Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bigotry builds empires

In the wake of the US-made anti-Islam film and the publication of a further set of cartoons in France ridiculing the religion, is the West now in the grip of a new wave of Islamophobia, asks Gihan Shahine

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Clockwise from top left: the funeral of hijab-martyr Marwa Al-Sherbini; the 9/11 attacks on the US; Egyptian demonstrations protesting against the anti-Islam film

"I'm sorry, I'm not evolved enough to not feel anger, humiliation, or shame at the idea that my beloved Prophet (PBUH), who taught us the difference between right and wrong, who gave up his life for his people, who suffered endless taunts, threats to his life, temptation, open hostility and hidden plots because of his role as messenger and leader, should be mocked and demonised today by a group of people whose clear intention is to hurt, harass, incite, and eliminate Muslims," wrote Bina Shah in a blog on the Express Tribune site.

Shah's spontaneous and emotional blog explains much of the Muslim world's outrage at the recent US-made anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims, which sparked massive protests around the world, leaving the US ambassador to Libya dead and the US flag burnt in front of the US embassy in Cairo.

Shah cannot just simply get over the offence, and neither can many others in the Islamic world. "I can't believe the duplicity of those who would tell me that a film against the Prophet (PBUH) is not hate speech, but 'freedom of expression'," she insisted.

'DO YOU CALL THIS FREEDOM?' In a related development, the Egyptian-American writer and activist Mona Al-Tahawi shouted "this is what happens in America when you non-violently protest" in a video as she was escorted to a police station in New York.

Al-Tahawi was arrested after she had spray-painted an anti-Muslim hate advert on the New York subway that equated jihad with savagery, fuelling Muslim anger.

The poster read: "in any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel, defeat jihad." It was put up in 10 subway stations by the right-wing American organisation Freedom Defense Initiative (FDI) in attempts to provoke the US Muslim population.

The advert was initially barred by New York's transportation authority on the grounds of its demeaning language, but a federal court later ruled in favour of FDI.

In reaction, Al-Tahawi chose to protest against this act of hate speech by trying to conceal it beneath purple spray-paint. However, she was confronted by an FDI supporter who was patrolling the area with a camera.

A row erupted between the two, which was captured on video and ended with Al-Tahawi's arrest. She said she remained in custody for 22 hours -- longer than when she was held by Egyptian police during the protests that ousted the former Mubarak regime.

"I spray-painted that racist piece of *** poster on principle, protected speech and non-violent disobedience," Al-Tahawi tweeted after her release by the New York police. "Proud and absolutely no regrets!"

FREEDOM OF SPEECH AT A CROSSROADS: Only a few days after the US-made anti-Islam film had provoked worldwide protests, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo stepped into the fray by publishing blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), fuelling more Muslim anger and the seemingly endless debate between freedom of expression on the one hand and blasphemy and bigotry on the other.

French magazine editor Stephane Charbonnier argued that his staff was "not really fuelling the fire", but rather was using freedom of expression "to comment [on] the news in a satirical way."

However, his argument hardly seemed to convince anyone in Muslim-majority countries, where there is almost a consensus around the fact that freedom of expression cannot mean insulting religion and its sacred symbols.

Those in Muslim-majority countries are unlikely to be convinced by the Western view that such provocative offences can simply be branded, and even protected, as exercises of freedom of speech. After all, many argue, international laws against anti-Semitism are already enforced, penalising those who make hostile comments against Jews or cast doubt on the Holocaust. In the United States, the State Department is even required to provide a country-by-country report on anti-Semitic acts and "harassment" of Jews, together with the relevant country's response.

Many people in Muslim-majority countries are frustrated by such double standards in US policies, which they see again expressed in US reluctance to prosecute those involved in making the notorious anti-Islam film. While the US-based filmmakers are protected under the first amendment to the US constitution, many argue that they could still be charged under laws that criminalise acts inciting hatred and racism.

In Europe, where blasphemy laws are rarely used where they exist due to the increasingly secular nature of European societies where nothing is considered sacred or immune to criticism, laws criminalising racism are not necessarily enforced in many cases of bigotry against Muslims.

In Denmark, a court ruling found the chief and cultural editors of the daily Jyllands-Posten newspaper not guilty of racism for publishing the blasphemous cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohamed with a bomb in his turban in 2006, which stirred up outrage in the Muslim world at the time. The court ruling explained that the offence was directed at "a historical personality" rather than a group of people, ignoring the fact that portraying the Prophet Mohamed in this way played to stereotypes of Muslim terrorists.

