Islamophobia: Three Lies
Lie 1: Islam is an inherently violent religion
Lie 2: Muslims want to establish a global Caliphate
and subject everyone to Sharia law
Lie 3: Muslims intend to establish their global Caliphate by killing or converting nonbelievers
It is long past time for wise and good people everywhere to take up the struggle against Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a self-fulfilling proposition. The more people who ought to know better fear and hate Muslims, in nations whose leaders ought to demand better, the more Muslims will fear and hate them back.
Islamophobia is nothing more than primitive tribalism dressed up in fancy clothes. It’s a second cousin to racism, anti-Semitism, Hispanophobia, and all the other tribalisms that propagandists invent to subvert weak minds and keep them from seeing the theft of their liberty, livelihood and future that is going on right under their noses.
Islamophobia springs from three persistent lies. Islam, it says, is an inherently violent religion. Its adherents want to dominate the world, creating a global Islamic Caliphate and subjecting innocent Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others to medieval Sharia law. And they want to reach those goals by putting innocent nonbelievers to the sword, or by killing and terrorizing them as bin Laden and Zarkawi did.
There are indeed a few wild-eyed extremists whom these propositions describe. They include Al Qaeda and some, but not all, of the Taliban. But they are now and always have been a tiny minority of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. As applied to the overwhelming majority of Muslims, none of these three propositions stands up to the slightest serious scrutiny.
Lie 1: Islam is an inherently violent religion
Islam is no more inherently violent than any other monotheistic religion. To be sure, the Qur’an has some phrases that suggest violence as a means to political and religious ends. But in that respect how does it differ from the Old Testament?
From Cain and Abel, through Joseph’s brothers, to the innumerable incidents of “smiting,” that good Book has more than its share of violence, assassination and treachery. Its dark images of human nature are mere literary reflections of sordid but universal human impulses. In the primitive time in which the Old Testament was written, those impulses led to tragic action far more often than they do today.
The New Testament can claim a bit of difference. Jesus’ central message was one of peace. But that message was a political necessity for him in his time. He was a member of a tiny minority: a Jew in one of the farthest corners of the mighty Roman Empire. And he was starting a brand new movement that (much later) took his name as “Christianity.”
Jesus’ movement began impossibly tiny, with nothing more than twelve disciples. So he had to―and he did―keep a low profile, professing to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Yet the Romans treated his message and his movement as dangerously political anyway and crucified him just the same. His martyrdom spawned what was unquestionably the world’s most powerful new mass movement of any kind, until Mohamed came along.
But look what happened later to the religion that Jesus started. A schism between Catholics and Protestants incited some of the most violent and prolonged wars in human history. Like all wars, those wars had economic causes as well. But religious tribalism was a principal motivating factor for the fighting and the dying, especially among the common foot soldiers that did them.
For their times and their levels of weapons technology, those wars were some of the bloodiest in human history. They persisted in various places and in various forms for several hundred years. They persist today in the uneasy peace in Northern Ireland.
Of course those wars were part nationalistic and part political, as well as religious. But can’t we say the same today about the tensions between Sunni and Shiites? The Sunni-Shiite split was political from its very beginning, so any astute student of history can see the resemblance. Since the days of the Greek oracles, political and military leaders have always exploited and manipulated (and only rarely sincerely adopted) religion for secular political and military ends.
To an historical realist, there is very little difference between the real-world effects of the Catholic-Protestant schism in the history of Europe and the Sunni-Shiite schism in the history of the Islamic world, up to today. The only difference is the passage of time, today’s access to more fearsome weapons, and the different stages of development of Islam and of Christianity, which had a six-hundred-year head start.
And what can we say about the Crusades? To be sure, they were in part a reaction to the conquest of large parts of Southern Europe by the Islamic Empire. That was the political part. But in their pathological focus on religious images and artifacts, such as the Holy Grail, they masked a fundamental economic problem in the organization of “Western” society.
During the Crusades, the Western world was mired in feudalism. Under that hapless regime, the vast masses of “common” people, including rising classes of merchants and artisans (but very few truly educated people), labored in squalor and poverty to support largely idle landowners. To maintain their power and occupy their largely idle time, the ruling class engaged in the “sport” of war, continually training in swordsmanship, jousting, and other preparations for affaires militaires.
