Stephen Sheehi, Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2011.
Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Stephen Sheehi: Undoubtedly, the assault on decency, sanity, and justice under the Bush regime inspired the book at the most immediate level. More compelling than the neocon-Vulcan agenda, however, was how, when one looks at it structurally (beyond the veneer of its rhetoric), one sees only how it activated the racist unconscious of the American mainstream. Growing up as an Arab-American, as a brown man in a post-Vietnam, post-Camp David world, allowed me to recognize that the tropes of Islamophobia were racial and political tropes that have been used against Arabs, Arab-Americans, Blacks, and Latinos for decades. The book, I felt, had to be written, because those who approach Islamophobia critically need to understand it as something beyond a right wing phenomenon. It is rather a mass cultural ideology that arises out of the unipolar power of the United States ,and how mainstream white America is invested in that hegemony and that ideology.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: The book is divided into a few movements that touch on three main "topics."
First, while I argue that Islamophobia is a mass ideological formation within American political culture, I examine Bernard Lewis and Fareed Zakaria as archetypes of two competing but dove-tailing versions of Islamophobia. The tropes they deploy can be found in the works of rightist nut-jobs like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer who motivated a mass-murder in Norway, pseudo-academics like Daniel Pipes, "liberal" pundits like Thomas Friedman, or "native informants" such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji.
Second, after mapping how these tropes are used to justify American Empire, I examine Islamophobia`s very real effects "on the ground" in the United States. In particularly, I examine how Islamophobia is used by the federal, state, and local governments, as well as law enforcement, universities, the print, cable and electronic media, the blogosphere, interest groups, PACS, and lobbies to establish an atmosphere of fear that manages dissent and erodes civil liberties, against the backdrop of a quiescent if not enthusiastic mainstream.
Finally, I demonstrate how President Barack Obama and his administration are Islamophobes, proactively deploying Islamophobic tropes and rhetoric to further US Empire abroad and systematize and institutionalize the abuses of civil liberties introduced by Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr.
[Stephen Sheehi. Image provided by the author.]
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
SS: My previous and current research involves the cultural, intellectual, artistic, and literary history of the Arab world, so in many ways Islamophobia is a departure. However, much of that work certainly informs this book. Particularly, as a scholar of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Arab world, the ridiculous paradigms that claim that Arabs and Muslims are politically indigent, complacent with authoritarianism, and hostile to modernity and civil society appear as politically motivated allegations. The history of the Arab world, the diversity of the Muslim world, the multiple layered stories and narratives of immigration, colonialism, development, liberation, and authoritarianism sharply contrast with the portraits of the Muslim and Arab worlds provided by rogue "intellectuals" like Bernard Lewis, opportunist hacks such as Fareed Zakaria, or pseudo-scholar political operatives such as Daniel Pipes.
All this said, I have always maintained an activist alter-ego, committed to issues of social and economic justice. My activism and my scholarship have often remained separate. However, when that activism spills over into print, undoubtedly, it is inevitably informed by my scholarship and experience in Southwest Asia.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: I wrote this book less as a product for an "audience" than as an intervention into a political culture that is fundamentally racist, classist, and misogynist. In this way, I think that the power of this book is a sort of critical analysis that has been absent not only from the mainstream discussions of Islamophobia but from "liberal," leftist and/or "progressive" discussions of the topic. Because this book is not "your grandfather`s" analysis of Islamophobia (that is, blaming George W. Bush, US oil interests, and/or Israel as the causes of Muslim-hating), I hope that real progressives and leftists will welcome it.
Moreover, I hope that the book will begin to aid the Muslim American community to understand Islamophobia in terms of the racial history of the United States and its history of imperialism. Understanding Islamophobia within these contexts, the contexts of control, capitalism, state power, global interests, and global hegemony, Muslim Americans will be able to assert their own struggle within the context of the struggle of people of color in the United States and globally. Such a conversation is already happening on the margins of the Arab and Muslim American communities.
