Friday, October 05, 2012

Ignorance on Parade: Islamophobia, Left and Right

Jeff Sparrow
September 18, 2012.
‘Koran discovered with coffee cup stain on the front cover, US marines deployed to all Starbucks franchises.’
The quip, retweeted by celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, exemplifies the belligerent incomprehension with which so many, including self-proclaimed liberals, have responded to protests against the film The Innocence of Muslims.

Rioting over a YouTube clip that offends the Muslim sky fairy? How tremendously foolish! How childish; how superstitious; how very, very silly!

Well, we’ve certainly seen ignorance paraded over the last few days but it’s as much by smug progressives as anyone else.

Consider a historical analogy.

In 1857, Bengali soldiers (known as ‘sepoys’) shot their British officers and marched upon Delhi. The Great Indian Rebellion became very violent, very quickly. The rebels massacred prisoners, including women and children; the British put down the revolt with a slaughter of unprecedented proportions.

Now, that rebellion began when the troops learned that their cartridges, designed to be torn open with their teeth, would be greased with beef and pork fat, an offence to the religious sensibilities of Hindus and Muslims alike. Had Twitter been an invention of the Victorian era, London sophisticates would, no doubt, have LOLed to each other (#sepoyrage!) about the credulity of dusky savages so worked up about a little beef tallow. Certainly, that was how the mouthpieces of the East India Company spun events: in impeccably Dawkinesque terms, they blamed ‘Hindoo prejudice’ for the descent of otherwise perfectly contented natives into rapine and slaughter.

But no serious historian today takes such apologetics seriously. Only the most determined ignoramus would discuss 1857 in isolation from the broader context of British occupation. In form, the struggle might have been religious; in content, it embodied a long-simmering opposition to colonial rule.

That’s why those who pretend the protests against The Innocence of Muslims came from nowhere merely reveal their own foolishness.

‘Today, many Americans are asking — indeed, I asked myself — how could this happen?’ said Hillary Clinton after the riots in Libya. ‘How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.’

The echoes of George Bush’s infamous query ‘Why do they hate us when we’re so good?’ suggests nothing whatsoever has been learnt from the last decade and the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

For this is, of course, the same Hillary Clinton who, as recently as 2009, proclaimed Mubarak, Egypt’s torturer-in-chief, and his wife, ‘friends of my family’, acknowledging a relationship that exemplified the pally connections between the US elite and every dictator and despot in the region. Mubarak might have been crossed off the Clinton Christmas list but President Obama forges ever closer relations with the tyrants of Saudi Arabia, delivering the biggest ever arms deal in US history to fortify a reactionary and criminal government against its populace.

No, Hillary Clinton might not recall such matters. But the people of the Muslim world are considerably better informed – and that’s the context for their anger.

But what about the movie itself? Why should such a shoddy piece of amateur filmmaking become such a flashpoint?

Again, shift to a more familiar referent and the outrage becomes at once markedly less strange. The Protocols of Zion were, of course, also a bodged-up job, a childish forgery thrown together by racist cranks from the Tsarist secret service. But no-one’s surprised when Jews (and their anti-racist allies) mobilise against some fresh incarnation of that notorious document, since we all, quite correctly, recognise any new publication of the Protocols as a conscious and deliberate attempt to promote hatred.

The Innocence of Muslims should be understood in the same fashion. This is a film produced at a time in which, across Europe and the United States, the far right has developed an Islamophobic doctrine that replicates, almost exactly, the key tropes of traditional anti-Semitism.

Jews will not integrate. Jews are more fertile than Christians and are outbreeding them. Europe is becoming a province, a colony, of a Judaic entity. Europe will either be Judaicised or there will be a civil war. Most likely, Jews will resort to terrorism as part of their takeover. They are already spoiling for violence.

All of that sounds like the rantings of an old-school fascist. But replace ‘Jew’ with ‘Muslim’, and you’re left with a workaday opinion piece from any mainstream conservative paper.

The structural homology here is not accidental. Mattias Gardell notes how:
The tradition of Islamophobia is, like anti-Semitism, rooted in the medieval Christian hostility to the ‘enemies of God’, with these perceptions disseminated, expanded upon, restructured, rearticulated and reactivated in various social and political contexts, from the Turk scare in early modernity, via the colonial expansion, to the War on Terror.

Many stories told about Jews in medieval and early modern Europe were also spun around what were then termed Moors, Saracens or Red Jews: Muslims were devil-worshipping, sexually deviant, man-eating monsters; Muslims ritually defamed the cross and consumed the blood of ceremonially slaughtered Christian children in blasphemous communions. Church art portrayed Mohammed as the Antichrist, and Muslims as horned devils, Christ-killers, dogs or a hybrid race of dog-men. Lars Vilks – the Swedish artist who depicted Mohammed as a dog – may claim originality, but the dog motif goes back hundreds of years and is as old as the Judensau (the medieval depiction of Jews in obscene contact with a sow).
Elsewhere, the journalist Colm Ó Broin has produced a neat demonstration of the relationship between the old hate and the new hate, with a close comparison of the writings of the notorious Islamophobe Robert Spencer on Muslims alongside the propaganda of Julius Streicher, the editor of, Der Stuermer. Streicher, you’ll recall, went to the gallows at Nuremberg – but Spencer holds forth regularly on FOX News.

