ONCE AGAIN ON ISLAMOPHOBIA
When I started to work on the subject of Islamophobia some six years ago, we were in the midst of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. We knew quite well that Islam (and not only the so-called ‘Islamists’) was the primary target and was becoming the new global enemy. Whilst it is true that the Durban Conference in August 2001 identified Islamophobia as a sort of ‘racism, xenophobia and discrimination’, the September 11th attacks and the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had immediately followed this conclusion, obliterating the effect of that brave statement and provoking an unprecedented upsurge in Islamophobic discourses and practices, with a particular brutality inside the USA itself.
It seemed to me at the time that the phenomenon was dramatically intensified because it had become a quasi-official American state doctrine, and of course the Europeans followed in the footsteps of their ‘big brother’! Following the ‘discovery’ of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of the murderous attacks (the likes of which Americans had never known in their own country), a new range of terminology appeared: political Islam, radical Islam and even, as George Bush Jr., (inspired by the hate master Daniel Pipes) used to say, “Islamo-Fascism”. It is also true that European Islamophobia, nurtured by centuries of crusades, reconquistas and colonial wars, had provided the cultural fertilizer for this conceptual syndrome, constantly exacerbated by the problem of migrants and the permanent recourse of political demagogues to Islam-bashing as a recipe to retain or gain power. But it was clear at that time that the wind blew from Washington. The war in Afghanistan, the destabilisation of Pakistan, the invasion of Iraq, and finally the still largely mysterious execution of Ben Laden in the vicinity of Islamabad, (after ten years of allegedly tracking him in the mountains of Bora-Bora and elsewhere), were all side-effects of this development.
The Guantanamo atrocities, the Patriot Act and other highly illegal measures and procedures that were adopted marked a spectacular regression of political and civic liberties within the US themselves. Witch-hunts launched in universities as well as professional prohibitions accompanied this escalation, creating a climate of multidirectional suspicion and fear as the emerging discourse relied on two basic assertions; firstly that Muslims hate the West because of their own nature: they hate freedom, women and minorities, and their supposed aggressiveness and resentment has nothing to do with Western actions and attitudes. Secondly, Islamists, who are the ‘bad’ Muslims in comparison with ‘moderate’ Muslims (who are themselves only moderately evil) want to Islamise the West, to conquer Europe and submit Europeans and Americans to their obscurantist designs, all of which illustrate the theory of the ‘clash’ of civilizations, announced as the heir of the defunct cold war. The problem here is not only to dismantle and refute this phantasmagorical construction, but to take the measure of its rootedness in the collective consciousness and the sub-consciousness of individuals exposed to it. Regime changes in the Greater Middle-East had become the watchword and Islam had become the code name of the new enemy.
Then a series of events came to mitigate and add some complexity to this rather simplistic and mechanical view. Barak Obama (middle-name Hussein) was elected President of the USA and soon announced that he would stop the War on Terror. He even pronounced, first in Ankara and then in Cairo, very beautifully worded speeches praising Islamic traditions and promising to reconcile with the Muslim world. Unfortunately for Obama, who was literally encircled by a variety of forces within the political-institutional framework of both the great United States political parties, as well as U.S. society, including evangelical fundamentalists and “reborn Christians”, war lobbyists and weapons traffickers, the huge financial interests of the companies who specialised in reconstructing what they had destroyed, as well as the pro-Israeli pressure and action groups, he could do nothing to transform his noble intentions into practical reality. The destruction of Iraq went on, the unending Afghan war continued with no substantial results except the extension of the conflict into Pakistan (a demographic giant with nuclear capacities). And on the ground nothing has changed.
The abandonment of Islamophobia as the dominant discourse however is no minor phenomenon. In a conflict so ideologically rooted, words and symbols are far from being irrelevant, and something in this sphere has definitively moved. Nonetheless this alteration of the conceptual orientation of US policy was not followed by Europeans. One may even assert the opposite. European intolerance vis-à vis Islam has even grown more vocal in recent years, one may even say vociferously, with anti-hijab legislation in France and Belgium, an anti-minaret referendum in Switzerland, and anti-Islamic caricatures or the demonization of Islamic scholars like Tariq Ramadan. All of this was whipped up by demonstrations of intolerance and the continuation of terrorist attacks, as well as by cyber ravings and threats emanating from obscure groups of self-styled Islamists. The enlargement of the European Union to former Eastern European countries who insist on maintaining their Christian identity, and the continued rejection of Turkey’s candidacy to join the Union reinforced this tendency. In spite of a few dissident voices, Europe is now the vanguard of hostility to Islam and to Muslims.
