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The Lies of Islamophobia

The Three Unfinished Wars of the West against the Rest

John Feffer

 by TomDispatch

The Muslims were bloodthirsty and treacherous. They
conducted a sneak attack against the French army and slaughtered every
single soldier, 20,000 in all. More than 1,000 years ago, in the
mountain passes of Spain, the Muslim horde cut down the finest soldiers
in Charlemagne's command, including his brave nephew Roland. Then,
according to the famous poem that immortalized the tragedy, Charlemagne
exacted his revenge by routing the entire Muslim army.

The Song of Roland, an eleventh century rendering in verse
of an eighth century battle, is a staple of Western Civilization classes
at colleges around the country. A "masterpiece of epic drama," in the
words of its renowned translator Dorothy Sayers, it provides a handy
preface for students before they delve into readings on the Crusades
that began in 1095. More ominously, the poem has schooled generations of
Judeo-Christians to view Muslims as perfidious enemies who once
threatened the very foundations of Western civilization.

The problem, however, is that the whole epic is built on a curious
falsehood. The army that fell upon Roland and his Frankish soldiers was
not Muslim at all. In the real battle of 778, the slayers of the Franks
were Christian Basques furious at Charlemagne for pillaging their city
of Pamplona. Not epic at all, the battle emerged from a parochial
dispute in the complex wars of medieval Spain. Only later, as kings and
popes and knights prepared to do battle in the First Crusade, did an
anonymous bard repurpose the text to serve the needs of an emerging
cross-against-crescent holy war.

Similarly, we think of the Crusades as the archetypal "clash of
civilizations" between the followers of Jesus and the followers of
Mohammed. In the popular version of those Crusades, the Muslim adversary
has, in fact, replaced a remarkable range of peoples the Crusaders
dealt with as enemies, including Jews killed in pogroms on the way to
the Holy Land, rival Catholics slaughtered in the Balkans and in
Constantinople, and Christian heretics hunted down in southern France.

Much later, during the Cold War, mythmakers in Washington performed a
similar act, substituting a monolithic crew labeled "godless
communists" for a disparate group of anti-imperial nationalists in an
attempt to transform conflicts in remote locations like Vietnam,
Guatemala, and Iran into epic struggles between the forces of the Free
World and the forces of evil. In recent years, the Bush administration
did it all over again by portraying Arab nationalists as fiendish
Islamic fundamentalists when we invaded Iraq and prepared to topple the regime in Syria.

Similar mythmaking continues today. The recent surge of Islamophobia
in the United States has drawn strength from several extraordinary
substitutions. A clearly Christian president has become Muslim
in the minds of a significant number of Americans. The thoughtful
Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has become a closet fundamentalist in the
writings of Paul Berman and others. And an Islamic center in lower
Manhattan, organized by proponents of interfaith dialogue, has become
an extremist "mosque at Ground Zero" in the TV appearances, political
speeches, and Internet sputterings of a determined clique of right-wing
activists.

This transformation of Islam into a violent caricature of itself --
as if Ann Coulter had suddenly morphed into the face of Christianity --
comes at a somewhat strange juncture in the United States. Anti-Islamic
rhetoric and hate crimes, which spiked immediately after September 11,
2001, had been on the wane. No major terrorist attack had taken place in
the U.S. or Europe since the London bombings in 2005. The current
American president had reached out to the Muslim world and retired the
controversial acronym GWOT, or "Global War on Terror."

All the elements seemed in place, in other words, for us to turn the
page on an ugly chapter in our history. Yet it's as if we remain fixed
in the eleventh century in a perpetual battle of "us" against "them."
Like the undead rising from their coffins, our previous "crusades" never
go away.  Indeed, we still seem to be fighting the three great wars of
the millennium, even though two of these conflicts have long been over
and the third has been rhetorically reduced to "overseas contingency
operations." The Crusades, which finally petered out in the seventeenth
century, continue to shape our global imagination today. The Cold War
ended in 1991, but key elements of the anti-communism credo have been
awkwardly grafted onto the new Islamist adversary. And the Global War on
Terror, which President Obama quietly renamed shortly after taking
office, has in fact metastasized into the wars that his administration
continues to prosecute in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and
elsewhere.

Those in Europe and the United States who cheer on these wars claim
that they are issuing a wake-up call about the continued threat of
al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants who claim the banner of
Islam. However, what really keeps Islamophobes up at night is not the
marginal and backwards-looking Islamic fundamentalists but rather the
growing economic, political, and global influence of modern, mainstream
Islam. Examples of Islam successfully grappling with modernity abound,
from Turkey's new foreign policy
and Indonesia's economic muscle to the Islamic political parties
participating in elections in Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan. Instead of
providing reassurance, however, these trends only incite Islamophobes to
intensify their battles to "save" Western civilization.

As long as our unfinished wars still burn in the collective
consciousness -- and still rage in Kabul, Baghdad, Sana'a, and the
Tribal Areas of Pakistan -- Islamophobia will make its impact felt in
our media, politics, and daily life. Only if we decisively end the
millennial Crusades, the half-century Cold War, and the decade-long War
on Terror (under whatever name) will we overcome the dangerous divide
that has consumed so many lives, wasted so much wealth, and distorted
our very understanding of our Western selves.

The Crusades Continue

With their irrational fear of spiders, arachnophobes are scared of
both harmless daddy longlegs and poisonous brown recluse spiders. In
extreme cases, an arachnophobe can break out in a sweat while merely
looking at photos of spiders. It is, of course, reasonable to steer
clear of black widows. What makes a legitimate fear into an irrational
phobia, however, is the tendency to lump all of any group, spiders or
humans, into one lethal category and then to exaggerate how threatening
they are. Spider bites, after all, are responsible for at most a handful
of deaths a year in the United States.

Islamophobia is, similarly, an irrational fear of Islam. Yes, certain
Muslim fundamentalists have been responsible for terrorist attacks,
certain fantasists about a "global caliphate" continue to plot attacks
on perceived enemies, and certain groups like Afghanistan's Taliban and
Somalia's al-Shabaab practice medieval versions of the religion. But
Islamophobes confuse these small parts with the whole and then see
terrorist jihad under every Islamic pillow. They break out in a sweat at the mere picture of an imam.

Irrational fears are often rooted in our dimly remembered childhoods.
Our irrational fear of Islam similarly seems to stem from events that
happened in the early days of Christendom. Three myths inherited from
the era of the Crusades constitute the core of Islamophobia today:
Muslims are inherently violent, Muslims want to take over the world, and
Muslims can't be trusted.

The myth of Islam as a "religion of the sword" was a staple of
Crusader literature and art. In fact, the atrocities committed by Muslim
leaders and armies -- and there were some -- rarely rivaled the
slaughters of the Crusaders, who retook Jerusalem in 1099 in a veritable
bloodbath. "The heaps of the dead presented an immediate problem for
the conquerors," writes Christopher Tyerman in God's War.
"Many of the surviving Muslim population were forced to clear the
streets and carry the bodies outside the walls to be burnt in great
pyres, whereat they themselves were massacred." Jerusalem's Jews
suffered a similar fate when the Crusaders burned many of them alive in
their main synagogue. Four hundred years earlier, by contrast, Caliph
‘Umar put no one to the sword when he took over Jerusalem, signing a
pact with the Christian patriarch Sophronius that pledged "no compulsion
in religion."

This myth of the inherently violent Muslim endures. Islam "teaches violence," televangelist Pat Robertson proclaimed
in 2005. "The Koran teaches violence and most Muslims, including
so-called moderate Muslims, openly believe in violence," was the way
Major General Jerry Curry (U.S. Army, ret.), who served in the Carter,
Reagan, and Bush Sr. administrations, put it.

The Crusaders justified their violence by arguing that Muslims were
bent on taking over the world. In its early days, the expanding Islamic
empire did indeed imagine an ever-growing dar-es-Islam (House
of Islam). By the time of the Crusades, however, this initial burst of
enthusiasm for holy war had long been spent. Moreover, the Christian
West harbored its own set of desires when it came to extending the
Pope's authority to every corner of the globe. Even that early believer
in soft power, Francis of Assisi, sat down with Sultan al-Kamil during
the Fifth Crusade with the aim of eliminating Islam through conversion.

