[left, Islamophobia button, Gates of Vienna blog; right, “Cheikh lisant le Coran,” c. 1880, Abdullah Freres, Collection Pierre de Gigord, Paris]

by Khalid Blankinship

In November 2006, Karen Elliot House proposed in an article a list of books she considered essential for understanding Islam (Karen Elliot House, “Sense of Ummah: These books are essential to understanding Islam,” The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, November 11, 2006. While the comments by House herself are just what one would expect from the leading neocon organ in the US, The Wall Street Journal, the books themselves, apart from the one by Bernard Lewis, all have various positions and may present some worthwhile material.

That said, the problem of the official public line on Islam informed by neoconism and promoted by The Wall Street Journal and other official and semiofficial institutions remains, and, to appropriate the title of the book by Nathan McCall, “makes me wanna holler.” Neocons and imperialists together have constructed an imaginary discourse about Islam that is almost entirely false and deceiving. Because it is so detached from reality and because the neocons and imperialists dominate the world’s most powerful state, neocon-imperialist discourse on Islam is almost a certain recipe for violence and oppression, with the potential for the disasters caused thereby to become the worst that the world has ever witnessed.

Islam and Muslims are portrayed as the new enemy, the new Hitler, the new Soviet Union. But how can this be maintained at all?! Muslim countries are not arming or increasing their military budgets. They are disunited, their armies are small, and what effectiveness they have is entirely limited to the possibility of self-defense in their own lands using guerilla war methods and weapons. Muslim countries have not invaded and occupied the non-Muslim world. Muslim countries are not saber-rattling, most certainly not at the West, and the military forces of many are aligned with, trained by, and dominated by the United States. Although Saudi Islam is portrayed as a particular threat, in fact Saudi Arabia has never once fought a war with any non-Muslim state (I am not sure if its military forces ever encountered Israeli forces, but all must agree that its military participation in Arab-Israeli wars has been completely negligible).

Muslim countries do not have intrusive economic dominance over others outside of the Muslim world. Muslim oil wealth, such as it is, has been recirculated in a largely wasteful purchase of western-world products, to the benefit of capitalism. No Muslim statism exists that is even remotely equivalent to western statism, and certainly what statism there is in the Muslim world isn’t very effective. Thus, while Muslim people are pushed around by their own bureaucracies mostly created in the colonial era, those bureaucracies do not project any power for those people beyond the borders of their states, a situation that is not even true for tiny western states like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland, each of which is quite influential and intrusive in various ways outside of Europe, let alone for intrusive great powers like the United States. The Muslim world is only big in terms of the overall Muslim population. By every other measure, it is marginal. And even that huge population is no monolith. Ten percent of all Muslims, for example, are Bangladeshis, and what harm or dominating influence have they ever exercised over the world? The average, typical Muslim in the world is likely to be a fifteen-year-old girl in Bangladesh or Mali who brings her family water from the well or river in a can on her head.

Yet, there is a constant harping on the trope of Muslim violence, to the extent that normal but distinctive Muslim dress, languages, and religious practices are even felt as threats. On the whole, this is a completely false trope. Most Muslim societies have less violence in terms of crime than the United States. These include all those countries that are almost never in the news, as the news only cares about events and prefers excitement and violence, since the entire purpose of news is more related to entertainment and to ideological self-validation and self-congratulation than it is to providing information. Thus, peaceful developments in the Muslim world are ignored, while violent incidents and events, often involving very few people, are harped on. And even for famously violent places, when their violence is carefully examined, it proves to be entirely grown out of local political conditions that have no real connection with Islam itself. This is true of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Lebanon, and most obviously of Palestine. That political movements in these places appropriate whatever ideological repertoire they have at hand, including the religious one, to legitimate themselves is no surprise, but it does not arise out of some kind of atavistic forces embedded in Islam, but purely out of local conditions that call forth resistance.

In all cases, these conditions are informed by nationalism. This is most obvious where a nationality is associated with a particular linguistic group, as in Turkey, and even in that supposedly secular state, the appropriation of religion was used, because the state continued to identify the “Turks” as Muslims and to regulate the religious expression of the people with a heavy hand. It might not be so clear in a case like the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where the religious identity rather than the linguistic one is appropriated for legitimation, so that a “religious” nationalism is created. It is no less nationalism for all that, concerned with state, state building, institution building, territory, etc., rather than with the traditional concerns of religion, salvation (if I may use a Christian term), worship, and moral training. This would be true as well of any ideas of resurrecting the “caliphate,” a concept that president and official media alike have tried to present as the new menace. Yet hardly any Muslims even know what the “caliphate” was in reality, much less do they subscribe to it. So the media’s accusations all bounce off and look embarrassingly like a hunt to find anything to accuse the Muslims of.

And after all this, what do the Muslims want? What do they demand? To be treated as equal human beings, that is all. When a Muslim life is considered to be of equal value to the life of a non-Muslim, things will improve. However, the neocon campaign to dehumanize the Muslims, through its continuing influence on US foreign policy, may yet create a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as is mentioned in the truest of House’s words in her article. She says, “Islam’s more recent history has been marked by deep divisions between modernists and traditionalists–rifts that are likely to remain, Mr. Gregorian argues, unless Muslims are prompted to unite by the West’s misguided insistence on lumping them all together as ‘the enemy.’” That development seems still far and remote, yet one cannot predict the future completely under such pressures.

I would also like to say that such attack writings, while often (but not always) trying to avoid directly accusing all Muslims of being evil, at the personal level create an atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety for Muslims that is tantamount to terrorism and incitement to murder. Some writers seem to drool over the possibility of massacring Muslims, and there is no question that their influence has in fact had an effect, especially in the campaign to launch the aggressive war against Iraq, a war which has led from 2003 to 300,000 to 1,000,000 excess Iraqi deaths (Lancet report), not counting the 300,000 or more excess deaths under the previous sanctions regime of 1991-2003. Lancet even said that about 200,000 deaths since 2003 owed to the direct action of the American and other occupying military forces in Iraq, not to Iraqi causes. Thus, when Vice President Cheney stated that he was especially impressed and convinced by Bernard Lewis’s testimony in favor of attacking Iraq in the lead-up to the invasion, that does raise a question of moral and possibly legal responsibility for incitement of illegal and unjustified acts.

The recommended books will appear in a second post.

Khalid Blankinship
Temple University