The racist crusade against Muslims

Eric Ruder counters the lies and myths perpetrated to bolster anti-Muslim bigotry.

Islamaphobic provocateurs Sarah Palin, Pastor Terry Jones and Glenn Beck

AN UGLY campaign against Muslims has been gaining momentum in recent weeks--and it's building to a fever pitch as the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches.

After an eleventh-hour announcement that the event was canceled, Pastor Terry Jones and his hate-mongering Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., were still threatening to carry out their vile plan for an "International Burn a Koran Day" on September 11. News of Jones' plan to toss the Muslim holy book into a bonfire not only stirred protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world, but attracted denunciations from U.S. political figures and commentators across the political spectrum.

But many of the denunciations only served to reinforce an underlying idea driving this latest wave of bigotry--that there is an international Islamic menace waiting to strike at freedom-loving Americans.

"I would hope that Pastor Terry Jones and his supporters will consider the ramifications of their planned book-burning event," said Sarah Palin, who has spent recent weeks stoking hatred in a campaign against the building of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. "It will feed the fire of caustic rhetoric and appear as nothing more than mean-spirited religious intolerance. Don't feed that fire."

It takes some gall for Palin to contort herself into a paragon of restraint in lecturing anyone--even someone as loathsome as Terry Jones--about the dangers of religious intolerance. Palin and the crew of right-wingers behind her bid to speak for the Republican right have shamefully pandered to the Tea Party crazies who believe, among other things, that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.

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OBAMA ALSO added his voice to the denunciations of the planned Koran burning in Gainesville. "This could increase the recruitment of individuals who'd be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities," Obama said.

But while Obama is correct that burning the Koran would aid those seeking to win converts to religious-inspired violence against the West, his condemnation of a bottom-feeding pastor from Gainesville, Fla., has a cynical whiff of self-forgiveness to it. After all, he bears a lot of responsibility for the bitter anger against the U.S. among Arabs and Muslims who are victims of the American government's imperial war machine.

It's Obama, not a crackpot preacher far from the corridors of power, who authorized the Predator drone air attacks in Pakistan that have killed hundreds of civilians. It's Obama who kept his campaign promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan. It's Obama who has continued to carry out George W. Bush-era policies justifying the use of torture against the mostly Middle Eastern enemies of the U.S. in the so-called "war on terror." And it's Obama who has stood by as Palestinians in Gaza starve and Israel defies international law and human rights.

In this context, Obama's summoning of the specter of suicide bombers in America's cities only further stirs the pot of hatred whipped up by the Sarah Palins, the Glenn Becks and the Terry Joneses.

Obama's comments are reminiscent of his spoken-out-of-both-sides-of-his-mouth response to the hysteria over the proposed Islamic Center to be built near the site of the World Trade Center. On one day, Obama defended the right of Muslims to build the center. The next, he declared that he wasn't endorsing the "wisdom" of building a mosque near the "hallowed ground" of Ground Zero.

These surrenders to the bigots of the right only add to the climate of hate--with dreadful consequences across the U.S. A proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn.--nearly 1,000 miles from Ground Zero--that was protested by the Christian right this summer was the target of an arson attack in late August. Similar anti-Muslim campaigns are sprouting up across the U.S.

Fortunately, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the Park51 initiative to build the Islamic center in Manhattan, has rejected pleas from conservatives and liberals alike to call off the project. Rauf rightly dismisses--despite the continuing pressure--the absurd idea that the nearly 1.6 billion adherents of the world's second-largest religion have to answer for the September 11 terror plot carried out by 19 men.

As Rauf, who has spent his career trying to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, explained: "If we move from that location, the story will be that the radicals have taken over the discourse. The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack. And I'm less concerned about the radicals in America than I am about the radicals in the Muslim world."

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TODAY'S ANTI-Muslim crusade takes as its starting point ugly slanders about the Islamic faith.

"They are not a religion," retiree Bob Shelton, who lives near Murfreesboro and opposes the plan to build a mosque there, told a reporter. "They are a political, militaristic group."

Shelton was echoing the oft-repeated idea that Islam is especially or inherently violent among the world's religions. Anyone who knows the history of the Christian Crusades--the series of military campaigns, sanctioned by the Catholic Church, that took place in the Middle East during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries--might differ about that. Here's how a contemporary of the Crusaders, historian Raymond of Agiles, celebrated the Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099:

Wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of the [Muslim] Saracens were beheaded...Others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days and then burned in flames. In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and horses.

Of course, the Crusaders would have been defying the Bible if they stopped at just killing Muslim men and their horses. According to the Book of Deuteronomy:

And when the Lord thy God hath delivered [a city] into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself.

But there's no need to turn the clock back 1,000 years to find examples of Christian justifications for violence. In 2005, George W. Bush explained to the participants of a meeting about the Middle East peace process:

I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, "George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan." And I did, and then God would tell me, "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq." And I did.

