By KAREN SCHRAUFNAGEL
To respond to the incoming Trump administration—overflowing with Islamophobes—will require a strategy for challenging Islamophobia on several levels. The first thing to note, however, is that Islamophobia, defined as the irrational fear and hatred of Muslims, is not technically the correct term for the oppression that Muslims are increasingly confronting.
It is really institutionalized white, pro-Christian supremacy, plus capitalism’s divide-and-rule strategy, that most impact Muslims—particularly Muslim immigrants of color from the Middle East and Africa. Anti-Muslim discrimination has been growing in the U.S. and throughout the capitalist world since the War on Terror began more than 16 years ago.
Prejudice is individual, while oppression is institutionalized. Simply educating people to discard their prejudices on a personal level (as NGOS and faith groups using the “know your Muslim neighbor” approach often attempt to do) leaves the institutionalized oppression untouched.
The anti-Muslim propaganda industry
We can appreciate the efforts of well-intentioned Muslims to patiently answer any questions about their religion. But they are no match for the well-funded, broad-reaching anti-Muslim propaganda industry. In August 2011 the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report entitled, “Fear, Inc. The roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” which identifies and exposes a tightly linked network to coordinate the spread of misinformation and hateful propaganda about Islam and Muslims.
They followed it up with an interactive website (see https://IslamophobiaNetwork.com), which makes visible the insidious $57 million (in the first decade following 9/11) web of eight top funders, the organizations they funded, the six “experts” producing the majority of the misinformation, the echo chamber amplifying the lies, the validators (non-Muslim individuals usually of Middle Eastern descent who claim inside knowledge and serve to validate the lies), and the activists and their “grassroots” organizations that provide the muscle for the network.
The religious right, right-wing media, and politicians complete the network and promote its agenda nationally. A 2016 report by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Center for Race and Gender (CRG) at UC Berkeley says 33 organizations received more than $205 million between 2008 and 2013, a substantial increase over the CAP numbers.
But it is not just the far right. The entire capitalist media constantly reinforces Islamophobic messages. Eating sambusas while learning about Islam one evening cannot possibly inoculate us against narratives laced with Islamophobia that bombard us continuously. Individual assaults on Muslims—from school bullying and offensive graffiti to harassment and violent attacks (which frequently target female Muslims, who are generally more visible)—have clearly been on the increase throughout the election campaign season and since the election of Donald Trump because individuals with prejudices are encouraged to act by powerful people using inflammatory rhetoric that is magnified by repetition in the sensationalist capitalist media.
We must be prepared to defend those under attack, recalling always that “an injury to one, is an injury to all.”
The “War on Terror”
The most important prejudice underlying Islamophobia, at least for the last two decades, is the one that equates Islam with terrorism. The United States is now in the second decade of its so-called “Global War on Terrorism.” The more that Islam is equated with terrorism, the more the War on Terror becomes a War on Muslims, around the world and at home.
The War on Terror starts with a systematic devaluing of Muslim lives. This is not a side effect; it is an essential component. In order to wage largely indiscriminate war on so many predominantly Muslim countries, with high levels of “civilian” casualties as an expected and accepted outcome of the military methods, Muslim lives must be viewed as inconsequential.
The world reacts in horror when “terrorist” groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda hit targets in predominantly white, European areas—demanding that Muslims everywhere disavow such actions or risk being viewed as complicit—but the overwhelming majority of the victims of ISIS/al-Qaeda attacks are Muslims. Devaluing Muslim lives allows us to ignore inconvenient Muslim deaths.
This systemic devaluation took a leap forward in May 2012 when we learned that the Obama administration was reducing the number of “civilian” casualties from drone strikes, not by reducing the number of strikes but by redefining every military-age male in a “strike zone” as a “combatant.”
The Orwellian logic says that if the U.S. killed you in the War on Terror, you were a terrorist—end of story. On the home front, those who protest the killing of “civilians” (how dare they continue to use that word?) are labeled terrorist sympathizers, and then the boundary between sympathizer and actual terrorist starts to melt away.
