Kourosh Ziabari – Fars News Agency: Islamophobia is on the rise in the West, and certain governments have built their foreign policy towards the Islamic nations upon propagating an imaginary fear of Muslims as the perceived culprits behind several problems our world is facing today.
A prominent US-based scholar who has investigated and studied Islamophobia in an extensive book believes that it’s the racist nature of the American society that permits Islamophobia to grow and turn into a point of confrontation between the Muslim community and the government.
“Islamophobia in the US is very different from Islamophobia in Europe, for example. This is because the United States is built on a racial and class hierarchy. It is fundamentally a racist country because it measures all things through race and class,” said Prof. Stephen Sheehi in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency.
Prof. Sheehi has written an entire book about the concern of Islamophobia and termed it an “ideological campaign against the Muslims.”
He believes that the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US government’s response to it fanned the flames of anti-Muslim discrimination: “9/11 really allowed actors and ideologues within the United States to mainstream Islamophobia not only as a cultural discourse but a political discourse that would require proactive American militarism.”
“In this regards, the Bush administration really is responsible for allowing Islamophobic discourses to become natural and acceptable, the new base line upon which all foreign and domestic policy is made,” he added.
Prof. Stephen Sheehi is the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Associate Professor of Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Arabic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and the Program of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of two books, namely “Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims” and “Foundations of Modern Arab Identity.”
His writings have appeared on several anthologies, encyclopedias and scholarly journals including Third Text, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, The British Journal of Middle East Studies, Discourse, The Journal of Arabic Literature, Critique, Jouvert, The Journal of Comparative South Asian, African, Middle Eastern Studies and Encyclopedia of Islam.
Prof. Sheehi took part in an interview with FNA and talked about his viewpoints on the growth of Islamophobia in the United States and Eurpe.
Q: In your book “Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims,” you depicted how entrenched Islamophobia is in the US public discourse, across the media and government as well as the academia. Why do you think Islamophobia has become so much institutionalized in the American mentality? What factors have contributed to the permeation of Islamophobia, as a sort of racism, in he daily lives of American citizens?
A: Islamophobia is an ideological phenomenon in the United States but it is one that has not been around forever. That is not to say that there has not been anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. There has and generations of Arab Americans, for example, had to content with American racisms. This includes Christian Arab Americans, some of who were lynched at the turn of the 20th century in the Jim Crow South. That said, Islamophobia as a poignant and directed ideological phenomenon starts, to some degree, in the 1980s with the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the formation of militancy in Lebanon, most notably by Hizbullah. With the rise of the new Right and the neoconservative movement in the United States, Islamophobic discourses of the right and the hardcore Zionists, began to be mainstreamed. Some might attribute this to the rise of the United States as the unipolar power with the demise of the Soviet Union. Political Islam, most notably Sunni extremist groups, became more active, including the rise of militant political Islam in Palestine and Egypt along with increasingly successful resistance to Israeli occupation by Hizbullah. In this regards, even before 9/11, the neoconservative movement was successful in creating the myth of “Muslim rage” and the “clash of civilizations” as operative reason to justify United States military and economic policies both globally and domestically.
Q: I’ve noted that in your writings, you try to show how Islamophobia is being used in the United States by the federal and state governments, law enforcement authorities, interest groups and conglomerates to limit and restrict the civil liberties and social freedoms of the Muslims. Why is it that the political officeholders in the United States are so much unwilling to allow the minorities, including, but not limited to, the Muslims, to practice their civil rights and enjoy the freedoms which they are constitutionally entitled to?
A: The violation of the civil rights of Black Americans and Latinos, for example, differs in some way from the ways in the United States federal and state governments violate the civil rights of Muslims and Muslim Americans. First, what makes these violations dangers is that they are institutionalized. Following 9/11, a series of laws were enacted that re-engineered civil liberties in the United States. This was done by lawmakers under a new “security discourse” within the “war on terror,” which is an unending war.
Unequivocally, Muslims, particularly Muslim Arabs but Muslims in general as well, are seen as the target of this war. This reengineering of civil rights, however, has been used as a pretext to violate all Americans civil liberties as seen in the disclosures of Edward Snowden. All of that said, I think that the overlap between violating the civil rights of Muslims and Muslim Americans, Black Americans, and Latinos occurs at the level of, say, law enforcement because the United States operates fundamentally on a racial and class system, where they become targets of law enforcement and discrimination. Law enforcement is further empowered by the “security discourse” and has become only increasingly more militant and well armed. Most lawmakers support federal, state, and local law enforcement as well as believe the security discourse. There’s little reason to think that many of these politicians would become advocates of minorities of any color, although some admirably are advocates. They are our small hope in the United States.
Q: You talk of the US Empire and how the advocacy of Islamophobic sentiments serves to further this empire. Do you think the US government, especially under Presidents Clinton and Bush, has used the pretext of an imaginary threat from the Muslim world to advance an imperial agenda and expand the umbrella of its geopolitical dominance across the globe? How would it be possible?
