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Racism against Arabs and Muslims long preceded the 9-11 terrorist attacks and has much of its roots in Western imperialism in the Middle East, especially Israel’s colonization of Palestine. Yet, the escalation that we witness today can be traced to the war on terror launched after 9-11 by Bush and his neoconservative ideologues with the backing of the Democrats. Anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism has helped sell the detentions, wars, gulags, and occupations of US imperialism’s latest and boldest venture into the Middle East and South Asia. In turn, this imperial venture has further inflamed racist views of Arabs and Muslims. What makes this growing racism so frightening is its wide acceptance in US society, particularly by the left. With the latter, it is not as much conscious racism as not doing enough to fight it. Part of this may be due to ambivalence, but it also stems from a lack of a dynamic understanding of Islamism. Broad support gives anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism a sense of legitimacy and respectability that makes building a mass movement that can end the war and occupation of Iraq difficult, if not impossible, since so much of the support for the war is fueled by fear and racism.
We thrash, curse for air As our strangler declares, look How violent the Arab -Haiku for the Head Locked by Zein El-Amine
According to an ABC-Washington Post poll taken in March 2006, a majority of people in the US believe that “Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence,” with 46 percent expressing a negative view of the religion, 7 percent higher than in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The poll also found that 25 percent of people in the US admitted to “harboring prejudice towards” Muslims and Arabs. The institutional effect of this racism is stark. The earnings of Arab and Muslim men working in the US dropped about 10 percent since 9-11, according to a new University of Illinois study. The drop in wages was most dramatic in areas reporting high hate crime rates. Robert Kaestner, co-author of the study said there was “an immediate and significant connection between personal prejudice and economic harm.”
This should not come as a surprise when you consider the extent of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism being perpetrated by governments and the media around the world. The past year has seen the mass publication of Danish cartoons ridiculing Islam, police brutality and repression against North Africans in France, and a riot against mostly Lebanese immigrants in Australia—all of which led to mass protests and, in the case of France, riots by Arabs and Muslims in response.
While such blatant racism has not yet provoked a similar response in the US, it has not been because of any shortage of incidents:
• Last year a Washington, DC, radio host continuously referred to Islam as a “terrorist organization” on his show. • The Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License started a campaign to put up “Don’t License Terrorists” billboards depicting an Arab holding a hand grenade in one hand and a driver license smeared with blood in the other. • Republican Congressman Tancredo of Colorado openly called for the US to preempt a terrorist attack by attacking Muslim holy sites like Mecca.
Anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism is an indispensable part of the so-called “war on terror” or “the long war,” as it is now referred to, and US plans to dominate the Middle East. By dehumanizing those that the US is waging war against, this racism makes their death and the destruction of their countries more palatable to the US public and quells domestic resistance to the war. Today it helps numb people to the deaths of dozens of Iraqis per day and the mass murder of Lebanese and Palestinians by Israel.
Fomenting anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism has not been difficult because, as Noam Chomsky puts it, such racism has “long been extreme, the last ‘legitimate’ form of racism in that one doesn’t even have to pretend to conceal it.” I do not want to minimize all the other forms of racism that run deep in this country, but there is indeed a certain legitimacy and respectability given to anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism that is not found with other forms of racism. This legitimacy stems from the fact that anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism cuts across the entire political spectrum, from right to left. It is accepted and even practiced by those who would not tolerate other forms of racism. While the anti-racist record of liberals and some on the left is not the best, it is particularly bad when it comes to Arabs and Muslims.
Arabs have historically been more the targets of this racism than Muslims. This began to change in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution because it was no longer just Arabs who were the enemy. The end of the Cold War and resistance to US hegemony, particularly by Muslims in the Middle East, made Islam a useful scapegoat for US imperialism—its new bogeyman now that communism was gone. Books by the Orientalist Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations became popular because they gave “scholarly” backing to the idea that Islam was the main threat to Western “civilization.”
Many have drawn parallels between this scapegoating of Muslims to the red scare during the Cold War, referring to it as the “green menace.” While the comparison is appropriate, the concept of the green menace is, in many ways, much more insidious because it relies on racism rather than ideology. It is a more effective means of instilling fear in people, deflecting their attention from their everyday problems, and mobilizing them against some supposedly powerful enemy. That is not to say that the red scare was not (and still is not) used in a racist manner in countries like Vietnam, North Korea, China, and Cuba. It is just that the main communist bogeymen, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, were white Europeans.
The specter of the green menace, on the other hand, relies on the fact that Muslims look different and, even if they do not look different, they have distinct names, places of worship, dress, and customs that can be easily exploited to portray them as the “other”—different, prone to violence, and barbaric. Also, in the age of “full spectrum dominance,” this racism can be used to justify and mobilize attacks on a huge swath of the world’s poor because Muslims are not only present in large numbers in the Middle East, but in Africa, Asia, South Asia, and most urban centers in Europe, the United States, and Canada.
Having said that, I have chosen to use the term “anti-Arab/anti-Muslim” rather than just one or the other because both groups—and many others, including Sikhs, who are neither Arab nor Muslim—are the targets of the racism we are seeing today. The piercing words, physical assaults, and flying bombs and bullets do not know nor care that we are not all the same.
The racist hysteria around an Arab company, Dubai Ports World (DPW), managing six US ports is a good example of both the uniqueness and pervasiveness of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism in the US. During the public debate over the deal, it was those who traditionally have at least paid lip service against racism, the Democrats, who were the most xenophobic and, in some cases, downright racist. At a rally in Newark, New Jersey, attended by a number of Democratic Congressmen, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) described the port deal as an “occupation.” He added that “we wouldn’t transfer the title to the Devil; we’re not going to transfer it to Dubai.”
The liberal group MoveOn.org was less blatantly racist but still contributed to the hysteria. On its website it asked people how it should respond to the “port security scandal.” In their summary of the issue, they regurgitated the same distorted arguments politicians from both parties had been using, like “Dubai is…known as an international money laundering hub for Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.” Such use of unsubstantiated generalizations only feeds into the stereotype that the Middle East is crawling with terrorists.
With Democrats and liberals taking such a right-wing stance, it’s no wonder that Bush and some Republicans were portrayed as supporting the deal on the basis that opposition involved anti-Arab discrimination. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, liberal Richard Cohen says, “Maybe because Bush is a Bush—son of a president who got to know many Arabs—or maybe because he just naturally recoils from prejudice, his initial stance on this controversy has been refreshingly admirable.” Yes, remarkably, Bush may indeed be a defender of Arabs.
However, he is selective in which Arabs he defends. Bush is more than willing to protect the rich Arab monarchies that lord over the Gulf, but certainly not the thousands of Arabs and Muslims that his racist war on terror has maligned, detained, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Nothing captures this and the dehumanizing role of racism better than the following words from a letter Guantanamo Bay detainee Jamah Dossari gave his lawyer before attempting suicide: "The detainees are suffering from the bitterness of despair, the detention, humiliation, and the vanquish of slavery and suppression. I hope you will always remember that you met and sat with a “human being” called “Jamah” who suffered too much and was abused in his belief, self, dignity and also in his humanity. He was imprisoned, tortured, and deprived from his homeland, his family, and his young daughter who is in the most need of him for four years . . . with no reason or crime committed."
Sadly, Jamah Dossari is only one of thousands of Arab and Muslim prisoners, many of them nameless, being “detained” in US prisons and unknown “black sites” around the world, including here in the US at places like the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York.
