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Standing up to Islamophobia

April 20, 2007 | Page 4

HADAS THIER and AARON HESS look at how racist caricatures of Islam are used to justify war and occupation.

AT A recent antiwar panel discussion in New York City, Columbia University professor and antiwar activist Hamid Dabashi commented that whenever the U.S. goes to war, it projects an image of itself as the embattled underdog--an "army of Sparta," rather than an aggressive superpower bent on conquest.

When the real underdogs resist, however, they are inevitably depicted by the U.S. political and media establishment as driven by an oppressive ideology, with the ultimate goal of undermining "Western values" of democracy and freedom.

Following the U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1898--at the dawn of the American empire--Theodore Roosevelt characterized the Cubans he helped to conquer as "moral degenerates." In reality, as novelist Mark Twain pointed out, the U.S. imperialists were the "true savages."

Since September 11, 2001, Islam has become the target of choice in U.S. ruling circles. "The war we fight today is more than a military conflict," George Bush declared in a speech last year. "It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. On one side are those who believe in the values of freedom and moderation, the right of all people to speak and worship and live in liberty. And on the other side are those driven by the values of tyranny and extremism."

If it were only Bush and the discredited neocons of his administration who used this rhetoric, that would be one thing. But Democratic Party politicians are also quick to denounce "Islamic extremism" and warn of the threat of "fundamentalist" countries like Iran.

Unfortunately, some voices on the left--even radical sections of the antiwar movement--accept these same terms. For example, Sunsara Taylor of the pro-impeachment group World Can't Wait (WCW) and a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), wrote recently of the "intolerable choice...between crusading McWorld or reactionary Jihad."

It is important that the antiwar movement reject the distorted picture of Islam presented by pro-war conservatives, but partly echoed in comments like these. Our job is to oppose the entire project of the "war on terror," including the racist dogma attached to it.

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OVER THE years, Islamophobia has been given an intellectual gloss by a whole industry of well-paid "experts" on Islam and the Arab world. Two of the most renowned examples are Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

At the core of their writings is the idea that Islam and the Arab world have produced a static, unchanging civilization averse to Enlightenment ideals that they claim are the sole province of the "West"--such as religious tolerance, women's rights and democracy.

These views have little use for historical facts. For example, while Western Europe remained stuck for centuries in what historians call the "Dark Ages," the Islamic world was the center of intellectual inquiry, preserving and advancing the scientific breakthroughs of the ancient world.

And when it comes to religious intolerance, the oppression of women and barbaric dictatorships, Christianity's history stands out as especially bloody.

No matter: Huntington argues that the "East" and the "West" are headed for an inevitable "clash of civilizations"--the title of his book that became required reading for the neocons after 9/11.

Politicians and the corporate media adopted these ideas to justify the "war on terror." In fact, with their claims about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda exposed as frauds, the caricature of Muslims who "hate our freedoms" is one of the few justifications for war and occupation they can still turn to.

Of course, phrases like "Islamic fascism" aren't used to describe the repressive, theocratic regimes bankrolled and backed by Washington--such as the Saudi monarchy or the military dictatorship in Pakistan. Only Washington's enemies are branded with the "f"-word.

Unfortunately, significant voices on the left have accepted the core of the "clash of civilizations" idea.

Probably the worst example was an October 2005 article in The Progressive called "Our al-Qaeda Problem"--which was accompanied by a cover drawing of a menacing, turbaned man carrying a huge scimitar blade and towering over a cowering white figure.

Sunsara Taylor of WCW doesn't employ this racist imagery. But she does accept the framework that the Progressive article shared with pro-war views.

"[I]ncreasingly, humanity is being confronted with two intolerable choices: Bush's crusade for empire or a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist response," Taylor wrote in the RCP's Revolution newspaper. "The Bush regime has committed crimes on a far greater scale and is by far the greater danger to humanity...but both are complete nightmares. Both reinforce and feed off each other, and as they grow, they suck up the air to breath for secular and progressive forces in this country and around the world...