A: The Clinton White House was faced with domestic terrorism from a militant political Muslim group, notably the bombing of the Twin Towers in 1993 by Ramzi Youssef and his accomplices along with Khaled Sheikh Muhammad. It was engaged in a variety of attacks against Muslim paramilitary groups and states as a result of US embassies being bombed, for example, in Dar al-Salam and Nairobi in 1998. Also, most important, the Clinton administration vigorously enforced a brutal regime of sanctions and non-fly zone in Iraq resulting in thousands of deaths. However, despite this and its enthusiastic support for Israel allowing them to renege on their obligations made in Oslo, the Clinton administration’s Islamophobic discourse differs considerably from the Bush administration. First, it is only during this time that the Clinton White House began to field “open letters” from neoconservative pundits and politicians introducing a discourse of Islamophobia that we are familiar with today. Janet Reno, the Attorney General in the Clinton administration, had to deal with the existing legal structure to prosecute alleged “Islamists,” and, as a result, she started to pioneer the use of “secret evidence” against Muslim defendants that was used robustly in later years by the Bush and Obama administrations.
All of this said, 9/11 really allowed actors and ideologues within the United States to mainstream Islamophobia not only as a cultural discourse but a political discourse that would require proactive American militarism. In this regards, the Bush administration really is responsible for allowing Islamophobic discourses to become natural and acceptable, the new base line upon which all foreign and domestic policy is made.
Q: The American author and researcher Nathan Lean believes that Islamophobia is an industry that profits many people, including groups of intellectuals, businessmen, media personalities, academics, pundits and industrialists, whom you’ve talked about in your book. Do you agree that Islamophobia is making huge amounts of money for those who skillfully propagate an artificial fear of the Muslims and portray Islam as the foremost threat to global peace and security?
A: Nathan Lean’s wonderful work effectively shows how there are a number of hardcore financers to America’s most ugly Islamophobic campaigns. He is very correct in tracking these relationships between money and the loudest and most violent anti-Muslim extremists in the United States, who gained credibility, to some degree, and visibility due to their robust funding sources.
However, while the relationship between money, media, visibility, and power is accurate, Islamophobia is a widespread phenomenon and found in both Democratic and Republican parties. Racist stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are prevalent in American political culture, media, entertainment, and civil society. In this regard, the “network” that Nathan talks about only fed a racist public who was willing to accept, no matter how absurd and racist, much of the Islamophobic discourse that these groups were disseminating. The point is that if the United States didn’t have widespread racist assumptions of Muslims, the Islamophobic groups that Nathan examines would never have found an audience.
Q: It was since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that the US government, either intentionally or unintentionally, initiated a war on Islam. I think that the War on Terror turned to be a War on Muslims. 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide were punished for the crimes of a dozen of terrorists whose association with Islam was no way demonstrated. Do you share this view of many Western scholars who believe that the 9/11 attacks underpinned the intensification of anti-Muslim measures, both inside the United States, and overseas?
A: 9/11 definitely mainstreamed Islamophobia and provided justification for the intensification of US interventionism globally. I think that the topic is complex however. The United States after 9/11 experienced an extremely ugly era of anti-Muslim violence and hate speech. More important, Muslims are targeted by the Federal authorities and foreign policies are justified because of the “war on terror.” However, more recently, things have shifted. Obama is savvy. He’s a legal mind. His policies are all legal in US courts. He’s also smart enough not to invoke explicitly Islamophobic language. He doesn’t use the moniker “war on terror” and defends Islam regularly. When there have been real domestic incidents of terrorism, he has called for the American public to wait and see the facts rather than immediately blame Muslims or start talking about invasion. However, even though he has dropped much of the language of Islamophobia and even though he rarely invokes 9/11 as a mobilizing catalyst for his policies, is his administration Islamophobic?
What is important to note is that the FBI and Department of Justice are conducting the same programs of surveillance of Muslims and Muslim Americans. They use secret evidence against defendants. Congress passed under his administration the National Defense Authorization act, which allows the US military to arrest even American citizens within the United States and indefinitely detain them with trial if suspect of “material support” for terrorism, a term that is so wide that my interview with an Iranian paper might be construed as “support” for a “rogue state.” Under his command, the military has intensified a drone war against almost exclusively Muslim victims. His military has executed three US citizens in Yemen without charge or trial – which is against the US constitution. Secret No-Fly Lists and Terrorist Watch Lists still exist.
So the question at this point is not about the importance of 9/11 but how is it that American civil society, including Muslim American groups, are now raising awareness about Islamophobia and publicly rejecting it, but these policies still are in effect globally and domestically?
