By Andrew Williams
Islamophobia – anti-Muslim bigotry – has become an important ideological component in imperialism’s current international offensive. As has been argued in an earlier article on this website, US imperialism’s determination to maintain its international pre-eminence has for the past 30 years required it to increasingly assert its military superiority to compensate for the reduced competitiveness of its domestic economy. Over that period US military activity has extended in all areas of the globe, including in the Middle East, Central Asia and now Latin America.
The Middle East and Central Asia are adjoining regions and key to world oil and gas supplies and so of strategic importance to the US – not just because its economy is dependent on these commodities, but also because the degree to which the US can exert control over supplies gives it an advantage over its rivals.
After the Second World War, US hegemony, based on its economic leverage and its role as imperialism’s military police force internationally, meant it could develop client regimes or negotiate favourable contracts for extraction and pipelines, without direct military intervention. But its economic decline has meant that its economic leverage is now sometimes insufficient to secure this, and it increasingly therefore has to resort to military action.
The US and its allies are now engaged in protracted warfare in the Middle East and Central Asia, attempting to extend imperialism’s direct political control and to weaken regional bastions of opposition to colonial conquest. This is the context of the past decade’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel’s assaults on Lebanon and Gaza and why Iran is now a target.
With imperialism increasingly solely engaged in plunder and offering nothing for the population, movements of national liberation have inevitably continued. But with the defeat of the USSR and the rolling back of a ‘socialist’ project, however bureaucratised and deformed, in Eastern Europe, the role of explicitly class theories in the formation of these movements has been weakened, and these national liberation movements have looked to other inspirations for their ideologies.
Hence, in the Middle East, in the Arab, Afghan and Palestinian struggles, rather than the socialist or the secular bourgeois nationalist political currents that defended national sovereignty in past decades, leaderships have emerged that define their politics in relation to religion – Islam. These Islamic liberation forces lead mass anti-imperialist struggles based on an ideological framework that promotes Islam alongside other recognisable goals of national liberation struggles – expulsion of occupying forces, religious and cultural rights, land and work, economic development, national control over national oil and gas assets etc. These resistance movements are entirely distinct from the al-Qaida currents that favour international terrorist attacks on civilians and non-combatants and have failed to build a mass popular movement with social and political aims, the latter’s framework being rightly rejected.
The imperialist campaign waged to demonise Muslims aims to discredit the mass resistance movements as well as ‘dehumanise’ the populations under military assault – presenting the struggle as a ‘clash of civilisations’ in which progressive forces should defend the ‘civilised West’ against ‘barbarous Islam’. It is the ideological accompaniment to imperialism’s military and economic assault. Reality is turned on its head. The imperialists terrorising civilians through aerial bombardment, massacres and torture are deemed ‘civilised’ whereas those resisting the invasions and occupations are portrayed as backward and violent.
Similar arguments are used to vilify Muslims resident within the imperialist countries. The harsh edge of the campaign against Muslims within the imperialist countries is primarily directed at ruling out their intervention into the domestic debate on imperialism’s military adventures in the Middle East and the policies of the state of Israel. While there is widespread opposition to imperialism’s wars in the Middle East in the wider population – and opposition to the oppression of the Palestinians is growing – these views are held most strongly and widely in the resident Muslim communities, as shown by their mobilisation in the anti-war movement and in support of Gaza. By vilifying all Muslims who speak out against the occupation of Iraq or the attack on Gaza as supporters of terrorism and barbarism, an attempt is made to rule out their voices from the debate.
Additionally racism in its broadest sense, including prejudice against religions, is a well-used tool of ‘divide and rule’ in response to capital’s internal economic problems. In the current economic recession capitalism has been seeking to rebuild its rate of profit through a significant transfer of resources from labour to capital. Its programme requires the driving down of living standards, so wages, working conditions and the welfare state are under attack. Racism helps weaken people’s capacity to unite in opposition to these attacks, by shifting the focus of blame for worsening conditions away from capital’s economic programme and its implementation by governments and banks and onto minority sections of the population. The promotion of such bigotry has intensified as the economic crisis has unfolded and will form part of the political terrain into the forthcoming British general election. On the question of immigration, all the main political parties have conceded the arguments to the right and compete over who advocates the ‘best’ restrictions. Within the labour movement the Trade Union Congress continues to advocate the economic benefits of migration, but significant elements, including some on the left, have capitulated to reactionary demands such as ‘British jobs for British workers’.
