Fighting Islamophobia: A Response to Critics

Since my essay on the Danish cartoons was published on 21 February 2006, I have received dozens of emails supportive of my argument that racism has no place on the left.  Additionally, comments on the article posted on MRZine show that there are people willing to stand up against anti-Muslim bigotry.  However, what is deeply troubling is that the majority of comments, presumably from progressives, are hostile to Islam and to Muslims.

In what follows, I respond to these comments for reasons that should be obvious to any person of conscience: the wholesale demonization of Arabs and Muslims is racist and unacceptable, it serves to bolster US foreign policy goals in the Middle East, and giving even an inch to Islamophobia divides us and weakens our ability to build an effective opposition to the war in Iraq and the potential war on Iran.

Criticism #1: Islam is inherently violent.  The history of Islam is full of barbaric acts of terror and torture.  Furthermore, because 9/11 was committed by Muslims, Islam is to blame.

“But now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood” (Raymond d’Aguiliers in August. C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, Princeton, 1921, pp. 257-62).

“Some Saracens, Arabs, and Ethiopians took refuge in the tower of David, others fled to the temples of the Lord and of Solomon. A great fight took place in the court and porch of the temples, where they were unable to escape from our gladiators. Many fled to the roof of the temple of Solomon, and were shot with arrows, so that they fell to the ground dead. In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared” (Fulk [or Fulcher] of Chartres, “Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium [The Deeds of the Franks Who Attacked Jerusalem],” in Frederick Duncan and August C. Krey, eds., Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912, pp. 109-115).

The history of Islam is no more violent than the history of any of the other major religions of the world.  Perhaps my critics haven’t heard of the Crusades — the religious wars fought by European Christians from the 11th to the 13th centuries.  During the first crusade, after taking control of Jerusalem, the crusaders went on a killing spree, murdering almost the entire population of Muslim men, women, and children.  The Jews, who fought side by side with the Muslims to defend the city, were not spared either.  The Crusaders set fire to a synagogue where the Jews were hiding and made sure that every single Jew burned to death.  The same levels of brutality were seen again during the third crusade when King Richard of England (Richard the Lionheart), after one battle, beheaded thousands of men in cold blood.  In contrast, the Sultan of Egypt Saladin, after he successfully retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders, forbade acts of vengeance and violence.  Jews were given state money to rebuild synagogues and churches were left untouched.

We can also find passages from Christian religious texts that command the faithful to commit acts of violence: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.  Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey'” (1 Samuel 15: 1-3).

However, to conclude from such passages that Christians today must be an inherently violent people is ludicrous.  When Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma city bombings, we didn’t hear tirades against Christianity or arguments about how all white people are to blame for the bombings.  We don’t remember Timothy McVeigh as “that white Christian terrorist.”  The same, clearly, is not true for Muslims and Arabs.

Post-9/11 “common sense” has it that, because the attacks were carried out by Muslims, their violence must come from the teachings of Islam and therefore all Muslims are to blame.  Furthermore, these men were from the Middle East, they were Arabs, so all Arabs must be terrorists.  Certainly, there is no shortage of Hollywood films that reproduce this stereotype.

The Danish cartoon of the prophet Mohammed with a bomb on his head is nothing if not the visual depiction of the racist diatribe that Islam is inherently violent.  To those who can’t understand why this argument is racist, let me be clear: when you take the actions of a few people and generalize it to an entire group — all Muslims, all Arabs — that’s racism.  When a whole group of people are discriminated against and demonized because of their religion or regional origin, that’s racism.

Criticism #2: Muslims today are not victims but oppressors.  Defending Muslims and people of Middle East descent against racist attacks is equal to supporting the actions of Islamic Fundamentalists.

In my original article I argued that progressives have an obligation to “defend ordinary Muslims all over the world” — I did not say that we should support the actions of religious or political extremists.  However, it is quite telling that my critics can’t seem to tell the difference between the two.

I was asked if I have ever heard of a country known as Indonesia and of the atrocities it has carried out against East Timor.  I was also asked if I have heard of the murders and rapes taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan.  These and other examples were cited as evidence that Muslims today are the oppressors not the oppressed.  As one critic rails, the slaughter of people of East Timor “were carried out by the army of a Muslim nation against an overwhelmingly Christian population.  Now how exactly do you explain that, Deepa??”

Very simply. I don’t conflate the actions of the dictator Suharto with those of the Indonesian people, who a few decades later would rise up against him and throw him out of power.  Furthermore, it is noteworthy that this individual as well as others would not say a word about the fact that US President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger gave the green light to the invasion of East Timor, as recently released documents from the National Security Archive prove in no uncertain terms.  Additionally, as East Timorese activists such as Constancio Pinto, who I was fortunate to have organized with during his time in Providence, Rhode Island, have pointed out, the guns and firepower used to carry out the massacre were supplied by the US.  So, should we now blame Christianity, since the US is predominantly Christian?