"People in their hundreds of millions--in this country and around the world--must be presented with a third option, an option that refuses to choose between crusading McWorld or reactionary Jihad."

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THE "JIHAD vs. McWorld" idea comes from the title of a book by Benjamin Barber, written in 1995.

While offering some critiques of U.S.-led "market fundamentalism," Barber's book takes more than a few pages straight out of the anti-Muslim playbook.

For example, a typically muddled passage reads: "[A]lthough it is clear that Islam is a complex religion that is by no means synonymous with Jihad, it is relatively inhospitable to democracy, and that inhospitality in turn nurtures conditions favorable to parochialism, anti-modernism, exclusiveness and hostility to 'others'--the characteristics that constitute what I call Jihad."

There are many problems with Barber's understanding of Islam, as with the one Taylor adopts.

For one, it tends to lump together very different tendencies among Muslims, as well as contending Islamist organizations that regard one another as enemies.

It should go without saying that al-Qaeda, a rootless terrorist network initially formed with the collaboration of the CIA, has nothing in common with a mass movement like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine--nor is there any use in an understanding of Islam that makes no distinction between the Shia-dominated Iranian government and the Sunni Wahabists of Saudi Arabia.

The "Jihad vs. McWorld" view also fails to recognize how and why Islamist oppositional movements rose to prominence in the first place.

Initially encouraged in some cases by Western powers as a counterweight to Arab nationalism--the first "fundamentalist" state was Saudi Arabia, brought into being by Britain and the U.S. to secure the flow of oil from the Middle East--Islamists gained a mass base with the decline of secular nationalist movements.

Support for organizations like Hamas or Hezbollah isn't primarily the result of a commitment to religious tenets, but because they represent a political alternative that has stood up against imperialism--chiefly, the U.S. and its main ally Israel.

To understand religiously based movements, the starting point for socialists is not the religious ideology, but the social and political forces such movements represent.

Of course, socialists have important criticisms to make of Islamist forces. As in all religions, elements of Islam are explicitly conservative--for example, the attitude that women are the inferiors of men. Such positions are barriers to building the most effective resistance to imperialism.

But the "Jihad vs. McWorld" view fails to recognize that Islamist organizations were able to gain a mass following by representing an alternative of resistance.

To promote such views can only disorient antiwar activism--especially at a time when the U.S. is threatening a war on Iran, a "reactionary Islamic fundamentalist response," according to Taylor's view.

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THE RCP's Chairman Bob Avakian gave voice to an even deeper confusion in an article that claimed living in America was "like living in the house of Tony Soprano"--where all the "goodies" have "something to do with what the master of the house is doing out there in the world."

"But September 11," he went on, "was a rude announcement that there's a price to be paid for living in Tony Soprano's house, for continuing to go along with these profoundly unequal relations in the world and the way that your government, and this system fundamentally, bludgeons people in the world into conditions of almost unspeakable suffering in order to keep this whole thing going, and in order, yes, for some 'goodies' to be handed out to sections of the population in the 'house.'...

"All that is being shaken up now. Now, you don't just get the goodies for 'living in Tony Soprano's house'--you get the 'strangers' out in the backyard at night."

Leaving aside the "terrorists in our midst" tone so eerily reminiscent of post-September 11 fear-mongering, Avakian's view that ordinary working Americans were sharing in the "goodies" is false.

Working-class people in the U.S. have also been forced to pay--with continuing cuts in social services, with shredded civil liberties, and with their lives, in the case of the soldiers used as cannon fodder in Iraq and Afghanistan--for U.S. wars.

Building the strongest possible movement for peace and justice requires clarity about who the victims are and who's to blame.

It also requires completely rejecting the caricatures about Islam peddled by U.S. leaders to justify their war at home and abroad. If the antiwar movement fails to thoroughly expose the distortions and myths about "reactionary Islamic fundamentalism," it allows American rulers to keep using one of their most powerful ideological weapons for continuing their wars.

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