Today, Islamophobes portray the building of Cordoba House in lower
Manhattan as just another gambit in this millennial power grab: "This is
Islamic domination and expansionism," writes
right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who made the "Ground Zero Mosque"
into a media obsession. "Islam is a religion with a very political
agenda," warns ex-Muslim Ali Sina. "The ultimate goal of Islam is to rule the world."

These
two myths -- of inherent violence and global ambitions -- led to the
firm conviction that Muslims were by nature untrustworthy. Robert of
Ketton, a twelfth century translator of the Koran, was typical in
badmouthing the prophet Mohammad this way: "Like the liar you are, you
everywhere contradict yourself." The suspicion of untrustworthiness fell
as well on any Christian who took up the possibility of coexistence
with Islam. Pope Gregory, for instance, believed that the thirteenth
century Crusader Frederick II was the Anti-Christ himself because he
developed close relationships with Muslims.

For Islamophobes today, Muslims abroad are similarly
terrorists-in-waiting. As for Muslims at home, "American Muslims must
face their either/or," writes
the novelist Edward Cline, "to repudiate Islam or remain a quiet,
sanctioning fifth column." Even American Muslims in high places, like
Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), are not above suspicion. In a 2006 CNN interview, Glenn Beck said,
"I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel
like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our
enemies.'"

These three myths of Islamophobia flourish in our era, just as they
did almost a millennium ago, because of a cunning conflation of a
certain type of Islamic fundamentalism with Islam itself. Bill O'Reilly
was neatly channeling this Crusader mindset when he asserted
recently that "the Muslim threat to the world is not isolated. It's
huge!"  When Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence William
Boykin, in an infamous 2003 sermon, thundered "What I'm here to do today is to recruit you to be warriors of God's kingdom," he was issuing the Crusader call to arms.

But O'Reilly and Boykin, who represent the violence, duplicity, and
expansionist mind-set of today's Western crusaders, were also invoking a
more recent tradition, closer in time and far more familiar.

The Totalitarian Myth

In 1951, the CIA and the emerging anti-communist elite, including
soon-to-be-president Dwight Eisenhower, created the Crusade for Freedom
as a key component of a growing psychological warfare campaign against
the Soviet Union and the satellite countries it controlled in Eastern
Europe. The language of this "crusade" was intentionally religious. It reached out
to "peoples deeply rooted in the heritage of western civilization,"
living under the "crushing weight of a godless dictatorship." In its
call for the liberation of the communist world, it echoed the nearly
thousand-year-old crusader rhetoric of "recovering" Jerusalem and other
outposts of Christianity.

In the theology of the Cold War, the Soviet Union replaced the
Islamic world as the untrustworthy infidel. However unconsciously, the
old crusader myths about Islam translated remarkably easily into
governing assumptions about the communist enemy: the Soviets and their
allies were bent on taking over the world, could not be trusted with
their rhetoric of peaceful coexistence, imperiled Western civilization,
and fought with unique savagery as well as a willingness to martyr
themselves for the greater ideological good.

Ironically, Western governments were so obsessed with fighting this
new scourge that, in the Cold War years, on the theory that my enemy's
enemy is my friend, they nurtured radical Islam as a weapon. As
journalist Robert Dreyfuss ably details in his book The Devil's Game, the U.S. funding of the mujahideen
in Afghanistan was only one part of the anti-communist crusade in the
Islamic world. To undermine Arab nationalists and leftists who might
align themselves with the Soviet Union, the United States (and Israel)
worked with Iranian mullahs, helped create Hamas, and facilitated the
spread of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Though the Cold War ended with the sudden disappearance of the Soviet
Union in 1991, that era's mind-set -- and so many of the Cold Warriors
sporting it -- never went with it. The prevailing mythology was simply
transferred back to the Islamic world.  In anti-communist theology, for
example, the worst curse word was "totalitarianism," said to describe
the essence of the all-encompassing Soviet state and system. According
to the gloss that early neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick provided in
her book Dictatorships and Double Standards, the West had every
reason to support right-wing authoritarian dictatorships because they
would steadfastly oppose left-wing totalitarian dictatorships, which,
unlike the autocracies we allied with, were supposedly incapable of
internal reform.

