Responding to Islamophobia: A Pro-Active Strategy
Right-wing and neo-conservative political forces are calling for campus mobilizations 22 – 26 October 2007 for “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” events. They deliberately use the provocative term “Islamo-Fascism,” linking Islam (and blurring the religion, the countries where it is a majority, and its adherents) with the most despised political movement in history – fascism. They do so despite the disdain with which the most violent and extremist versions of political Islamism hold both the nation-state and corporations, both of which fascism holds sacred. Their call predicts “the biggest conservative campus protest ever” and identifies their goal as “to confront the two Big Lies of the political left: that George Bush created the war on terror and that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat.”
The very language of their goals makes clear that this is not solely a racist assault on Muslims, Arabs, Arab-Americans, South Asians and anyone viewed as sympathetic towards those communities. Certainly this Islamophobic crusade, led by the neo-conservative David Horowitz Freedom Center, does reflect a deeply rooted racist demonization of those targeted communities. But it reflects dangers even beyond the threat it poses to those communities and to the social fabric of this country from the consolidation of racist demagoguery as a “legitimate” part of public discourse.
There is an understandable instinct to roll one’s eyes at these risible assertions, and to dismiss the grandiose mobilization claims as just one more fringe right-wing nut job, but such a response would be a serious mistake. Not because the “claims” are anything other than preposterous, but rather because there is far too much public belief in these preposterous assertions for anyone concerned with public education and mobilization to blithely write them off. And with the clear links between Islamophobia and support for war, the stakes are simply too high to ignore.
Claiming other people’s oil, targeting islam
It is clearly no coincidence that the areas that are the ultimate targets of the so-called “war on terror,” countries where Islam is preeminent as majority populations and often the basis for governance, are the same countries and regions where strategic resources – most notably oil and natural gas – are concentrated. It is also no coincidence that both the 2002 and 2006 versions of the Pentagon’s “Quadriennial Review” demonized Muslims, Islamic countries and Islam, in various guises, as grave threats to U.S. security.
The call for “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” uses rhetoric that recalls 1950s-era anti-communist attack and innuendo, saying that “In the face of the greatest danger Americans have ever confronted, the academic left has mobilized to create sympathy for the enemy and to fight anyone who rallies Americans to defend themselves. …Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week is a national effort to oppose these lies and to rally American students to defend their country.”
The political framework of this “Global War on Terror” has tweaked the idea of a “clash of civilizations” to refer to something slightly different. Now the Bush administration speaks not of that clash between civilizations, but rather a clash within a civilization – specifically within the Muslim world. It is a “clash,” administration officials warn, in which “we” must prevail. This has shaped the latest version of how the U.S. proposes to understand the Arab world, the Middle East, the Islamic countries – as a clash between “moderates” and “extremists.” Those people, governments, countries, dictators, militias whom “we” define as “moderate” support U.S. efforts towards control and domination of their country/region/world. The “extremists” are those who resist such efforts.
The “global war on terror” framework thus serves the Bush admininistration’s goal of permanent war – a permanent war economy, permanent reliance on preventive and preemtive wars, permanent control of the world through a network of military bases and expansion of military force. It is a Manichean world-view, a view of good vs bad, white vs black, and ultimately “us” vs “them.”
This is a throwback to the language of totalitarian regimes. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels bragged that if you repeat a lie often enough, the people will believe it. And Hitler’s Reich-Marshal Hermann Goering, while recognizing that “naturally the common people don’t want war,” went on to remind the world how easy it was to convince people to support war. “All you have to do,” he said, “is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Deconstructing “Islamo-fascism awareness week”
This call for an “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” shocking in its explicitness, is an effort to mobilize support for a carefully crafted campaign, designed to use familiar racist imagery to bolster the Bush administration’s key strategic foreign policy objective: strengthening the so-called “global war on terror.”
The campaign aims to reach a wide swath of U.S. public opinion. But there is no question that it seeks particularly to mobilize Christian Zionists, with whom it most often shares a right-wing political and social agenda, as well as Jewish Zionists – those ordinarily liberal, but pro-Israeli communities who can easily be pulled into at least acquiescence, if not full support, for a future U.S. war in Iran.
For example, the newest “pro-Israel” lobby on the block – Christians United for Israel – called on the 4,000 participants at its July 2007 national conference to back “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” Calls to take action against Iran dominated the conference and the talking points for CUFI’s lobby day, just as those issues top the agenda of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). The CUFI leadership called their anti-Iran effort “the movement of our time.”
There is a clear link between Columbia University president Lee Bollinger’s statement (featured at the center of a full-page New York Times ad purchased by the American Jewish Committee) equating what he called “the mission” of Israeli and U.S. universities, and his leading role in insulting the Iranian president when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to speak before Columbia students. Not quite willing to openly reverse Ahmadinejad’s invitation to his university, Bollinger was prepared to employ a novel kind of censorship-through-humiliation: acquiesce to the appearance of an unwanted guest, but control the discourse through allowing only rudeness and humiliation.