Finally, I`d love the book to be read by people of color. The state of Muslims in the US is only a shadow of the economic, social, and cultural oppression suffered by Black, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans.
Humbly, I can only hope that my book helps to expand and further, even if in a minuscule way, the conversation between economic and racial "minorities" as to allow us to draw together the constellation of the similarities and particularities of our historical experience in order to compel us to collective solidarity and action.
[Bumper sticker, near Charleston, South Carolina. Photograph by Stephen Sheehi.]
J: What other projects are you working on right now?
SS: Currently, I am writing The Arab Imago: The Social History of Indigenous Photography in the Arab World 1860-1930, which will be published by Princeton University Press. The book examines the appearance of photography in the Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, and how it speaks to particular social transformations of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Specifically, I am interested how portrait photography allows us to excavate the creation and naturalization of the "individual" at a time when photographic production was exploding in various forms of print media (from the carte de visite to illustrated magazines).
Excerpts from Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims:
“These people [the Iranians] are assholes,” President George W. Bush explained to Admiral William Fallon, his new Commander of U.S. Central Command, who had just had the temerity to suggest that “we need to do something to get engaged with these guys.” The anecdote, which was given much fanfare, outed what many suspected. The President had a visceral dislike of Iranians that informed his Iraq-Iran strategy, a strategy that did not “offer a real approach” to dealing with Iran or the region. Fallon, on the other hand, was lauded as a commander who stood up to the Bush White House’s high-octane, oil-driven war rhetoric, rejecting the military option regarding Tehran. In a subsequent interview with al-Jazeera, Fallon openly criticized the “constant drumbeat” of war emanating from Washington, adding that it was “not helpful.” He eventually had to resign when his difference of opinion with the administration became public in an Esquire magazine interview. Because he was valorized for his protest against the push for war, the Admiral’s own epithet was largely overlooked. In the same Esquire interview, Fallon called the Iranians, not assholes, but “ants” who “when the time comes, you crush them.”
Following September 11, 2001, the ceiling of acceptable hate-speech against Muslims, particularly Arabs, was blown off. Borderline provocateurs like Ann Coulter could say in print what previously a good editor, or at least decorum, would have prevented. “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” she wrote two days after 9/11, “We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.” The violence of the language did not recede. It increased proportionally to the drastic increase in the violence of US foreign policy. Just as Bush called Iranians “assholes” and the head of US military forces abroad called them ants, Marine Corp Lt. General James Mattis, Commander of the Joint Forces Command, some years later would say: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” The justification and entertainment in killing Muslims abroad was accompanied by a barrage of previously unspeakable thoughts that mainstream white America had regarding Muslims and Islam. Since 9/11, Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, and Islam itself have been the objects of derision in public, on the TV, print media, and the radio. From the morning to evening, we hear of “the great honorable qualities of that good old time religion Islam: honor killings, female circumcision, not allowing women to drive...[saying] Jews are monkeys, pigs.”
While many demonize the hate-mongering Right whose orgy of hate-speech has only become the naturalized white noise of cable and radio talk shows, liberal circles still rely on Islamophobic stereotypes and misrepresentations as foils for their own particular views. Consummate liberal Democratic leader Howard Dean’s comments regarding the “Ground Zero Mosque” are telling. Speaking on WABC radio, he states building an Islamic Center two blocks away from the World Trade Center would be “a real affront to people who lost their lives” on September 11, 2001. In the classic tradition by which Democrats have always qualified their racism, he continues by saying, “I think it is great to have Mosques in American cities; there is a growing number of American Muslims. I think most of those Muslims are moderate. I hope they will have an influence on Islam throughout the world because Islam is really back in the twelfth century in some of these countries like Iran and Afghanistan where they’re stoning people to death and that can be fixed and the way it is fixed is not by pushing Muslims away, it is by embracing them and have them become just like every other American, Americans who happen to be Muslims.” Dean’s narrative is not surprising and nothing new. Indeed, this book will demonstrate how people from all walks of American cultural and political life share misinformed and Islamophobic narratives. Dean’s vision involves properly co-opting and assimilating Muslims into American culture, whereby they not only do not pose a threat to US hegemony and white supremacist culture but, in fact, work within Muslim communities globally to bring them into the American fold.
