in Islamist ideology by pretending that these groups were produced by the Qur’an rather than by American intervention. So that when the US became the sole superpower, it had an easy enemy in Islam against which to wage a “war” which was really about control over the resources of the region. The loosened reins on racist propaganda allowed the US to market the war as a war of liberation rather a war of plunder
Part of this was predicated on two lies that the US easily sold to the American public: That all Muslim groups are essentially the same; That the US has done nothing wrong in the region. It allowed the US to appear as the victim rather than the culprit in the war between the west and the rest. As Stephen Sheehi put it, “Suspecting every Muslim and Arab as a ‘potential terrorist’ enabled the United States to put forward a narrative justifying its hegemony in a region that is perceived to be a potential threat to the new global order.”
And it gave cover for the attack on civil liberties in the US in profound ways some of which link up with other social justice issues that I won’t really have time to talk about fully, including the fight for immigration reform in the US. But I do want to give you one quick example. In 2006, the FBI paid an agent-provocateur named Craig Monteilh, a professional con-man and shady informant convicted of several felonies, had infiltrated the Islamic Center of Irvine. He tried to befriend Muslim men, study Arabic and offered to be a personal trainer. By 2007, members of the mosque became so alarmed by the Monteilh’s “jihadi” talk that they reported him to the CAIR, local law enforcement and the FBI. They even got a restraining order placed on Monteilh. The FBI then approached a member of the mosque, Ahmed Niazi, and attempted to convince him to be an informant for them. When he refused, he was charged with a series of immigration violations, which involved the standard guilt-by-association and Muslim-baiting nonsense that characterizes much Islamophobia (i.e. his sister was married to a Pakistani national who was deemed to be a terrorist by the USA). The combination of the fear produced by the war on terror and the opacity of ever-complex immigration laws in which most immigrants don’t or can’t know their rights meant that Niazi’s case was in many ways emblematic of the kinds of things that happen to Muslims in the US.
One more example, the Bush Administration, led by John Ashcroft, detained and deported more foreign nationals in one year than any other administration in US history; even more than did the anti-anarchist Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920 which deported hundreds, including Emma Goldman.
What Islamophobia has done is create a kind of culture of disinterest and pseudo-pragmatism: we have to give up some rights to feel safe. One more example – because this one is quite recent – to make this homology between American foreign and domestic policy complete. NYU law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice recently put out a report called “Targeted and Entrapped: manufacturing the homegrown threat in the United States” which documents how law enforcement agencies basically produced the problem they were discharged to solve, and then used entrapment to justify their own existence: “In the cases this Report examines, the government’s informants held themselves out as Muslims and looked in particular to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence. The government’s informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States. In two of the three cases, the government relied on the defendants’ vulnerabilities—poverty and youth, for example—in its inducement methods. In all three cases, the government selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of targeting. In all three cases, the government also provided the defendants with, or encouraged the defendants to acquire, material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.”
I will be making a number of tendentious propositions in this talk, and I’m going to number them for you, so tendentious proposition #1: getting rid of Islamophobia is intimately connected with ending American imperialism – neither can survive without the other. Let’s call this the Harry Potter thesis.
Two things to say about this. One of the reasons that the anti-war movement in the US went into decline was its unwillingness to take seriously the ways that Islamophobia was being used to justify the war. Early on in the war in Afghanistan, a number of left and liberal groups began defending the war as a way to free Afghan women from the oppressive policies of the Taliban. Hillary Clinton led this charge, and it more or less meant that rather than act as consistent opponents to American empire, a good chunk of the left hedged their bets and hoped that feminism would come from the barrel of a gun. In fact, Islamophobia, more than other chauvinisms, has been used to coopt liberal causes into defending the war, as Islam is characterized over and again as opposed to women, gays, rights, and modernity. Liberal imperialism in the United States is defined by its use of humanitarian and civil rights discourse to intervene in the middle east.
Because this matters to me, it bears underlining that this was always part of the logic of imperialism – the best critic of this rhetoric is actually Aime Cesaire who argues in Discourse of Colonialism that imperialism uses its civilizing mission to paper over its barbarian mission.
As long as the war continues, ordinary Muslims, here and abroad, will continue to suffer, because the justification for American military intervention continues to be the incapacity of Muslims to be left to their own devices.
And it’s important also to say that this is not an instrumentalist reading of Islamophobia (i.e. one that makes the ideology merely the outgrowth of American foreign policy) because as should be clear, the kind of Islamophobia that the American ruling class needs is different than the fascistic and populist one that is spreading through the grassroots.
