Islamophobia in the US

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[A shorter version of this essay appeared in Dawn.]

Empires carve out and sustain their political and economic privilege with unrelenting violence, but, without a hint of irony, deem their mission moral and ethical, verging on the altruistic. A necessary counterpart to this blindness, is a paranoid fear of a dark, hostile world. Islamophobia serves these mutually reinforcing delusions, so pivotal to the American empire’s self-justification and erasure of its violence. In Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, Stephen Sheehi seeks to “historicize Islamophobia in its proper political context in order to flush out the fullness of its violence.” Sheehi examines Islamophobia as fear, derision, and/or hatred of Islam and Muslims, not as an individual prejudice, but as a socio-political reality instrumental in the control of domestic populations and projection of American power in the world. Specifically, Sheehi’s is a study of Islamophobia in the United States as an ideological phenomenon of the post-Cold-War “unipolar world.”

Sheehi demonstrates how entrenched Islamophobia is in the US public discourse across party lines and how it underpins the state’s domestic and foreign policy; how the naturalization of Islamophobia normalizes a crackdown on immigrants, civil liberties, dissent, and academic freedom at home; and how it justifies colonial wars abroad, complete with mass internment, torture, murder, and routine atrocities. To take stock of these diffuse effects of Islamophobia, Sheehi structures the book on a dual methodology: Islamophobia “on the level of thought, speech and perception; then [on] the material level of policies, violence and action.” The first level, the ideological edifice of Islamophobia, is constituted by “discursive archetypes taken in the form of two master-narratives,” or two “similar but competing paradigms:” one by historian Bernard Lewis, and the other by writer and media figure, Fareed Zakaria. The linchpin of these two “master-narratives” is the binary between Islam and the West, reproduced in many garbs, reiterating the old dichotomy between barbarism and civilization: Muslims and the United States, Islam and the West, Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights, ad infinitum. These stories are told through popular images, news, analyses, etc. and “function as ideological fulcrums” for state-discourses and policies. To understand these discursive archetypes, writes Sheehi, “is to understand the structured thought of the ideological justification of US policies.”

Having cheer-led  Islamic militancy as an effective anti-Communist strategy in the 1970’s, scholar-combatant, Bernard Lewis, whom Sheehi calls “the post-modern state-Islamophobe,” popularized the concept of the “Muslim Rage” in the 1990’s. Muslims, the theory goes, are “fundamentally trapped within specific limitations of their culture, which make modernity incongruent to the Muslim mind.” Thusly Lewis provided a rationale for American dominance through an explanation of Muslim grievances unsullied by the history of Western Imperialism, one that explained them away as stemming from their own cultural deficiencies and dismissed them as irrational hatred inherent to Muslims.

Fareed “Carefully Start Shooting” Zakaria, Sheehi’s other primary mark, shot to mainstream visibility immediately after 9/11 with a series of articles in the Newsweek starting with “Why They Hate Us.” If Lewis’ key to explain it all was the ahistoric “Muslim mind,” Fareed Zakaria’s is the Arab culture. Zakaria posits that the Arab world is caught between autocratic states and illiberal societies. The autocrats that America supports— like the Saudi regime— are more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than the Arab societies which, if allowed to have electoral democracy, will inevitably bring the Islamist bogeyman to power. The Arab masses, therefore, have themselves to blame for the autocracies that rule them with an iron fist: their failure to progress is a political and societal failure to master modernity. To bring these primitive societies into the modern world, Zakaria prescribes the therapies of privatization, trade and economic liberalization, and structural adjustment– in short, the invisible hand of free-markets backed by the iron fist of American military. Zakaria’s is an Islamophobia with a neoliberal twist, but his prescriptions of  pragmatic reform shift and change in lockstep with Washington, from Clinton-era neoliberalism to Bush’s “hard power” interventionism. And, as Sheehi deftly teases out Zakaria’s Islamophobic paradigms that haunt Obama’s Cairo Speech and Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, he shows that Zakaria has re-invented himself once more to tango with Obama’s “smart power” a.k.a empire with a smiley face.

In recycling and popularizing these narratives, a transnational coterie of “native informants” plays a crucial role. By repackaging Islamophobic analyses as insider knowledge they whitewash and mainstream racism, and with their seal of “authenticity” confirm White America’s racist fear of Muslims. To this class and their mobilization of feminism in the service of empire, Sheehi dedicates a full chapter. Taken together, what these various media figures do is to inculcate “the American public with racist stereotypes and analyses that comfortably fit with its own racial unconscious.” One way of doing so is terrifying the American public that a failure to pursue a never-ending, global war against the Muslim enemy threatens “our way of life.”

