The Long and Tortured History of Islamophobia

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The term “Islamophobia” became known to Americans after the September 11 attacks. Whether it was efforts on the left to combat anti-Muslim sentiment or efforts on the right to attack Muslim-Americans and deny that there was something called Islamophobia, the term was here to stay.

But if we only look at anti-Muslim sentiment post-9/11, we would miss a lot. In fact, as Deepa Kumar shows in her new book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, set to be released next month, the production of Islamophobia has a long history. Generating anti-Muslim fervor was central to projects of empire-building in Europe and the United States. “This book is about the image of ‘Islam,’ that mythical creation conjured out of the needs of empire that has led even progressives to claim that Muslims are more violent than any other religious group,” Kumar writes in the introduction.

I caught up with Kumar, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, over the phone last week, and we discussed “liberal Islamophobia,” the anti-mosque movement and how the Israeli right’s ascendance changed the framing of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Alex Kane: Lay out for readers what your book is about and the argument you make.
Deepa Kumar (Photo: Haymarket Books)

Deepa Kumar: The book is about the image of the “Muslim enemy” and the way that it has been used by elites in the West to forward their interests. In the US, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism assumed a prominent place in the public sphere after the events of 9/11. But what I show is that this form of racism is not new. So what the book sets out to do is to locate this ideology within the context from which it emerges. This context, I argue, at the broadest level, is empire. That is, Islamophobia has always been useful to imperial societies. So, the book begins with the crusades and the ways in which the “Muslim enemy” image was mobilized in the 11th century in Europe to advance larger political goals, and goes right up to the Obama era. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, which was the high point of European colonization of the Middle East and North Africa, you see a new body of ideas come into being called “Orientalism” that became the basis from which to justify colonization. Many of these Orientalist myths still persist today. So, the point of the book is to outline these continuities and to point to root causes and ways in which we can effectively fight back against Islamophobia.

AK: Reading the first chapter, I was struck by how, historically, Christian elites painted Islam as sexually deviant and perverse. That rhetoric is also heard today, with the “Muhammad is a pedophile” meme. I was also struck by Montesquieu writing that democracy is suited for the West and not for Muslims. Could you talk about these connections to modern day Islamophobia?

DK: Yes, this vilification of Islam and of the Prophet Muhammad has a long history. It goes back to the 11th century when the Papacy was trying to mobilize for the Crusades. The Vatican was horrified by the fact that Islam allowed men to take up to four wives, allowed for divorce, and even permitted divorced women to remarry! It was argued that it was this kind of promiscuity that allowed Islam to gain as many converts as it did (even among Christians). So the Church put forward the argument that Muhammad was a sexual deviant and therefore a false prophet preaching a false religion. These ideas have been resuscitated today by the far right.

An associated theme connected to sexuality, and one that gets taken up in 19th century Europe, is gender. Europeans circulated the notion that Muslim women are horribly oppressed (without actually consulting or talking to Muslim women) and that Muslim men are misogynistic. What followed from this was that Muslim women needed to be rescued by white men swooping in on their horses. And this is, of course, the justification that was given for the Afghan war—at least it was one of the justifications beyond the revenge motive.

And of course if you look at that narrative, it doesn’t begin in 2001. For instance, Lord Cromer, who oversaw the occupation of Egypt in the 1880s, claimed that Islam has completely stultified the lives of women and that he was therefore going to emancipate them. British colonization of Egypt was therefore an enlightened project. In reality this is not how things worked out. If anything things got worse for Egyptian women. And it’s not hard to tell why, because this supposed champion of Egyptian women’s rights worked tirelessly to deny British women the right to vote as a founding member and president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. If this justification was used by Cromer, an out and out sexist, over a century ago, George Bush who is no less of a sexist used the same argument again in the context of the Afghan war.

The other myth you mentioned was the idea that Arabs are incapable of self-rule and democracy and therefore it was the “white man’s burden” to bring democracy to these uncivilized people. Montesquieu explained why this was so by turning to the weather as an indicator of human temperament. He said that whereas in the West, which has cooler climates, men (and he meant men) were virile and active, in the hotter climates of the East the people were prone to being supine and servile. This is why, he said, they are better suited for despotism. This theory of “Oriental despotism” however is not unique to Montesquieu but was widely held by others. And this argument gets repeated in the early 20th century by Lord Balfour in relation to Egypt when he stated that the Egyptians are incapable of self-rule, and again by Theodore Roosevelt who said that the “Muslim fellaheen” are devoid of any traces of self-government in their entire history!

We find echoes of this again in the case of the 2003 war on Iraq. When weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, the narrative then shifted to one of democracy. The US was going to bring democracy to Iraq and create a new Middle East. Sadly, even people on the left bought this “white man’s burden” argument. And I for one was ecstatic to see the Arab uprisings of 2011 because it showed quite concretely that Arabs are capable of taking down dictators and struggling for more democratic and politically (and economically) representative societies…despite the hot weather!

AK: Later in the book, in your discussions of Zionism, you note that Islamophobia is not necessarily embedded in Zionism. The early Zionist colonists spoke of Arabs and Muslims in derogatory terms. But it was more a general sense of disdain for non-Jews than specifically anti-Muslim sentiment. But that changed in the late 1970s. Could you expand on this?

DK: Israel saw the PLO and secular Arab nationalists as their main enemy, and the vocabulary of the “Arab terrorist” grew out of this context. But a couple of things happen in the late 1970s and 1980s that shifted the language from the “Arab terrorist” to the “Islamic terrorist.” Internally, this period saw the rise of the far right in Israel and an electoral victory for the right wing Likud party; this would then orchestrate a shift rightward in public discussion. Externally, in 1979, the Iranian revolution destabilized the carefully cultivated pro-US and pro-Israeli status quo. In the 1980s, the birth of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine lead the Zionist right to conclude that its struggle was now one against “Islam.” This is the context in which the “Arab terrorist” gets morphed into the “Islamic terrorist.”

There are two important conferences that Benjamin Netanyahu organized that brought together political figures from around the world, one in 1979 in Jerusalem and the other in 1984 in Washington DC. At the first conference Benzion Netanyahu [Benjamin Netanyahu’s father] in his opening speech tried to equate the enemies of Israel (the PLO) with the enemies of the West, saying that the “terrorists” are really like fascists, like Nazis even if they claim to be fighting for freedom. You see here one of the early sources of the development of a concept that would arrive much later– “Islamofascism.”

At any rate, the changes I discussed earlier meant that at the second International Conference on Terrorism in 1984, there was an entire section on Islam and terror. Orientalists like Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie and others are invited to this conference, who then use the language of Orientalism and Islamophobia to now talk about this threat of “Islamic terrorism.” Now the enemy had morphed into the “Islamic terrorist” and Benjamin Netanyahu in his opening remarks argued that the two big threats faced by the West were the Soviet Union and Islamic (and Arab) terrorists, he puts “Arab” in brackets. And by the way the neocons in the US and the Likud right in Israel have shared this view and jointly developed and propagated it.

AK: This distinction between Arab terrorism and Muslim terrorism–what’s your sense of that distinction today? Is it blurry? Is there a separation in people’s imagination?

DK: Today, there is no such distinction. All Arabs are seen as Muslims and therefore automatically as terrorists. This distinction existed at a point when secular Arab nationalism (whether of the PLO kind or Nasserism) was seen a threat to the US’s agenda in the Middle East.

“Arab terrorism” had a particular resonance at that time. With the decline of Nasserism, and the rise of Islamism, the two got collapsed into one. Keep in mind of course that the US cultivated Islamists during the Cold War to act as bulwarks against secular nationalism and the left, but these former allies then became enemies. So the upshot is that today this distinction doesn’t exist as much. Certainly Hollywood has a long history of constructing Arabs as terrorists and it was a seamless transition to constructing Muslims as terrorists.

One telling example of this conflation in the popular imagination comes from the 2008 elections. In the run up to the elections candidate Obama was “accused” of being a “secret Muslim.” Now at one of McCain’s campaign stops a woman who was berating Obama saying she doesn’t trust him (which McCain agreed with) then went on to state that she didn’t trust him “because he’s an Arab.” And McCain replied, “no, no, he’s not an Arab. He’s a decent family man and a citizen.” Of course, the assumption there is that Arab men are not decent or family men or US citizens for that matter. Arabs are Muslims and Muslims are terrorists—that’s the logic here, and it’s a logic that popular culture has played no small role in shoring up. That said, I don’t want to downplay the attacks on South Asian Muslims. Since 9/11 they too have been detained, questioned, deported and otherwise treated very poorly (as have Muslims from certain African nations as well).

AK: Let’s move on to the Obama era. I hadn’t seen the term “liberal Islamophobia” before reading your book. Can you explain liberal Islamophobia and why you think the Obama era is characterized by it?

DK: I use the term “liberal Islamophobia” to make a distinction between the rhetoric of the right, which is more nakedly racist, and the rhetoric which emerges from the liberal establishment. At its core, liberal Islamophobia flows from the logic of liberal imperialism. As several scholars have argued liberal imperialism is based upon using liberal ideas to justify empire, and spans the gamut from the narrative about rescuing women and children from brutal dictators to fostering democracy. Liberal Islamophobia flows from this logic.

Towards the end of Bush’s second term the US had really sullied its image on the world stage, and particularly in the Middle East. It was clear to the elite in this country that the American image would have to be rehabilitated. The Democrats were ready with a plan. A leadership group on US-Muslim relations headed by Madeleine Albright (Clinton’s secretary of state who presided over the era of “humanitarian imperialism” in the 1990s) put out a document that argued that the Bush rhetoric of the “clash of civilizations” was too harsh, and that the next US president needed to reject this thesis and start to patch things up with the Middle East. Obama has proved very effective at this. Rhetorically speaking he has indeed toned down the harsh rhetoric of the Bush era. So during his inaugural speech he actually acknowledged the presence of Muslims in this country, which I think is a first for an American president.

And then, at one of his first speeches abroad in Cairo–he rejected the ideology of the “clash of civilizations,” which sees the East and West as polar opposites, and stressed the interconnections between the East and the West. He also went out of his way to acknowledge how scholars in the East laid the basis for astronomy, medicine and so on. This is a remarkable admission for an American president. But even while Obama has toned down the rhetoric from the Bush era, he hasn’t rejected Bush’s policies. If anything he adopted Bush’s second term policy goals both externally and internally. What he has done quite effectively is to pursue the goals of US imperialism using language that is more palatable.

Towards the end of Bush’s second term there was a shift towards the use of “soft power,” that is the “winning of hearts and minds” and that is what Obama adopted whole heartedly. But despite all the talk of “mutual respect,” Obama like every president before him has acted in the interests of the US on the international stage: extending the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan, dramatically increasing the number of drone strikes (and extending their use in Yemen and Somalia), participating in the NATO-led war on Libya, etc.

At the end of the day, liberal imperialists, for all their talk of “speaking softly,” accept the logic that the US can and should intervene anywhere it wants to around the world to pursue its interests with no respect whatsoever for the right of self-determination of the people in the countries it targets. Liberal Islamophobia is still racist at its core.

Now, most people can see and detect rabid racism against Muslims. So when Peter King holds his routine hearings on Muslim American “radicalization,” which smacks of McCarthyism, he is roundly criticized by civil rights groups and by liberals. However, when Obama does the same people don’t recognize it as Islamophobia.

For instance, Obama released his own “counter-radicalization” strategy in 2011 which called for the formation of a McCarthyite type informant network involving Muslim American teachers, coaches, and other members of the community. No one said a peep. This is because if you read the document it is filled with praise for Muslim Americans who have cooperated with the government, and it lauds the US’s multiculturalism and religious plurality. But it then goes on to target Muslims because like King the Obama document too views Muslims as “potential terrorists” who can become “radicalized” and must therefore be monitored and put under surveillance. It is not an aberration that federal money was used for the infamous NYPD spying program. And to the best of my knowledge Obama has neither spoken out against it nor has he tried to shut this (or other similar programs run by the FBI) down. The way liberal Islamophobia works is that it roundly criticizes Islam-bashing, thereby preempting charges of racism, but then it goes on to champion programs that target and vilify Muslims.

One more recent example is the Obama “kill lists” whose victims include not just people who are suspected of being “terrorists” but everyone in the vicinity as well. Without so much as a trial or any kind of charade of justice the Obama administration has given itself the power to execute people around the world, including US citizens. But he can get away with this because he doesn’t use phrases like Bush’s “wanted dead or alive” or words like “crusade.”

AK: And you also say that liberal Islamophobia enabled the explosive rise of the anti-mosque movement, like the one against the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Could you explain that?

DK: The dynamic is one where liberal Islamophobia at the top of society creates a greater opening for the more rabid racists. Since the events of 9/11 a network of Islamophobes, who I call the “new McCarthyites,” have been involved in a series of campaigns targeting Muslim schools, community centers and mosques. This Islamophobic network includes the Christian Right which works closely with the Zionist right (and the ex-Muslim right) and they are led intellectually by sections of the neoconservative camp (like Frank Gaffney and his group Center for Security Policy). Essentially, these Islamophobic warriors have tried to reproduce the kind of atmosphere in the US that we see in Europe where all symbols of Islam (mosques, veils, minarets) have come under attack. But up until the Obama era, their campaigns were largely failures.

The Obama presidency gave them an opening in several ways. First, they were able to accuse him of a being a “secret Muslim” whose agenda was to turn the US into a Muslim country. Sadly about 30% of the US population believes this nonsense. Instead of pushing back against this, Obama has always responded defensively. He has assiduously avoided visiting mosques, and during his campaign two Muslim women in hijabs were asked to move because his handlers didn’t want them to appear in the same frame as their candidate. Further, Obama has insisted again and again that he is a good Christian thereby giving ground to the implication that there is something wrong with being a Muslim.