There has always been a contradiction in American Islamophobia throughout the Cold War and it continues in strange ways today. In the Cold War, American Islamophobia was predicated on hatred for the ordinary Arab/Muslim but a deep appreciation and connection to Arab and Muslim leaders allied to the US. After the Cold War it became a pathetic sympathy for ordinary helpless Arabs and a deep distrust of every Muslim. Some of these contradictions are now being born out in the complicated and contradictory policies that the Obama administration is pursuing with respect to the Arab revolutions (the Arab Spring as it is now being called): hedging its bets in some instances, trying to reestablish American dominance in other regions, but never quite coming out in enthusiastic support for the revolutionary processes taking place, because doing so would mean an upending of the entire project of American imperialism.
What defines American Islamophobia (and how it shares the same narratives as much of American racism):
The one-drop rule is now the one-website or the one-dollar rule (so giving to an Islamic charity or going to an Islamic website more or less confirms that you might be a terrorist). Islam breeds terrorist (much the way that being black was supposed to be synonymous with violence). Driving while black is flying while Muslim; Internment is now called Guantanamo.
Post-9/11 American multiculturalism (neo-liberalism) both “tolerates” Islam (by reminding us that there are good Muslims out there – implying that there are also bad ones) and does nothing to defend it when them when Islam comes under attack. At the same time, post-9/11 American conservatism stokes Islamophobia cynically to provide an alibi for foreign intervention and opportunistically in order to achieve short-term political advantage.
Over the last ten years it’s been a grueling process of watching Islamophobia metastasize in the US AND watching the apologists for Islamophobia pretend to be victims
- Peter King – the hearings about Islam
- The Ground Zero Mosque controversy
- The organized Qur’an burnings
- The frenzy after the Major Nidal Hassan shooting at Fort Hood
- The Tennessee law which bans Sharia law (following the Oklahoma law)
- Texas “Sharia Law Amendment” (HJR 57)
- The Obama presidency – and the death of Osama bin Laden
Some like to define Islamophobia as an irrational fear of Muslims and this is true, but it’s not really complete as a definition, since what it ignores is where this fear comes from. I prefer to think of it as the latest stage in the evolution of ideas about Muslims, ongoing since the 18th century (what Edward Said called Orientalism – and it’s worth saying that this was really a European phenomenon) and put to new ends. So I am following a whole range of scholarship including important research by Mahmood Mamdani and Stephen Sheehi who argue that modern Islamophobia (really contemporary Islamophobia) results from the combination of racist ideas about Muslims (which are not new) and the needs of American foreign policy after the fall of the Soviet Union
It might be worth saying something about history here for a moment both about American foreign policy and domestic policy. America has had racist policies about Arabs since the late 19th century where there were both restrictions on immigration and anti-miscegenation laws which argued that America could not have its good racial stock diluted by the entry of Arab (barbarian) blood. But American foreign policy has actually been complicated during the course of the Cold War in which political Islam was cynically deployed to serve American foreign policy needs. The goal was to displace left-leaning and secular governments throughout the Arab world, because it was seen to be too close to the Soviet Union. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became necessary for American foreign policy to find new explanations for its foreign power projection.It found this first in the Gulf War (1991) and then with 9/11. And it has used a demonization of Islam and a misunderstanding of Islam in order to convince Americans that these were good wars.
And we can talk about the alibis that were used to defend intervention. Perhaps the best way to understand it is to see how cultural liberalism announces its own relationship to Islam (which they always call Islamism and then pretend that they are making a clear distinction). The following is from “The Manifesto: together facing the new totalitarianism” which was signed by Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, and Tasleema Nasreen to name a few. The manifesto came out after the controversy surrounding the Dutch cartoons which depicted Muhammad as a suicide bomber.
Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations. The hate preachers bet on these feelings in order to form battalions destined to impose a liberticidal and unegalitarian world. But we clearly and firmly state: nothing, not even despair, justifies the choice of obscurantism, totalitarianism and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its success can only lead to a world of domination: man’s domination of woman, the Islamists’ domination of all the others. To counter this, we must assure universal rights to oppressed or discriminated people. We reject « cultural relativism », which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions. We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia”, an unfortunate concept which confuses criticism of Islam as a religion with stigmatisation of its believers. We plead for the universality of freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit may be exercised on all continents, against all abuses and all dogmas. We appeal to democrats and free spirits of all countries that our century should be one of Enlightenment, not of obscurantism.
And this then becomes the composite picture (caricature) of Muslims everywhere:
- Muslims are a monolithic category of people who can best be understood by reading the Qur’an: “it is not politics that produces (varieties of) Islam in history. Instead, “Islam” produces politics.”