This situation explains why the current cutting edge of capital’s offensive to whip up bigotry is Islamophobia – because it ideologically bolsters the current military ventures. Venom is poured out against Islam and Muslims. Supposed frameworks such as the ‘war on terror’ are put forward to suggest that those who are under assault in the semi-colonial countries are themselves the terrorists, to help legitimise the brutalities and justify their subjugation. Fanning hostility towards Muslims within imperialist countries is a tool to weaken the anti-war movement, as these are a key part of its mass support. The aim is to intimidate whole communities into silence about the conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. The campaigns against Muslims are specific ideological fronts in these wars.
This is the root of the false accusations of violence and support for terrorism that are levelled at the Muslim community, why they are portrayed as a security threat or some ‘enemy within’. Muslims, like the rest of the population, overwhelmingly oppose terrorist attacks such as 9/11 in New York or 7/7 in London. The smears directed at whole communities, and their leading spokespeople, are because of their vocal opposition to the killing of Iraqis and Israel’s siege of Gaza.
The rules of discourse and the meaning of words are altered when discussing Muslims, with descriptive categories applied to them in different ways than to the rest of society. For example being an ‘extremist’ – with Muslims who are well known as moderates called extremists with no justification.
This propaganda offensive is intense. In 2008 Cardiff University researchers reported that more than two-thirds of media stories about Muslims published since 2000 either identified Muslims as a threat or as a source of problems, with more than a quarter of the stories promoting the idea that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational.
Even viewed from the narrow perspective of protecting the British population from the risk of terrorism, this demonisation of all Muslims is dangerous. Given the savagery of imperialism’s offensive in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is of course not surprising that some individuals or small groups in the population have seen individual acts of terrorism as providing the only means of riposte. Such currents hold no solutions to the situation in the Middle East, and are rightly opposed by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim populations, including those resident in countries like Britain. Only a serious engagement with Muslim communities, including recognising the great contribution that Islam has made and can make to world culture and science, can ensure that ultra-fringe terrorist groups do not gain a hearing. Propaganda campaigns to demonise and intimidate them alienate rather than enhance cooperation from these communities. Such hysteria in fact undermines the fight against terrorism, putting the population’s safety at risk, in order to intimidate into silence the opponents of war. Some of the Muslim communities’ most effective activists in combating al-Qaida propaganda are precisely those singled out and accused of being a subversive threat. These political activists, who stand up against those recruiting to and engaging in terrorism, are a key target of pro-war propagandists, because they also are the most effective in arguing against the imperialist aggression. Attacking them only strengthens the fringe that opposes peaceful opposition to war.
The real relationship between violence and Muslims is that the latter are overwhelmingly on its receiving end, not its prime perpetrators. In the Middle East this is evident from the barbarity of the US and its allies’ warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. Within the imperialist countries racist violence against Muslims has been rising as Islamophobia has advanced. In Britain, for example, attitudes to Muslims as recorded by the British Social Attitudes Survey are becoming more hostile. Muslims have become the least popular religious community in Britain today and over half the population would be concerned if a large mosque was being built in their area. Falsehoods that promote hatred are permitted today against Muslims that would not be tolerated, or be legal, against any other section of society.
Against this backdrop fascist and extreme right wing parties have been advancing across Europe, with the British National Party’s past decade of electoral gains being part of this overall pattern.
Today’s vilification of Muslims uses some of the same methods as the anti-semitism of the 1930s. Physical attacks on Muslims and their property are increasing, including murders, serious assaults, arson, abuse and intimidation. The assaults on Muslim students at London’s City University last November are an example of this rise in persecution. Over three days a gang of approximately 30 youths laid siege to the campus prayer room and attacked Muslim students with knives, bricks and fireworks, stabbing several and inflicting head injuries on others.