United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and others in the anti-war movement, as well as generally perceived progressive groups such as the Green Party sat out the DPW deal “controversy” and, more importantly, the whole anti-Muslim cartoons debate. There were protests on every continent, led mostly by Muslims who saw this as part of a broader war on Islam by non-Muslims—one that they were actually finally allowed to act on, as opposed to more egregious aspects of the war on terror like torture, imprisonment, and occupation that their rulers do not want to rock the boat over. The failure of anti-war groups in the US to organize any events in solidarity with Muslims worldwide, let alone even put out statements condemning their publication, helped reinforce the perception that the anti-war movement is not concerned with anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism.
On the positive side, some of the anti-war groups who are part of UFPJ have been organizing speaking tours of Iraqis. US Labor Against the War (USLAW) organized a tour of six Iraqi trade unionists around the country in June 2005, and in early 2006, Code Pink brought several Iraqi women to the US on a powerful tour involving Cindy Sheehan and other families of US soldiers killed in Iraq. Such events are very effective in combating racism because they humanize Iraqis and help break down stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. The Green Party has also been good about issuing statements condemning the government’s targeting and racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims. However, if groups are genuinely concerned and committed to bringing about a just peace in the Middle East, then an explicit strategy of confronting anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism needs to be a central and consistent part of their work.
The failure of some anti-war groups to take anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism head-on may be due to the small number of Arabs and Muslims involved, and organizations’ lack of movement on these issues then reinforces the lack of Arab and Muslim involvement. For example, there is only one Muslim (and no Arabs) on UFPJ’s Steering Committee. While UFPJ does manage to have Arabs and Muslims speak at their actions and events, they are generally not involved in organizing with UFPJ on any consistent basis.
Worthless Arab lives
The tragic consequences of the failure of the anti-war movement in the US to challenge anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism were laid bare during Israel’s bloody invasion of Gaza and Lebanon. The public support for or, at best, indifference to such massive loss of innocent life and virtual destruction of entire countries and territories can only be fathomed in the context of a racism that basically says that Arab and Muslim lives are worthless and dispensable. In what other situation would the blatant targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and the carrying out of not one but three massacres in the span of a week by a close US ally—with explicit US approval and military support—be tolerated? Add to this the fact that something similar continues to take place in Gaza and dozens of Iraqis are dying every day under the US occupation in Iraq.
Nothing exemplifies this dehumanization better than the case of Private Steven D. Green, the US soldier who raped a young Iraqi girl along with several other soldiers and then killed her and her entire family in the town of Mahmudiyah. Well before this incident, Green had said in an interview with an embedded AP reporter that he came to Iraq to kill people. He said, “I shot a guy who wouldn’t stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing…. Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like ‘All right, let’s go get some pizza.’” I’m not sure what’s more problematic—what Green said or the fact the reporter never reported it until charges were filed against Green.
Of course such racism is dismissed as the words and actions of some crazed individual. But Green’s comments—like those of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who fought in the first Gulf War and said similar things—are the logical outcome of the racism being espoused at the highest levels of government and in the media. In response to the dozens of Lebanese civilians that were being killed in the early days of Israel’s assault, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said with no regrets, “There’s no moral equivalence between the civilian casualties from the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and those killed in Israel from malicious terrorist attacks.” Meanwhile the mainstream media portrayed the war as being between equals even though over 1200 Lebanese, almost entirely civilians, and only 157 Israelis, more than two-thirds soldiers, were killed.
Instead of immediately challenging this and other lies, UFPJ reinforced the perception of a symmetrical war propagated by the media by mentioning first in communications their concern for “the loss of life on all sides…all attacks on civilians” and front-loading condemnations of Hezbollah, without necessarily even getting to the point of the grossly uneven death and destruction in Lebanon and Palestine caused by Israel. Although, the statements UFPJ released improved as the slaughter of Lebanese and Palestinians continued unabated (partially due to feedback from Palestine-solidarity activists), they did not even call for a day of decentralized protests around the country.
