Leftists of America and the World, Wake up to Your Islamophobia!

Stephen Sheehi wrote Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims to radically change the discourse surrounding Islamophobia in the mainstream in the US. But Sheehi,1 a scholar and veteran of the activist movement, is only too well aware that a controversial book distributed by a small social justice publisher is probably not going to make the inroads it should or be reviewed by the likes of the New York Review of Books or the Washington Post.

Rather, one of Sheehi’s primary aims was to challenge the Left, so-called “progressives” and liberals to face an uncomfortable truth, their own Islamophobia. “When people ask me at conferences, ‘What should be done?’ I tell them to stop asking questions about Islam. Just stop. It is racist to ask ‘Why are the Muslims different?’ or ‘I want to understand the Muslims so I am going to read the Qur’an’,” said Sheehi in Beirut.

Indeed, as if people read the Vedas to understand militant Hinduism, the Torah to comprehend the mindset of Jewish colonial settlers in the West Bank or the Bible to make sense of the Tea Party movement. But such seemingly well-meaning questions about Islam by leftists and liberals of all stripes just goes to reinforce the notion of Muslims as the “Other,” set apart in need of “tolerance” and “understanding.”

“Despite the genuine and scholarly research into the topic, the questions must stop being about Islam and democracy, Islam and modernity, Islam and human rights, Islam and women, and so forth,” writes Sheehi. “We must stop searching for answers, or making accusations for that matter, based on the binaries of Islam and the Whatever. We must reach beyond the Jihad vs. McWorld dichotomy.”2

Coming to terms with the widespread prevalence of Islamophobia in the US mainstream and how it has been adopted consciously and unconsciously by the populace, the unsaid fears of Anglo-Saxon America of “brown people empowering themselves”, as Sheehi put it, and the myth of US exceptionalism all plays into the lengthy history of America’s racism, from the days of slavery to the Monroe Doctrine to the current racial profiling. “The US has to look at itself and ask, why are we so racist?” said Sheehi.

He writes that “Islamophobia is the ideological foil that allows the state to control its population, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as well as institute military and political policies abroad (if not at the US’s own southern border).”3 Sheehi goes on: “Cultural Islamophobia and legislation are two of these mechanisms. The plight of non-American Muslims and Arab defendants is a more severe version of the plight of Muslims and Arabs in America.”4

For behind this foil is systemic racism and symbolic violence towards the minority, such as through structural exclusion or marginalization of those that do not embrace hegemonic ideologies.

As Sheehi observes in his work, this was manifest in the number of non-Muslims beaten up, abused and profiled in the wake of 9/11 because they “looked” Arab or Muslim. “In the end, Islamophobia is not about Muslims, for next up is Latinophobia,” said Sheehi.

So-called liberals always look for a scapegoat to justify Islamophobia and cling to the notion that it isn’t “us” perpetuating this divisiveness and ideology, it is someone else, another group, the right wing, the Neo-Conservatives, the Jews, Evangelical Christians and so on. Indeed, some presumed Sheehi would put the blame for Islamophobia squarely on the shoulders of the pro-Israel lobby.

The pro-Israel lobby and Zionist political action groups are of course a factor in shaping the discourse and ideology of Islamophobia, but that gives them too much credit. Islamophobia is more insidious, more widespread than that, and blaming “the Jews” is too easy as well as being off the mark. The same goes for lumping all the blame on the right wing. Sheehi doesn’t want the liberal conscious to be soothed as they are in fact a part of the problem.

“The Neo-Cons, the Republicans and the rampant racists got a raw deal with regard to Islamophobia, because they are a comfortable container of white liberal America to cordon off their own prejudices. Liberals state that they are “not against Muslims but only terrorists,” yet at the same time supporting the renewal of the Patriot Act, supporting the war in Afghanistan and believing Iraq is no longer occupied as the number of troops was reduced,” said Sheehi.5