According to the new "Islamo-fascism" school -- and its acolytes like
Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Bill O'Reilly, Pamela Geller -- the
fundamentalists are simply the "new totalitarians," as hidebound,
fanatical, and incapable of change as communists. For a more
sophisticated treatment of the Islamo-fascist argument, check out Paul
Berman, a rightward-leaning liberal intellectual who has tried to
demonstrate that "moderate Muslims" are fundamentalists in reformist
clothing.

These Cold Warriors all treat the Islamic world as an
undifferentiated mass -- in spirit, a modern Soviet Union -- where Arab
governments and radical Islamists work hand in glove. They simply fail
to grasp that the Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian governments have
launched their own attacks on radical Islam. The sharp divides between
the Iranian regime and the Taliban, between the Jordanian government and
the Palestinians, between Shi'ites and Sunni in Iraq, and even among
Kurds all disappear in the totalitarian blender, just as anti-communists
generally failed to distinguish between the Communist hardliner Leonid
Brezhnev and the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the root of terrorism, according to Berman, are "immense failures
of political courage and imagination within the Muslim world," rather
than the violent fantasies of a group of religious outliers or the
Crusader-ish military operations of the West. In other words, something
flawed at the very core of Islam itself is responsible for the violence
done in its name -- a line of argument remarkably similar to one Cold
Warriors made about communism.

All of this, of course, represents a mirror image of al-Qaeda's
arguments about the inherent perversities of the infidel West. As during
the Cold War, hardliners reinforce one another.

The persistence of Crusader myths and their transposition into a Cold
War framework help explain why the West is saddled with so many
misconceptions about Islam. They don't, however, explain the recent
spike in Islamophobia in the U.S. after several years of relative
tolerance. To understand this, we must turn to the third unfinished war:
the Global War on Terror or GWOT, launched by George W. Bush.

Fanning the Flames

President Obama was careful to groom his Christian image during his
campaign. He was repeatedly seen praying in churches, and he studiously
avoided mosques. He did everything possible to efface the traces of
Muslim identity in his past.

His opponents, of course, did just the opposite. They emphasized his middle name, Hussein, challenged
his birth records, and asserted that he was too close to the
Palestinian cause.  They also tried to turn liberal constituencies --
particularly Jewish-American ones -- against the presumptive president.
Like Frederick II for an earlier generation of Christian
fundamentalists, since entering the Oval Office Obama has become the
Anti-Christ of the Islamophobes.

Once in power, he broke with Bush administration policies toward the
Islamic world on a few points. He did indeed push ahead with his plan to
remove combat troops from Iraq (with some important exceptions). He has
attempted to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to
stop expanding settlements in occupied Palestinian lands and to
negotiate in good faith (though he has done so without resorting to the kind of pressure that might be meaningful, like a cutback of or even cessation of U.S. arms exports to Israel). In a highly publicized speech in Cairo
in June 2009, he also reached out rhetorically to the Islamic world at a
time when he was also eliminating the name "Global War on Terror" from
the government's vocabulary.

For Muslims worldwide, however, GWOT itself continues. The United States has orchestrated a surge in Afghanistan. The CIA's drone war in the Pakistani borderlands has escalated rapidly. U.S. Special Forces now operate in 75 countries,
at least 15 more than during the Bush years. Meanwhile, Guantanamo
remains open, the United States still practices extraordinary rendition,
and assassination remains an active part of Washington's toolbox.

The civilians killed in these overseas contingency operations are
predominantly Muslim. The people seized and interrogated are mostly
Muslim. The buildings destroyed are largely Muslim-owned. As a result,
the rhetoric of "crusaders and imperialists" used by al-Qaeda falls on
receptive ears. Despite his Cairo speech, the favorability rating of the
United States in the Muslim world, already grim enough, has slid even further
since Obama took office -- in Egypt, from 41% in 2009 to 31% percent
now; in Turkey, from 33% to 23%; and in Pakistan, from 13% to 8%.

