The Rise of the New, Liberal Islamophobia

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The Rise of the New, Liberal Islamophobia

Bill Maher, left, and Sam Harris talk about Islam in this screen shot from the Oct. 3 episode of Maher’s HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher.” (Image: YouTube screen shot)

The recent television kerfuffle involving “Real Time” host Bill Maher and guest Sam Harris over whether Muslims are bad people because their religion is, in the words of Harris, “the mother lode of bad ideas,” is symbolic of the new American Islamophobia.

Muslim-bashing has become a popular sport several times over the last decade and a half, most notably in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; after the election of Barack Obama; over the proposal for the so-called Ground Zero mosque; and now with the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But this time, it’s not just members of the extreme right, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann and presidential wannabe Herman Cain, equating Islam with terrorism.

Maher, one of the bastions of liberal ideology, is the source of the latest strain of anti-Muslim racism, along with his cohort Harris, a neuroscientist and author whose bigotry was superbly exposed by Chris Hedges in his 2008 book, “I Don’t Believe in Atheists.”

Historian and academic Reza Aslan’s brilliant response to Maher on CNN laid bare Maher’s poor logic in equating the actions of extremists with nearly a quarter of the world’s population who identify as Muslim. But Maher’s sentiments aren’t just dissonant with reality; they lend a liberal veneer to Islamophobia, which in turn casts as increasingly legitimate the ongoing government targeting and public venom aimed at American Muslims.

I have never liked Maher. His comedy has generally catered to a white middle-class male audience that has attempted to reconcile ideals of equality and freedom with moral superiority and American exceptionalism. In that sense he perfectly reflects the hawkish desires of the Democratic Party, which sees war as a just cause in the face of fundamentalism—never mind that U.S. policies have often laid the groundwork for said fundamentalism to flourish in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.

In another incisive rebuttal to Maher, Dean Obeidallah, a stand-up comic, Daily Beast columnist and co-director of the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming,” called for the revocation of Maher’s progressive credentials: “My fellow liberals should no longer give Maher a pass. His continuous drumbeat of reckless comments about Muslims is contributing to a climate where American Muslims are increasingly seen as ‘the other’—or worse, as the enemy.”

If the post-9/11 years of Patriot Act barbarism are to be laid at the feet of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their ilk, today’s anti-Muslim bigotry is a bipartisan affair. It is present in thinly veiled references from the Obama administration to the “enemies” in our midst, via phrases such as “homegrown terrorism.” In fact, under Obama, the nation for the first time specified as part of its national security strategy a focus on those people who might become “radicalized” in the U.S.

While there have been no studies tallying the numbers of U.S. casualties at the hands of incidents perpetrated by Muslims, two high-profile incidents are often cited to justify anti-Muslim policies: the 2009 Fort Hood shooting by U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing being the most high-profile cases, which together resulted in 16 deaths and about 200 injuries. A recent study by the FBI of active shooters in the U.S. found that over a 13-year period, more than 11 shootings per year on average took place, mostly at the hands of non-Muslim Americans.

The FBI study does not include all gun-related violence, which would yield numbers several orders of magnitude higher. In fact, an analysis by Mother Jones of mass shootings between 1982 and 2012 found that in the incidents, in which 530 people were killed, more than 60 percent of the shooters were white males. But we don’t see government efforts aimed at curbing white male violence, or a public backlash against white male gun owners. Rather we are expected to fear “homegrown terrorists” exclusively of the Muslim variety.

Soon after President Obama announced his strategy for the war against IS, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a plan to curb recruitment for IS here in the U.S. In the words of the Justice Department, the project will be a “new series of pilot programs in cities across the country to bring together community representatives, public safety officials and religious leaders to counter violent extremism.” Although details of the plan are still being worked out, the preliminary language harks back to the dark days of the Bush administration’s attacks on American civil liberties.

In an interview on “Uprising,” Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, told me, “It’s eerie to see the resurgence of many of the same dynamics in the public debate that we saw 10 years ago—namely, fears of national security threats justifying overbroad counterterrorism policies.” Most disappointingly, years of work by activists like Buttar to roll back the worst aspects of the USA Patriot Act were gaining steam, only to be halted in the wake of the new war on IS. The USA Freedom Act, which tackled only one small aspect of civil liberties, was passed by the House but is now, per Buttar, “languishing in the Senate.”

In the last few months, our liberal politicians and president have systematically raised the specter of “battle-hardened” American jihadis carrying out terrorist attacks in the U.S. Buttar dismissed this as “propaganda,” and “state talking points advanced through media to build public support for policies that quite frankly have no rational basis.”

The government’s misplaced suspicion of Muslims goes hand in hand with the bigotry of Maher and Harris and ultimately fuels hateful rhetoric and can incite violence. A virulently racist ad campaign in New York City is one of the latest examples of this. The campaign is funded by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “active anti-Muslim group.” Among the ads it has paid for are messages such as “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline: It’s Not Islamophobia, It’s Islamorealism” alongside a photo of journalist James Foley being beheaded by a member of the Sunni rebel group IS.

If Muslims in the U.S. are being dehumanized by TV hosts, advertisements and political discourse, a war against their ilk on the other side of the planet is more easily digested. In fact, new polls show increasing public support for the war against IS.

How are American Muslims handling being the focus of all this bile? I spoke recently with a man who has spent years dealing with victims of hate crimes and has experienced anti-Muslim racism personally. Shakeel Syed is the executive director of the regional Islamic Shura Council and vice president of the board of the ACLU of Southern California. In an interview on “Uprising” he told me, “These ads have an extremely negative impact on the lives of people.” He called the offensive posters “a complement to the marketing campaign for the war that we have now initiated.”

Syed cited reports that show how, in the past 13 years, the numbers of anti-Muslim hate crimes have yet to drop back down to pre-9/11 levels. “People who are in the public space know this firsthand, such as myself and my family,” said Syed, who has been called “sand-nigger” to his face numerous times. Even in West Los Angeles, where he resides—a relatively progressive part of Southern California—Syed’s wife was “told to go home” while in the parking lot of a shopping center. Syed’s children have also experienced hateful treatment in their schools.

A recent study based on reported incidents against Muslims, Arabs and those perceived to be Muslim, such as South Asians, and Sikhs in particular, found that xenophobic rhetoric has increased in recent years and incidents of hate-based violence remained high, even in states like New York and California, widely considered two of the centers of American liberalism. Police in New York City reported recently that hate crimes against Muslims have jumped a whopping 143 percent within the last year (incidentally, hate crimes against Jews have also increased by 40 percent).

We have been here so many times before: a war against a people overseas and the accompanying “otherizing” of their kin at home. It is a cynical ploy designed to distract us from inequities and drum up support for an endless war. Japanese-Americans understand this political ploy only too well. And Muslims have been witnessing it for more than a dozen years now. Isn’t it time we outgrew such shameful tactics?

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."

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