In other words, Western feudal society devoted a pathological share of its meager resources to arms and armies. Boys will be boys, and testosterone is the Earth’s most dangerous single substance. So all those troops, weapons and training had to be used somewhere. Better for them to be used outside of Europe, where they would do the European ruling class little harm and (for those who survived) produce tougher and better soldiers.
So the Crusades were born. They dumped all that excess military expenditure and all that dangerous testosterone onto the Islamic world. In the process they perpetrated some of the most horrendous wartime atrocities in human history, in which whole cities were butchered. This expedient nicely disposed of the Europe’s dangerous military surplus, with little direct or immediate consequence for Europe or its ruling class (except those unlucky enough not to return from the Crusades).
Under this intermittent but fierce onslaught, the great Islamic Empire slowly retreated. Once Jerusalem got “liberated” and the Empire no longer seemed a serious threat, Europe began to turn its well-trained military inward. At the same time, the Catholic-Protestant schism and rising nationalism added fuel to the fire.
The result was several hundred years of the worlds most vicious and senseless wars, fought mostly for reasons of religious and national tribalism that now seem absurd. That era culminated in the greatest war in history, which, had nuclear weapons arrived a little earlier, might have extinguished human civilization or our entire species.
Now Europe, exhausted by those wars, is at peace and trying fitfully to construct a real, diverse, and multifaceted peaceful civilization. But to say that the Islamic world is more violent, when its own wars for the past several centuries have been but pale reflections of the incomparably bloodier wars in Europe is to be ignorant of history.
No one but Europeans ever produced the industrial-scale slaughter of World War I (with machine guns and poison gas), the fire-bombings of London, Dresden and Tokyo (with civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands in the latter cities), the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (ditto), and the death machinery of the Holocaust (with six million casualties). Those horrible episodes of human history were “innovations” of Europeans and their cultural descendants, us Yanks. Muslims had nothing to do with them.
So whose religion is more violent?
Lie 2: Muslims want to establish a Global Caliphate and subject everyone to Sharia Law
There are indeed Muslims who profess to want these things. But how numerous are they, and how representative of their faith?
You have only to look around the world for an answer. Indonesia―the most populous Islamic country on Earth―is a peaceful tropical country struggling to become a modern democracy. Ditto Malaysia. Both nations are preoccupied with economic development and their own ethnic minorities, which in Malaysia comprise 35% ethnic Chinese and 15% ethnic Indians (mostly Tamils). The half of the nation that consists of non-Muslims enjoys both economic and political freedom, while complaining noisily about affirmative action for Muslim Malays. No serious politician in either nation has even proposed implementing Sharia law nationwide, let alone has any prospect of implementing it.
Next take Turkey. It is probably the world’s most advanced Muslim nation. Why? Because Mustafa Kemal Attatürk, the founder of modern Turkey and its great leader in the last century, threw off the dead weight of backward-looking Islam in politics (without constraining the religion as such), remade its economy, military and governance under modern, secular principles, and brought Turkey into the twentieth century.
Turks are still free to practice their religion, but the nation’s thriving democracy, increasingly vibrant economy and powerful, secular army are all based on modern, universal, non-Islamic principles. Turkey has about as much chance of becoming a theocracy as Catholic France. (And as for reasonable military restraint, how else would you describe Turkey’s response to Israel’s capture of its ship on the high seas, killing several Turkish nationals?)
Most of the rest of the list is about the same. Egypt is a nascent democracy now controlled by its army, a relatively tolerant, professional and secular force in absolutely no danger of instituting Sharia law. Jordan is a Western-oriented, relatively moderate kingdom in the process of democratizing. The Gulf Emirates are much the same. Those that have oil are using its proceeds to build modern, secular societies with varying degrees of democratization. Those that don’t are trying to integrate themselves as quickly as possible into the global economy, in order to draw some trade and wealth from their oil-rich neighbors. And the sheikhs who run them have absolutely no desire to institute Sharia law, at least for themselves and their families, since they are all busy with smoking, drinking, fornicating and stealing their countries’ wealth as best they can, every time they go abroad, which they do often.
So who, if anyone, in the Islamic world is advocating Sharia law and a new global Caliphate? We know the terrorists are. But they are a tiny, tiny minority daily getting tinier under the not-so-tender ministrations of our ninjas and drones. Is there anyone else?