To get a sense of how conservative UFPJ was around the invasion of Lebanon, one need only compare their statements and actions to anti-war groups and individuals in other countries. A widely distributed and lauded internet video during the fighting was British MP George Galloway’s interview on Sky Television (Britain’s Fox) in which he not only exposes the media’s bias toward Israel but challenges the widely accepted view in the West that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. This argument needs to be made because after 9-11 most people in the US don’t need to hear anything beyond “this is a terrorist organization” to make up their mind about who is right and who is wrong. Therefore, challenging the US government labels of “terrorist” would go a long way in shifting the debate in this country on issues related to the “war on terror.”
The reason no one in the US has done what Galloway did is that in addition to Islamophobia there is a level of acceptance of the lies about Islamism by radicals. For example, the anti-capitalists who blog at www.threewayfight.blogspot.com posted an entry titled “Defending my enemy’s enemy” during Israel’s recent invasion of Lebanon in which they argued that while Israel is the clear aggressor in the conflict and needs to be opposed, it doesn’t mean the left should support Hezbollah. The bloggers argue: "…Hezbollah is essentially a right-wing political movement. Its guiding ideology is Khomeini-style Islamic fundamentalism. Hezbollah’s political ideal, the Islamic Republic of Iran, enforces medieval religious law, imposes brutal strictures on women and LGBT people, persecutes religious and ethnic minorities, and has executed tens of thousands of leftists and other political dissenters."
If it’s not already, this argument will one day become part of one of Hillary Clinton’s or even George Bush’s (minus the part about LGBT people) speeches justifying a war on Lebanon and Iran. Even though the entry is insignificant in terms of the number of people who probably read it, it articulates a political view that a lot of the left, particularly anarchists and anti-authoritarians, agree with but are not as open about—hence their conspicuous absence from a lot of the organizing against Israel’s invasion.
These kinds of arguments ignore the fact that Hezbollah gave up on fighting for a theocracy long ago. It is an established political party in a multi-ethnic and religious state in which they have the support and admiration of the other ethnic and religious groups and work closely with those on the left as well as the right. Additionally, Hezbollah’s recent victory was not just a victory over the Israeli apartheid state but a major blow to US imperialism, the main source of oppression and exploitation in the world. It could possibly have a libratory effect not just in the Middle East but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
In short, proponents of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism can be broken down into several groups. One consists of the Pipes and Krauthammers of the world who see Islam as inherently violent, authoritarian, intolerant (anti-Semitic, misogynist, etc.), and therefore a natural breeding ground for terrorists.
Another group says that it is not Islam but political Islam or Islamism that is the source of terrorism—that Islamists have twisted what is otherwise a “good” religion for their own fanatical purposes. Fluctuating between these two groups is the majority of people in the US, who, according to the Washington Post-ABC poll cited earlier, have for now apparently bought into the first group’s blatant racism.
This is not surprising since Pipes et al. are given free reign in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and New York Times and appear extensively in the media. They also have the ears of a large number of politicians, including their fellow neocons in the administration. But the main reason for the growth in the number of people who feel Islam is inherently prone to terrorism is the paucity of people exposing and combating these ideas. Even those who say Islamism is the problem and not the religion itself end up feeding into stereotypes of Muslims because their arguments are based on generalizations—that all Islamists are reactionary and even fascistic—and the false belief that there are other stronger secular forces and factors that are being ignored by the media.
A good example of this could be seen on the USLAW tour of Iraqi trade unionists. A number of people stressed that the tour was a good way to show that there was a more progressive alternative to the Islamists and Baathists when it came to opposition to the US occupation. One problem with this is that it overstates the role unions play in the opposition to the occupation. But the bigger problem is that the leaders of one of the unions doing the best work against the occupation, the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra (GUOE), clearly sympathize and have close relations with the Islamist Moqtada Al Sadr. I would even venture to say that the majority of the Basra oil workers—who have gone on strike several times, including most recently in February 2006, over economic as well as political issues like privatization and the occupation—are supporters of Al Sadr.