An old injustice: using racism to build support for war
This is hardly the first time the U.S. has used racism to build support for war. The carefully orchestrated “Islamophobia” effort closely mimics the U.S. campaigns of World War II. They were not designed to condemn Japan’s military or its policies of imperialism and militarism, so much as to denigrate Japanese people themselves. In these campaigns “Japs” were caricatured in racist images with pigtails, buckteeth, and faulty speech, much as Muslims and Arabs are disparaged in cartoons, films, and popular culture today. In both eras, the racist campaign aimed at the strategic goal of building public support for war.
The World War II campaign to disparage and defame all Japanese was broadened to include Japanese-Americans, and of course that led to the infamous U.S. decision to imprison more than 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent in internment camps for years during the war. More than 2/3 of them were U.S. citizens. It is not coincidental that attacks on Muslims, Arabs, Arab-Americans and south Asians have similarly escalated in the six years since Bush announced the so-called “Global War on Terror.”
It is no coincidence that racism against other communities is at the core of the work of these Islamophobic forces such David Horowitz’s “Freedom Center,” which has also targeted African Americans. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee, among others, has reported on how Horowitz’s racist diatribes led to self-critical retractions and apologies from student newspapers across the U.S. that had accepted his advertisements. ( See this document - PDF)
In fact, today’s targeting of Muslim and Arab communities has an even earlier history. In 1987 a secret report of the inter-agency “Alien Border Control Commission” was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. Coordinating the work of the Justice Department, FBI, immigration services and several other related agencies, the ABCC outlined a plan for the internment of U.S. residents from seven Arab countries plus Iran, in the event of a future unspecified “national emergency.” Internment camps, including a large one in Oakdale, Louisiana, were to be built to hold an unknown number of detainees.
During the years of the Cold War, the word “communism” served as a convenient basis for mobilizing popular support for war, hysterical fear that shut down critical thinking, and the wholesale violation of U.S. Constitutional rights. While many Americans didn’t really know what communism was, during the McCarthy period anti-communism still succeeded in creating new fears, demonizing whole communities, and legitimizing the notion that an accused communist was guilty till proven innocent.
Are we surprised that years later, equivalent assumptions shape the treatment of Muslim detainees accused of “terrorism” and held for months or years in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo Bay, at Bagram Airbase or in secret CIA detention centers hidden across Europe?
Six reasons to resist islamo facism week
The announcement of “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” provides a huge opportunity for taking on the rising campaign targeting Muslims and Arabs as well as Islam itself, as inherent threats to “our” democracy, threats to “our” U.S. national security, threats to “our ally” Israel, and threats to “our way of life” (however ill-defined that may be).
- The invention of Islamophobia, or fear of Muslims or Islam, is a key weapon in the Bush administration strategy for building public and congressional support for illegal and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for potential future war against Iran, for Israel’s policies of occupation and apartheid, and for a broader drive towards empire.
- As the threat rises of a new U.S. war against Iran, there is already evidence of a campaign to insult Iran and Iranians dangerously reminiscent of the early roots of the current anti-Islam mobilization, which took shape in the relentless demonization of Iran and especially of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the time of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
- The high percentage of Americans who continue to believe that the false claim that the ruthlessly secular Saddam Hussein was responsible for the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, indicates a far too widespread inability or unwillingness to distinguish between “Islamic” and “Arab” people, countries and movements.
- While Islam-bashers in U.S. government, media, academic and other circles are sometimes careful to claim that their hostility to Muslims or Arabs or Islam is limited to the “extremists,” the goal and the impact of these campaigns is in fact to demonize entire countries and communities. As Islamophobic views find increased acceptance in public discourse, there is also a rising danger of growing public acceptance of attacks –including legal discrimination, denial of rights, violent assaults, and more – on U.S. citizens and residents who happen to be Muslim, Arab, or Arab-American. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other organizations have documented frightening numbers of such attacks.
- Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is not limited to extremist, racist fringe forces; it is reflected in U.S. political, public, academic and media discourse at the highest levels, including from leading U.S. presidential candidates. Senator John McCain says that “since the U.S. was founded on Christian principles” he prefers a Christian president to a Muslim one. Congressman Peter King, top advisor to presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, says that “unfortunately, we have too many mosques in this country” and that the Muslim community is “a real threat here in this country.”
- The spread of Islamophobic attacks to campus is aimed at limiting academic discourse to a narrow range of anti-Islamic, anti-Arab, pro-Israel and pro-war opinions. These attacks form part of concerted public pressure to:
- Refuse to hire or deny tenure to numerous academics whose work challenges what is defined as “acceptable” mainstream dogma on Middle East and U.S. policy issues;
- Intimidate Middle East scholars through recruitment of students to record classes and lectures with the goal of “exposing” opinions deemed unacceptable;
- Create websites (by organizations such as Campus Watch and others) to undermine the credibility of Middle East scholars who challenge anti-Muslim, pro-war orthodoxy;
- Construct a climate of self-censorship severe enough that many applicants for scarce Middle East studies teaching posts refuse to teach Israel-Palestine history until after achieving tenure.