To come to grips with the persistence and proliferation of Islamophobia, Sheehi conceptualizes Islamophobia as a “mass ideological formation within American political culture.” Such an understanding of Islamophobia “allows us to remove it from the hands of ‘culture’ or from the myth of a single creator or progenitor, whether it be a person, organization or community.” An ideological formation, in this telling, is a constellation of networks that produce, proliferate, benefit from, and traffic in Islamophobic discourses. These networks are made up of key individuals, such as intellectuals, media pundits, academics, journalists, businessmen and industrialists, politicians, state officials; and collectives, such as lobbies and political action committees. These individuals and collectives — embedded in various organizations, think-tanks, university programs, and policy institutes –facilitate and operate at the nexus of corporate and state power in America. The alliance, or at least alignment, “between neoconservatives, democratic hawks, evangelical Christians and hard-line American Zionists and their pet ‘intellectuals’ attest[s] less to a conspiracy than to a systematic structure by which political interests, political ideologues, economic interests and policy makers symbiotically serve each other’s interests.” These networks, however, do not plan behind closed doors about destroying Islam. As a political class, these elites of varying political beliefs are brought together by common interests: empire and capital. This ideological formation is the scaffolding upon which the present-day American imperial machine is constructed and to which its workings pinned. Its dual task is shaping the nation and shoring up empire.

An all-important component of this Islamophobic ideological formation is the general US public that participates in Islamophobic discourses and acts. Without sufficient focus on this dimension, the “ideological formation” becomes a fairly top-down concept, consigning the American masses to the status of mindless consumers of Islamophobia peddled by a powerful clique. Given that the site of Sheehi’s study is policy-level politics, it is perhaps understandable that he does not flush out the why Islamophobia has so much traction with US public. Although Sheehi argues for not understanding Americans’ Islamophobia as driven by some individualized, innate hatred of Muslims but as a social phenomenon produced and sustained through politics, this (cultural) politics involves complex contestations through which Americans make sense of the world and themselves, form a self-understanding, and construct their view of the world. So, it is a pity that he leaves cryptic references to America’s “political unconscious,” “cultural unconscious,” and “racial unconscious” unpacked, as if they emerged out of thin air fully-formed.

“Islam has figured in the fashioning of North American cultural definitions since as far back as the first years of European settlements,” claims Timothy Marr in The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism — his study of “the deep and dynamic domestic heritage of Islamic orientalism through the mid-nineteenth century … in such varied forms as political theory, fictional imagination, religious belief, reform movements, and artistic creativity.” Marr terms as “American Islamicism” the American tradition of engaging with the Islam through orientalized images to contain its global challenge domestically, and to fashion a national self-image to be projected on a global canvas. While serving these overarching ends, “orientalist images of Islam” were pressed into the service of various rhetorical strategies, such as demonizing Islam, comparing America with Islam (to cast the former in a positive or negative light in order to further or oppose internal reform projects), and romanticizing Islam. Studying how this domestic American tradition has morphed and mutated through history, and how it plays out in the present would be immensely beneficial. Yet another area of critical reflection is the political, legal, cultural, and representational processes by which Muslims are racialized to fit in the American racial taxonomy and the map of the Global War on Terror. With these other studies complementing Sheehi’s study of the material interests that sustain Islamophobia in the American polity, we can come to grips with the longevity and multivalence of American Islamophobia, its ebbs and flows, and how it has manifested itself in the post-Cold-War period as, in Sheehi’s words, “Orientalism on steroids.” That said, unlike the academic tomes written in indecipherable, jargon-laden prose for the consumption of elite cloisters of theoreticians, Islamophobia is thankfully an accessible, critical, and activist text – an inspiring “first step in trying to undermine the very epistemology of Islamophobia.”

Sheehi’s book, however, is not to be taken as a defense of Muslims, or Islam, or religion in general. Islamophobia, as Sheehi shows, is about power and domination; Islam and Muslims, as ciphers to be utilized instrumentally towards that end, are somewhat incidental to it. As an anti-Islamophobia strategy, defending Islam, portraying and representing it in positive light, or showing Muslims as model human beings and citizens is at best ineffectual, and at worst, one that is beholden to the very framework of Islamophobia. In Sheehi’s words: “The very idea that Islam needs to be defended … is Islamophobic, as it completely erases the intricacy of the religion and reduces the cultural, regional, and religious variations to a monolithic religion with a monolithic believer, i.e. The Muslim.” With a conception of Islamophobia unmoored from the purported exceptionality of the Muslim difference, the battle against Islamophobia can be engaged in a framework of global justice and anti-racism, along lines of solidarity across nations and denominations, and within its generative context: empire and capital.

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