- Islam is resistant to modernity
- Islam represses/oppresses its adherents
- That an intolerant Islam can be converted into a tolerant Islam (usually through some combination of modernity, atheism, or reformation)
- Islam is a monolithic religion
- Islam is a terrorist religion and a religion of violence
- Islam is inherently anti-democratic and ill-liberal (and also ill-humored)
- Islam teaches a hate of western democracy and capitalism
- Islam hates its women
- All Muslims can best be understood by reading the Qur’an (selectively)
- And most importantly, Islam is impervious to change
The good Muslim/bad Muslim paradox: The good Muslim is the one who agrees with us and doesn’t want to hurt us – i.e. the one who parrots American foreign policy (and who by definition is also a “bad” Muslim). Here’s how Edward Said puts it: “the content of this worldview has become so predictable that we can use it to generate a reliable profile, a stereotype, of the contemporary Islamophobe, who is apt to believe that Muslims are (openly or in the secrecy of their own mosques and languages) violent extremists, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian, averse to democracy, oppressive of women, culturally backward, and dedicated to establishing Islamic law around the world.”
What seemed to happen is some very quick soundbites came together and were rapidly repeated on the air by people from both sides of the aisle. Because the fact of the matter continues to be that the real justifications for American foreign policy projection have nothing to do with democracy and feminism and have everything to with control over important geostrategic assets. So, it is more important to understand Islamophobia as a set of ideas that have been deployed and are getting a hearing because of their ability to explain why the US needs to be in Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Libya).
8) Tendentious claim #2: American Islamophobia can only be fought from the perspective of a consistent anti-Zionism
What American Islamophobia is, plain and simple, is a rehearsal of Zionist arguments used to vilify Palestinians. In Israel you have a colonial-settler state which pretends as though it is the victim of Arab aggression when in fact it is the perpetrator of violence against ordinary Palestinians. The logic of Zionism requires erasing Israeli involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Palestine as the reason for Palestinian anger against the state of Israel. In the place of a legitimate political grievance, Israel produces a narrative of irrational Arab hatred and endemic anti-semitism (which we are supposed to be sympathetic to because one of the reasons that the European powers allowed Jewish settlement in Israel to expand was because of the holocaust). And now there is a direct connection between the ideologues of Zionism in Israel and their supporters in the US. So if you look at the people who are peddling most of the Islamophobic nonsense in the US you will find that many of them are on the payroll of Zionist outfits, frequent speakers at their conferences, frequent defenders of Israel in hearings at the House and Senate, etc. One of the reasons that Islamophobia and Zionism are so intimately connected is that the procedure of erasing historical memory and replacing it with the story of angry Arab and Muslim men was perfected in Israel and continues to be the way that the cause of Palestinian liberation is undermined. In fact, if you aren’t willing to criticize Israel’s use of violence against Palestinians and see the cause of Zionism as analogous to apartheid, it will necessarily lead you back to the logic of Islamophobia – why else would Israel do the things that it does to Palestinians.
9) Tendentious claim #3: the deployment of the vocabulary of “terror” and “terrorism” against the US is designed to erase the experience of collective punishment and violence of Arabs and Muslims, such that anything the US does to them is justifiable because they are going to do it to us first.
- The bombing of innocent civilians by unmanned drones
- The torture of civilians at Bagram and Abu Ghraib
- The decades’ long sanctions on Iraq
- The refusal to lift a finger to ease the suffering of Palestinians
Tendentious claim #4: the biggest challenge to Islamophobia will come from the activity of ordinary Muslims and Arabs themselves – the most spectacular examples of which are the events of the Arab Spring, the Iraqi resistance, and the Palestinian intifada.
In the wake of the revolutions that sweeping across the middle East and north Africa currently, it is much harder to convince people that Arabs and Muslims as a people are incapable of governing themselves or challenging the powerful and implementing democratic reforms. In the wake of the economic crisis that is hitting the US the rational for the war is becoming harder and harder to justify and people are less willing to believe the lies that are told about Arabs and Muslims. Muslims were fighting for democracy; women in hijabs were fighting the police; people were openly debating religion and the state and critiquing American foreign policy in largely peaceful ways. The picture of the congenitally violent Muslim was being replaced with the picture of the Arab and Muslim revolutionary. This is part of the reason that public employees in Wisconsin used the example of Egypt in their protests against Governor “Hosni Mubarak” Walker. It was inspiring to see the organic solidarity between workers in Wisconsin and the people in the streets in Egypt. So we have some real opportunities here to organize to change people’s minds.
But there’s one lesson to take from American history and it’s an important one. No ethnic or religious minority in the US has been able to make a dent in racism without organizing and protesting to demand fairness. The 50s and 60s were the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. The 70s saw the Brown Berets and the Chicano power movements
Tendentious claim #5: the fight against Islamophobia is intimately connected to the fight against all forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, and homophobia.