Reminiscent of the 1930s Nazis, the far-right is encouraging physical attacks on people and property, with Muslims being the targets today. Following the British National Party’s national electoral breakthrough in June 2009, winning two European Parliamentary seats, a growing wave of violent street actions has been organised by fascist-linked groups. The English (Scottish, Welsh) Defence Leagues and Stop the Islamisation of Europe actions have included Luton, Whitechapel, Wood Green, Birmingham, Harrow, Manchester, Swansea, Leeds, Glasgow, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Stoke. With virulently Islamophobic and pro-war slogans, these are not demonstrations organised for peaceful protest but are violent racist mobilisations primed to unleash attacks on Muslims, as is evident from the clashes that take place. Actions in London, Bolton, Dudley and Bradford are planned for coming months.
These violent far-right mobilisations are not banned but allowed to proceed, whilst simultaneously there is a concerted attempt to discourage Muslim involvement in peaceful protest. This includes the criminalisation of young Muslims demonstrating against Israel’s onslaught on Gaza or against far-right anti-Muslim mobilisations. Violent policing tactics, the scale and methods of arrests, severity of charges and lengths of sentences have been exceptional, to explicitly deter such mainstream political activity.
Aside from the false charges of violence, Muslim culture is also attacked and portrayed as uniquely backward and the antithesis of modern ‘liberal’ values. Muslim women are a particular target, with their choice of clothing the object of much Islamophobic hysteria. A growing political assault on freedom of cultural expression is unfolding across Europe, with the adoption of a panoply of Muslim-only rules. Women are finding themselves excluded from the labour market, education, health care, and now possibly citizenship for wearing specific clothing. In France it has been forbidden by law, since 2004, to wear the hijab – headscarf – in schools. Now a parliamentary committee has proposed that wearing the full face veil is banned in public places and the Immigration Minister suggests such attire should be sufficient reason to deny citizenship. These attempts to proscribe cultural choice are the real attacks on liberal values.
Muslim religious property and buildings are another focus, with graveyards and mosques increasingly attacked and desecrated. Following November’s Swiss referendum banning minaret construction, similar measures are being promoted elsewhere in Europe.
Far from being some powerful threat to ‘Christian Europe’, Muslims are generally one of the poorest and most exploited parts of the population in the imperialist countries. In Britain, for example, they are at, or near, the bottom of most socio-economic indices of poverty, unemployment, literacy and life expectancy.
The notion that imperialism is more ‘advanced’ and ‘liberal’ than the peoples it seeks to subjugate is pure cant. Imperialism has carried out the greatest crimes in history involving the death of tens of millions of people. The caricaturing of Islam as an unparalleled reactionary set of ideas that stands in opposition to progressive social values is part of that bigotry. No major world religion has been advanced on the questions of emancipation of women, lesbians and gays. All our present rights in Christian countries were typically achieved in a long struggle against its churches – and indeed the fight for such rights is still going on against numerous Christian churches. The singling out of Islam, from the other faiths, for specific criticism in this regard is now a favoured tactic of pro-war propagandists, who patronisingly claim to know how Muslims can best advance the cause of equality.
The degree to which anti-Muslim bigotry has taken hold is currently advancing in the imperialist countries, with significant parts of what was, in the past, progressive liberal opinion having capitulated to the offensive. Some, previously on the left now actively propagandise for war and promote Islamophobia. In Britain the latter is exemplified by the Euston Manifesto group and the rabid right-wing blog Harry’s Place. Ritualistic expressions of concern about ‘justice and equality for all’ are subordinated to an agenda of attacking anti-war movements, smearing Muslims, and targeting other voices critical of US and Israel’s military actions.
To combat this offensive Muslims and all those supporting justice need the broadest possible range of allies. The ideological attacks on Muslims undermine the liberal principals of freedom of religious expression and acceptance of cultural diversity. This threatens a wide range of social forces, not only Muslims, that wish to express their culture or religion in various ways. All those defending real liberty and democracy need to unite to defend simultaneously their own interests and those of the Muslim community which is under vicious attack.
Links to useful material documenting Islamophobia in Britain: