The current Islamophobic crusade in the US reflects a deeply rooted racist demonisation of Muslim communities that, if not responded, might consolidate the racist demagoguery as a “legitimate” part of public discourse.
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 administration’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).
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