Academic attacks are on the rise against those scholars who resist such censorship, particularly on the question of Israel. The Harvard Crimson reports that during a faculty meeting in 2006, Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse articulated the basis for such censorship. “Denying that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are separate phenomena, she declared anti-Zionism—that is, the rejection of the racially-based claim that Jewish people have a collective right to Palestine—the worst kind of anti-Semitism.” Such false accusations of anti-Semitism remain potent instruments in suppressing open political discourse.
Reasons for optimism
Despite the rise of racist, anti-Arab Islamophobia , it is clear that public opinion (however slowly) is actually beginning to shift away from accepting such propaganda. In fact it is certainly arguable that the escalation of racist attacks is actually a response to those changing popular views.
Those changes have been brought about through a number of factors. The impact of former President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid has played a huge role. Its stunning title has brought new legitimacy to the once-demonized analysis of Israeli policy as a new form of apartheid. Others, including the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, are providing evidence of how Israeli policies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel violate the UN’s 1974 International Covenant on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.
The work of Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearscheimer on the pro-Israeli lobby, culminating in their recent book The Israel Lobby, has broken a longstanding taboo on bringing the role and influence of the lobby into public discussion. While Walt and Mearscheimer were hardly the first to write about the lobby, their original article (refused by the Atlantic Monthly, which had originally commissioned it, it was eventually published by the London Review of Books) reached a much broader audience than any earlier critical analysis because of the impeccable academic and political credentials of the two scholars. Their tenured positions at Harvard and the University of Chicago, and their mainstream “realist” foreign policy positions, brought new familiarity and, most important, new legitimacy to the critical examination of the pro-Israeli lobby that had long been limited to smaller, progressive publications.
Whatever the weaknesses or limitations of these two important books, their publication has enabled a level of nuance long made impossible in mainstream discussion of these issues. Organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace are rising, bringing Jewish opposition to Israeli occupation to new visibility. The traditional efforts to narrow or circumscribe the debate – to shape an intellectual climate in which challenging Israeli occupation is equated with anti-Semitism and discussion of how to “deal with” Iran is limited to the choice between crippling economic sanctions or nuclear attack – no longer go unanswered.
So, what to do?
We stand for free speech, not hate speech. We stand for tolerance, not bigotry. We stand for education, not demagoguery.
We should respond to all provocations – including the announcement of the so-called “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” pro-actively, not defensively.
When academic freedom is under attack, we should heighten our commitment to free speech and open discussion. We work against racism and against hate crimes; we may protect hateful speech, but we will not protect or enable the climate within which hate speech occurs. Such hate speech creates the environment for hate crimes – which we don’t protect.
Actions to take on campus and in our communities
- When events such as the so-called “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” are called on our campuses or in our communities, we should use the opportunity to build broad coalitions between Muslim, Jewish, Christian, secular, and people of color organizations to fight against all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other discriminations.
- At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Multicultural Student Center decided to host an event called, "Fighting Racism from Jena to Madison: The True Diversity Forum,” in which opposing the pro-war “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” would be a central theme.
- The Muslim Public Affairs Committee has released a set of six tips for challenging the pro-war Week of events.
- The Christian ecumenical Sabeel center in Jerusalem and its Friends of Sabeel organizations in the U.S. have done extensive work challenging Christian Zionist support for Israeli occupation.
- When student-funded or campus facilities are used for events aimed at denigrating or urging discrimination against Muslims, Arabs, or any other national, racial or religious group, we should
- Demand equal time and/or equal funding to organize events that feature alternative anti-discrimination, equality-promoting viewpoints.
- Protest the use of university facilities for hate speech and discrimination.
- When Islamophobic, racist or other actions threaten professors or students, we should circulate petitions to demand re-hiring, reconsideration of denied tenure, or reinstatement.
- If an event is clearly pro-occupation and pro-war, we should demand equality of support for anti-occupation, anti-war and inter-religious events.
- When anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or other racist ideologies are used to build support for war and occupation, we should strengthen ties between peace, social justice, anti-racist, and people of color organizations.
- When the “Los Angeles Eight” Palestinians were arrested in 1987 and threatened with deportation based on Constitutionally-protected free speech activities, one of their earliest supporting organizations was the Japanese-American Citizens League.
- The Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta has published a useful guide called “When Hate Groups Come to Town.”
- The National Religious Campaign Against Torture have planned a campaign in the last week of October to publicize how Muslims are currently the victims of U.S. war policies, and are urging showings of their new film on the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
- When racist, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic demagogues threaten to divide our communities, we should take seriously our obligations to provide education to all our communities – on and off campus – on issues of racism, anti-racism, and the history of community mobilization.
- During the 1980s, for instance, in a hate crime in a small town in Montana, a Jewish family was attacked during the Chanukah holiday. The entire town responded by lighting menorahs (the ritual candles) in their windows to express solidarity.
- The 1982 hate-crime murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man killed in Detroit during anti-Japanese hysteria of the 1980s, was answered with creation of a powerful pan-Asian activist movement against racism.
- Twenty-five years later, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress and local partners around the country held National Townhall meetings to build opposition to hate crimes in cities across the United States.