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Fear Mongers

Book Review
American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear by Khaled A Beydoun (University of California Press, $US26.95)
Reviewed by Valerie Morse

american_islamophobia_coverWe should understand the recent Lauren Southern/Stefan Molyneux episode not as a discussion about hate speech or free speech, but rather as a failed attempt to promulgate (more) Islamophobia. You may have noticed that it was book-ended firstly, by the local Muslim community’s petition opposing their visit at the outset, and concluded with the official tweeted response from the promoter of the visit, “Have fun with Sharia!” upon the duo’s departure. Viewed through this lens, Beydoun’s book, American Islamophobia, provides urgent and compelling context to a global phenomena that has mushroomed on our shores.

Beydoun is first and foremost a legal scholar, and he helpfully and thoroughly outlines his working definitions of Islamophobia as a three-headed monster that is self-reinforcing: private Islamophobia, structural Islamophobia and dialectical Islamophobia.

The first, private Islamophobia, he notes is the, “fear, suspicion and targeting of Muslims by private actors”; in New Zealand we have seen this in verbal attacks on women wearing the hijab, and the tagging, vandalism and arson of Mosques.

The second, institutional Islamophobia is that same fear, but its manifestation is “the advancement of laws, policies and programming that built upon the presumption that Muslim identity is associated with a national security threat.” Again in New Zealand, we identify Islamophobia in parliamentary acts such as the 2014 Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation that enables sweeping powers of warrantless surveillance by the NZSIS over communities and the power to revoke individual passports. It does so selectively, effectively profiling Muslim communities, as “foreign terrorist fighters”; notably, it does not include Western/Christian mercenaries or those on the “right” side of any conflict.

Finally, he defines his dialectical Islamophobia as the interplay between the two: “at its core it is the presumption of guilt assigned to Muslims by state and private actors…a process by which state policies endorse popular tropes.” Into this third category, the wider context of New Zealand’s foreign policy is identifiable, situated in the never ending “War on Terrorism” which has embedded NZDF troops in Afghanistan for 17 years and in Iraq on and off for 15 years. A wider media narrative has accompanied these military engagements: think back to John Key’s “jihadi brides” comment, the acceptance of the rightness of the US drone assassination of a NZ citizen, and many other instances.

Beydoun’s work is grounded in an exploration of legal history and precedent that exposes a very long trajectory of anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. Dating back to the days of slavery in the US, Beydoun sketches how the “whiteness” necessary to receiving US citizenship was intimately tied to Christianity, and how that was codified into law. What eventuated as a result was an unarticulated, but highly effective legal Muslim Ban that lasted until the 1940s.

Moving forward, Beydoun draws on the work of revered Palestinian scholar Edward Said exploring the centuries old linkage between Middle Eastern/Arab identities and that of Islam, and its juxtaposition against the Christian West in the creation and ongoing reproduction of “Orientalism.” He proceeds to weave together the threads of Orientalism, Islamophobia and Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations into what has become the United State’s replacement enemy—and full-fledged foreign policy—following the end of Soviet communism. He notes, “Four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Huntington would formally declare Islam, and the billions of people it encompassed, to be the existential threat that threatened American harmony and hegemony.” While Huntington’s best selling book was instrumental in shaping ideas, it found favour not because it was true or valid, but rather, because of “its political expediency on two key fronts: first, because it filled the void for a new geopolitical nemesis left by the Soviet Union; and secondly, because Huntington’s simplified construction of a menacing Islamic civilization was deeply familiar, having already been embedded within the collective American imagination and the halls of power.” Beydoun notes that even the term “war on terror” appears to have been coined in the pages of Huntington’s book.

As the horrors of what we hope were the worst years of the Iraq and Afghan wars have receded, the scope of Islamophobia within the United States has only grown. Beydoun carefully walks through the tenure not only of George W Bush, but takes umbrage with Barak Obama and his deceptive and disingenuous embracing of the domestic Muslim population late in his presidential term. Rather than a genuine attempt to disrupt Islamophobic laws and policies born of the Bush/Cheney era, Obama broadened them and even sought the assistance of the Muslim community as an apparatus for surveillance and profiling as part of the “Countering Violent Extremism” programme.

The concluding chapters of Beydoun’s work take us to the interconnected and complex struggles of Black Americans and Muslim Americans; therein, he notes that the greatest American Muslim was a Black American Muslim, the boxer Muhammad Ali. Beydoun ties together the struggle against Islamophobia and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, while simultaneously addressing issues of anti-black racism within the Muslim community.

His work concludes with reference to the intense trepidation and ongoing visceral fear that has come to characterise life for Muslims and many others in Trump’s America. More importantly, however, it concludes with a deep well of energy for building resistance to Islamophobia and an inspiring call for solidarity across struggles.