Author charts long history of Islamophobia

October 11, 2012
Deepa Kumar
Deepa Kumar busts many of the myths about Muslims.

Islamophobia and the Politics Of Empire
Deepa Kumar
Haymarket Books
238 pages
September 2012

Author Deepa Kumar says Liberal Senator Brett Mason is “so wrong” for moving a motion in the Australian Senate to condemn Green Left Weekly for its criticism of the NSW police.

But Kumar, an associate professor of media studies and Middle East studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says Senator Mason’s actions “should not surprise us”.

GLW published an eyewitness account of police instigating violence at a peaceful protest on September 15 against the film The Innocence Of Muslims. GLW’s account was backed up by an SBS news report.

But Senator Mason tried to justify his motion on September 18 by saying: “Is there anything more toxic in the politics of this country than the self-loathing of the Green Left Weekly and the moral vanity of the Australian Left, both beholden as they are, as they always have been, to outmoded notions of political correctness?”

Kumar, whose new book, Islamophobia and the Politics Of Empire, was published last month, says: “The ubiquity and the taken-for-granted nature of anti-Muslim racism is such that people like Mason can resort to arguments that cast Muslims as irrational fanatics, and those who defend them as practising political correctness.

“His motion focused on ‘violent protests’ and the role of Islamists — this is a convenient way in which to ignore and paper over the legitimate grievances that people who face racism might protest about.

“This should not surprise us — this tactic has been used by elites everywhere including in France, where protests against anti-Muslim racism were banned a few weeks ago.”

Kumar’s book may appear timely, but its real value lies in providing the long history of Islamophobia. She puts the phenomenon in context, showing how it has been used as a powerful tool of manipulation for almost a millennium.

“My book begins in the 7th century with the earliest contacts between Muslim majority societies and Europe,” she says. “The first moment that we start to see anti-Muslim sentiment being propagated in the European context is during the crusades in the 11th century.

"Essentially, the argument that many scholars before me as well have made is that the crusades were not really about religion, but politics. The wars were about expanding the power and political scope of the Pope and of the Vatican.

“In that context, demonising Muslims by calling Prophet Muhammad sexually promiscuous, a ‘false prophet', calling Islam a fake religion and so on, was useful in mobilising people for the crusades. This means that Islamophobia is much more rooted in European history.

"Another revival of anti-Muslim racism, particularly the language of Orientalism, occurs in the context of 19th and 20th colonialism particularly by the UK and France in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The US is a newly-arriving colonial power and did not enter the world stage until the Spanish-American war of 1898, so the language of anti-Muslim racism in the US is basically borrowed from the European context.

“What I argue in the book is that racist ideologies don’t come out of nowhere. 9/11 didn’t produce the image of the ‘Muslim enemy’, rather it helped mobilise an ideology that had long been in development in the US.

“The particular frames in use today draw upon and refine the rhetoric developed in Europe in the 19th century. So, for instance, what used to be called the ‘white man’s burden' - the idea that the white man had a burden to civilise the barbarians - is now called the ‘clash of civilizations’, based on the notion that it is cultural differences between the East and West that causes conflict rather than politics.

“So if Muslims are protesting the racist film, it’s because they don’t get our lofty notion of ‘free speech’. If the US invades a country like Afghanistan it is to bring rights to Afghan women because otherwise they would not be free.

"In fact, the US has done little to make life for Afghan women any easier, rather it is the ‘white man’s burden’ all over again, this time clothed in liberal rhetoric. This is why I call this form of anti-Muslim racism ‘liberal Islamophobia’ since it stems from liberal imperialism.

“It is important for people to understand that these arguments have a long history and that is why I focus on five such myths that are in use today that in fact have a much longer history rooted in colonialism.”

The five myths busted by Kumar are:

1) “Islam is a monolithic religion.” Like Christianity, it has many variations and degrees of fanaticism, so should not be treated as a monolithic whole.

2) “Islam is a uniquely sexist religion.” Kumar points to anti-abortion policies in the US and the fact it still has not elected a female head of state, unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

3) “The 'Muslim mind’ is incapable of reason and rationality.” The Muslim world pioneered science when Europe was still in the Dark Ages. Little discussion is devoted to why Iran, as a rational political actor, might want to acquire nuclear weapons.

4) “Islam is an inherently violent religion.” The same could be said of Christianity’s crusades, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and various acts of terrorism committed by Christian fundamentalists. There is a rich tradition of non-violence in Islam.

5) “Muslims are incapable of democracy and self-rule.” Secular nationalism and democracy in Muslim-majority countries have been continually undermined by the West.

Yet the Islamophobia rolls on, from serious news to popular culture. This month, Sacha Baron Cohen’s box office hit comedy The Dictator was released on DVD in Australia. The film, which lampoons murderous Muslim depots, begs the question: would Baron Cohen ever make a film lampooning equally murderous Israeli leaders?

“Cohen would argue as satirists do that they are equal opportunity critics,” says Kumar. “The problem with this approach is that it assumes we live in a world where everyone is equal and so poking fun at any group should be fine. In short, it relies on the logic of a post-racial society in the West.

“In reality this is not the case. One way to think about this is to ask would it have been appropriate to make fun of Jews and Judaism during the Nazi holocaust? Absolutely not, as that would only have strengthened the hand of the Nazis. So satire has to be politically conscious and racially aware.”

Kumar says “a perfect example” of politically conscious and racially aware satire is the internet memes of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu holding up his cartoonish illustration of Iran’s supposed nuclear bomb at the United Nations on September 28. The wave of mocking parodies that broke across the internet showed that satire can be a powerful weapon in the hands of activists.

“Netanyahu made a fool of himself at the UN and this was rightly denounced, not just through the medium of satire, but also in serious newspapers like Ha’aretz,” says Kumar.

But Kumar must also deal with plenty of denouncements. Asked how she handles the kind of attacks that Senator Mason levelled at GLW, the author says: “The most constant refrain is one that comes from those whose national pride is wounded by my anti-imperialist analysis. So there are lots of people who cannot believe that the US is not a force for good around the world.

“They are firmly rooted in the notion that US donates large percentage of the GDP for the upliftment of people in less developed nations - which is not true. They believe that the US liberates people whether these are women in Afghanistan or ordinary people in Libya - again, not true. So it is very troubling to them to hear me write and speak about how the elite in the US do not really do any of these things but in fact act in the interests of their class.

“I have learned over the years to talk about empathy with the Muslim ‘other’ and international solidarity in a manner that I think that people who are essentially good-willed can relate to.

“I have had more success with such arguments over the last year or so since the Arab uprisings, the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as various struggles in Spain, Greece and elsewhere. At some level people understand that everywhere around the world ordinary people are fighting against the regime of the 1% and therefore what we need is a politics of international solidarity that can strengthen these movements.

“The attack on Green Left just struck me as so wrong. I send Green Left my solidarity.”

Read next: We must reject the anti-Muslim hysteria

Read the book's first chapter here. Below, Deepa Kumar speaks to RT about Islamophobia.

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