The trouble with Islamophobia


Socialist Worker 419, February 4, 2004 N

The Trouble with Islam by Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji has written a book that is supposed to be a critique of Islam from a progressive perspective.

Given the contemporary political landscape, it is not too difficult to outline the key themes that such a critique must have.

Islam is under attack in the west. Muslims are demonized as a group for "bringing terrorism" to the west. The attack on the hijab in France is the most recent manifestation of this.

The effect of this demonization is to increase the climate of racism in the west, and to divide the working class. It is the responsibility of the left to defend Muslims from racist attacks.

It is also important that the left understand why millions have been drawn under the banner of Islamism in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the context of an enormous political vacuum, Islamism has been able to tap into the hatred for imperialism that exists among the millions of oppressed in the region. Its growth is due primarily to anti-imperialism, not to religion.

Islamism must be approached as a social — not simply a religious — phenomenon. It is a force in politics in the Middle East that cannot be ignored.

And in understandiing Islamism, the left must see both its anti-imperialist character, and the dangerous policies carried out in the name of Islam by reactionary leaders like the late Khomeini in Iran. Khomeini presided over a counter-revolutionary regime that repressed civil liberties and massacred the left — in the name of Islam.

But Manji’s book has none of this.

She has produced a poorly-researched diatribe that plays into the right-wing demonization of Islam that dominates contemporary politics.

Begin with one astonishing fact. The book has not a single footnote!

You have to go to her website to find the footnotes, and even there, the citations have no page numbers.

What’s more a brief survey of her sources shows that she relies heavily upon media, think-tank and analytical sources with close ties to the Bush administration and its advisers. Prominent publications on her list include The Weekly Standard (created by the Project for a New American Century and owned by Fox Media’s News Corporation), National Review and the Middle East Media Research Institute.

As well there are numerous citations of the New Perspectives Quarterly. It’s present issue has articles by Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, US National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and the son of the former Shah of Iran (a brutal tyrant in his own right).

With such sources — and a paid trip to Israel by a Zionist organization — her opinions towards Israel should come as no surprise.

According to Manji, Israelis who speak of the conflict relate ‘personal stories’ whereas Palestinians "dutifully delivered their lines." When an Israeli museum curator claims that her Palestinian counterpart in East Jerusalem won’t return her calls because he is afraid of the Palestinian Authority, Manji pursues the matter no further.

"Why would she assume so much? … Her soft-spoken manner made it seem rude to push."

Oh really? Perhaps she might have called the Palestinian curator herself? And if she couldn’t be bothered then it would be prudent not use such an unfounded allegation.

Instead Manji later uses this claim to make the same insinuation:

"I’m reminded of what the Tel Aviv curator mentioned to me… Any refusal to play along with collective victimhood comes at a steep cost…"

This is the same old saw that the Israeli government and its supporters in the media have used for years: Palestinians want to settle with Israel and Israel wants a just settlement of the issues. But the PLO/PA has the population in the grip of fear.

Of course that wouldn’t explain very well why the US and Israel have tried to force the Palestinians to replace their democratically elected president, Yassir Arafat, with various un-elected hand-picked leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), et al.

And it is an insult to the Palestinians who daily have to endure an illegal occupation, expropriation of their lands to illegal settlements and long checkpoints to pass between cities.

We can assume that Manji never saw the Jewish only roads that criss-cross the Occupied Territories and whose protection prevents travel for the Palestinians for hours at a time. Nor is she aware of the use of live bullets against protesters, including children.

Or the lock-down of entire cities carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces, preventing food, water or medical aid from entering major Palestinian population centres for days and sometimes weeks.

If she had she would find it difficult to claim that "Israel, I find, brings more compassion to ‘colonization’ than its adversaries have ever brought to ‘liberation.’… Can meaningful democracy be seen in any Islamic society today?"

There is no mention of the West’s role in preventing the emergence of any sort of democracy in the Middle East. Whether it was the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran and his replacement by the Shah, or the Ba’athist coup in Iraq that eventually brought Saddam Hussein to power, the Americans, the British and the French have played a direct or indirect role.

But since Manji sees the poverty and underdevelopment of the Muslim world as arising from ignorance and not imperialism, she has only one conclusion — Muslims are to blame for their own sorry state.

Her formulations in making this argument are really appalling.

For Manji the trouble with Islam is that it’s too Arab: it’s "the desert mindset", the "desert personality", "desert tribalism", and "Arab cultural imperialists".

As she says, "as the Arab mind has addled, the Muslim mind has done so too."

Take the Arab out of Islam and it will be free of all its backwardness, is the implication.

Never mind that Islam emerged out of the cosmopolitan climate of the market centre of Mecca in the Seventh century, that it carried and encouraged some of the most modern ideas about society, women, wealth and progress of its age.

At the same time the Europeans were living in mud huts, mired in superstition, the ‘desert Arabs’ were remaking the world and advancing thought in untold ways.

The Islamic revolution ultimately failed to transform the social relations of the societies where it triumphed. These old ways did find their way back into Islamic societies and systems of thought.

But ultimately it was invasion and colonization from without that distorted Islam, the made it turn inwards, a product of a society whose development was held in check by Europeans.

And at every turn when local populations have sought to determine their own future, the West has prevented them from doing so. The history of the last centuries is testament to that.

Again, because Manji fails to see this and instead looks to "female fuelled capitalism" and western intervention as the answer she can make the astonishing claim that "Washington is the unrealized hope, not the lead criminal."

She can condemn the madrassas in Pakistan but not mention that they proliferated under the most conservative forces because of conscious foreign policy decisions that began in Washington. The CIA funnelled billions of dollars into these schools during the 1980s during their America’s war with Russian-occupied Afghanistan.

She can praise the Turkish regime as a democracy worth emulating, without mentioning the slaughter of 40,000 Turkish Kurds and the demolition of thousands of Kurdish villages.

She can condemn Muslims in Denmark for "abusing" its liberalism because they are over-represented on the welfare rolls. "Worrying because when the state pays troublemakers to live, they can buy time to organize and execute their plans." Yet she makes no mention of the terrible job discrimination that non-whites experience in "liberal" Denmark. The list of historic and social perversity goes on.

It is fashionable in the post 9-11 climate to attack Islam. Thus, Manji’s book will likely rocket her to fame amongst the pro-Israel crowd and in right-wing media circles like the Globe and Mail.

But she has produced a book whose essential arguments are indistinguishable from those made by the most conservative and reactionary fundamentalists running the US government (whom she never deems it worthy to mention).

The book that we need in the West today is not this one, but one with a completely different focus. Let’s call it The Trouble with Islamophobia.


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