The Lies of Islamophobia
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
The Muslims were bloodthirsty and treacherous. They conducted a sneak attack against the French army and slaughtered every single soldier, 20,000 in all. More than 1,000 years ago, in the mountain passes of Spain, the Muslim horde cut down the finest soldiers in Charlemagne’s command, including his brave nephew Roland. Then, according to the famous poem that immortalized the tragedy, Charlemagne exacted his revenge by routing the entire Muslim army.
The Song of Roland, an eleventh century rendering in verse of an eighth century battle, is a staple of Western Civilization classes at colleges around the country. A “masterpiece of epic drama,” in the words of its renowned translator Dorothy Sayers, it provides a handy preface for students before they delve into readings on the Crusades that began in 1095. More ominously, the poem has schooled generations of Judeo-Christians to view Muslims as perfidious enemies who once threatened the very foundations of Western civilization.
The problem, however, is that the whole epic is built on a curious falsehood. The army that fell upon Roland and his Frankish soldiers was not Muslim at all. In the real battle of 778, the slayers of the Franks were Christian Basques furious at Charlemagne for pillaging their city of Pamplona. Not epic at all, the battle emerged from a parochial dispute in the complex wars of medieval Spain. Only later, as kings and popes and knights prepared to do battle in the First Crusade, did an anonymous bard repurpose the text to serve the needs of an emerging cross-against-crescent holy war.
Similarly, we think of the Crusades as the archetypal “clash of civilizations” between the followers of Jesus and the followers of Mohammed. In the popular version of those Crusades, the Muslim adversary has, in fact, replaced a remarkable range of peoples the Crusaders dealt with as enemies, including Jews killed in pogroms on the way to the Holy Land, rival Catholics slaughtered in the Balkans and in Constantinople, and Christian heretics hunted down in southern France.
Much later, during the Cold War, mythmakers in Washington performed a similar act, substituting a monolithic crew labeled “godless communists” for a disparate group of anti-imperial nationalists in an attempt to transform conflicts in remote locations like Vietnam, Guatemala, and Iran into epic struggles between the forces of the Free World and the forces of evil. In recent years, the Bush administration did it all over again by portraying Arab nationalists as fiendish Islamic fundamentalists when we invaded Iraq and prepared to topple the regime in Syria.
Similar mythmaking continues today. The recent surge of Islamophobia in the United States has drawn strength from several extraordinary substitutions. A clearly Christian president has become Muslim in the minds of a significant number of Americans. The thoughtful Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has become a closet fundamentalist in the writings of Paul Berman and others. And an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, organized by proponents of interfaith dialogue, has become an extremist “mosque at Ground Zero” in the TV appearances, political speeches, and Internet sputterings of a determined clique of right-wing activists.
This transformation of Islam into a violent caricature of itself—as if Ann Coulter had suddenly morphed into the face of Christianity—comes at a somewhat strange juncture in the United States. Anti-Islamic rhetoric and hate crimes, which spiked immediately after September 11, 2001, had been on the wane. No major terrorist attack had taken place in the US or Europe since the London bombings in 2005. The current American president had reached out to the Muslim world and retired the controversial acronym GWOT, or “Global War on Terror.”
All the elements seemed in place, in other words, for us to turn the page on an ugly chapter in our history. Yet it’s as if we remain fixed in the eleventh century in a perpetual battle of “us” against “them.” Like the undead rising from their coffins, our previous “crusades” never go away. Indeed, we still seem to be fighting the three great wars of the millennium, even though two of these conflicts have long been over and the third has been rhetorically reduced to “overseas contingency operations.” The Crusades, which finally petered out in the seventeenth century, continue to shape our global imagination today. The Cold War ended in 1991, but key elements of the anti-communism credo have been awkwardly grafted onto the new Islamist adversary. And the Global War on Terror, which President Obama quietly renamed shortly after taking office, has in fact metastasized into the wars that his administration continues to prosecute in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Those in Europe and the United States who cheer on these wars claim that they are issuing a wake-up call about the continued threat of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants who claim the banner of Islam. However, what really keeps Islamophobes up at night is not the marginal and backwards-looking Islamic fundamentalists but rather the growing economic, political, and global influence of modern, mainstream Islam. Examples of Islam successfully grappling with modernity abound, from Turkey’s new foreign policy and Indonesia’s economic muscle to the Islamic political parties participating in elections in Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan. Instead of providing reassurance, however, these trends only incite Islamophobes to intensify their battles to “save” Western civilization.
As long as our unfinished wars still burn in the collective consciousness—and still rage in Kabul, Baghdad, Sana’a, and the Tribal Areas of Pakistan—Islamophobia will make its impact felt in our media, politics, and daily life. Only if we decisively end the millennial Crusades, the half-century Cold War, and the decade-long War on Terror (under whatever name) will we overcome the dangerous divide that has consumed so many lives, wasted so much wealth, and distorted our very understanding of our Western selves.