Let me throw a few more atrocities into the mix: Islamic fundamentalists have murdered and tortured religious minorities just as they have traumatized Muslim men and women with their ultra-orthodox practices; Hindu fundamentalist killed thousands of Muslims in a vicious pogroms against Muslims in the state of Gujarat; the Nazis killed six million Jews, and today Neo-Nazis in Europe have threatened to massacre Muslims at the upcoming World Cup in Germany.

What conclusions do we draw from this?  That fundamentalists and fascists have often relied on particular interpretations of the world’s major religions to justify their actions.  Yet, it is only Islam that apparently needs to be scrutinized.

Thus, for instance, one of my critics writes: “Kumar raises the absurd notion that Islam as a belief system should be exempt from criticism. . . . I wonder how the black Muslim victims of Arab Muslim terror in the Darfur region of the Sudan, or Christians in countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan might view her arguments.  I think that they would laugh at her.”

This critic, like many others, equates the actions of dictators, war lords, and reactionary politicians (who often were/are supported and backed by the US) with their religion: Islam is to blame.  If today Islam has been singled out for criticism, it is because politicians in the US have repeatedly demonized Islam and skillfully employed Islamophobic rhetoric to justify their aggression in the Middle East.  Ordinary people in the Middle East or Indonesia, Nigeria or Pakistan have nothing to gain from US imperialism.  And when people on the left uncritically peddle the same Islamophobic logic as the Bush regime, one has to ask: who is laughing at whom?

Criticism # 3: The left should not be in the business of defending religion.  All religions, including Islam, should be subject to thoroughgoing critique.

As I have stated above, if Islam has come under fire in European nations and the United States, it is because the political elite in these countries have found it useful to whip up anti-Muslim hysteria.  There can be no healthy dialogue in this context about the role of Islam in the Middle East.  What my critics need to recognize is that there are times when debate about religion is both healthy and vital to the wellbeing of society and other times when this debate is politically motivated to serve larger agendas.  For instance, it would have been quite foolish for the left to engage in a discussion of the flaws of Judaism in the midst of the holocaust, as this would only have strengthened the Nazi regime.

Furthermore, there is a difference between progressive criticisms of Islam from left-liberal forces within predominantly Muslim nations and reactionary criticisms initiated in the West by the political elite to justify their wars and occupations.  For those of us who are non-Muslims located in the United States, the choice is quite clear — you are either on the side of the oppressed or of the oppressor.

One of the consequences of the relentless attacks on Islam and Muslims by politicians and the media is that Islamophobic sentiment is on the rise.  A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Americans think poorly of Islam today — a figure higher than that immediately following the September 11 attacks.  Additionally, the proportion of Americans who believe Islam helps to cause violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled, from 14 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent today.  And one in four Americans admit to being prejudiced against Muslims and Arabs.  The role of progressives in this context isn’t to debate the merits and demerits of Islam in the abstract, but to speak out against this wholesale demonization of Muslims.  To put it bluntly: if you don’t think that religious and racial discrimination and persecution is a problem, then you are not part of the left.

There are some who have defended their anti-Muslim arguments by quoting collaborators of US empire in the Middle East, such as Dr. Wafa Sultan.  Dr. Sultan, quoted approvingly by free-market guru Thomas Friedman in a recent New York Times editorial, has argued that the clash between the West and Islam is that between “the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.”  People like Sultan shouldn’t be confused with progressive forces such as the women in the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) who criticize Sharia Law, the Taliban, and US imperialism.  Like the Ahmed Chalabis and the Suhartos, there have always been indigenous collaborators with empire, and the left has known not to take them seriously.

Criticism #4: The West is superior to the East because it went through the Enlightenment.  Thus, when all is said and done, the US can be a force for good in the world.

A critic on MRZine states: “Bored with it, Deepa, we are so-o-o-o bored.  I happen to represent all three major movements against patriarchal and authoritarian religion: my family is three generations in the Marxist tradition, I was a little Taoist-y flower child in the early Seventies when I was reading French at the University of London and my special subject was Voltaire.  If Muslims in the West cannot get the hang of the derision of religion, it’s your problem.  By the way, the emancipation of women is a legacy of the Enlightenment: it is the inevitable consequence of the principle of individual sovereignty.”

For the record, I am an atheist and have been one for over 25 years.  Nevertheless, I am deeply offended when a self-proclaimed Marxist chooses to blame the victims of Islamophobia rather than the elites responsible for spreading such hateful messages.  Muslims should, I suppose, not complain or fight back but quietly accept their demonization and the destruction of their lives and homes?  As I argued in the previous section, abstractly calling for debate on religion, without attention to context, leads to these absurd positions.

But the core of many critics’ arguments, including the one above, is that the West went through the Enlightenment and is therefore inherently superior to other cultures that did not.  The Enlightenment is the body of ideas that emerged in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries during the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.  Enlightenment thinkers championed science and rationality as a way to combat the power of religious dogma and the Catholic Church in particular.  They spoke of popular sovereignty and the right of people to vote for their representatives against the notion of the divine right of kings and queens to rule, as a way to combat feudal monarchy.