The GUOE and its leaders are a perfect example of why a more dynamic understanding of Islamists—one that does not lump them all into one homogenous group and dismiss them as reactionaries—is needed. While only a minority of Muslims might consider themselves Islamists, a large number, maybe even a majority, support them. This is especially the case among the poor and marginalized. As the Islamists have steadily filled the vacuum created by the disintegration of the left (a direct result of US intervention in the region), they have taken on some of the language and politics of the left, becoming the main force in resisting the ravages of poverty, imperialism, and authoritarian rule. As a result, they have also gained the support of some non-Islamist political activists and co-opted others, becoming the hegemonic force in opposition to the ruling regimes and their imperial backers.
This is not to say that all Islamists are progressive, but that they are not uniformly reactionary. Moreover, each Islamist group or party differs from the other in significant ways. They are products of their own distinct histories, shaped by different colonial experiences, class struggles, and imperialism.
For example, Hamas and Hezbollah reflect the experience of a much poorer and oppressed population than Al-Qaeda. As a result of not being based in any one country and who its leaders are, Al-Qaeda says and does very little for workers and the poor. Hezbollah takes positions against privatization and neoliberalism and for workers rights that have historically been taken up by the left in Lebanon. Moreover, like some of their fellow Shiite Islamists in Iraq, Hezbollah is not trying to create a theocracy through an Islamic revolution but work within a democratic system to ensure the rights and aspirations of the Shiites, the most downtrodden in Lebanese society.
In contrast, those groups who hold or have held state power like the Islamists in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan are more right wing and authoritarian, ruthlessly suppressing any resistance. Almost all the groups that are allowed to operate openly—or in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, semi-openly—provide a wide range of social services to the poor.
Hamas and Hezbollah have also been shaped by a resistance struggle against Israeli occupation and US imperialism. In Iraq, the Sadrists took up arms against the US occupation while their fellow Shiite Islamists in the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) supported it. Hezbollah, and now Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all participate in elections while Al-Qaeda and other Islamists reject them.
Even on the question of women’s rights there are differences, with the level of involvement of women in the day-to-day activities of each group being an indicator of how supportive they are of women’s rights. With Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and most of the Islamist groups in Iraq, Sunni and Shiite, there is little or no involvement of women and little or no support for women’s rights. On the other hand, Hamas and the Egyptian Brotherhood ran women candidates; some even won. And women are openly involved at many levels in Hezbollah.
They’ll never win
Exposing and ending anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism needs to be a priority in the anti-war movement and the left in general. Doing so will not only bring more Arabs and Muslims into the movement, but also undercut the racist basis of support for the war. It will also alleviate the sense of isolation and powerlessness that so many Arabs and Muslims feel as a result of being the targets of war and racism.
Such blatant injustice combined with a lack of any effective mass opposition to the US-backed murder of so many innocent Arabs and Muslims is, ultimately, what pushes people to resort to terrorism. On the other hand, what the resistance in Lebanon has accomplished shows a successful alternative to such desperate and, ultimately, counterproductive tactics. It has also shown how quickly things can turn in this seemingly overwhelming struggle to stop the US war machine.
Most importantly, however, Lebanon has shown that we, Arabs and Muslims, can be locked up, tortured, and bombed but we will never stop resisting US and Israeli efforts to beat us into submission. Nothing captures this better than the words of Kamel, a shopkeeper who refused to leave Nabatiyeh, one of the hardest hit towns in south Lebanon: “Look around you. They have destroyed much of Nabatiyeh, but that is all they can do—destroy people’s homes and livelihoods. They can’t destroy our spirit and that is what they don’t understand and why they will never win this war.”
Rami El-Amine is a founder and former editor of Left Turn magazine. His article, “The Shia Rise Up,” in the Summer 2004 issue of Left Turn appeared on ZNet, Muslim Wake Up, and Dissident Voice as well as a number of other websites and blogs.