The Crusades Continue
With their irrational fear of spiders, arachnophobes are scared of both harmless daddy longlegs and poisonous brown recluse spiders. In extreme cases, an arachnophobe can break out in a sweat while merely looking at photos of spiders. It is, of course, reasonable to steer clear of black widows. What makes a legitimate fear into an irrational phobia, however, is the tendency to lump all of any group, spiders or humans, into one lethal category and then to exaggerate how threatening they are. Spider bites, after all, are responsible for at most a handful of deaths a year in the United States.
Islamophobia is, similarly, an irrational fear of Islam. Yes, certain Muslim fundamentalists have been responsible for terrorist attacks, certain fantasists about a “global caliphate” continue to plot attacks on perceived enemies, and certain groups like Afghanistan’s Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabaab practice medieval versions of the religion. But Islamophobes confuse these small parts with the whole and then see terrorist jihad under every Islamic pillow. They break out in a sweat at the mere picture of an imam.
Irrational fears are often rooted in our dimly remembered childhoods. Our irrational fear of Islam similarly seems to stem from events that happened in the early days of Christendom. Three myths inherited from the era of the Crusades constitute the core of Islamophobia today: Muslims are inherently violent, Muslims want to take over the world, and Muslims can’t be trusted.
The myth of Islam as a “religion of the sword” was a staple of Crusader literature and art. In fact, the atrocities committed by Muslim leaders and armies—and there were some—rarely rivaled the slaughters of the Crusaders, who retook Jerusalem in 1099 in a veritable bloodbath. “The heaps of the dead presented an immediate problem for the conquerors,” writes Christopher Tyerman in God’s War. “Many of the surviving Muslim population were forced to clear the streets and carry the bodies outside the walls to be burnt in great pyres, whereat they themselves were massacred.” Jerusalem’s Jews suffered a similar fate when the Crusaders burned many of them alive in their main synagogue. Four hundred years earlier, by contrast, Caliph ‘Umar put no one to the sword when he took over Jerusalem, signing a pact with the Christian patriarch Sophronius that pledged “no compulsion in religion.”
This myth of the inherently violent Muslim endures. Islam “teaches violence,” televangelist Pat Robertson proclaimed in 2005. “The Koran teaches violence and most Muslims, including so-called moderate Muslims, openly believe in violence,” was the way Major General Jerry Curry (US Army, ret.), who served in the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. administrations, put it.
The Crusaders justified their violence by arguing that Muslims were bent on taking over the world. In its early days, the expanding Islamic empire did indeed imagine an ever-growing dar-es-Islam (House of Islam). By the time of the Crusades, however, this initial burst of enthusiasm for holy war had long been spent. Moreover, the Christian West harbored its own set of desires when it came to extending the Pope’s authority to every corner of the globe. Even that early believer in soft power, Francis of Assisi, sat down with Sultan al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade with the aim of eliminating Islam through conversion.
Today, Islamophobes portray the building of Cordoba House in lower Manhattan as just another gambit in this millennial power grab: "This is Islamic domination and expansionism,” writes right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who made the “Ground Zero Mosque” into a media obsession. “Islam is a religion with a very political agenda,” warns ex-Muslim Ali Sina. “The ultimate goal of Islam is to rule the world.”
These two myths—of inherent violence and global ambitions—led to the firm conviction that Muslims were by nature untrustworthy. Robert of Ketton, a twelfth century translator of the Koran, was typical in badmouthing the prophet Mohammad this way: “Like the liar you are, you everywhere contradict yourself.” The suspicion of untrustworthiness fell as well on any Christian who took up the possibility of coexistence with Islam. Pope Gregory, for instance, believed that the thirteenth century Crusader Frederick II was the Anti-Christ himself because he developed close relationships with Muslims.
For Islamophobes today, Muslims abroad are similarly terrorists-in-waiting. As for Muslims at home, “American Muslims must face their either/or,” writes the novelist Edward Cline, “to repudiate Islam or remain a quiet, sanctioning fifth column.” Even American Muslims in high places, like Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), are not above suspicion. In a 2006 CNN interview, Glenn Beck said, “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’"
These three myths of Islamophobia flourish in our era, just as they did almost a millennium ago, because of a cunning conflation of a certain type of Islamic fundamentalism with Islam itself. Bill O’Reilly was neatly channeling this Crusader mindset when he asserted recently that “the Muslim threat to the world is not isolated. It’s huge!” When Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence William Boykin, in an infamous 2003 sermon, thundered "What I'm here to do today is to recruit you to be warriors of God's kingdom," he was issuing the Crusader call to arms.
But O’Reilly and Boykin, who represent the violence, duplicity, and expansionist mind-set of today’s Western crusaders, were also invoking a more recent tradition, closer in time and far more familiar.