You asked about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. This really was the first instance when the new McCarthyites were successful in grabbing public attention and setting the terms of discussion. The way it went down was this. A group called “Stop Islamization of America” created a big brouhaha around the proposed community center called “Park 51” or “Cordoba House.” They argued that this was a “monster mosque” and an insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11. Their rhetoric was extreme; Newt Gingrich even said that this community center was the equivalent of building a monument to the Nazis outside the Holocaust museum. In short, their argument was premised on the notion that any symbol of Islam close to the site of the former World Trade Center was offensive. The logic is that all Muslims are to blame for 9/11.

Now in response to this heated rhetoric the Democrats, who supposedly represent the other side, put up at best a tepid defense on the grounds of religious freedom. They didn’t push back against the notion that Muslims are not collectively to blame for 9/11 and therefore it should not be offensive to build a community center (modeled on the Y and the Jewish community center) at that location. Instead, Democrats too jumped on the Islamophobia band wagon. For instance, Howard Dean, the great liberal Democrat said that the community center was “a real affront to people who lost their lives” in the 9/11 attacks, and he argued that it should be moved. Similarly Obama argued that while he supports religious freedom he questioned “the wisdom” of putting a “mosque” in the planned location.

This then gave the rabid Islamophobes exactly the opening they wanted. Their argument that the center should not be built at that location was now accepted even by the “other” side. It is not a surprise therefore that they won public opinion on this issue with majorities coming out against the construction of the community center. Public opinion on Muslim plummeted alarmingly that year. At any rate, this is how liberal Islamophobia fans the flames of right wing Islamophobia.

AK: I have one more question, a “where are we now?” question. How do you assess how Islamophobia functions in our society today, and also how do you assess the efforts to push back against that Islamophobia? The efforts on the part of activists?

DK: Since the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy things have actually improved. The right has been pushed back thanks to the efforts of activists around the country. In NYC many of us were involved in a grassroots campaign to counter the hateful message coming from the far right. On September 11, 2010, we called a counter-demonstration to theirs and had twice the number of people at our rally. Our rally was diverse and multiracial with signs that read “Asalamu aleikum, Muslims are welcome here.” We pushed them back and they didn’t return; Park 51 opened. Similarly, progressive activists around the country have organized against the hate mongers.

What is significant is that Muslim Americans themselves have become more active. A majority of Muslim Americans voted for Obama in 2008 hoping that he would make things right, but as I mentioned earlier his policies have not been that different from Bush’s and in some ways they have been worse (he passed the NDAA which allows for the indefinite detention of US citizens if they are thought to be connected to terrorism for instance). Muslim Americans who have been targeted by the Bush and Obama legal systems have been fighting back since 2001, but in the last year or so the families of these victims (along with progressive lawyers) have started to come together to form nationwide networks. This is a huge step forward.

What has also impacted the climate around Islamophobia is some excellent investigative reporting by the Associated Press in particular, but also by Wired magazine and other such outlets. AP released a series of reports exposing the systematic racial profiling of Muslims by the NYPD in the tri-state area. This created some push back from mainstream figures like Newark’s mayor as well as presidents of various universities where Muslim student groups were spied on. In particular, Yale University’s president called it what it is: “racial and religious profiling,” arguing that this has no place in American society.

Since then a handful of Congressional reps have tried to put forward bills to censure the NYPD as well as the FBI. They haven’t succeed, the overwhelming majority voted against these measures, but such activities create a space in the mainstream from which anti-Muslim racism can be both acknowledged as a reality and criticized.

The recent New York Times story on the Obama “kill list” isn’t a gung-ho endorsement of such practices, if anything there is a lot of anxiety in that article about what this country has become in the era of the “war on terror.” This is a huge step away from the New York Times of 2003 that carried all the stories about WMD’s on its front page.

In short, the work of activists as well as investigative journalists has created a climate where we are better poised than ever since 9/11 to fight Islamophobia. I am also really encouraged by the solidarity on display in New York City.

At several rallies and press conferences people have connected the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy which mainly affects blacks and Latinos, to the targeting of Muslim Americans. It is this kind of solidarity and collective grassroots activity that can help to turn the tide against Islamophobia. But central to this struggle must be a recognition that the roots of Islamophobia lie in empire. The war at home is intimately tied to the war abroad (and the war at home is also a war on dissent–non-Muslims have also been targeted by the state for holding dissenting views).

Let me end with an example from history. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 people of Japanese descent (a majority of whom were US citizens) were put into concentration camps. If you read about these camps they were horrible places with no plumbing or cooking facilities—yet young and old were incarcerated. A few short years later, the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocents. These events are connected. When a nation goes to war it turns against those it sees as domestic representatives of the “foreign enemy.” We have to learn the lessons of history and show that what is happening to Muslims today is tied to the “war on terror.” We have to oppose the agenda of empire.

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