As an activist against Islamophobia, I have been characterized by pundits and commentators on the right, along with some on the left, as a “terrorist sympathizer,” “ISIS propagandist,” and card-carrying member of what the Islamophobia Industry has dubbed the “regressive left.” But these labels and smears speak less about my activism and more about the pervasiveness and stubbornness of anti-Muslim animus in Western societies today.
The recent and ongoing crackdown against more than six million Muslims in France by the French government and the counter protests from liberals, academics, journalists, and those committed to the country’s motto – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) – have sparked the birth of a new denigrating term: “Islamo-leftism.”
Emmanuel Macron, a career long center-left politician, has grabbed onto Islamophobic discourse and policies that unfairly discriminate against Muslims to stave off a likely political challenge from Marine Le Penn and her virulently anti-Muslim, far-right party – National Rally.
If you’re at all familiar with Macron’s discriminatory policies, such as the recent ban on Muslim women’s headscarves, then you will know that those who stand against the government and in defense of France’s secular democratic ideals are being tarred as “Islamo-leftists” to insinuate they are sympathetic to violent Islamic extremists and thus a threat to national security.
“We cannot escape the conclusion that this term [‘Islamo-Leftism’] is used as a shield behind which people hide their overtly anti-Muslim sentiments.”
“We cannot escape the conclusion that this term [‘Islamo-Leftism’] is used as a shield behind which people hide their overtly anti-Muslim sentiments, and one that uses fear to distract from a growing movement to curtail human rights,” writes Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal academic.
What’s interesting, or rather alarming, about France is the way in which a number of intellectuals and long-time opponents of Islamophobic discourse on the left have switched sides and joined those on the right to voice their opposition to so-called “Islamo-leftism.”
Individuals taking part in this trend include Frédérique Vidal, the French Minister of Higher Education and Research, and French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who claims do-gooder leftists are using Islamophobia as a “weapon of mass intimidation,” meant to silence criticism of Islam. “There are already more than enough forms of racism; there is no need to imagine more,” he writes.
We’ve heard iterations of this well-worn trope before—i.e., “Islam isn’t a race, so Islamophobia can’t be a form of racism,” so the argument goes.
Yet, social researchers and academics have not only determined Islamophobia to be a form of racism but also have settled on a definition, describing it as “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, and civic life.”
Islamophobia not only encourages acts of violence against Muslims, with the FBI documenting more than 3,500 hate crimes against Muslim Americans in the years spanning 2001 to 2017, but also produces negative outcomes for Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslim, in terms of access to employment, housing, healthcare, and education.
Islamophobia operates to portray Muslims as monolithic, separate, inferior, manipulative, hostile to Western values and democracy, and prone to terrorism. In the modern era, it’s terrorism in particular that has given Islamophobia its distinct features.
It’s easy to imagine Islamophobia was born in the ashes of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but the origins of the effort to tie Islam to terrorism in Western discourse trace back to the 1979 Conference on International Terrorism held in Jerusalem, Israel. Convened by US neoconservatives and right-wing Israelis, then-US Vice Presidential candidate George H. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were among the dignitaries at the meeting, according to Professor Deepa Kumar, author of “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.”
The overarching goal of the conference was to have right-wing parties in Israel and the US singing from the same song sheet when it comes to speaking about Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. More specifically, this meant labelling Palestinian liberation efforts as acts of “terrorism,” but as Kumar notes, the conference did not emphasize ties between Islam and terrorism, only the Palestinian people.
Five years later, however, at a follow-up conference held in Washington, DC, the effort to tie terrorism to Islamic radicalism was formed. Bernard Lewis, the American intellectual in attendance, argued Islam to be a “political religion,” and thus because terrorism is an act of political violence, the term “Islamic terrorism” applies.
From Europe to Asia and even to the Middle East, Muslims have become the number one referent object in national security discourse across the globe.
Osama Bin Laden’s attacks on US embassies in Africa and New York in the late 1990s, followed by the events of 9/11 helped seal the connection between Islam and terrorism in American minds. The emergence of ISIS perpetuated that idea in the minds of millions of others around the world as well. Thus, from Europe to Asia and even to the Middle East, Muslims have become the number one referent object in national security discourse across the globe.
It has become the go-to discourse for every authoritarian regime seeking to control or put down a restive or disgruntled Muslim population, with China using it to justify its genocide against Uighur Muslims; Myanmar in its genocide against the Rohingya; India in its crackdown against Muslims in Kashmir and Assam; and Arab governments in their effort to crush Islamist political parties and pro-democracy protesters.
This brings us back to France, where the government has banned Islamic dress and shut down Islamic centers, charities, and schools – all in the name of national security. Indeed, France’s ongoing anti-Muslim policies reveal that Western and Israeli efforts to tie Islam to terrorism have been successful and can continue to serve as a guise for Islamophobic practices around the world.