The Totalitarian Myth
In 1951, the CIA and the emerging anti-communist elite, including soon-to-be-president Dwight Eisenhower, created the Crusade for Freedom as a key component of a growing psychological warfare campaign against the Soviet Union and the satellite countries it controlled in Eastern Europe. The language of this “crusade” was intentionally religious. It reached out to “peoples deeply rooted in the heritage of western civilization,” living under the “crushing weight of a godless dictatorship.” In its call for the liberation of the communist world, it echoed the nearly thousand-year-old crusader rhetoric of “recovering” Jerusalem and other outposts of Christianity.
In the theology of the Cold War, the Soviet Union replaced the Islamic world as the untrustworthy infidel. However unconsciously, the old crusader myths about Islam translated remarkably easily into governing assumptions about the communist enemy: the Soviets and their allies were bent on taking over the world, could not be trusted with their rhetoric of peaceful coexistence, imperiled Western civilization, and fought with unique savagery as well as a willingness to martyr themselves for the greater ideological good.
Ironically, Western governments were so obsessed with fighting this new scourge that, in the Cold War years, on the theory that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, they nurtured radical Islam as a weapon. As journalist Robert Dreyfuss ably details in his book The Devil’s Game, the US funding of the mujahideen in Afghanistan was only one part of the anti-communist crusade in the Islamic world. To undermine Arab nationalists and leftists who might align themselves with the Soviet Union, the United States (and Israel) worked with Iranian mullahs, helped create Hamas, and facilitated the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Though the Cold War ended with the sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, that era’s mind-set—and so many of the Cold Warriors sporting it—never went with it. The prevailing mythology was simply transferred back to the Islamic world. In anti-communist theology, for example, the worst curse word was “totalitarianism,” said to describe the essence of the all-encompassing Soviet state and system. According to the gloss that early neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick provided in her book Dictatorships and Double Standards, the West had every reason to support right-wing authoritarian dictatorships because they would steadfastly oppose left-wing totalitarian dictatorships, which, unlike the autocracies we allied with, were supposedly incapable of internal reform.
According to the new “Islamo-fascism” school—and its acolytes like Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Bill O’Reilly, Pamela Geller—the fundamentalists are simply the “new totalitarians,” as hidebound, fanatical, and incapable of change as communists. For a more sophisticated treatment of the Islamo-fascist argument, check out Paul Berman, a rightward-leaning liberal intellectual who has tried to demonstrate that “moderate Muslims” are fundamentalists in reformist clothing.
These Cold Warriors all treat the Islamic world as an undifferentiated mass—in spirit, a modern Soviet Union—where Arab governments and radical Islamists work hand in glove. They simply fail to grasp that the Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian governments have launched their own attacks on radical Islam. The sharp divides between the Iranian regime and the Taliban, between the Jordanian government and the Palestinians, between Shi’ites and Sunni in Iraq, and even among Kurds all disappear in the totalitarian blender, just as anti-communists generally failed to distinguish between the Communist hardliner Leonid Brezhnev and the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.
At the root of terrorism, according to Berman, are “immense failures of political courage and imagination within the Muslim world,” rather than the violent fantasies of a group of religious outliers or the Crusader-ish military operations of the West. In other words, something flawed at the very core of Islam itself is responsible for the violence done in its name—a line of argument remarkably similar to one Cold Warriors made about communism.
All of this, of course, represents a mirror image of al-Qaeda’s arguments about the inherent perversities of the infidel West. As during the Cold War, hardliners reinforce one another.
The persistence of Crusader myths and their transposition into a Cold War framework help explain why the West is saddled with so many misconceptions about Islam. They don’t, however, explain the recent spike in Islamophobia in the US after several years of relative tolerance. To understand this, we must turn to the third unfinished war: the Global War on Terror or GWOT, launched by George W. Bush.
Fanning the Flames
President Obama was careful to groom his Christian image during his campaign. He was repeatedly seen praying in churches, and he studiously avoided mosques. He did everything possible to efface the traces of Muslim identity in his past.
His opponents, of course, did just the opposite. They emphasized his middle name, Hussein, challenged his birth records, and asserted that he was too close to the Palestinian cause. They also tried to turn liberal constituencies—particularly Jewish-American ones—against the presumptive president. Like Frederick II for an earlier generation of Christian fundamentalists, since entering the Oval Office Obama has become the Anti-Christ of the Islamophobes.
Once in power, he broke with Bush administration policies toward the Islamic world on a few points. He did indeed push ahead with his plan to remove combat troops from Iraq (with some important exceptions). He has attempted to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to stop expanding settlements in occupied Palestinian lands and to negotiate in good faith (though he has done so without resorting to the kind of pressure that might be meaningful, like a cutback of or even cessation of US arms exports to Israel). In a highly publicized speech in Cairo in June 2009, he also reached out rhetorically to the Islamic world at a time when he was also eliminating the name “Global War on Terror” from the government’s vocabulary.