However Islamophobia is neither rational nor consistent and several lines of thought inspire it. I once reviewed some of these forms, emphasising those that were rooted inside Muslim societies, countries and communities. These can come from individuals and groups who rebel against Islamic rules and norms of behaviour, as well as from the governments of Islamic majority countries who use them for their own totalitarian purposes. But most of those are directed to the West in order to achieve recognition, impunity and support. One should remember how Saddam Hussein attacked the Islamic Republic of Iran on the morning of Khomeini’s victory and how this aggression received the enthusiastic support of the West. One should also remember how, many years later, the Algerian military establishment abolished the democratic process, plunging the country into a prolonged and murderous civil war. In the years that followed, practically every government in the Middle-East and in Central Asia adopted the method. For against Islamists (codename for terrorists) everything from chemical warfare to the systematic torture and assassination of political opponents is allowed, and even recommended.
One should, in this regard, take into account that the utmost level of real violence in the Muslim world today is the massacre of Shiites by Sunnis and vice-versa, particularly in Iraq and in Pakistan, and which reproduces on both sides the worst Islamophobic stereotypes. In Europe, this phenomenon takes on a particular dimension to which one should be particularly attentive and which distinguishes it from its American counterpart and makes it singularly virulent. This is the reference to ‘progressive’ and even ‘leftist’ attitudes in order to rationalise hostility to Islam. Here we witness the most apparently paradoxical alliance between the ultra-conservatives of the old Christian right and the extreme secularists of a certain radical left, who speak on behalf of atheists, feminists and women in general in the name of freedom, children and minorities (be they religious, ethnic or sexual). This inter-class anti-Islamic communion is at the root of Islamophobia’s resilience.
At this point in our observations, one cannot help but be struck by the amazing resemblance of this pattern to classical European judeo-phobia, commonly known as ‘anti-Semitism’ (an altogether unscientific term operating under pseudo-scientific disguise since the only Semitic thing in the world is a family of languages, and as the late Austrian Canceller Bruno Kreisky used to repeat, to speak of Aryan or Semitic ‘races’ is as absurd as talking about blonde languages!). There also, the ultra conservative hatred of the Jews encountered that which August Bebel wittingly called the ‘socialism of the imbeciles’. This imbecility has illustrious ancestors, starting with Voltaire, who was basically at war with Christianity but saw in Judaism the quintessence of everything he hated in the Christian religion; via Proudhon, who identified the Jews with unproductive finance capital and with the rule of money in general; all the way to the young Marx, who wrote in 1844, that “the Religion of the Jews is money”!
Like classical European judeo-phobia, today’s Islamophobia unites anarchists, secular libertarians and feminists together with conservative right-wingers, evangelical fundamentalists, Koran burners, and generally speaking, with outright racists and white supremacists. That makes it highly explosive and my contention is precisely that it functions in present day society in a way strikingly similar to pre-second world war European judeo-phobia. This is indeed a frightening acknowledgement for it implies that it may lead to comparable results, whatever the method used to achieve them. This is why this nefarious escalation has to be stopped before it forces us on to even greater and graver tragedies.
The second series of events that has considerably transformed the conditions of reproduction of Islamophobia is indeed that which has been called, maybe too swiftly, the ‘Arab Spring’ (or springs) and sometimes the Arab revolutions. The series of popular protests and upheavals that started at the beginning of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt and brought about the demise of long established dictatorships, followed by the fragility of regimes in most countries in the area (by oscillating between peaceful protests and undeclared civil wars), has struck a fatal blow to the Islamophobic alibi of tyranny and repression. With their legalisation and reintegration into the democratic political life of their respective countries, most Islamic organisations, movements and political parties that have been demonised for decades, have turned out to be rather moderate forces, often committed to political pluralism and civil liberties and sometimes using the so-called “Turkish model” as a reference. This is indeed the case for the Tunisian Nahda party as well as for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
It is also true, however, that the emergence and growth of the Salafists, an ultra radical current supported by the ultra-conservative Saudi regime, still poses an Islamic threat to democratic pluralism. But beyond the manipulation carried out by states, this is a normal development: whenever a movement (religious or not) abandons its radical strategies in favour of political realism, there is always an element which rejects the compromise and views the mutation as a betrayal. As an analogy, one can recall how in the 1970s, the choice of the Italian Communist Party in favour of a historical compromise with Christian Democrats opened up a space for the Red Brigades, Prima Linea and other ultra-radical currents.
In this context, the smokescreen and scaremongering of ‘radical Islamism’ or ‘political Islam’ (a paradoxical notion suggesting that there exists such a thing as ‘non-political Islam’) have been deeply damaged and most observers, even in Europe and in the USA, have come to realise and acknowledge that Islam is not incompatible with pluralistic democracy and respect for human rights (including women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities). In this regard, one must recognise that the violent episodes involving the Egyptian Coptic community point to direct responsibility by the ruling military caste, as well as provocations orchestrated by those nostalgic for the ancien regime, and in no way reflect an aggravation of religious intolerance within Egyptian civil society.
