Liberals and the Muslim Question

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There has been a recent outpour of literature and analysis regarding the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric from the right. This normalizing of Islamophobia can be attributed largely to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who famously asserted that “Islam hates us” and fulfilled his promise of stopping Muslim immigration to this country via an executive order. However, this psyche of identifying Islam as a problem is not a fringe thought but has immersed itself within the psyche of the GOP.

With the influence of a patchwork of individuals, bloggers, and political pundits, who are funded through a network of organizations, and the framing presented by the media, the level of anti-Muslim sentiment has reached dangerous levels. Today, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States are at their highest since 9/11. Other forms of targeted and calculated measures against Muslims include anti-Shari’a bills, legal battles regarding mosque establishment and expansion, and even disagreements regarding school curriculum on religion.

The rampant Islamophobia in the country has been ratcheted up so much that it is no longer a shock to discover that a group of individuals in North Carolina recently gathered for a meeting and casually discussed killing Muslims while eating some fish and fresh fries.

While attention has been given to the acceptance of racism and ultra-nationalism on the right, both nationally and internationally, there has been a considerable lack of analysis on the the roles of liberals and leftists in promoting Islamophobia.

The discussion of Islam and the Middle East has not moved beyond 19th century depictions of the religion and the region as backward and primitive. Consider, for example, the following passage from Ernest Renan’s famous 1883 lecture Islam and Science and the stultified nature of the discourse on Islam which remains stuck in much the same place more than a century later.

Anyone with even the slightest education in matters of our time sees clearly the current inferiority of Muslim countries, the decadence of states governed by Islam, the intellectual sterility of races that derive their culture and education from that religion alone. All who have been to the Orient or to Africa are struck by what is the inevitably narrow-mindedness of a true believer, of that kind of iron ring around his head, making it absolutely closed to science, incapable of learning anything or of opening itself up to any new idea. From the beginning of his religious initiation, at the age of ten or twelve years, the Muslim child, until then [hitherto] still quite aware, suddenly becomes fanatical, full of a foolish pride in possessing what he believes is the absolute truth, happy with what determines his inferiority, as if it were a privilege. This senseless pride is the radical vice of the Muslim. The apparent simplicity of his worship inspires him with a contempt for other religions that has little justification. Convinced that God determines wealth and power to whomever He sees fit, regardless of education or personal merit, the Muslim has the deepest contempt for education, for science, for all that constitutes the European spirit.

The perception of Islam in the Western psyche (both left and right) have not changed much: Islam is viewed as a monolith, incapable of rational thought, oppressive towards women, and inherently violent. This flawed and inherently racist perception has rooted itself in western discourse on any matter relating to the Middle East and/or Muslims.

Most recently Bill Maher, the HBO host and self-described liberal, has been in the spotlight due to his embrace of the racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic Milo Yiannopoulos. Maher utilized the typical “free speech” argument for his reasoning in inviting someone who only seeks to be inflammatory and hateful for the sake of being inflammatory and hateful.

Milo rages against “PC culture” that has apparently stalled and hindered progress. Maher agreed with Milo from the supposedly liberal perspective of having rational debates and open discussions, which apparently includes bestowing legitimacy on racism, xenophobia, sexism, and hatred in all forms. What the ultra-nationalist, Catholic, and racist Milo and the liberal, atheist Maher bonded over the most, however, were their views on Islam.

Maher is akin to a 21st century Renan, without the latter’s academic pedigree. He does, however, capitalize on the works of academics and is able to synthesize their flawed critiques into mainstream lingo. In addition to Renan, other famous orientalists include Bernard Lewis, the historian who wrote The Roots of Muslim Rage, arguing that violence in the Middle East is due to the Muslim and Arab resentment of western advancement. Lewis also first coined the concept of a civilizational clash, which was then expanded upon by Samuel Huntington, and now seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to the 45th US President’s Chief Strategist, Stephen Bannon.

All of these individuals and countless others on both sides of the political spectrum have internalized these orientalist tropes of Islam and Muslims as inherently uncivilized, violent, and unable to rectify with reason. Mainstream news media and political pundits will reach into their limited, and problematic knowledge of Islam to explain today’s crisis in the Middle East.

When it comes to war and violence in the Middle East, theology is the explanation for far too many on the right and left. Attributing the consequences of social, political, and economic upheaval in the Middle East to “radical Islamic terrorism” or “a distorted version of Islam” is a flawed explanation. The unit of analysis for both the left and right is religion as it apparently holds the answers to explain everything done by a Muslim. We wouldn’t look to Christianity to explain the rise of the far-right and ultra-nationalists in the United States, even though they themselves speak of Judeo-Christian values and identify themselves/the world through a religious lens.

In regards to Islam and Muslims, Maher also scolds liberals for not holding true to their values and identifying that there is something wrong with Islam. He has a history of making anti-Muslim comments such as “If Muslim men could get laid more, we wouldn’t have this problem [extremism]” and “Shari’a law is law of oppression.” He can also be found nodding along to his guest Sam Harris’ statement that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

Maher and western liberals and conservatives discuss Islam while rarely speaking to Muslims, at least those who may be able to forcefully challenge their views. Those who are given a platform are self-identified “liberal, moderate, or secular” Muslims, whose views only reaffirm what the audience already believes. A great example of this is Maher’s relationship with Asra Nomani, the self-described “liberal, feminist, Muslim,” who believes religious and racial profiling is great and compares the American Muslim community to the KKK. She has profited off her click-bait op-eds in which she explains why she voted for Trump and has called the protests against the discriminatory Executive Order 13769 a “propaganda war.” Despite 74 percent of Muslims voting against Trump, Nomani’s views are given a platform when others are not.

Maher’s friend and fellow liberal Sam Harris even handpicks the Muslims he believes are acceptable to be friends with and whose opinions are of value because they simply reinforce his perceptions and views of Islam and Muslim. It is this self-fulfilling prophecy that we see across the United States as a handful of token “Muslims” parade themselves around to universities and organizations giving lectures on what is wrong with Islam.

The white-nationalist Stephen Bannon, the liberal Maher, and ISIS all feed off each other’s manufactured Islam. Any hopes for progress rest on poking holes in this destructive and orientalist discourse that has been used for centuries to tackle “the Muslim question.”

Mobashra Tazamal is a human rights activist and holds an MA in Islamic Societies & Cultures from SOAS, University of London.