For Muslims worldwide, however, GWOT itself continues. The United States has orchestrated a surge in Afghanistan. The CIA’s drone war in the Pakistani borderlands has escalated rapidly. US Special Forces now operate in 75 countries, at least 15 more than during the Bush years. Meanwhile, Guantanamo remains open, the United States still practices extraordinary rendition, and assassination remains an active part of Washington’s toolbox.
The civilians killed in these overseas contingency operations are predominantly Muslim. The people seized and interrogated are mostly Muslim. The buildings destroyed are largely Muslim-owned. As a result, the rhetoric of “crusaders and imperialists” used by al-Qaeda falls on receptive ears. Despite his Cairo speech, the favorability rating of the United States in the Muslim world, already grim enough, has slid even further since Obama took office—in Egypt, from 41% in 2009 to 31% percent now; in Turkey, from 33% to 23%; and in Pakistan, from 13% to 8%.
The US wars, occupations, raids, and repeated air strikes have produced much of this disaffection and, as political scientist Robert Pape has consistently argued, most of the suicide bombings and other attacks against Western troops and targets as well. This is revenge, not religion, talking—just as it was for Americans after September 11, 2001. As commentator M. Junaid Levesque-Alam astutely pointed out, “When three planes hurtled into national icons, did anger and hatred rise in American hearts only after consultation of Biblical verses?”
And yet those dismal polling figures do not actually reflect a rejection of Western values (despite Islamophobe assurances that they mean exactly that). “Numerous polls that we have conducted,” writes pollster Stephen Kull, “as well as others by the World Values Survey and Arab Barometer, show strong support in the Muslim world for democracy, for human rights, and for an international order based on international law and a strong United Nations.”
In other words, nine years after September 11th a second spike in Islamophobia and in home-grown terrorist attacks like that of the would-be Times Square bomber has been born of two intersecting pressures: American critics of Obama’s foreign policy believe that he has backed away from the major civilizational struggle of our time, even as many in the Muslim world see Obama-era foreign policy as a continuation, even an escalation, of Bush-era policies of war and occupation.
Here is the irony: alongside the indisputable rise of fundamentalism over the last two decades, only some of it oriented towards violence, the Islamic world has undergone a shift which deep-sixes the cliché that Islam has held countries back from political and economic development. "Since the early 1990s, 23 Muslim countries have developed more democratic institutions, with fairly run elections, energized and competitive political parties, greater civil liberties, or better legal protections for journalists," writes Philip Howard in The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Turkey has emerged as a vibrant democracy and a major foreign policy player. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is now the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the eighteenth largest economy in the world.
Are Islamophobes missing this story of mainstream Islam’s accommodation with democracy and economic growth? Or is it this story (not Islamo-fascism starring al-Qaeda) that is their real concern?
The recent preoccupations of Islamophobes are telling in this regard. Pamela Geller, after all, was typical in the way she went after not a radical mosque, but an Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero proposed by a proponent of interfaith dialogue. As journalist Stephen Salisbury writes, “The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it’s about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation’s psyche.” For her latest venture, Geller is pushing a boycott of Campbell’s Soup because it accepts halal certification—the Islamic version of kosher certification by a rabbi—from the Islamic Society of North America, a group which, by the way, has gone out of its way to denounce religious extremism.
Paul Berman, meanwhile, has devoted his latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, to deconstructing the arguments not of Osama bin-Laden or his ilk, but of Tariq Ramadan, the foremost mainstream Islamic theologian. Ramadan is a man firmly committed to breaking down the old distinctions between “us” and “them.” Critical of the West for colonialism, racism, and other ills, he also challenges the injustices of the Islamic world. He is far from a fundamentalist.
And what country, by the way, has exercised European Islamophobes more than any other? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? Taliban Afghanistan? No, the answer is: Turkey. "The Turks are conquering Germany in the same way the Kosovars conquered Kosovo: by using higher birth-rates,” argues Germany’s Islamophobe du jour, Thilo Sarrazin, a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party. The far right has even united around a Europe-wide referendum to keep Turkey out of the European Union.
Despite his many defects, George W. Bush at least knew enough to distinguish Islam from Islamism. By targeting a perfectly normal Islamic center, a perfectly normal Islamic scholar, and a perfectly normal Islamic country—all firmly in the mainstream of that religion—the Islamophobes have actually declared war on normalcy, not extremism.
The victories of the tea party movement and the increased power of Republican militants in Congress, not to mention the renaissance of the far right in Europe, suggest that we will be living with this Islamophobia and the three unfinished wars of the West against the Rest for some time. The Crusades lasted hundreds of years. Let’s hope that Crusade 2.0, and the dark age that we find ourselves in, has a far shorter lifespan.