Obama and Islamophobia

18th August, 2010 9:34 am

By Peter Jukes

Last Friday, in one of the bravest speeches of his Presidency, Barack Obama took on the growing tide of Islamophobia in the US in an address at an Itfar to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan – a tradition in the White House that goes back to Thomas Jefferson.

Obama was responding to the current controversy, whipped up by right-wing politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, about the plan to construct a Muslim prayer room at an interfaith centre two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre. The erroneously named ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (it’s not a Mosque and it isn’t at Ground Zero) has marked a new low of Islamophobia in the US, with threatened Koran burnings and protests about other Mosques, all of which conflates a religion followed by over a billion people with atrocities committed by a few thousand diehard Salafist extremists.

The US President made his point by invoking the founding fathers, and the fact that freedom of religious expression and assembly has been a primary principle of the US constitution, and a cornerstone of the modern liberal democratic state:

“As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our founders must endure.”

But if we think America has problems with its over-reaction to terrorism, we should look closer to home. The rise of Islamophobia in Europe over the last few years – expression of which I have encountered many times in the past, even on LabourList, – has filled me with a kind a foreboding I haven’t felt since the early 90s and the rabid nationalism in former-Yugoslavia, which itself had an anti-Muslim component.

The signs are everywhere to be seen. The US have Palin’s ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and the threat of Koran burning. We have the French assembly voting to ban niqab, Switzerland banning minarets, and the rise of the English Defence League here in the UK, deliberately targeting Muslim communities with provocation and violence…

We have demagogues like Geert Wilders in Holland getting 33% of the vote by inciting fear and hatred. Meanwhile, opportunist politicians in the UK try to ride the bandwagon, putting forward legislation to ban burkas. This is hardly helped by by so-called intellectuals (who should know better) talking about ‘Islamofascism’ or “Londonistan” and trying to yolk together a religion of universalist appeal with racist ultranationalism.

Of course, let it not be forgotten, there are huge social problems with many Muslim societies and that some of the more archaic practices and beliefs are repellent to a modern secularist. But theologically, there’s nothing in Islamic teaching which I can’t find in other closely related Abrahamic religions: if you think stoning is bad, just try reading Leviticus or some of the verses of the Torah. Socially, there’s no doubt that several Islamic states enact barbaric homophobic and misogynistic practices, but there is as much homophobia in ‘Christian’ Africa or the Caribbean, and Hindus have their own forms of ‘honour killings’. Repression of women, homosexuals, denial of rights of free speech and assembly, all these are signs of social backwardness and in no way the exclusive property of Islam. And how do we counter such evils by merely emulating them?

Of all the dangers posed by Islamophobia, perhaps the immediate political effect is the most urgent. Every time a British politician waves a burka in our face, or an American politician threats to burn a Koran, they fulfil the message of the Salafist extremists who formed Al Qaeda. That organisation was always primarily focussed on toppling other Muslim leaders. The terrorist attacks never really threatened the survival of Western states. Instead, they were designed – as most terrorism is – to invoke a violent backlash against Muslims which would then help swell the ranks of the extremists.

Our Islamophobia therefore fulfils the terrorists biggest war aims. Their main struggle (and the majority of their victims) has always been other non-extremist Muslims. Every statement by Geert Wilders or the EDL gives Al Qaeda a free recruitment message:

“See. We told you. They really hate you. It’s a crusade. You have to take sides. Join us”

For all these reasons I believe that, left unchecked, this tide of Islamophobia could be as catastrophic for this century as Anti-semitism was in the last. It strikes at the heart of the modern nation state, which was partly created as an answer to centuries of religious warfare, and gives support to extremists and religious zealots everywhere.

If we want to preserve our tolerant liberal democracy, should do all we can to expose, argue, and root out Islamophobia wherever we find it – even in our own minds.

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