The spirit of Islamophobia

Sheehi argues that Islamophobia was around well before 9/11 and Bush Jr’s administration, but the 2001 attacks proved to be a catalyst for Islamophobia to run wild. “9/11 allowed views that were on the fringe during the 1980s and even the 1990s to be seamlessly inserted into the American mainstream,” writes Sheehi. Pseudo-scholar Daniel Pipes “demonstrates how old racist and Orientalist tropes can be re-invented and inserted into a new political atmosphere with newness and urgency. In effect, the rants of the right create the conditions by which these diatribes then become relevant and lose their air of bigotry, if not lunacy.”6

One reason there are 54 pages of footnotes accompanying the 227 page text is that Sheehi, like hounded academic Churchill Ward, who wrote the foreword (the preface is by Mumia Abu Jamal), is to back up research in the face of legal action over opinions on Islamophobia and Islamophobes. Such are the times American academia is living in, superbly illustrated in chapters “Teaching and Activism in the Teeth of Power,” and “Living in a State of Fear.”

It was the post-Cold war era, global financialization and 9/11 that brought Islamophobia truly into the collective consciousness. Sheehi writes, “Ideological Islamophobia arises from the global era. Not only does it arise from the US desire to control global oil resources but also from its cultural Islamophobia and the willingness of the American public to stereotype, target, and violate the rights and humanity of Muslims and Arabs. American culture has evolved from a settler culture to become an imperial culture. Arabs and Muslims are perceived as the latest cultural holdouts that are resistant to its global hegemony, which the US purveys as offering modernity, democracy and capitalist prosperity.”4

This is a crucial point and one that many liberals and Leftists frequently overlook. This is not to suggest – and Sheehi doesn’t – that the Left make strategic alliances with, or vocally support, Islamist political groups because they are also resisting globalization and US imperialism. That would be akin to saying that you have to be pro Hamas, Fatah or Hizbullah to support the Palestinian cause and oppose Israel.

As Sheehi observed: “Critics will say that the arguments of this book exonerate those who are involved in truly terrorist action against civilians, whether they live in North America, Europe or the Middle East. They prefer to cast such aspersions rather than understand the historical and political motivations behind desperate and violent acts such as the bombings of 9/11, the public transportation bombings in London and Madrid, or the car bombing of an apartment complex in Riyadh in 2003, which killed not US soldiers but largely expatriate Arab and Asian families and workers.”7

That many liberals and leftists fall for Islamophobic ideology is reflective of how many people bought into Samuel Huntington’s racist notion of the “Clash of Civilizations.” Rooted in this Islamophobia is blatant ignorance, a lack of understanding of history and an unwillingness to understand political Islam.

“A critical misunderstanding of political Islam often comes from the inability to differentiate between political Islam’s many strains that materialized as a component of modernity rather than strictly as a reactive gesture to it…The problem comes from the fact that the American commentators have no understanding of the force and meaning of modernity as it impacts the developing, colonized world. A critical understanding of political Islam as a complicated and multifaceted social, historical, economic and political phenomenon would not apologize for political violence but instead, serve to clarify its origins, logic and inspirations,” writes Sheehi.8

Islamophobia reinvents itself

“Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden became a vessel, a psychological manifestation that is part of the Islamophobic world paradigm for the US to justify its policies. The whole point of Islamophobia is that the image of Bin Laden is a manifestation of Islamophobic stereotypes that were reproduced and grafted onto every Muslim as US foreign policy needs that,” said Sheehi.

Bin Laden’s assassination in May in this sense is irrelevant to keeping the stereotypes and Islamophobia alive. But the overwhelming jubilance of the American population’s reaction to his demise, and the name of the operation itself – Geronimo – speaks volumes about how deep Islamophobia has penetrated America, how it was symbolized in the burning hatred of one man, as well as the establishment’s ongoing disregard of America’s indigenous culture and people.

The ability of the ideology of Islamophobia to adapt is similar to capitalism’s ability to re-invent itself despite systemic setbacks and how factors change on the ground. This is not surprising as the two are inter-related, Islamophobia used to justify imperialist and capitalist ventures.

The uprisings in the Arab world this year are a case in point, as the revolts discredit the vitriol of Bernard Lewis and Fareed Zakaria when they say things like there is no civil society in the Arab world (both writers come in for substantial criticism in the book).