“Enfin vous ne trouvez en eux qu’un peuple ignorant et barbare, qui joint depuis longtemps la plus sordide avarice à la plus détestable superstition et à la plus invincible haine pour tous les peuples qui les tolèrent et qui les enrichissent” [In short, you find in them only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long combined the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred of all peoples who tolerate them and enrich them] ( “Juifs,” Dictionnaire philosophique).

“La race des nègres est une espèce d’hommes différente de la nôtre, comme la race des épagneuls l’est des lévriers. . . . Leur laine noire ne ressemble point à nos cheveux; et on peut dire que si leur intelligence n’est pas d’une autre espèce que notre entendement, elle est fort inférieure. Ils ne sont pas capables d’une grande attention; ils combinent peu, et ne paraissent faits ni pour les avantages ni pour les abus de notre philosophie” [The race of negros is a species of men different from ours, as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds. . . . Their black wool does not resemble our hair; and one can say that, if their intelligence is not of another species than our understanding, it is very much inferior.  They are not capable of great attention; they combine few ideas and appear to be made for neither the advantages nor for abuses of our philosophy] (“Des découvertes des Portugais,” Essai sur les Moeurs, Chapter CXLI).

It is noteworthy that while my critics speak of the Enlightenment in glowing terms, they are silent on how the Enlightenment laid the basis for racism.  They want us to forget that slavery, colonialism, and racism are just as fully the legacies of the Enlightenment.  The ideology of race divided up human beings into separate categories based on arbitrary markers of difference, typically skin color, and then drew up a hierarchy which placed white Europeans at the top.  Thus, slavery was explicitly justified by deeming Africans as less than human or implicitly supported in an ostensibly race-neutral language (the notorious three-fifth compromise in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, one of the best known documents of the Enlightenment, augmented the power of Southern slavocracy, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 15 provided for the federal power to suppress insurrections of slaves as well as others, and Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 forbade Congress to prohibit the slave trade for twenty years).  Similarly, when native peoples in Africa and Asia could be viewed as being “half devil, half child” (in Rudyard Kipling‘s words), then the white man’s burden to “tame” and “civilize” them becomes perfectly acceptable.  Someone who claims to have read Voltaire must surely have come across all of his racist comments about Jews and Africans.

The Enlightenment and the various revolutions of the time, such as the English, French, and American revolutions, were no doubt progressive.  By bringing to the fore and fighting for the concepts of equality, justice, and liberty, they dealt a deathblow to the rigidly hierarchical and nakedly oppressive structures of feudal society.  However, the class that led these revolutions was unable to deliver on its promises because capitalism is not a system based on equality, justice, or liberty.  This is why the right to vote in the US was limited for the most part to white, property-owning men.  Women did not win the right to vote until a century later, through long-fought struggles for suffrage.  It took a civil war, and then a civil rights movement, before African Americans could gain similar rights.

Recently, South Dakota effectively banned the right to an abortion.  Now, one way to approach this is to say let’s wait for the “principle of individual sovereignty” to “inevitably” overturns this decision.  Unfortunately, for working-class women who can’t afford to go to other states to seek out abortions (or spend time in London reading Voltaire for that matter), this is not an option.  They have to, like their sisters before them, stand up and fight for their right to control their bodies.

In short, the idea that the Enlightenment magically emancipated women in the West is nonsense, and when progressives buy into it, they go along with the war makers who claim, for instance, to be liberating Afghan women or Iraqi women from Islam.  The rulers of our society have never cared about the rights of women right here in the US; they are not going to suddenly start caring about women’s rights elsewhere.

The history of colonial plunder is replete with examples of how racism is used to justify imperial conquest.  Even if we don’t remember the history of imperialism from centuries past, have we forgotten the shameful chapter from the Second World War?  Have we learnt nothing from the mass internment of Japanese Americans?  Almost immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, politicians and the media whipped up the most horrific anti-Japanese racism, constructing Japanese people as sub-human.  This was done with the intention of winning public support for US intervention into the war and for the curtailment of union rights and civil rights domestically.  What followed was that anywhere from 112,000 to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in concentration camps for several years.  The logic behind this mass internment was that, if you were of Japanese origin, then you bore responsibility and guilt for Pearl Harbor.  Sound familiar?

If the left has any responsibility today, it is to use our long historical memory to expose the ways in which consent is obtained for imperialist wars.  Today, we face a situation where the left has been weakened by (a willed?) historical amnesia.  Meanwhile, Arabs and Muslims are being scapegoated and demonized to justify a war that is ruining the lives of millions.  At times like this, people of conscience need to organize and speak out against Islamophobia.  Ignorance, particularly among progressives, is no excuse for apathy and racism.

Deepa Kumar

Deepa Kumar is author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike, (University of Illinois Press, 2006, forthcoming).  She is active in the antiwar movement and has spoken at several community-based and university forums on the topic of fighting Islamophobia.  On March 27, 2006, she spoke at Columbia University, at a meeting sponsored by the Columbia Antiwar Coalition and the International Socialist Organization.