Jarvis Ryan looks at the roots of anti-Muslim racism and explains why the left must stand up against the anti-Islamic backlash
FOUR YEARS into the “war on terror”, many people can see that this war is in fact a war being fought by the US and its allies for economic and imperial gain — to seize control of energy resources and territory.
However it would be politically unacceptable for George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard to admit this.
There are very few wars where rulers speak honestly about their motivations. Instead they make a huge effort to convince their populations that a certain group of people should be targeted, killed or conquered.
A central feature of the “war on terror” is the portrayal of Islam as a backward and barbaric religion.
Of course, apart from the most extreme right-wingers, supporters of the “war on terror” do not condemn the religion as a whole. They stress that they support “moderate” Muslims.
But their refusal to admit there is any connection between violence by Western states and terrorist attacks like the London bombings — the idea that “they attack us because of who we are, not what we do” — leaves the door open to arguments that say religion, culture, race or elements of all three are to blame.
Moreover, there is a barely-veiled implication in the language is used to condemn “extremist” Islam — “they hate our freedoms”, “a medieval ideology”, “this is an attack on our values”, “all civilised people” etc — that suggests Islam is part of the problem.
Racism against Muslims, and in particular Arab Muslims, is a cornerstone of Western imperialism.
To understand why we have to look back at the history of relations between Islam and what we call Western civilisation.
A thousand years ago the political atlas looked very different to the world we live in. Europe was still reeling from the collapse of the Roman Empire several centuries earlier. Culturally, economically and politically, it was a backwater.
The Muslim world by contrast was at the peak of its power. Islamic civilisation extended from Spain and Morocco in the West to India in the east and south into Africa.
Europe’s feudal rulers were envious of the Islamic world’s culture and wealth. That is why, beginning in the 11th century, European Crusaders laid siege to Muslim cities.
To give some idea of the cultural disparity between Europe and the Muslim world, when the Italian island of Sicily was retaken, the conquering Normans had to grant freedom of worship to the Muslim majority because their mass exodus would have ruined the Sicilian economy. The new king surrounded himself with Muslim advisors.
The reason that we talk about “Western” civilisation at all is because for hundreds of years European civilisation was forced to define itself in relation to its more powerful eastern neighbour.
An important truth repeatedly ignored or obscured today by politicians and the mainstream media is the great debt that the West owes to the Muslim world. It was the torchbearer of progress after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the sixth century.
It kept alive and built on the mathematical, legal, literary and philosophical achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
As the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said argued in his major work Orientalism, the rulers of emerging Western powers like Britain and France worked hard to purge this truth from the collective mindset of Europeans.
“Islam was a provocation in many ways. It lay uneasily close to Christianity, geographically and culturally. It drew on the Judeo-Hellenic traditions. It borrowed creatively from Christianity-it could boast unrivalled military and political successes.
“Nor was this all. The Islamic lands sit adjacent to and even on top of the biblical lands. Moreover, the heart of the Islamic domain has always been the region closest to Europe…
“From the end of the 7th century to the 16th century, Islam in either its Arab, Ottoman, North African or Spanish form dominated or effectively threatened European Christianity. That Islam outstripped and outshone Rome cannot have been absent from the mind of any European.”
Portraying Islam as a backward religion was necessary to justify the colonial subjugation of Muslim lands.
Islam presented Western colonial enterprises with another serious problem it often acted as a unifying force for those resisting Western imperialism.
And so Islam was repeatedly demonised, its adherents dehumanised. The Western imperial attitude was perhaps best summed up by Winston Churchill, then British colonial secretary, in 1919 “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” And of course Iraqis who rose up against British rule in the 1920s were gassed.
Today the situation is different we have sizeable Muslim populations living in many Western countries. It is no longer acceptable for mainstream politicians to issue blanket condemnations of Islam. However there is still a strong undercurrent of racism towards Muslims, encouraged by the tabloid media and some politicians.
This has intensified since the September 11 attacks, with constant government and media scare campaigns about potential “enemies among us”. This has been the dominant theme in the wake of the London bombings as well.
Even before 9/11, the government used the Tampa episode to generate fear about Middle Eastern asylum seekers. After 9/11 Sydney’s Daily Telegraph claimed Middle Eastern boat people could be terrorists.
Such claims were later found to be completely baseless by ASIO, but that didn’t stop Philip Ruddock claiming recently that Australia is less likely to suffer a terrorist attack than Britain because of our harsher anti-refugee laws.
There is also a continual campaign by the right about the supposed incompatibility between Western and Islamic values and lifestyles.
Again, Muslim asylum seekers bore the brunt of these racist slurs. When the government falsely claimed refugees had thrown their children into the ocean, John Howard said “I don’t want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don’t do that… they hang on to their children.”
“People like that.” The implication is that “they” are somehow fundamentally different from “us”.
Refusal to integrate?
This extends to Muslims living in Australia, and the supposed refusal of some of them to “integrate” into mainstream society.
In reality most Muslims are extremely well integrated. Their experience is overwhelmingly similar to the rest of the community-they work, study, raise families and so on.
Statistics published by Abdullah Saeed in his book Islam in Australia back this up. For instance, Muslim men are more likely than the rest of the population to work in blue-collar jobs like trades and manufacturing.
As for the myth that Muslim women are terrible victims of oppression, a high proportion of Muslim women go to university-a higher proportion than their male counterparts.
The biggest barrier Muslims face to “integration” is the racism pushed by the media and right-wing politicians.
Unsurprisingly, this racism encourages a siege mentality in the Muslim community. It makes Muslims feel less confident to engage with the rest of society. The more intense it becomes the more it will enhance the appeal of separatist ideas.
Muslims are also victims of a double standard that says they should apologise for the actions of “extremists” of the same faith.
Do we ask Jewish people to apologise when Israeli Zionists kill Palestinians or destroy their homes? Are Christians forced to apologise for the actions of George Bush? Of course not — and we should not ask it of Muslims either.
The consequences of the left not taking a strong stand against the current anti-Islamic backlash could be very severe.
It was already difficult enough for Muslims to speak up against government policy without being branded extremists. Now they are being asked to accept second-class status to not only repudiate terrorism, but also to fall quietly in line behind the government. This a fundamental issue of democratic rights.
It is also a warning if the government gets away with muzzling Muslims, it will be that much easier to silence the rest of us.
There is no doubt the government is deliberately using this issue to divide and confuse progressive forces — look at the way Howard has tried to exploit the London bombings to deflect attention from his IR plans.
His task has been made easier by the failure of any Greens or Labor leaders to speak up against the scapegoating of Muslims.
This state of affairs can’t be allowed to continue. The left must stand up in defence of the Muslim community, both out of a sense of solidarity and because Muslims have an important role to play as part of a revived anti-war movement.
There is a large amount of common ground between the aims of the anti-war movement and the beliefs of most Muslims. We both want to see a just solution for the Palestinians, an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an end to restrictions on our democratic rights.
Now more than ever we need to extend a hand of friendship and solidarity.
This will help build mutual understanding and allow us to point the finger of blame for terrorism where it really belongs with the foreign policies of Howard, Bush and Blair.