Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has seen the explosive growth of an industry of anti-Muslim pundits, many of whom appear as regular commentators on cable news and print media. A number of these individuals have published popular, glossy-covered books which, aside from bashing Islam and Muslims, bear testament to the axiom that “freedom of the press” is “freedom for those who own a press.”
Indeed, were their vitriol and demagoguery not so useful to the powers-that-be in the U.S. and Europe, Islamophobic cranks would be a very marginal force in society. Instead they are treated as legitimate intellectuals and sometimes even “scholars” on Islam despite a total lack of credentials. According to conspiracy theorists such as Glenn Beck, radical Islamists, often called “Islamofascists,” are in cahoots with a world communist movement. As if this weren’t absurd enough, other well-known Islamophobes liken the faith to socialism more directly; ex-Reagan Assistant Defense Secretary Frank Gaffney said that Sharia law was “Communism with a God,” a statement which is nonsensical for countless reasons.
As the global capitalist system seems to crumble a little more each day, reactionaries are out in force to convince the working class that their real concern should be “terrorists” bringing Sharia law rather than a rapacious capitalist class which not only is responsible for the destitution of the masses, but even bears a large share of the responsibility for the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism. Islamophobia amounts to using scapegoat tactics to divide and distract workers while often providing justification for imperialism.
Whenever workers start to perceive their own interests and make demands, the ruling class will inevitably seek to divide them into mutually hostile groups. To conceal or gloss over the irreconcilable differences between the workers and owners of capital, the latter will essentially create new, supposedly irreconcilable differences between groups of workers. Historically, leaders have used nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia and religious differences as tried and true methods of creating conflicts where they should not exist.
Often times the struggle for rights by any particular group is distorted; the reactionaries proclaim that the group in question is actually demanding “special rights,” indeed privileges, above and beyond the rights of the majority. In other cases, it is claimed that whatever gains the minority attains must necessarily come at the expense of the majority. Even general demands for concessions such as unemployment benefits or health care can be characterized as “special privileges” for some minority group.
Welfare programs in the U.S. provide a demonstrative example. Despite the fact that welfare programs exist for the benefit of all, and despite the fact that most welfare recipients are white, welfare was long ago portrayed as a benefit especially for black Americans. What is more, reactionaries have often portrayed welfare programs as benefits specifically for blacks and other “non-white” minorities, as though white Americans are barred access from the same benefits. The effect is that white workers are lulled into believing that they are carrying the weight of non-white parasites. This myth has proven highly effective. In the book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, author Martin Gilens found that many Americans have positive views toward social welfare programs, except for groups that are seen as “undeserving.” Thanks to media distortions, these “undeserving” people tend to be black Americans and other minorities.
Two other tactics for dividing the working class, which go hand-in-hand, are scapegoating and fear. It is one thing to get a group of workers to resent other groups, but it is all the more effective when you can inspire a sense of fear and dread toward a particular group. Nazi Germany’s demonization of Jews provides an illustrative example. While anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany and Christian Europe in general, the Nazis took it beyond religious bigotry into a political and philosophical realm. As imperialist war and class struggle rocked Germany, the NSDAP pointed to Jews as the culprit. Class differences were supposedly reconcilable; it was the Jews who were whipping up the masses of workers and setting them at odds with their natural betters, the German industrialists. But of course some of the German elite were also behaving badly as well, and that was blamed on Jewish bankers. The Jews were blamed for both communist revolution and the machinations of capitalism, with the latter alleged to be some corruption of “free enterprise” and dominated by finance capitalists. The contradiction between communism and capitalism was hand-waved away by claiming that it was all a charade; behind both sides were Jewish “string-pullers,” orchestrating everything from the shadows. Scapegoating, in this context, entails the ruling class telling the workers, “We are all on the same side, locked in a struggle against another, alien threat. We need to pull together to resist this danger!” Conspiracies about evil Jews striving to overthrow “Western civilization” have thankfully been pushed to the margins of our political life, but this myth has recently been replaced with a new one. The rabble-rousing Jewish communist and the conniving Jewish banker have been replaced by a new image. It is the image of the radical Islamist, the vanguard of a massive, worldwide “jihad,” bent on forcibly converting the world to Islam or die trying.
Islam is a convenient target for two reasons. On one hand, there is a necessity to demonize Islam as globalization and capitalism expands into the Islamic world, including in places where feudal-style relations still exist in one form or another. In earlier colonial times, Native Americans, Africans, and East Asians were portrayed as naturally backward and inferior to European colonists who were attempting to “civilize” them. This view helped gloss over, trivialize, or even erase from memory countless atrocities against those peoples by colonial regimes.