The U.S. wars, occupations, raids, and repeated air strikes have
produced much of this disaffection and, as political scientist Robert
Pape has consistently argued,
most of the suicide bombings and other attacks against Western troops
and targets as well. This is revenge, not religion, talking -- just as
it was for Americans after September 11, 2001. As commentator M. Junaid
Levesque-Alam astutely pointed out,
"When three planes hurtled into national icons, did anger and hatred
rise in American hearts only after consultation of Biblical verses?"

And yet those dismal polling figures do not actually reflect a
rejection of Western values (despite Islamophobe assurances that they
mean exactly that). "Numerous polls that we have conducted," writes
pollster Stephen Kull, "as well as others by the World Values Survey
and Arab Barometer, show strong support in the Muslim world for
democracy, for human rights, and for an international order based on
international law and a strong United Nations."

In other words, nine years after September 11th a second spike in Islamophobia and
in home-grown terrorist attacks like that of the would-be Times Square
bomber has been born of two intersecting pressures: American critics of
Obama's foreign policy believe that he has backed away from the major
civilizational struggle of our time, even as many in the Muslim world
see Obama-era foreign policy as a continuation, even an escalation, of
Bush-era policies of war and occupation.

Here is the irony: alongside the indisputable rise of fundamentalism
over the last two decades, only some of it oriented towards violence,
the Islamic world has undergone a shift which deep-sixes the cliché that
Islam has held countries back from political and economic development.
"Since the early 1990s, 23 Muslim countries have developed more
democratic institutions, with fairly run elections, energized and
competitive political parties, greater civil liberties, or better legal
protections for journalists," writes Philip Howard in The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Turkey has emerged
as a vibrant democracy and a major foreign policy player. Indonesia,
the world's most populous Muslim country, is now the largest economy in
Southeast Asia and the eighteenth largest economy in the world.

Are Islamophobes missing this story of mainstream Islam's
accommodation with democracy and economic growth? Or is it this story
(not Islamo-fascism starring al-Qaeda) that is their real concern?

The recent preoccupations of Islamophobes are telling in this regard.
Pamela Geller, after all, was typical in the way she went after not a
radical mosque, but an Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero
proposed by a proponent of interfaith dialogue. As journalist Stephen
Salisbury writes,
"The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it's about
the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and
fear that now dominate the nation's psyche." For her latest venture,
Geller is pushing a boycott of Campbell's Soup because it accepts halal
certification -- the Islamic version of kosher certification by a rabbi
-- from the Islamic Society of North America, a group which, by the
way, has gone out of its way to denounce religious extremism.

Paul Berman, meanwhile, has devoted his latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals,
to deconstructing the arguments not of Osama bin-Laden or his ilk, but
of Tariq Ramadan, the foremost mainstream Islamic theologian. Ramadan is
a man firmly committed to breaking down the old distinctions between
"us" and "them." Critical of the West for colonialism, racism, and other
ills, he also challenges the injustices of the Islamic world. He is far
from a fundamentalist.

And what country, by the way, has exercised European Islamophobes
more than any other? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? Taliban Afghanistan?  No,
the answer is: Turkey. "The Turks are conquering Germany in the same way
the Kosovars conquered Kosovo: by using higher birth-rates," argues Germany's Islamophobe du jour,
Thilo Sarrazin, a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party. The far
right has even united around a Europe-wide referendum to keep Turkey out
of the European Union.

Despite his many defects, George W. Bush at least knew enough to
distinguish Islam from Islamism. By targeting a perfectly normal Islamic
center, a perfectly normal Islamic scholar, and a perfectly normal
Islamic country -- all firmly in the mainstream of that religion -- the
Islamophobes have actually declared war on normalcy, not extremism.

The victories of the tea party movement and the increased power of
Republican militants in Congress, not to mention the renaissance of the
far right in Europe, suggest that we will be living with this
Islamophobia and the three unfinished wars of the West against the Rest
for some time. The Crusades lasted hundreds of years. Let's hope that
Crusade 2.0, and the dark age that we find ourselves in, has a far
shorter lifespan.


© 2021 TomDispatch.com
John Feffer

John Feffer

John Feffer is the author of the dystopian novel "Splinterlands" (2016) and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new novel, "Frostlands" (2018) is book two of his Splinterlands trilogy. Splinterlands book three "Songlands" will be published in 2021. His podcast is available here.

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