“The “Arab Spring” discredits the Lewis style stereotypes of the “Arab Street,” of a complacent, dormant, passive mass led by emotion and reliant on the rentier state system. It shows that this is completely false. Yet you hear the other side, of ‘Oh my God, there’s a bunch of Arabs in the streets, what shall we do?’ There is this fear of instability as the dictators were always convenient for providing security. There is a fear of brown people empowering themselves,” said Sheehi.

And when it comes to other portrayals of the Arab uprisings – depending on who the official enemy is, Bahrain no, Libya, Syria etc. yes – it is easy to play into stereotypes, such as the ludicrous story about Muammar Gaddafi ordering a container load of Viagra so his soldiers could rape women. The story was picked up worldwide as a sensationalist example of Gaddafi’s despotism and even cited by the International Criminal Court to indict the Libyan leader despite there being no credible evidence. Indeed, a senior crisis response officer for Amnesty International that spent three months in Libya said last month there was no evidence at all of soldiers using Viagra — indeed, when have soldiers ever needed sexual stimulants to commit rape? “The Viagra story played into the racial stereotype of over-sexualized brown men,” said Sheehi.9

Essentially, Sheehi is saying that liberals, leftists etc are not willing to challenge some of their conscious or unconscious racist feelings of not just the US being undermined on the world stage, but that the white man will no longer rule the planet. That President Barrack Obama is not white is not relevant in this regard, argues Sheehi, as he is just a new face, a more acceptable front man of American imperialism than Bush Jr. was (Sheehi’s analysis of Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June, 2009, and the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech are especially biting).

“It has never been about whether, say, the Egyptians are capable of ruling themselves or not, it is about if the Egyptians can be managed under the same economic and political system as before,” said Sheehi. “The US would throw the Bahraini royal family under a bus quicker than you could sneeze if the monarchy lost their relevance to the US. If all the Sunnis and Shias suddenly get along there would be no need for the US Fifth Fleet [to be in Bahrain]. That is the point and how the US stays relevant in the Middle East.”

Just as America has actively worked with the Saudis and the region’s monarchies to perpetuate discord between the Sunni and Shia on a macro Islamic level – what some on the Hill off-handedly call the “Sushi war” – Islamophobia creates a further wedge between the left on how to effectively tackle issues like the erosion of civil liberties, women’s rights, classism, and imperialist wars.

The US’s cultural, economic and military hegemony also enables the ideology of Islamophobia to be adopted on a wider level, as witnessed in the rest of the West, India and anywhere Islamophobia can be used as a political tool, and must be challenged as much as in the US.

This was glaring apparent as news broke on July 22 of the attacks in Norway. The immediate suspect in European and American media was Al Qaeda, with journalists scrambling to make a tangible link to “Islamic terrorism” and garner quotes from pundits as to why this was likely. Islamophobes had a field day. As we know it turned out to be a right-wing Norwegian apparently operating solo, but it took time for the discourse to switch away from the bogeymen of our time, particularly in the US.10

The late Edward Said taught us about Orientalism in literature and the need to de-colonize our minds. Sheehi in his work challenges us to intellectually confront Islamophobia and wake up to its prevalence in the mainstream as well as in “alternative” movements.

  1. Stephen Sheehi is Associate Professor of Arabic and Arab Culture and Director of the Arabic Program at the University of South Carolina. []
  2. Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, Stephen Sheehi, Clarity Press, Atlanta (2011), p 225. []
  3. P. 222. []
  4. P. 166. [] []
  5. Indicative of this is that in Iraq, while US troop levels have dropped since 2008, private military contractors actually increased by 39 percent, or 3,500 personnel, by the end of 2010 to reach approximately 13,000 personnel, or 18 percent of all contractors, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. []
  6. P. 140. []
  7. P. 170. []
  8. P. 23. []
  9. What’s really at stake in Libya,” Pepe Escobar, June 30, 2011. []
  10. See “Blaming Muslims – Yet Again,” D Parvaz, June 23, 2001. []

Paul Cochrane is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Beirut, Lebanon for the past eight years. He covers the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. He can be reached at: paulcochrane@gmail.com. Read other articles by Paul.