The Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project (IRDP)—a program of the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Race and Gender (CRG)—recently held its third annual conference, "Critical Discourses on Islamophobia: Symbols, Images, & Representations." As in previous years, speaker after speaker decried an imaginary racist, imperialist, Orientalist Western juggernaut, while disregarding the very real predations of Islamism.
The first day of the conference brought in approximately eighty people at its peak, including a number of women in hijab (head scarf), typing furiously on laptops. Others sported keffiyehs and dreadlocks; a smattering of Arabic and French could be heard; and a scruffy, bearded fellow wandered around with what appeared to be a journal under his arm, Historicizing Anti-Semitism, that one suspects is not exactly kosher. It was just another day in Berkeley.
Hatem Bazian, IRDP director, Near Eastern studies senior lecturer, and conference convener started out by apologizing for the forty-minute delay in kicking off the event. He chalked it up to "Muslim Time"—a reference to the popular phrase among African-Americans, "Colored People's Time"—and joked that "Swiss watches run forward, but Muslim watches run backward." He thanked the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—an Islamist organization posing as a defender of civil rights— for its participation in the conference (Zahra Billoo, CAIR Northern California Executive Director, spoke the next day) and for partnering with CRG to produce the 2011 report, "Same Hate, New Target: Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States"—a report that falsely accuses a number of public figures of perpetrating "Islamophobia." Bazian also thanked "individuals who send us hate mail" for demonstrating "the need for this conference," about which, he claimed, there had been "considerable chatter," including "wild" and "threatening" statements. All this "despite the fact that we have the first Muslim president," he added, chuckling. This sarcastic reference to the American public's perception of Barack Obama's Muslim background would be repeated throughout the day as incontrovertible evidence of "Islamophobia."
Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Oxford University professor of contemporary Islamic studies and grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, demonstrated a capacity for what his critics have described as doublespeak with his keynote speech. Titled, "A Global Perspective on Constructing Muslim Otherness," Ramadan's talk was rife with contradiction. At one point, he acknowledged that the "victim mentality" is counterproductive for Muslims and other minorities:
People are relying on fear, mistrust, [and] nurturing the victim mentality. You can see this among Blacks, Latinos, [and] Muslims. Sometimes they play the victims. Victims are talking to each other. We are the victims of your colonization, legal colonization. It's the way you accept the role given by the dominant: you become the victim.
Yet pushing victimhood was the principal purpose of the conference. Moreover, Ramadan contributed to that narrative by implying that assimilation—the antidote to the balkanization caused by nurturing a victim mentality—was impossible in the U.S.:
At the end of the day, you might be a Muslim-American, Black, Latino, but not really. Us versus them. . . . After four generations, you are Muslim with an American background.
Ramadan admitted that something other than mere bigotry might be at the heart of what's been disingenuously dubbed "Islamophobia":
[S]ome of them are very sincere when it comes to being scared of the Muslim presence. . . . Try to understand the logic that is behind the whole thing . . . there is a great deal of mistrust towards our intentions as Muslims. We should go beyond the discussion of 'we are discriminated' towards a more comprehensive approach. . . . People can be genuinely scared; we have to face this.
He then added:
We have to get rid of this idea that the world is divided between the West and Islam. Instead of speaking about peace and living together, we respond with a discourse that is exactly the same.
But he went on to do just that, accusing both Republicans and Democrats of collusion—although he allowed that "some are less Islamophobic than others"—and claiming that "the people who are pushing it [are] the Tea Party and the Neocons." Given that the Tea Party has focused exclusively on economic issues and that Neoconservatism is hardly a political force to be reckoned with of late, Ramadan's rhetoric was hopelessly out of touch.
Ramadan eventually revealed why so many find him so dangerous by hinting at a belief in conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the Mohamed Merah shootings in Toulouse, France, which resulted in the deaths of three soldiers, a rabbi, and three children at a Jewish school. Acknowledging that "there is a new anti-Semitism in France, which is coming from Arabs and Muslims," he then accused "strong Zionist groups" of complicity for somehow "nurturing this kind of racism." As he put it:
I know about 9/11, but I still have some questions about behind the scenes, the way it was used . . . I still have questions about what happened in France [Toulouse]. We should try to understand the alliances we find behind old enemies.
To imply that "Zionists" are benefiting from atrocities against Jews and others goes beyond the realm of conspiracy theory into classical anti-Semitism.