As the modern world geopolitical situation has shifted focus to the Middle East and Central Asia, the imperial powers of today find themselves confronted with different forms of resistance to their rule and exploitation, often with an Islamic bent. Whereas 20th century socialism added a third, secular dimension to this resistance, the triumphalism of capitalism since 1991 severely set socialist parties and movements in the Islamic world back. That is to say that to people living in many of these countries, they are more likely to see the struggles in their lives as one between globalization on one hand, and a supposedly “traditional” Islamic way of life on the other. Both of these factions have an interest in denying secular socialism as a reasonable alternative solution.
The second fact which makes Islam an easy target is the increase of Muslim immigrants in the West. While Islamophobes lovingly inflate these numbers all the time, one cannot pretend that Islam hasn’t become far more visible in the U.S. and Europe. As many people are ignorant about Islam, its history, and its diversity, they are more likely to see it as something alien to Western European and American society. Also, Muslim immigrants are often non-European looking, which is one reason why nationalist and racist groups have been jumping on the anti-Islam bandwagon with glee.
In fact, Islamophobia often seems like a form of acceptable racism, where one can denigrate people they typically envision as dark-skinned and of a foreign culture. Take a look at this quote from Daniel Pipes, and see if you don’t catch some hidden racism between the lines.
“Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene… All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most.”
Is that just about religion?
The Islamophobes have been busy, re-writing history to create a new narrative. In this fairy tale, all was well until one day Islam appeared on the scene. From that day forward, Islam has engaged in a sort of global jihad to convert the entire world to its monolithic, unified faith. Every conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims are attributed to Islamic aggression. Attacks against Muslims are justified as defensive. Muslim versus Muslim conflicts are downplayed or ignored. The motive for Muslim conquest or war is always laid at the feet of Islam as a faith, as opposed to the usual political and class motives. Lastly, Islamic conquest and expansion is vilified while European or otherwise non-Muslim conquest is overlooked or rationalized away. They picture they paint is one of a unified, monolithic Islam that is taking over the world by stealth, infiltrating countries as peaceful immigrants, and out-breeding the native population.
No matter how convincingly this narrative may be delivered, it is false on all counts. The Islamophobes know that the most dangerous thing for their industry is contact with real, live Muslims. One only needs to know just a handful of Muslims to understand how the idea that they are secretly plotting to kill all the “infidels” around them is simply ludicrous. Even worse, knowledge of Islam inevitably dispels the idea that Islam preaches conquest and glorifies murdering people in the name of religion, or at least that Islam advocates anything negative beyond that which appears in other religious texts. They, like the advocates of radical Islam, allege that the barbaric practices which exist in some Muslim societies are justified by Islam, when in fact many of these practices were and still are common to feudal societies including Christian and other non-Muslim societies. In order to ply their trade, Islamophobe pundits use tactics eerily similar to those used to demonize Jews.
We first see this in the re-writing of history to portray Muslims as a monolithic group throughout history. Just as anti-Semites did with Jews, Islamophobes will explain away the conflicts and differences within Islam throughout history as trivial, assuming they are brought up at all. European anti-Semites have often portrayed Jews as a monolithic group, more loyal to other Jews than their own nations, and they have likewise claimed that a Jew cannot possibly be truly loyal to the nation or community they are living in.
The same claim is made today about Muslims; their holy literature supposedly requires them to be at odds with any non-Muslim authority. There are three problems with this claim. The first is that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists spend most of their time fighting Muslim governments which they claim to be apostates. This clearly casts serious doubt on the idea of a monolithic Islamic world united against the west. Secondly, Muslims are not called to rebel against non-Muslim states in which they live; the truth is quite the opposite. (1) Muslims have loyally served numerous non-Muslim and secular states, to include the Soviet Union and other socialist nations. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, if Islam truly compelled Muslims to wage constant war and rebellion against non-Muslim states, including from within, we’d probably notice this. The occasional arrest of some alleged terrorist would become old news if even a small portion of the Muslim population living in non-Muslim countries were actually rebelling. If any significant percentage of Muslims were raging suicidal holy warriors bent on dying in combat for a global jihad, cities like Moscow would be a non-stop war zone.
Another tactic which is remarkably similar to old anti-Jewish propaganda is the claim that Muslims are required to lie in order to protect their religion. Charlatan Robert Spencer, who publicly claimed to be a “scholar” of Islam despite having no credentials whatsoever, often makes reference to something called Taqiyya, to defend himself when actual Muslim scholars and other academics debunk his idiotic claims. According to Spencer and his peers, Taqiyya is a loophole that allows Muslims to lie about their faith in order to defend it. This means, for example, that when Spencer or one of his ilk cite something from the Quran, and an Islamic scholar points out the correct interpretation or even just the context, the accusers can claim that the scholar is engaging in Taqiyya. That is to say anyone who dares challenge Islamophobic claims about Islam is deliberately lying, as directed by Islamic scripture, to defend the faith.
In actuality, Taqiyya is significant primarily in Shia Islam, mainly due to its historical minority status in the Islamic world. Taqiyya does not mean lying to defend the faith, nor is it ever obligatory. It means simply that those who find themselves forced to deny or conceal their faith due to persecution and particularly the threat of death will not be held accountable for doing so. Note that this refers to a situation in which either a Shiite is forced to identify and practice as a Sunni, or in a more extreme situation where a Muslim must deny being a Muslim in order to save his or her own life. In Sunni Islam the practice, even in the fact of certain death, is looked down upon. According to Islamic doctrine, a Muslim facing persecution and unable to escape may do things which are usually forbidden, such as eating pork or drinking wine. Note that in any case, Muslims are not allowed to lie about the religion itself, they are only permitted in very extreme cases to deny that they are Muslims, or that they follow their particular sect. To lie about the tenets of Islam is considered one of the worst sins, nearly as bad as equating other things with God.
The use of Taqiyya as an anti-Muslim trope is nearly identical to claims made against Jews based on the Talmud. For centuries, indeed to this very day, anti-Semites claimed that the Jewish Talmud contained horrific commands to Jews, giving them free license to lie, cheat, and exploit gentiles. Naturally, Jews tried to explain some of the words which had been taken out of context, as well as refute those which had been invented, but the anti-Semites were one step ahead. They claimed that the Talmud required Jews to lie about it if a gentile inquired. If a gentile ask a Jew to translate something from the Talmud, the Jew was allegedly required to translate the words in question in a dishonest manner in order to conceal the true evil of the words. How disturbing it is, that the same tactic is not only being used today against Muslims, but that those who preach this kind of hate easily find air time on cable news.
Next let us devote a little time to the commonly heard claim that “we are at war with these people,” “these people” being Muslims. Given that the U.S. and its allies have helped set up governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that considerable time, energy, and resources have been expended on preserving these governments, it is pretty hard to make the claim that Muslims in general are “the enemy.” In fact the U.S., as an imperialist power, supports and arms numerous Muslim regimes throughout the world. If there really was a global jihad of Muslim nations against the West, we would notice. This also hints at the fact that the conflicts which do exist between the West and Muslim countries or groups are rooted in something other than religion. The idea that Muslim countries will become stronger and unite against the West to start a Third World War in the future is just as laughable as the claim that “we” are at war with Islam now.
First of all, the most populous Muslim-majority country is Indonesia, a country which has played the role of an imperialist lackey rather than an imperialist country itself. Aside from the atrocities committed in East Timor, Indonesia has done little to suggest that it will become an expansionist, imperialist power. It is also a secular republic, which kills any hope it would have of leading the Islamic world in a fundamentalist jihad. What about Iran? Fat chance, Iran is run by Shiites, and most Islamic militants consider them to be heretics. To put things simply, no Muslim or even Muslim majority country has the means to become an imperial power, at least not on par with the U.S., China, or the European Union. More importantly, the ideology of actual Islamic radicals and terrorist groups is decidedly divisive; it cannot form a basis on which the many diverse Muslim nations could possibly unite.
No wonder Islamophobic pundits need to peddle their nonsense about “stealth jihad,” where Muslims supposedly overrun the West via immigration and “multiculturalism”; apparently we are locked in the middle of a global war with the world’s largest religion, and yet we go about our daily lives as though it’s not happening. That “stealth jihad” claim might not be so laughable if the very same people who claim it’s happening didn’t gather every single news clipping of terrorist attacks carried out by radical Islamists in an effort to prove this war is going on. This is either open war, or it is a “stealth jihad,” it cannot be both.
Reality points to the fact that the real “clash of civilizations” is one of imperialist powers doing what they have always done, only this time the resistance is couched in religious, this time Islamic terms. This would certainly not be the first time in history. Previous rebellions against imperialism once took on the veneer of religious crusades, such as the Taiping and Boxer rebellions in China during the 19th century. In order to compare these conflicts with our present-day “War on Terror,” the Taiping rebellion claimed as many as 20 million lives. So long as we are talking about the farcical “War on Terror,” let us deal directly with the issue of terrorism. How much should the American worker, struggling to survive this crisis, worry about terrorism? Well consider a few key facts. From 1975-2003, a total of 13,971 people were killed in terrorist incidents throughout the world, excluding warzones. Between 1970 and 2007, a total of 3,292 Americans were killed in terrorist incidents outside of warzones. (2) By comparison, 4,547 workers were killed on the job in 2010.(3) Is it not perfectly clear which should cause workers more concern?
Of course any comprehensive view of Islam cannot be without criticism. Islam is after all, a religion, based on idealism. Even after we cut through all the nonsense peddled by Islamophobic pundits about the teachings of Islam, we may still find many practices or teachings which are reactionary. Yet most of these teachings are no worse than those of any other traditional religion. The American political system features heavy influence from radical Christian fundamentalists, and the United States has managed to project its military force around the world, starting multiple wars and killing tens of thousands in the last decade. Where is the Islamic militant group which can claim the same power? Where is the Islamic group which can invade and conquer a Western European nation, much less the United States? Such a group does not, and in fact cannot, exist. Claims that Muslim immigrants will achieve this same outcome are equally laughable. If these Muslims were interested in conquering Western European countries, they’d already start attempting to do it. There ought to be open insurgency occurring somewhere. These claims are also rooted in a fundamentally racist belief that non-European people can somehow influence and dilute European culture, while European culture is unable to influence and assimilate them.
We should also remember that many of the more barbaric and reactionary practices which do occur in some Islamic societies have a lot more to do with semi-feudal or tribal-based society. Local authorities use religion to justify these practices, but many of them are in fact at odds with Islamic jurisprudence. In any case, the solution to these problems cannot come in the form of bombs, or rapid construction of capitalism. In the 1970’s, the people of Afghanistan made a serious attempt to throw off the bonds of feudalism and embrace the modern era on their own terms. Due to a combination of Soviet and U.S. interference, this struggle ultimately failed, sending Afghanistan back into the dark ages. Today there is little hope for the women of Afghanistan, whose lot in life has not improved much under the U.S.-installed regime. All around the world socialist parties in Muslim nations struggle to show people an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism and semi-feudal relations. In some countries they face severe persecution at the hands of Islamic governments. At the same time, many believing Muslims swell their ranks.
Lastly, it is very important to consider the other beliefs of the Islamophobic pundits, in order to understand what greater end they truly serve. In the U.S. at least, all of them tend to be outspoken defenders of neo-liberal capitalism. Pamela Geller, a blogger who would be totally unknown had her Islamophobic beliefs not proved so useful to the ruling class, operates one blog known as Atlas Shrugs, and has declared Ayn Rand to be “the greatest philosopher in human history.” Once you buy into the fear of Islam, the peddlers are ready to sell you a different kind of fundamentalism, that of the “free market.” We also need not take Islamophobes seriously when they feign sympathy for women, gays, and lesbians; rarely if ever will you see these people loudly and publicly proclaim their support for reproductive rights or equal rights for LGBT people in the U.S. These pundits, as regulars on Fox news, know their audience consists largely of religious fanatics of a different faith. It is also useful to note that the capitalist establishment is obviously not too afraid of Islamic states, as the U.S. supports and arms several Islamic states, most notably Saudi Arabia.
In conclusion, the working class is diverse, and we cannot pretend that these differences do not sometimes lead to disagreements or even conflicts. Despite this, however, the working class shares fundamental interests, as well as fundamental contradictions with the ruling class, the owners of capital. The workers have far more in common, and it is in their interest to find common ground at every opportunity in order to increase their power as a class. Every attempt to drive a wedge into the working class must be resisted. If this means defending a particular religious faith when the tactics against it are nothing but demagoguery, for the purpose of turning worker against worker and rationalizing imperialist war and conquest, then it is our duty to defend. Whenever workers are demonized for their culture or faith, whenever the murder of innocent civilians is explained away because of their alleged “backwardness” or failure to adequately respect “human rights,” we must denounce these vile actions.
Categories: Afghanistan, Anti-War, China, Colonialism, Discrimination, Germany, Government, History, Imperialism, Imperialist War, Indonesia, International, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Media & Culture, Racism, Russia, Theory, U.S. News, United States History, Workers Struggle, World History, Zionism