Yes there is. But they are all hypocrites. They keep the vision of Sharia and a new Caliphate alive to placate, suppress and oppress their own populations while they rape and rob them and keep them in ignorance and poverty. They have absolutely no desire or intention to institute Sharia law inside their own domains because, were it administered impartially, they would be its first victims. And they have even less desire (let alone plans) for global conquest.
This is the state of the mullahs in Iran, the Saudi Princes, and the ISI and some military leaders in Pakistan. All are exploiting Islamic extremists for purely secular purposes: to maintain their own political power, to suppress secular and religious democratic opposition, and to keep their presumed foreign foes off balance. For these purposes they finance and support Islamic extremists outside their borders while killing and imprisoning them inside.
How do these nations’ ruling classes use extremism? Each in its own way. The mullahs in Iran use it to keep their educated and internationalist big-city people in check. If you look into them, you will find that nearly all the stonings of adulterers and cutting off of thieves’ hands occur in the countryside, where simple country folk, often devout and fundamentalist Muslims, accept them. In the cities, where many reject this medieval primitivism, these medieval punishments are used (along with lighter punishments like caning and beating) to keep political opposition in check. The Basiji who inflict these punishments on ordinary citizens are close cousins of the Nazi Gestapo and the Soviet secret police, operating under the cover of primitive religion. Their goal is political control, not piety.
The Saudi Princes have made a very simple Faustian bargain. They permit no extremism inside their borders. But they placate (or try to) extremist mullahs and their followers by using their own oil wealth to support radical Wahhabi madrassas abroad, all around the world. Many of these schools of hate and ignorance are in Pakistan, where they indoctrinate youth in extremist ideologies and fuel the terrorism that Pakistan’s ruling class directs against India and other regional rivals.
In short, the Saudi Princes’ only significant export (besides oil) is Islamic extremism, which often produces Islamic terrorism. It was no accident that most 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The Saudi Princes’ gilded tyranny is probably the most tenacious and effective totalitarian regime in human history. It preserves itself by rigidly suppressing any kind of dissent at home and sometimes buying it off, as recently in the Arab Spring. At the same time it spreads extremism and terrorism like plagues, to all external parts of the globe not sufficiently healthy to be immune to them. And we, in turn, foolishly support this evil regime with our oil money, our sales of aircraft and other military supplies, and our obsequious and fawning support from our last five or more presidencies, epitomized by those wonderful photos of Dubya walking literally hand-in-hand with the late King Abdullah. We are absolutely in league with the Devil here.
There may be a few closet Islamists in Pakistan’s military or intelligence services, but their goals are purely secular. They want to harm India as revenge for the human cost of their partition. And they want to conquer Kashmir and annex it, regardless of the wishes of its rather diverse populace.
These are purely secular military and political goals. Yet because India is much larger and also has nuclear weapons, the Pakistanis cannot reach them by conventional military means. So they exploit terrorists and Islamic extremists as means to fight their traditional rival (India), to keep alive their dark dream of annexing Kashmir, and to maintain some regional influence.
Pakistan itself has a British cultural overlay, a vibrant subculture of lawyers (who marched in the streets to push out the strongman Musharraf and restore the Supreme Court), and a strong and not unprofessional military. None of these cultural factions supports Islamic extremism as a ruling philosophy or would like to institute Sharia law. But Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders fan the flames of extremism as a means of keeping perceived foreign enemies at bay. At the same time they continue to kill extremists at home, sporadically and spasmodically, as outside the Red Mosque. In this respect, as in some others, Pakistan is a schizophrenic society, with significant elements adhering to the most cynical and primitive Macchiavellianism.
No matter how far to the left or right it may be, no rational government can tolerate random terrorism for long and survive. Nor can any rational government tolerate a brand of Islam that seeks to replace it with rule by mullahs and Sharia law. Eventually, extremists will turn on their supposed masters, and vice versa. But some governments can, for a time, delude themselves that they can exploit terrorists and extremists for domestic and international political purposes without significant long-term consequences to themselves.
That is the fantasy world in which the ruling classes of Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia now live. And that is what creates uncertainty for them and their neighbors.
