The United Nations has a justly deserved reputation for catering to extremists of every sort and for entertaining not only extremism but distortion as part of its everyday fabric. Nowhere was this more on display than at the recent seminar on ‘Islamophobia,’ forced upon an all-too-willing UN in exchange for holding a seminar on anti-Semitism earlier in 2004. Conceived as part of a series on “unlearning intolerance,” the seminar aimed to confirm prejudices of the Islamic world toward the West, and especially the United States, as the sources of all Islam’s failure and weakness.
The tone was set from the top, by the aristocratic Kofi Annan, whose platitudes included the ritual assertion that Islam is not “monolithic," and stunningly, that questioning the compatibility of Islam with democracy, modernity and womens’ rights were forms of Islamophobia. The “Other” was invoked, along with Islam’s ‘tolerance’ for Christians and Jews (as legally defined second-class citizens), as was the qualification that the “historical experience of Muslims included colonialism and imperialism by the West, both direct and indirect.” Terrorism and violence “in the name of Islam” were merely cases where a few give a bad name to the many.
Thus validated by His Excellency the Secretary General, the tone of the speakers alternated between defense and offense. The academics in particular displayed the almost ritualized distortion of facts that have given their profession such credibility. For example, the keynote speaker, Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University stated that the term ‘anti-Semitism’ in fact was originally directed at the Arabs in Spain and was directed only at Jews in the aftermath of World War II. Actually, the term dates only to 1879 and was coined by the German journalist and agitator Wilhelm Marr as a specifically anti-Jewish expression.
Nasr helpfully pointed out that Islam was not a homogeneous, monolithic whole. But however heterogeneous Islam was, something called Islamic civilization now sought to “become itself,” to “overcome all the curtailments since the colonial period,” and “regain what it was, and what it has lost.” While “errors” were committed on the Islamic side, on balance Nasr put the blame on the West, not least of all the “festering wound of Palestine in the side of the entire Arab world.” He also stated curiously that there had been an attempt to obliterate the Arabic origins of words in English, such as ‘adobe’ (actually from the ancient Egyptian word for brick, dbt). He also asserted that streams north of Taos, New Mexico had Arabic names.
Many speakers stated that with the fall of Communism, the West, and by implication the United States, need a sinister nemesis, another “Other,” and had found it in Islam. Somehow the fact that almost all the recent military actions by the United States in the last decades have been on behalf of Muslims, in Iraq (twice), the Balkans, and Mogadishu, had been forgotten.
Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd of Cairo University reminded the audience that all Islamic countries sided with the Allies in World War II, conveniently overlooking the alliance of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husseini, with Hitler, or the Nazi-inspired coup in Iraq in 1941. He also confidently asserted that the Islamic concept of shura, or consultative government, is “unanimously” regarded by Islamic scholars as “essentially the same as democracy.” Furthermore, there was no such thing as ‘holy war’ in Islam.
John Esposito of Georgetown University went beyond defense and skillfully implied that prominent religious leaders were key Islamophobes, and these individuals were tied to the US government. Franklin Graham’s statement that Islam was an evil religion was cited, as was the sinister fact that Graham had spoken at the Pentagon and at the inauguration of George W. Bush. Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, and Jackie Mason (“who also happens to be a rabbi”) were included in the assault. For Esposito the opinions of these individuals also sends a clear message overseas, that America is engaged in a war against Islam, orchestrated by the “militant Zionist Christian right and the neo-cons.” Sermons from Islamists, with their frequent ‘sons of pigs and monkeys’ motifs, apparently send no parallel signals to the West.
Azizah al-Hibri of the University of Richmond went on the offensive. She was indignant and amazed that Islam, whose Holy Book gave “dignity to the children of Adam,” as reflected in human free will, the prohibition of coercion in religion, and guaranteed freedom of thought, the choice of leaders and consultative government, should be forced to defend itself. After all, the first idea of the separation of church and state came from Islam, whose early leaders were forbidden to adopt any one school of political thought. But the true enemy was colonialism, that caused, among other ills, a “weakening of the Arabic language” resulting in Islam being learned only through repetition. Whatever ignorance of Islam that exists among Muslims is the fault of the West.
Her call for more public education on Islam, and existing texts “purged of false material” struck sympathetic chords with the audience. Responding to a question she elaborated on the history of racism in America, which included unnamed Islamophobic literature in the 18th century, and “regime change” in the Islamic world undertaken by Thomas Jefferson. This reference was intended to denigrate Jefferson’s refusal to continue paying tribute and ransom to the ‘Barbary’ states of North Africa, and American military expeditions that, among other things, freed hostages. For al-Hibri the bottom line was clear, in racist America freedom of religion was protected, therefore it was easier to attack all Muslims as terrorists.
And setting an elevated tone for interfaith dialogue, Reverend Calvin Butts, III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York greeted the assembled with the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith. He stated to hearty applause that “occupying land in the name of God” was “religious terrorism,” and “whether Muslims like it or not, Muslims are labeled people of color in the racist U.S…they won’t label you by calling you a nigger but they’ll call you a terrorist.” Fortunately, “faiths rise above nation states” ybecause they are united under one God. Where this leaves Hindus was unclear.
Terrorism was the elephant in the parlor. A number of speakers condemned 9/11, in particular the bad name it gave Islam, but several asked how long it would be necessary for Muslims to apologize. Butts helpfully pointed out that 9/11’s equivalent was the Oklahoma City bombing, executed by a Christian terrorist wearing Hush Puppies and a crew cut. But all agreed that terrorism was without question political violence, which used religion as a mask. The unwillingness of any participant to take Osama bin Laden and others at their word, their stated religious aims and religious justifications of means, was stunning. But utterly unsurprising.
Is Islamophobia a problem? Certainly, but it was left to a questioner from the audience to ask who, exactly, are the Islamophobes, and wonder sensibly whether such people were inclined to hate pretty much everyone different from themselves. More importantly, the questioner asked whether Islamophobia was really a matter of degree. If Islamophobia was simply negative thoughts about Muslims, this was a wholly personal problem. Only when prejudice is translated into action does it become a social problem. The panelists did not respond.
Neatly framed in this way, the motives behind the UN seminar seem less about combating prejudice than not very subtle thought control. May we ask no questions about Islam, its theology, history, and current relationship with politics, not least of which is terrorism? Or does voicing questions constitute Islamophobia? Violence, incitement to violence, and dehumanizing characterizations do constitute Islamophobia, in the same way that they constitute any form of religious, racial, or ethnic prejudice. But intellectuals confirming the victim status of Muslims globally, and in America particularly, at the expense of history, and offering threatening calls for education to be “purged of false materials,” will not advance the causes of universal freedom and equal justice for which the UN once stood.