Q: Do you think that the U.S. government has structural plans to promote Islamophobia and portray Muslims as the culprits responsible for the growth of terrorism across the world? The sitting US President has a Muslim background. Does his worldview or his approach towards Islam differ from the extremist dogma of his predecessor and the circle of neo-conservatives in his administration, whose ideology was hinged on the assumption that “whether you’re with us or with the terrorists?”
A: I partially answer this in the above question. I think that Obama is smart. I also see a change in the mainstream American public. At this point, a group like ISIS is so hideous that it has galvanized everyone. The hardcore Right will always be racist and always be Islamophobic. I think that there is a change in the mainstream where explicitly racist, Islamophobic speech and hate acts are becoming clearly unacceptable even to Main Street – white – America. So the “with or against us” language is kind of past. A new pragmatism has set in. That is why the Obama administration has fought hard and put a lot of political capital, for example, into a “nuclear” agreement with Iran. The problem is that, even though Obama is more judicious in his language and his use of military force, does this change the United States’ hegemony in the Middle East and globally? ISIS is the biggest threat to the Muslim world. Will the United States be willing to acknowledge the Hizbullah, with Iranian assistance, is the only military group that has effectively stopped ISIS? Will they admit that it is Iran’s backing of the Iraqi military that has led Iraqi forces to finally start to take back territory from ISIS? Will the United States deal with genuine political Islam to counteract the real-fascism of takfiri ISIS? I don’t think they will. So while Obama’s discourse is explicitly less Islamophobic, his policies still refuse to consider the range of solutions that are necessary to make the Middle East and the world a better place.
Q: An October 2012 poll showed that 51 percent of the American citizens hold extremely explicit anti-black attitudes, while 56 percent of them hold implicit anti-black views. According to the Associated Press poll, 79 percent of Republican Americans willingly expressed racial prejudice. These figures suggest that the United States inclines to be a racist society. Are the Islamophobic sentiments rampant in America part of the racist culture of the nation?
A: Islamophobia in the US is very different from Islamophobia in Europe, for example. This is because the United States is built on a racial and class hierarchy. It is fundamentally a racist country because it measures all things through race and class. Arab Americans successfully bought their way into “whiteness” but most of those Arabs were Christian, so they were allowed to come into the White club as long as they didn’t make waves. Muslims Americans are conservative and, unfortunately, many of them are racists too. So they were happy to be higher on the racial order than Blacks and Latinos. They gained access to the middle class and were educated in ways many other immigrant groups were not. So it’s important to realize that the US is a racist society. It struggles with that racism. It might make some improvements here or there. They elected a black president but, instead of a post-racial world, racist attitudes among Republicans became more, not less, audible. Membership in white supremacist organizations increased. In this regards, Muslims find themselves in the racial matrix of the United States. They experience racist sentiments of a large percentage of the population, who then blend their own racial hate of Blacks and brown people into their hate of Muslims.
Q: As you note in your book, since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims, Arabs and Iranians have been the objects of derision in public. Racist references to Iranians and Arabs by the top US officials aside, we see that the holiest and most sacred things and individuals in Islam, including the Holy Quran and Prophet Muhammad have been ridiculed and scoffed at by the mainstream media in the West. What’s the reason for the unrelenting attacks against Muslims and their sanctities in the media and public discourse in the West?
A: Again, as I said above, I think there is a more robust discussion about whether this public racism is acceptable and productive in the mainstream. This has begun a few years ago when Rev. Terry Jones announced a public Quran burning. That burning never took place. In fact, last year, on his way to Washington DC where he was going to have his spectacle, he was arrested by the police for carrying incendiary, flammable material. The point is not to say that there is not extremist hate violence against Muslims. There is. Three Muslims were murdered execution style only recently in North Carolina. Mosques are regularly vandalized. Muslims are regularly insulted and harassed. However, this violence is increasingly marginalized as unacceptable. Even in the media, these acts are being decried. The media debated very strongly the validity, for example, of Rep. Peter King’s hearings on “Muslim homegrown terrorism.”
However, the issue of “freedom of speech” in the United State is a huge conversation with a long history. Some of the arguments are valid but sometimes the right is used as a cover for expressing violent racist language. The problem in the end really is that the United States has a few fundamental problems. The first is that a large percentage of its populations are “extremists” and “fundamentalists”. They are racists and bigoted. No matter what you tell them, they will not change because they are ideologically wed to their racist world views-against Muslims, blacks, brown people, Catholics, and even women. The other problem is not separate but interlocking. That is, the United States is a superpower and the two major parties, most of the American population – including black people and Muslim Americans – support the United States’ political and economic policies globally. The “good” non-racist Americans then support the same policies as the “bad” racist Americans. How many Democrats are calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state? Or the immediate cessation of all hostilities in Syria, insisting on a multilateral peace process, which must include Iran, without conditions? The United States has a real problem with racism. Not all Americans are racists even more are probably Islamophobic than they are racist. But the real problem is both racist and non-racist Americans come together under certain discourses of American power.
This interview was originally published on Fars News Agency.