Islamophobia: Bigotry in Our Age
Recently, several shocking instances of Islamophobic bigotry have made news in the US. Plans to construct and expand mosques have been met with hostility, threats and violence. In Temecula, California, residents voiced their opposition to a mosque in their community by harassing Muslim worshippers with dogs. In Jacksonville, Florida, someone detonated a pipe bomb at an Islamic Center while 60 people were praying inside. In Gainesville, Florida, a church announced plans to commemorate the anniversary of September 11th with a public burning of the Qur’an. Political opposition to the construction of an Islamic Community Center nearby the World Trade Center site was ostensibly premised on the expectation that all Muslims should feel responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers. From there it was a short step to the outlandish accusations by members of Congress and news commentators that Muslims are conspiring to impose Shari’a law over the United States.
Islamophobia is fear of Islam and the persecution and oppression of Muslims as well as people associated with Islam in the Western imagination. Primarily, Islamophobia helps justify and sustain a US war agenda and economy and facilitates the demonizing of resistance to this agenda. As such, the attacks on the Twin Towers, despite being blowback from decades of US overt and covert interventions in South and West Asia, became the excuse for ever more aggressive military operations and occupations abroad. Accordingly, only those predominantly Muslim nations that challenge US-Israel (and allied) interests are targeted by this “War on Terror”: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and, of course, Palestine/Palestinians. In stark contrast, forces that align with the US-allied agenda, such as the repressive and ultra conservative regime in Saudi Arabia, are dubbed “moderate”.
The shared interest in military dominance for control of land and resources in the region has nourished the long-standing “special relationship” between the US and Israel. For over six decades, Israel has painted Palestinians as terrorists on the basis of the danger that their very existence and survival poses for the legitimacy of a politically exclusive Jewish state in Palestine. The Islamophobic “War on Terror” of more recent decades positions Israel’s national interests as serving the interests of the “free world.” Israel’s apologists have framed Israel as an oasis of Western civilization in a violent and primitive Middle East, both feeding and building upon Islamophobic tendencies throughout the world. The Palestinian people are offered as the sacrificial lamb to maintain and facilitate precarious relationships between the US, Israel and regimes in the region. For example, Egypt and Jordan benefit from this alliance and from the repression of resistance to Westernization by Muslim forces in their own countries.
Particularly following September 11th, Islamophobia became a key factor in garnering consent for the sweeping curtailment of civil rights in the US, opening the door to a new wave of virulent anti-immigrant legislation. This is exemplified by Arizona’s apartheid laws, which are quickly spreading across the US. Globally, Islamophobia is so pervasive because it serves multiple interests. In Europe, the “international threat of Islam” continues the legacy of discrimination against immigrant communities, primarily from former imperial dominions: Pakistanis and Bangladeshi in the UK, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, and many more. In India, a powerful anti-Islamic and pro-Zionist political party repeatedly organized pogroms against Muslim communities in which thousands of Muslims have been killed. In Pakistan, Islamophobia became the basis for alliance between the US and the Musharref regime. Israel continues its ethnic cleansing across historic Palestine and has perfected subordination and legal discrimination against Palestinians.
As the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) enters its second year of work, we identify the struggle against Islamophobia as a priority. Being committed to the liberation of Palestine, we note how Islamophobia provides cultural and ideological currency to Western support for Israel. As part of movements against war and military occupation, we condemn the role that Israel plays in the US-allied military agenda and economy. As allies in the struggle against racism in our countries and communities, we assert that the adoption of Zionism by Western governments and political elites carries a high price in terms of the well-being and safety of all people.
Zionism is bound up with Islamophobia, which, in addition to targeting Muslims and other Arab and Middle Eastern people, including Arab Jews, spreads bigotry and produces an environment of racist and ethnic discrimination. Zionism’s impact on our societies is to feed and strengthen already pervasive conservative, right wing and fundamentalist political and social trends toward discrimination based on cultural, racial and ethnic difference, social exclusion, and violence that lead to poverty, restriction of movement, loss of employment, incarceration, separation, deportation and death.
As a network of Jews committed to respect for Jewish histories, we are struck by the deep similarities between the role played by Islamophobia today and the role played by anti-Semitism in a similar consolidation of a Western identity a hundred years ago. In countries where one would be arrested for slandering Jews, it is now permitted to express hatred against Muslims and Arabs and cast them as everlasting foreigners. We are deeply troubled, not only by the failure of Jewish organizations to respond in a remotely adequate way to this moral challenge, but by the utter complicity and participation of so many of them in this bigotry of our age.
Jewish groups in the US have been indulging in Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric and activities in their defense of Israel for decades. Most recently, The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, both posing as leading Jewish civil rights organizations in the US, opposed the construction of an Islamic community center in New York City. As a Jewish group opposed to Zionism, our views are often unwelcome in “mainstream” Jewish groups like the ADL or the Wiesenthal Center. We are often told by Jews who identify with Israel that we support Palestinian liberation because we are indifferent to own histories. We beg to differ.
What reading of Jewish history allows a Jew to not hear echoes of Kristallnacht in a church’s plans for a public burning of Muslim holy books? What reading of Jewish history allows a Jew to listen to members of Congress accusing Muslims of scheming to overthrow the Constitution and impose Shari’a law on the US and not hear the echoes of Nazis accusing Jews of global domination? In the scapegoating of Muslims to support a US-allied agenda of global dominance, what reading of Jewish history does not hear the scapegoating of Jews to support a fascist agenda of global dominance? As Muslims are threatened, taunted and harassed during worship, what reading of Jewish history does not hear the rumble of an approaching pogrom?
Refusing to acknowledge the persecution of an ethnic and religious minority—and participating in it—erases 2000 years of European Jewish history in exchange for the privileges of whiteness. It betrays the obligation to “remember that you were slaves.” A selective interpretation of history for the purposes of alignment with dominant power has deep roots in Jewish history itself, but not all roots should be nourished. Instead, we choose to cultivate deep legacies of Jewish participation in our own liberation and in collective liberation struggles.
We take the opportunity of this year’s Jewish Day of Atonement to reconcile the lessons of our own histories by resolving to take a collective stance against all forms of racial and religious prejudice and hate.