While liberals and progressives have been critical, even disparaging, of Christian religious fundamentalism, Muslims seem to pose a particular threat and challenge, as Dean’s comments show. This is not unique within liberal and even progressive discourses where Muslims are often singled out. For example, in the work of atheist scientist Richard Dawkins or atheist war-cheerleader Christopher Hitchens, all religions are irrational and superstitious but Islam has a extraordinary penchant for suppressing heterodoxy through violence and a built-in prohibition to self-inquiry. Even when progressive intellectuals and activists argue against militarism and US imperialism, the intransigence and backwardness of Islam and Muslims are invoked as the reason for the futility of any military conflagration with them. For example, Johann Gultung, founder of Peace Studies and a long time anti-war activist, calls for a paradigm shift in how the US interacts with the world—but he draws on stereotypes to argue for the dismantling of the US Empire and for global social justice. His analysis replicates the analysis of rightists and neoliberals as well, contending that Muslims have a different conception of and relationship to time, society, history, and politics. They hold firmly to the defense of Islam “against infidels” and are prohibited from capitulating to rule in their homelands by Christian and Jews. Therefore, war with the Muslim world is a futile enterprise because Muslims have an open sense of time that allows them to battle against “infidels” endlessly. In other words, the United States would do best to end its wars with Muslims because inside every Muslim is a fundamentalist who will tirelessly fight the domination of non-Muslims.
From Left to Right, religious to atheist, Islamophobia pervades all levels of American life. Bush and his supporters are easily cast as Islamophobic boogeymen who think every Muslim is an “asshole” and a “terrorist.” On the other hand, Democrats and liberals just as readily deploy stereotypes that invoke Arab and Muslim irrationality and hostility to modernity, to justify their own support for US economic and political hegemony. We will see that Islamophobia is manifest in multiple sectors of American society, exuding from the media, political think tanks, pseudo-“expert” pundits, “native informers,” rogue academics, lobbies, and activist organizations. Muslims not only feel the daily barrage of hate-speech and hate-acts through insulting and deriding analyses and images that flood television, print media, and even billboards on highways. They also are under surveillance by the government, profiled in public places like streets, mosques, universities, and have their movements tracked, their associations, finances, and charitable giving monitored. Additionally, they are spied on, coerced, and prosecuted by the United States government. Every discussion in US civil society and media about war, Iraq, and Afghanistan manifests Islamophobia. Every discussion about the war on terror is structured by Islamophobia. Every discussion on “repairing relations with the Muslim World” is underwritten by Islamophobic mindsets. Every discussion of Palestine is infused with Islamophobic precepts. Every discussion of Iran, its nuclear potential and its regionalism, is an expression of Islamophobia. Every discussion of oil and energy sovereignty is bounded by a strategic and willful hate and fear of Muslims.
To Americans, the tone of Obama`s Cairo speech was celebrated as a monumental conciliatory gesture. After all, a US president traveling to his Muslim subjects is an act of humility. But to those subjected to US power and policies, the actual content of the speech was a paternalistic sermon, patronizing, superior, and oblivious to the actuality of Muslim grievances. Obama communicated to his audience the same messages relayed by his predecessor: that the Islamophobia of Americans, the militarism and interventionism of the United States, the policies of internment, extraordinary rendition, and the violation of constitutional and internal law are a result of extremist violence against the United States. America`s heavy boot print is not a consequence of American desire for power and control but a by-product of its heavy burden of nobility and virtue.
[Excerpted from Stephen Sheehi, Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims. © 2011 Stephen Sheehi. Reprinted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]