Islamophobia has no Place on the Left

Jacobin has published an interview with Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University and the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. In the interview, titled “The Roots of Islamophobia,” Kumar says that interfaith dialogue is not enough (why even desire such a thing?) to marginalize Islamophobia. She calls on the left to “organize demonstrations, rallies, and other actions.” More than this, she calls on the left to develop a strategy that “addresses the root causes that make these. . .threats possible.”

What is the left being asked to do? Defend Muslims from discrimination? Or advance the cause of Islam?

Kumar’s relationship to the left ought to be strained after her rejection back in 2006 of the values of free speech and religious criticism in the Danish cartoons controversy. Opposing publication of the cartoons, in a Monthly Review article titled “Danish Cartoons: Racism has no Place on the Left,” Kumar complains about “the anemic response by the left in this country” to what she characterizes as “anti-Muslim racism.” She describes the “free speech” defense of “racist cartoons” and speech “condemning the protests against them” as “liberal cover for right-wing arguments.”

While Kumar is right to proclaim that racism has no place on the left, she is wrong to assume that the Danish cartoons are racist or have something to do with racism and, moreover, that European society is shot through with anti-Arab bigotry. The cartoons have no racist content. A Muslim is not a member of a racial category by virtue of his adherence to Islam; Muslims can be African, Asian, or European. The problem isn’t Arabs. The problem is ideology. Religion and culture are about ideas, not biology.

The cartoons are having a go at religion. In the West, that’s okay; every religious and political ideology is subject to criticism and even ridicule. Europeans have inherited the grand tradition of critical thinking that Karl Marx, in a letter to Arnold Ruge (in 1943), captures nicely: “if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” It’s one of the things that makes the West free and progressive. It’s a culture worth defending.

Kumar’s standard Marcusean new left formulation, that the equal-opportunity argument for ridiculing religious identity does not apply to “oppressed and disempowered people,” creates an illusion of Muslim victimhood. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. There are around 50 Muslim-majority countries, most of which run on sharia (Islamic law). And while Muslims are a minority in Europe, Europeans have been more than generous in allowing Muslims entry into their countries and providing them with public assistance, education, and housing – even passing laws punishing hate speech against Muslims and obscuring crime perpetrated by Muslim immigrants. All Europeans want – whether they say it or not (and many don’t for fear of being accused of bigotry) – is to be able to continue European culture, a culture that respects the rights of gays and women, enjoys a tradition of irreligious criticism, and possesses an irreverent sense of humor, traits conspicuously missing from Islam.

Piggy-backing off such terms as “Negrophobia,” “xenophobia,” and “homophobia,” those wielding the term “Islamophobia” mean to imply either that the speaker is mentally disturbed or that the concerns he has are unreasonable. It is an attempt to render the speaker and his speech illegitimate by suggesting that he is motivated by irrational fear and loathing of Muslims. Yet the evidence is clear that Islam is an oppressive ideology. It chains law and policy to a religious worldview. Its culture puts men over women, imposing upon the latter a regime of modesty and restricted movement. Its practitioners surgically alter the genitalia of children, persecute homosexuals, and push death for apostasy. Moreover, Islam is a religion, which by definition constitutes a system of false and alienated claims about the world. (Kumar would benefit from visiting Karl Marx’s withering critique of religion or any of Christopher Hitchens’ lectures on the subject.)

The question of whether fear and loathing of ideology is irrational depends on the character of the ideology and its effects. An audience of leftists would laugh out of the room any person who dared claim that fear and loathing of fascism was a mental disorder or an irrational position. Fascism is an ideology that, among other things, sees women as properly subordinated to men, homosexuals as degenerate, and demands the subordination of the individual to a totalitarian idea. Imagine antifascism described as “fascophobia.” Conscience obliges antifascism.

The term “Islamophobia” is designed to conflate Islam with those individuals who have either been indoctrinated or converted to Islam. But ideology and people are different things. The individual is the possessor of human rights, among these the right not to be punished for her beliefs. An ideology is not a person. It does not possess human rights. It cannot be discriminated against. It needs no protection. On the contrary, it needs confrontation. The effect of conflating ideology and people is obvious in this case: a weapon to smear those who speak out against Islam.

In her Jacobin interview, Kumar calls for “dismantling the institutional and structural foundations upon which Islamophobia is built.” She claims that “Islamophobia [is] integrated into the very fabric of US society because it serves to justify empire and the bloated national security state.” Every aspect of this claim is false or misleading.