Journalist Trevor Aaronson notes in his 2013 book, “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism,” that the government allocates $3 billion annually to the FBI to prevent the next 9/11—more than the Bureau receives to combat organized crime and almost 40% of the $7.8 billion annual FBI budget. Aaronson adds that “a generalized Islamophobia pervades all levels of the Bureau. In recent years, FBI counterterrorism training has made no distinction between the Al Qaeda terrorist network—whose members are religious radicals—and Islam in general. FBI counterterrorism training documents in circulation in 2011 described Mohammed as a ‘cult leader’ and labeled charity among Muslims as a ‘funding mechanism for combat.’ The more devout a Muslim was, according to FBI training literature, the more likely he was to be violent.”
When “Islamophobia pervades all levels of the Bureau,” it is being institutionalized. Prejudice becomes policy and we get programs like “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), a joint effort of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice, which began in 2014 with pilots in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Boston.
From the website of the Massachusetts ACLU we learn: “CVE is a law enforcement model that originated in the United Kingdom, premised on the discredited idea that harboring certain political or religious views is an indicator of future violence. Historically, CVE efforts have targeted specific communities, seeking people who might display so-called ‘vulnerabilities’ to ideological or political ‘radicalization.’
“In contrast to proven counter-terrorism strategies that focus on violent threats or behaviors, the CVE model asks parents, teachers, religious leaders, health and social services professionals, and law enforcement personnel to track and report to the government people engaged in protected First Amendment political speech and thoughts in ways that violate civil liberties without making communities safer.”
And of course the “ask” is backed up with funding. Social, educational, and law-enforcement services that residents of other communities receive unconditionally, reach impoverished Somali residents of Minneapolis only through programs designed to surveil and criminalize them.
The Intercept reported in February 2016 that a policy paper entitled, “Countering Violent Extremism: Scientific Methods & Strategies,” originally released in 2011 by the Air Force Research Laboratory, was reissued in January 2016 with a preface claiming that President Obama’s summit on countering extremism (February 2015) meant “the wisdom contained in this paper collection is more relevant than ever.”
And what is that “wisdom”? The paper contains a chapter, “setting forth controversial and unsubstantiated theories of radicalization, including the idea that support for militant groups is driven by ‘sexual deprivation’ and that headscarves worn by Muslim women represent a form of ‘passive terrorism.’” Theories in official government reports become policies institutionalizing Islamophobia.
“Good Muslim, bad Muslim”
We conclude by noting that when prejudices are successfully institutionalized, it is no longer necessary for the people in power to embrace the underlying bigotry. With institutions doing the oppressing for them, individuals can declare themselves without prejudice.
On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton appeared less Islamophobic than Donald Trump, who proposed banning Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S. and forcing all Muslims in the U.S. to register. But is a “good Muslim, bad Muslim” narrative really less dangerous than “all Muslims are bad” rhetoric? The former narrative allows for the possibility that some Muslims are not terrorists, but then requires that loyalty be demonstrated by endorsing government anti-terror programs and helping police agencies root out “terrorists.”
In other words, to be a “good Muslim” you must accept and help reinforce profoundly Islamophobic prejudices. The “all Muslims are bad” narrative embraced by Trump until now might have to be discarded. Not because of the dangerous mob violence such rhetoric can incite, but because it has the side effect of uniting all Muslims and their allies in resistance. We already see broad coalitions forming to resist Trump that never would have emerged to counter Clinton.
The “good Muslim, bad Muslim” narrative will likely return because it is very effective at promoting the divide-and-conquer strategy that the tiny capitalist class has always used to stay in power.
If “Resist Trump” coalitions are to transform into mass movements capable of meaningful change, we must not be fooled into thinking a return to Obama-era narratives is a victory. We must stand against all policies and programs that institutionalize Islamophobia. We say no to marginalizing and criminalizing Muslims. Solidarity with Muslims and all oppressed people!
Photo: Dallas Morning News