Some of the most revealing recent episodes in this regard involve the rapid evolution of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Palestine. At the start of 1988, after lengthy internal debates and following the beginning of the first Intifada in December 1987, the Gaza-based Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until then had focused on religious predication and charitable social work under the protective neutrality of the Israeli occupiers, decided to call itself the ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’. While sticking to its program of an Islamic state all over Palestine (‘from the sea to the river’), it was placing itself in the most ostentatious fashion at the forefront of the national struggle, with a deliberate intention to overbid the secular PLO in the national question as well as alter the character of ‘armed resistance’, with attacks on Israeli civilians inside Israel itself, the kidnapping of hostages and suicide bombings.
Hamas boycotted the 1996 Palestinian presidential and legislative elections because they formed part of the Oslo Agreements. Ten years later however, and after a series of victories in local elections, Hamas won 44 percent of the seats in the Legislative Council, becoming the first political party. But even though Fatah, the formerly hegemonic party, had immediately acknowledged its defeat and President Abbas had asked the Hamas leadership to form the new government, the movement could not exercise its legitimate aspiration to govern. Branded and formally categorised a terrorist organisation by both the Americans and Europeans, it was internationally boycotted as the first step in an escalation process which culminated in the full Israeli blockade and siege of the Gaza Strip.
On the morning of the 2006 elections, Israeli forces kidnapped some sixty Hamas elected legislators, including the Chairman of the Legislative Council, and imposed strict travel restrictions on Gaza residents, physically preventing Hamas officials from attending parliamentary sessions in the West Bank. At the same time, the democratically elected President of the Palestinian Authority insisted that the new government should recognise the signed agreements as the legal heir to its predecessors, since internationally guaranteed commitments and obligations are contracted between states and not between political parties. So in spite of its electoral victory, Hamas was not allowed to rule until its unilateral seizure of power in the Gaza Strip in 2007.
There is no absolute evidence that this ‘coup’ was part of an established strategy or was really premeditated. It took place in the background of intensifying and murderous factional struggles and what happened was also triggered by violent reactions to confrontations and provocations on both sides, with Hamas on the one hand and Fatah and the National Authority on the other. But it instigated an unprecedented political/geographical division of the Palestinian political system, reinforced by the Israeli blockade of the Gaza territory, where Hamas exercised a rather ruthless and often violent repression against Fatah loyalists, whilst at the same time the Palestinian Authority was constructing a parallel system of repression against Hamas supporters in the West Bank.
Reconciliation, national unity and an end to division have been popular demands ever since, with public opinion often denouncing both factions. But this popular consensus, first expressed in the ‘Prisoners’ Agreement’ negotiated by imprisoned Fatah West Bank leader Marwan El Barghouti, clashed with vendetta dreams on the part of security forces on both sides, and with a wide gap in the positions and demands of both leaderships. Several Arab governments, particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, intervened sporadically in this process until an agreement was finally reached after the change of regime – or at least of political orientation – in Egypt.
At the present time Hamas and Fatah have officially put an end to their dispute and have agreed to prepare together the holding of free and fair presidential, legislative and local elections, under international supervision and in the course of this year, thus reuniting the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the single jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. In the meantime, Hamas has completed its spectacular political transformation: its acceptance of the 1967 borders for the future Palestinian State, acceptance of peaceful mass resistance as a national strategy, and recognition of the legitimacy of the Authority’s diplomatic moves, all of it in total contradiction with the movement’s original principles and its obsolete charter. Hamas had once contemplated the possibility of relying upon the success of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to reinforce itself in a balance of power with Fatah and the Authority, but it turned out that the Egyptian Brotherhood, on the contrary, exerted a ‘moderating’ influence upon Hamas. Until recently it has been considered a ‘terrorist’ organisation committed to violence, yet now it has become a ‘responsible’ political force ready to function in the present international order and in the framework of Palestinian institutions and obligations.
However all of this does not mean that violence has been totally banned from the reality of Islamic politics: the greatest and gravest violence in the Islamic world today is that which marks the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites. Thousands of innocent civilians on both sides fall daily in this fratricidal war; in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in the Gulf. The political encirclement of Iran and the unrealistic will to disarm the Lebanese Hezbollah both materialise in this enduring rift, whilst illustrating the vacuity of the discourse on an alleged ‘Islamic Bloc’. In short, Islamophobia has suffered serious setbacks but it has not disappeared and the conditions of its production still exist. Therefore the struggle against the phenomenon has not lost any of its relevance.
Ilan Halevi is a Palestinian-French writer and political activist, based in Berlin, Germany. He has been the Palestinian representative in the Socialist International since 1983, was a member of the Palestinian delegation in the Madrid and Washington negotiations (1991-1993) and Assistant Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Palestinian Government (2003-2005). His book publications include Allers – Retours (2005), Face à la Guerre – Lettre de Ramallah (2003), and A History of the Jews – Ancient and Modern (1987).