Before Islamic terrorism became a problem, Americans were, for the most part, unconcerned about Muslims. Most of the Muslims they knew were either African Americans or white Arabs. In my childhood, Arabs were the heroes of our favorite films (such as in Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad movie series, steeped in Asian mythology). Lebanese and Syrian celebrities moved through our television and radio worlds without a prejudicial remark. In her talks on the “construction of Muslims as the enemy,” Kumar continually depicts Muslims as “brown men.” But this is not the way those of European and those of European descent have generally viewed Arabs.  The racialization of Arabs as “non-white” is a recent phenomenon – it goes hand-in-hand with the project to Islamize western sensibilities. Muslims are not, for the most part, being racialized by the general population or right-wing ideologues. The source of the racialization is coming from Islamic and leftist academic activists. In the era of diversity politics, they see value in recoding Arabs as non-white. It allows Muslims to leverage the rhetoric of “white privilege.”

It is not true that anti-Islamic sentiments are used to “justify empire and the bloated national security state.” In the wake of the attacks on the United States by Islamic terrorists, the leaders of national security state moved to disconnect in the public mind Islamic terrorism and the ideology that motivates it. They went all-out in an effort to disabuse the public of any notion that Islam was behind the attacks that killed thousands of people. President George Bush repeated incessantly the slogan that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Senator Hillary Clinton parroted the line, adding that Islam had nothing to do with terrorism. President Barack Obama repeated these lines, as well. If anything, terrorism was as perversion of Islam, he said. In the face of every “Allahu akbar,” US politicians and corporate media pundits shielded Islam from responsibility.

The emergent attitudes towards Muslims in the United States (and Europe) is not because of the ahistorical and propagandistic view that “Islamophobia is integrated into the very fabric of US society because it serves to justify empire,” but because secularism is integrated into the very fabric of US society (our country is founded on it). A strong commitment secularism preserves religious freedom and advances human dignity. It is the threat to liberalism and secularism by a large and aggressive religious power – one that sees the West as decadent and sinful and seeks to bend culture and law towards its own irrational ends – that makes westerners uneasy. It is the West’s experience with a belligerent Islam that is (finally) pulling from reluctant westerners recognition of the threat Islam poses to the continuation of western culture and the values of equality, liberty, and tolerance. The West resists Islamization (yet not vigorously enough) in the same way it resists Christianization (at least the way those on the left have resisted Christianization).

This reality leads us to the core problem with Kumar’s argument. If Islamophobia is opposition to Islam and Muslims, and if resistance to Islam is a reflection of the West’s dedication to liberal values, then “dismantling the institutional and structural foundations upon which Islamophobia is built” means, at the very least, weakening western commitment to secularism, free speech, and the separation of church and state. And that’s the point to all this.

Outrage over cartoons depicting Muhammad reflects the desire of fundamentalist Muslims to spread Islamic rules to the West. It’s not enough that Muslims don’t depict Muhammad in images, they demand that everybody practice this newfound obsession with Islamic aniconism. The victory of the Enlightenment in the West means that westerners do not have to live under blasphemy laws. Muslims and their allies can’t impose religious-based blasphemy rules on western society directly, so they sneak them in by claiming that criticism of their prophet is racist. They exploit the West’s flagging commitment to free speech and free thought and the neoliberal reordering of society that underpins its erosion.

The desire to punish people for expressing their opinions or for drawing cartoons is a deeply illiberal impulse, one that strikes at the core of our culture, a desire that Muslims are eager to enact using violence or the threat of violence. For Kumar and her ilk, Muslim belligerence is to be resolved not by punishing violence and demanding assimilation to western values, but by diminishing the West’s commitment to a free and open society. This view has no place on the left. It is an authoritarian vision.

What is particularly troubling about the project to silence irreligious criticism of Muslims in Europe is what those who advance this line really want. The propaganda term “Islamophobia” is part of a strategy to soften and suppress opposition to the Islamization of the West. It not only aims to punish speech critical of Islam, but to shame people into open displays of affection for an ideology that views women as inferior to men. In order to show they are not Islamophobic, western women don the hijab and express “solidarity” with Muslims. Populations are being conditioned to celebrate the normalcy of Islam. This is how Islamization worked in Muslim-majority countries. And this is how it will work in the West.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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