The future is always unclear, and the outcome of these risky strategies is uncertain. But one thing is absolutely certain: in the long run, these strategies will not end well for the people behind them. As for the rest of the Islamic world, it is in as much danger of instituting Sharia law and building a new global Caliphate as Ireland.
Lie 3: Muslims intend to establish their Global Caliphate by killing or converting nonbelievers
This lie persists despite the utter lack of any credible evidence for it in the modern world. All the “evidence” for it comes from the ancient world, i.e., the Islamic Empire that preceded the Crusades. That was six centuries ago.
People in the Dark Ages did a lot of killing, whether they were Christians or Muslims. If the truth be told, Christians probably did more killing on a per capita basis. You would think that rational people, let alone rational leaders of a democracy, would demand some current evidence of the extraordinary proposition that Muslims today kill or convert nonbelievers. But there is none.
Are there people who call themselves Muslims who support such things? Of course. But we have similar crazies inside our own society. We have people who want to nuke Iran. We have people who would like to to nuke China. We have people who want to put up tariff barriers on all Chinese goods, thereby immediately increasing the prices the vast majority of manufactures that we use here at home and sparking rampant inflation. There are even people who still want to nuke the Russians, although they have totally forsaken Communism of their own free will and haven’t been our enemies for two decades.
But do we pay any attention to these wing nuts? Do we expect our allies or even international rivals to do so? Of course not. You can do quite a good job driving yourself crazy if you take the most extreme elements in a foreign nation, project their loopy views onto the whole society, and imagine that that nation is out to get you. That is precisely what Islamophobes do.
If you look at results, i.e. actual killings, there is no evidence suggesting any organized movement, let alone a significant one, to kill or convert non-Muslims. Some Christian Copts got killed by mobs in Egypt recently. But the army and civilian leaders hardly condoned this atrocity, let alone deliberately incited it. It was an unfortunate pogrom of the type that often happens in unstable socieities, just like the murders of Alewites (minority Muslims like dictator Bashar al-Asaad) in Syria.
The last real genocide of Christians by Muslims was perpetrated by Turks against Armenians about a century ago. In the meantime we had a much larger genocide of Jews by Christian Nazis in the Holocaust, and a deliberate massacre of Muslims by Christian Serbs in Kosovo. Is there a discernible trend in these revolting episodes of human bestiality? I think not. They are random acts of evil flowing from pathological conditions at particular times and places.
The trouble with Islam is that it’s too “democratic.” Anyone can call himself an imam or mullah and set up shop as one. You don’t have to have any formal religious training whatsoever, let alone have “graduated” from a respectable Islamic center of theology.
So people like Muqtada Al-Sadr in Iraq and the recently dispatched Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen can call themselves mullahs and attract a “religious” following without even the acknowledgment, let alone approval, of any widely recognized religious authority. Al-Sadr relied on association with his assassinated father and uncle, who had been recognized religious leaders, and Al-Awlaki exploited his association with American mullahs and terrorists, plus his Internet notoriety. Neither had or (in Al-Sadr’s case) has any legitimate claim to religious authority.
While this state of affairs offers the potential for religious revival and renewal, it also has a big downside. It allows cranks and charlatans like bin Laden to hijack one of the world’s oldest and most venerable religions. It also allows demagogues here at home to tar a global religion as “violent” or “evil” with a semblance of credibility. Not being a Muslim myself, I hesitate to prescribe a remedy, but this is clearly a problem that begs for solution.
Several non-Muslims have been executed as such by stateless terrorists without formal political or religious authority. The most notable was Daniel Pearl, the late WSJ reporter, whom Khaled Sheikh Mohammed decapitated in Pakistan. This killer is now in our custody, and Pearl’s bereaved wife has made a personal crusade of fostering religious tolerance in her deceased husband’s name.
Yet so far as I know, not a single Christian or Jew has been executed, anywhere in the world, solely for being an unbeliever in Islam, with the official sanction or edict of any well-recognized religious or secular Islamic leader. Not one, during my entire 66 years of life.
So where does this rampant Islamophobia come from? Ask Fox.
When so many people believe such patent lies, you have to ask the age-old question: cui bono? Who benefits? Who gains by deluding Americans and making them fear and hate one of the world’s oldest religions, practiced by nearly one-quarter of the human race?