In 2006, Bush gave this infamous justification for the U.S. "war on terror":

Since the horror of 9/11, we've learned a great deal about the enemy. And we have learned that their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes, men are beaten for missing prayer meetings, and terrorists have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations.

The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation...This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.

Bush was repeating some of the other main pillars of anti-Muslim bigotry--the idea that Islam is especially oppressive toward women and that Islamic countries are the antithesis of the civilized West.

But Islamic fundamentalists don't have a religious monopoly on oppressive attitudes toward women. In the U.S., Christian Right fanatics hunt down and kill doctors who dare to perform abortions, even though it is a constitutionally guaranteed right for women--and in Israel, a singer was given 39 lashes by rabbis for the crime of performing in front of a "mixed" audience of men and women.

During the right-wing protests against the planned mosque in Murfreesboro, several hundred protesters carried signs reading "No Sharia law for USA!" a reference to Islam's legal code. But it's hard to take seriously the idea that Sharia law is looming on the horizon in the U.S. In fact, the same sort of bizarre and repressive codes exist in the Bible, and despite the efforts of the Christian Right, they have not been integrated into U.S. law.

With myths and distortions like these thriving in the U.S., is it any wonder that Muslims look with suspicion and anger on the sanctimonious claims of U.S. political leaders that they are defending women's rights and democratic values?

In fact, because of the barbaric record of the U.S. and Western imperialism in the Middle East, Islamic political organizations have often become a lightning rod for opposition. Many people who join avowedly Islamist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are attracted first of all to the fact that these groups challenge U.S. imperialism and the violence of its allies in the region, whether the Israeli watchdog state or right-wing Arab regimes in countries like Egypt.

The conservative tenets of Islam--its reactionary attitude toward women, for example, or its promotion of capitalist business principles--undermine these movements. For this reason, Islamist parties have often vacillated between bitter opposition to governments in the Middle East and accommodation with them.

Nevertheless, Islamism can seem to the poor to be a model for change in a region gripped by poverty, dominated by corrupt dictatorships and under attack by imperialism.

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THE VICIOUS campaign against Muslims today isn't the work of right-wing crackpots alone. It is the latest stage in a wider phenomenon that has been building over many years.

The crusade against Islam filled an ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the USSR--the U.S. government's former superpower rival--in the early 1990s.

Throughout the Cold War, conservative and liberal anti-communists told fearful stories about the military threat from Communist regimes and the many schemes for domestic infiltration--all as a way to mobilize support for U.S. foreign policy. Today, rhetoric like Bush's talk about the "war for civilization" serves a similar purpose--to provide an ideological justification for the immense physical destruction and financial waste of the imperial war machine.

However, this doesn't mean the U.S. won't ally itself with Islamism in the right circumstances.

During the wave of anti-colonial struggles in the post-Second World War era, the U.S. government attempted to nurture alternatives to left nationalist movements, especially in areas of the world like the Middle East--considered of strategic importance both because it was rich in resources and geographically important.

This included support for Islamic fundamentalism. In Afghanistan, the U.S. supported the Afghan mujahideen against invaders from the former USSR during the 1980s as a central part of the American effort to claw back international influence after its defeat in Vietnam. Some 20 years later, the remnants of the mujahideen spawned Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda--and thus was sealed the transformation of Islamism from an ally of convenience to public enemy number one.

Today, Islamophobia is the dominant ideological lens through which U.S. interests in the Middle East and Central Asia are understood.

This requires ignoring the close alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, home to Wahabbism, the most extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism. Because of this alliance, the U.S. ended up invading Afghanistan, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were from Saudi Arabia. Invading Afghanistan served U.S. imperial interests--invading Saudi Arabia didn't.

What's more, the financial crisis of 2008 and the wider economic crisis that followed plunged millions of Americans into unemployment, uncertainty and anxiety about the future. This has opened more space for political demagogues pointing out scapegoats to blame for the problems so many people face today.

If the collapse of the USSR eventually led to the reformulation of U.S. foreign policy with Islam as the new enemy, the collapse of the financial system two years ago created an opening for Tea Partiers, Christian fundamentalists and run-of-the-mill bigots to stoke populist anger. That's why anti-Muslim bigotry has taken such a nasty and terrifying turn in recent months.

But the crusade against Islam has also produced revulsion among millions of Americans horrified by this ugly right turn in U.S. politics. Even as Democrats like former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean jump on the bandwagon in opposing the Manhattan Islamic center, other voices of the political mainstream--from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, to liberal Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin--have given the project uncompromising support.

Even more importantly, on September 11, activists in Gainesville and New York City are planning to stand up to the anti-Islam bigots.

Anyone who cares about justice and equality should join them--and raise your voice against the anti-Muslim crusaders.