A Material, Not Cultural Divide — Combatting Racist Islamophobia

(23 September 2012)

Let’s talk about Islam.

Last week, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Kernel, (along with, undoubtedly, myriad other papers around the U.S.) published a column positing that there is a supposed “Cultural Divide” between the U.S. and Islam, stipulating things like “it all comes back to a lack of understanding” and “We do not understand Islam.” Such notions are terrifyingly widespread in our country, and growing; and there is more often than not intense pride in such ignorance. The problem does not stop there, however. Many individuals in our country, even after proudly declaring this ignorance, still choose to make judgments, or even have the temerity to write articles denouncing Islam in America, even when they admit they “do not understand Islam.”

“We do not understand Islam”? Applying such a statement to the nation at large is ridiculous. I must admit that I certainly do not have a profound knowledge of Islam, but I also recognize that I do not individually represent the entire heterogeneous, diverse American people. Claiming that “we,” as in, the American people, “do not understand Islam” is a gross generalization, putting words in the mouth of the over 300 million people—not to mention the approximately 3 million Muslims (possibly significantly more; the U.S. census does not collect religious data, so exact numbers are difficult to calculate)—in our country.

That said, many people should probably be informed that Islam is not isolated to only the Middle East. As of 2009, there were over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. That’s almost one quarter of the planet—and it has grown significantly in the past few years, and will continue to grow. Now, where do the majority of these individuals live? The Asia-Pacific region, not the Middle East-North African region—the former comprising (in 2009) 62%; the latter 20%. Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population; 13% of the world’s Muslims live there.

Regardless of, you know, actual statistics and facts, let’s talk about the ridiculous comment “To the Middle East, one person’s view reflects everyone’s view.” Such a notion is the worst of generalizations; at worst, it’s ignorant; at best, it’s racist. Fortunately, the author, et al., did indeed recognize that the isolated actions of a few (very small) groups of extremists do not represent an entire religion practiced by one-fourth of the human population. For those that still maintain such an absurd idea, I ask you: Does the Westboro Baptist Church represent all Christianity? How about the KKK, or Hutaree? Or the Army of God, or any of the many Christian extremist groups, responsible for murders, arsons, the list goes on?

Now, let’s talk about the piece of trash “film” in question, that inspired protests. To do so, first and foremost, one must look past the racist, xenophobic mainstream Western corporate media (redundant, I know). For starters, the day after the embassy attacks in Libya, a senior Libyan official revealed that extremist militants used the protests as a cover to attack the consulate. Such provocateurs do not even represent the views of the protesters (yet alone the entire Middle East, as the author implied); they represent the extremist beliefs of a very small group of individuals.

Yet the protest occurred. Why was a film that was obviously made to foment antipathy and anger so effective? To understand this, we must understand the material conditions of the individuals in question. In his excellent recent article “Islamophobia, Left and Right,” Jeff Sparrow likened the event to the 1857 “Sepoy” Rebellion, in which Hindu and Muslim soldiers revolted against their sadistic British colonial masters because “their cartridges, designed to be torn open with their teeth, would be greased with beef and pork fat, an offense to the[ir] religious sensibilities.” Such an event, at the surface-level, might seem, like this film, small, but, as Sparrow reveleas,

In form, the struggle might have been religious; in content, it embodied a long-simmering opposition to colonial rule.

The recent violence in Libya, and now other places around the world, is exactly the same. Its form is religious; its content is political. It is the product of very difficult living conditions, of harsh, repressive political rulers, and a desire for something better. The film is the small spark that ignited the exorbitant haystack of ill feelings and deep-seeded problems and injustices piling up in these individuals’ lives.

How does the U.S. fit in exactly? Easy. The U.S. government and corporate elite have ties of support to every draconian dictator in the history of the Middle East (not to mention most others in the world). Democracy is the last thing Uncle Sam wants in the Middle East; it would cut into profits.

In times of conflict or depression, people tend toward belief systems, institutions, and ideologies that offer them comfort. This is quite obvious here in the United States, where ever-burgeoning income inequality, poverty, alienation, workloads, depression, loneliness, ill health, and numerous other negative trends push many individuals toward (often extremist) Christianity. It answers unanswered questions in their lives; offers solutions to problems that were created by others, by those above them, seeking greater profits and/or political power.

As Chris Hedges reveals in his book American Fascist, these conditions are responsible for a frightening rise in Christian extremist groups here in the US. Those well versed in history would know that an identical trend emerged, you got it, during the Great Depression. But, hey, that stuff doesn’t happen here, right—it (just like racial and sexual discrimination) only happens there! So why bother writing about it…

Let us therefore always keep in mind the real reasons behind these conflicts: material conditions, socioeconomic struggle. Islamophobia is virtually without exception thinly-disguised racism. Let us then recognize the racist, xenophobic, anti-Islamic sentiments now rampant here in the U.S. and the West for what they are. Let us befriend our Muslim neighbors, peers, brothers and sisters, just as we would befriend any Christian (or an individual of any other religion).

And for those uncomfortable with the idea, first, get over your bigotry, it is not acceptable. And, second, to be frank, this is ultimately not an option. The number of adherents to Islam is constantly growing, and will continue to grow. Get used to it. Everyone must learn to be more accepting of others, in spite of their religious and cultural differences. It has never been and never will be okay to discriminate against people based on their religion (or race, gender, etc.). Discrimination of any variety, religious discrimination included, is an act of violence against others. And we must not tolerate this violence intolerance.

As Karl Popper once astutely wrote

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.