The first obvious beneficiary is Christian fundamentalists. It’s hard to attract people educated in a modern, scientific, secular society by denying the foundation of all modern biology (evolution), ignoring global warming as polar ice melts and the weather gets wilder worldwide, and generally acting like a “seer” of still-warm entrails from the Dark Ages. But set up fictional enemies who you claim do the very same thing and oppose yourself to them, and you’ve got a better chance at gaining a following.
Tribalism is always the last refuge of scoundrels and demagogues. It’s been a staple of vicious propaganda from the destruction of Carthage, through the Nazi Holocaust, to Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the rape of Sarajevo. It’s a little embarrassing that it’s happening so successfully in our “exceptional” nation that styles itself the foundation of Reason and modern democracy. But I guess it just shows we Yanks are human, after all.
The next class of beneficiaries is less obvious. We have a problem not dissimilar to the problem of feudal society described above. Spooked by World War II and the Cold War, we Yanks have massively over-invested in arms and armies. We spend more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined, at a time when we are nearing bankruptcy.
When you spend so much on arms, you’ve got to use them one way or another. If you don’t, they get rusty or make trouble at home.
So it’s no surprise that the country (ours) that spends the most on arms and armies started the last two big wars and kept them going for the better part of a decade. And it’s no surprise that, for a society rightly famed for social engineering and brilliant planning, our action in those wars had no discernible rational plan (1 and 2) until recently. We didn’t even have a clear idea of who our enemies were.
Is the “plan” just to keep our military “ready,” “lean and mean,” well supported, and out of domestic trouble?
I mean no disrespect to our courageous troops or their well-qualified leaders. But the simple fact is we Yanks devote an extraordinarily large (and poorly justified) fraction of our industrial output, wealth, popular culture, and politics to military affairs. When you have that large a sink of national resources devoted to arms, you need an enemy.
The Chinese are no longer our enemy. Apart from occupying Tibet and a few disputed incidents in the Spratly Islands, they have not taken any hostile external act since the end of the Vietnam War 36 years ago. And in diplomacy they go out of their way to keep a low profile, never making threats or referring (even obliquely) to the possibility of war.
We did have a real enemy in the form of Al Qaeda. It did us great damage on 9/11 and in the years leading up to that attack. But we have it on the run now. And we are on the path to defeating it economically, using ninjas and drones and supporting legitimate popular liberation movements like the Libyan rebels. All these things cost us a small fraction of what we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan and have achieved incomparably better results in far less time.
So if you have no powerful enemy, and if you are routing the small bands of stateless terrorists that had the temerity to declare “war” on the greatest military power in human history, what do you do? You have to invent an enemy sufficiently fearsome to justify continuing your massive over-investment in arms and armies.
And what better enemy to invent than one so diffuse as militant Islam? It’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s part of a religion in which nearly one-quarter of the human race believes. It’s here at home, embodied in millions of peaceful Muslims thankful for (at last) reaching a place where they can practice their religion without fear of death or imprisonment. But how many of them are terrorists, deep in their hearts?
Islamophobia is tailor-made for those who make their living from a bloated military-industrial complex. It’s hard to refute, because terrorists do exist. It’s hard to belittle, because any domestic terrorist attack will make you seem, in retrospect, a fool or a dupe. So it’s a perfect vehicle to keep fear alive and keep the military profits and career opportunities rolling in.
In that respect, Islamophobia is much like the Red Scares of the early Cold War. Just as Joe McCarthy once accused our own State Department (without evidence but without contradiction) of harboring dozens of (never-named) Communists, fear-mongers today say that terrorists live among us in the bodies of the peaceful the Muslims down the street. And no one has the information to contradict them, or the courage to say something that eventually might turn out to be wrong.
Yet still we have to recall how the Cold War turned out. An effective and peaceful policy of deterrence avoided war for over half a century, giving the Russian people a chance to discover the nonsense of Communism and reject it of their own accord.
Much the same thing is now happening with militant Islam in the Arab Spring, which promises a decisive rejection of terrorism and an embrace of globalism throughout the Islamic world. We would be foolish indeed if we failed to catch that wave, and instead grasped the demagogues’ fear. We might bankrupt ourselves, financially and morally, just when our President has finally found an effective and quite economical strategy for fighting terrorism.