The labour leader August Bebel famously dubbed anti-Semitism the ‘socialism of fools’, since some supposed radicals subscribed to crackpot theories about Jewish finance. In a similar fashion, Islamophobia today often gets served up as an add lepated secularism by vulgar atheists, indifferent to how often their conversations about Muslim theology slide neatly into anguish about Muslim birthrates (an obvious giveaway of the racialised imagination and its biological concerns).

Should Muslims be worried about rising Islamophobia? Of course they should! As the recent report by the Institute of Race Relations, Pedlars of Hate, makes clear, anti-Islam bigotry is becoming a key element of the revival of the far Right – a Right that doesn’t merely slander Muslims but also takes action against them.

The Innocence of Muslims was, quite obviously, intended as a provocation, and many Muslims have argued that the minority of shrilljihadis who raised their sectarian and violent slogans at protests around the wold fell entirely into the intended trap.

Then, again, this too is familiar. Twentieth century race-baiters knew all about goading their victims into a certain response, and then using that response to justify a fresh pogrom. Not unexpectedly, German far-right extremists (who have some historical experience with this strategy) are now planning fresh screenings of the film.

Those who call themselves progressive might note that a certain Karl Marx followed the Great Indian Rebellion closely. While he acknowledged and decried the excesses of the rebels, he declared these were ‘only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India.’

In other words, Marx, one of history’s more famous atheists, stood firmly with the ‘ignorant’ sepoys against their ‘enlightened’ opponents.

‘John Bull,’ he wrote, ‘is to be steeped in cries for revenge up to his very ears, to make him forget that his Government is responsible for the mischief hatched and the colossal dimensions it has been allowed to assume.’

Add ‘Uncle Sam’ to that sentence, and you have a remarkably apt assessment of what’s taking place today.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of “Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship."

Comment: Jeff Sparrow has produced a well-meaning and useful analysis above but I am struck by the manner in which his discussion removes/obscures the Muslim voice.

His oversimplified reference above to "many Muslims" as opposed to the "minority of shrilljihadis" is confounding and problematic for the cause of fuller more complex analysis.

Sparrow is not alone among many analysts who wish to point out to knee-jerk Islamophobes in the west how ignorant and prejudicial their views on Islam and Muslims are.

However, he is also not alone in removing the Muslim voice as an active participant in the issues he discusses.  In so doing we are given lessons on the blind spots in mainstream western reactions yet nothing or very little is added from the proverbial 'other side'.

We are given a noteworthy reference to Karl Marx on the Great Indian Rebellion and a host of other analysts but not one word from a Muslim voice.

Can any analysis, no matter how well meaning, be exempted from silencing its subject?

This is a question that postcolonial scholars have wrangled over for decades now and it seems as relevant today as it was in the past.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's question of "can the subaltern speak" comes to mind in this context?

So, who does speak for Muslims as they deal with the onslaught of Islamophobia in all its guises?

Why does Sparrow not question the reaction of a small sector of Muslims who deemed it necessary to demonstrate and use violence in response to the "Innocence of Muslims"?

I think there is another side entirely that is not necessarily attached to the choker chain the west uses to lead Muslim attitudes and reactions, particularly in the so called 'middle east' ('muddled east' being the better descriptor that references its purposeful and projected befuddlement).

And when I say west I mean the US and its allies, including its civil society attachments such as the media and academia.

Islam is too complex and broad in its global reach to be contained by the reactions of a few thousand demonstrators no matter how rightfully indignant the reaction to the integrity of the religion/Prophet may be.

And, when the focus is on the demonstrating Muslim as subject the unspoken inference is that the Muslim subject must be understood (a puzzle to be solved inside of western contexts and analytical frames).

This is what Sparrow has done here, if even unwittingly.

The problem, however, is greater than his frames of reference and analysis and Muslims must bear some kind of responsibility too.

Why are we so complacent and predictable?  Is it enough to plead for understanding inside the west when inside of many Muslim communities the fixation is hardly global in its reach?

We should redeploy Spivak's question and, thereby, alleviate some of the responsibility of western analysts to indicate "who speaks for Muslims".

So again, who does speak for Muslims?

I for one know that those demonstrators burning and destroying in the name of Islam do not speak for me or for Islam.

In Islam there is no concept such as blasphemy.  So how then can anyone blaspheme against the religion (particularly non-Muslims) and draw the vehement ire of some Muslims?

This question is important not only because it seeks to go beyond 'understanding the Muslim as a puzzle(ment)' but also because it begs a further analysis of what Muslims consider to be free speech.

This question would necessarily need to address the context of tolerance in Islam and what an appropriate reaction may be in Islamic terms where the Qur'an is referenced as the sole holy book (unadulterated word of God) and not some reconstructed hadith that mostly hovers at the level of hearsay.

In effect my argument here points a finger at the likes of Sparrow who continue the tired western gaze of analyzing the Other by inference and within the container of the Orientalizer, but more so, I am also greatly concerned with the muzzled Muslim ummah (community) that bears responsibility to critique from inside and, thereby, deploy for Muslims and others the greater complexity of the religion.

What seems more problematic is not that the west will deploy its navel gazing in all contexts that pertain to Islam and Muslims, the larger problem is that too many Muslims have become more used to being yanked around.


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