Keith Feldman, an assistant professor in UC Berkeley's ethnic studies department, opened the first panel with a jargon-riddled talk titled, "Seeing Time: Visual Culture in the Drone Wars." Against a backdrop of the now famous photo of President Obama and his national security team watching the strike on Osama bin Laden from the situation room, Feldman noted that the name for the mission was "Geronimo" and, from this, claimed that killing the terrorist mastermind was a "residue of late nineteenth century colonial settler violence." Later, he used a photo of a black lynching victim from the 1880s to make the same ahistorical comparison, stating, "Take out the lynch victim, take out the body of Osama bin Laden, and see what the architecture of violence looks like."
Feldman spent the bulk of his lecture arguing against using drone strikes to kill terrorists, which he dubbed "racialization from above," and then asked, "What happens when Islamophobia takes to the skies?" Undeterred by the marked increase in drone strikes under Obama, Feldman reserved his ire for former President George W. Bush, whom he called "the illustrious geographer of the war on terror." From what he described as "the borders of U.S. imperialist cartography to the everyday violence of homeland security," there was no method of combating terrorism that Feldman found acceptable.
Munir Jiwa, founding director of UC Berkeley's Center for Islamic Studies and assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Graduate Theological Union, followed with a talk on, "the hegemonic frames through which Islam and Muslims come to be framed." These included the controversy surrounding Park 51, otherwise known as the Ground Zero mosque, about which he contradicted himself. First he criticized Park 51's opponents by stating, "The idea that a mosque would contaminate the sacred ground of Ground Zero needs to be put into question." Then he railed against those who welcomed the project because organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was perceived, as a Sufi, to be a moderate, noting sarcastically, "Because they were Sufis, it was palatable. These are the good Muslims building a community center open to all religions." In other words, neither the project's proponents nor its opponents can win.
Jiwa opposed Western intervention in the Muslim world in the interest of protecting women's rights, drawing an absurd moral equivalence between the circumstances of Afghan and American women in the process:
What if Afghan women were coming to the West to save American women? What if Afghan women in burkas hearts' bled for women in this part of the world?
Furthering engaging in moral and cultural relativism, Jiwa added, "What's more insidious is the new discourse around gay rights that Massad talks about." Jiwa was referring to Columbia University associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history Joseph Massad, whose controversial book, Desiring Arabs, posits that homosexuality in the Muslim only exists as a product of Western cultural imperialism. The young men being hanged in Iran for the "crime" of homosexuality would beg to differ.
Jiwa issued an apologia for Muslim violence in response to perceived blasphemy by asking of the Danish cartoon controversy, "Why it is that people need to provoke?" He then blamed author Salmon Rushdie for not "understand[ing] why Muslims were hurt" when his book, The Satanic Verses, earned him a death sentence from the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
Zaid Shakir, co-founder—with Hatem Bazian and Hamza Yusuf—of Zaytuna College, a self-described "Islamic university" in Berkeley, spoke towards the end of the day. Insinuating that American Muslims' struggle for justice is analogous and therefore as righteous as that of black Americans, Shakir urged "Muslims . . . to champion African-Americans' struggle because it's the same issues." He then made the hysterical claim that, "anti-Muslim fervor allows Latinos to be put into concentration camps." Co-opting the language of the Holocaust to refer to detention centers for illegal immigrants was Shakir's odious way of inflating his own cause.
Repeating Bazian's opening joke, he referred to "Obama, the first Muslim president" before launching into a conspiratorial tirade about the documentary, Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, which he blamed for the alleged rise in "Islamophobia" around the 2008 election:
The financiers of the Islamophobic media are the same people financing Obsession. It was designed to defeat Obama so that a more pro-war candidate, more right-wing, could win—someone more subservient to Zionist interests.
Of course, Obama won the election, and with a majority of the Jewish vote. No doubt, Shakir will chalk up either a win or a defeat for Obama this year to the Islamophobic Zionists.
It was a day of contradictions, ahistorical comparisons, numbing jargon, and, most of all, the elevation of victimhood to a privileged status. If aliens from another planet observed this conference, they would deduce that the streets of America were filled with murderous mobs and ranting rednecks out for Muslim blood. Then they would wonder how that is so when the academics at this conference, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, exhibited the very opposite: comfortable, professional lives buoyed by accolades and accommodation. If this is the product of "Islamophobia," then they have little to fear. Of the consequences of Islamism, however, the same cannot be said.
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