Toger Seidenfaden, editor-in-chief of Politiken, one of Denmark's leading dailies, had previously told Al-Ahram Weekly during a visit to Denmark in the aftermath of the cartoon crisis that while "nobody has been condemned for blasphemy since 1938... because our society has became so liberal and permissive people don't get angry about anything," the fact that "[the Jyllands-Posten] wouldn't do the same to Christians or Jews" is proof that the cartoons reflected growing Islamophobia in Denmark.

CHRONICLING HATE SPEECH: The Innocence of Muslims is definitely not the first, and will probably not be the last, act of blasphemy or manifestation of hate against Islam.

Two days following the publication of the French cartoons, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called for a ban on wearing Muslim veils and Jewish skullcaps in public in France.

Although veiling is already prohibited in schools and government offices in France, its suggested prohibition "in stores, on public transport and on the streets", as Le Pen proposed, added to the religious tensions already sparked by the cartoons. Le Pen also repeated calls for bans on public prayers, halal foods in schools and foreign government financing of mosques in France.

Such prejudice against Muslims in Europe is not new. An earlier ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in French public schools and the 2005-6 Danish cartoon crisis were similarly seen as evidence of a rising wave of European prejudice against Islam.

The Danish cartoons were later published in many other countries across Europe. In 2009, an anti-minaret campaign erupted in Switzerland in which 100,000 people signed a petition in support of a demand by the right-wing Swiss People's Party for a ban on the construction of minarets in the country. Although only four minarets then dotted the Swiss skies and were not even in use, the Swiss anti-minaret campaigners claimed at the time that minarets were dangerous because they represented a "symbol of Islamic power" and may amount to an "ideological intrusion" into the Swiss way of life.

Prejudices of this sort started to take a bloody turn a few years ago. The 2009 murder of Egyptian pharmacist Marwa Al-Shirbini, fatally stabbed by a lone Russian-German racist in Germany for no reason other than that she was "a veiled Muslim", is a case in point.

Al-Shirbini was playing with her three-year-old son in a park in Dresden in Germany when a Russian-German man suddenly called her "a terrorist" among other things. Al-Shirbini called the police and took the matter to court, where she ended up being fatally stabbed by the same man as she prepared to give evidence against him.

Only a few months earlier, Ali Mohamed, the imam of a mosque in California, was burnt to death when his house was set on fire after he was harassed for being a "Muslim terrorist". Elsewhere, the Al-Azhar envoy to the Islamic Centre in London, Mohamed Al-Salamoni, was beaten by an attacker only six months after starting his mission, eventually losing his sight.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has worked to collect statistics on hate crimes against Muslim residents of the EU. In 2009, FRA research suggested "that 1 in 10 of all Muslims surveyed had been a victim of a racially motivated assault, threat or serious harassment at least once in the previous year."

"More distressing," said the report, was that "many Muslims choose not to report the crimes to the authorities, leaving these incidents underreported and severely underrepresented in the EU."

A RISING TIDE: There is now almost a consensus among immigrant and civil-rights experts that a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim wave appears to be gripping Europe, a region once famed for its tolerance. Such experts say that the idea that Europe is in danger from Muslims and others has escalated in recent years and that European countries are no longer as tolerant as they have been, mainly due to the rising popularity of the extreme right in many European countries.

The fact that most Europeans know little or nothing about the true teachings of Islam and may even think that many mosques and Islamic organisations in Europe are in the grip of extremist trends has further compounded the problem.

A study conducted in December 2006 by the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia stated bluntly that "Islamophobia is on the rise across Europe, where many Muslims are menaced and misunderstood -- some on a daily basis." The centre, which tracks ethnic and religious bias across the 27-country European Union, said that "Muslims routinely suffered problems ranging from physical attacks to discrimination in the job and housing markets."

Likewise, a survey by the US-based Gallup Research Centre entitled "Religious Perceptions in America with an In-Depth Analysis of US Attitudes towards Muslims and Islam" recently found that Islam elicits the most negative views of all other faiths among US citizens.

More than half of the Americans surveyed, or 53 per cent, told the Gallup poll that "their opinion of the faith is either 'not too favourable' (22 per cent) or 'not favourable at all' (31 per cent)."

The poll found that "Americans are more than twice as likely to express negative feelings about Muslims as they are about Buddhists, Christians or Jews." According to Gallup, 43 per cent of Americans self-report feeling at least "some prejudice", with nine per cent expressing "a great deal of prejudice" against Muslims.

Lack of knowledge of Islam in the US was also found to be one main reason why the religion is negatively perceived. According to the Gallup survey, 40 per cent of Americans admit to having very little knowledge about Islam, and 23 per cent say they know practically nothing about the faith.

ISLAMOPHOBIA AND THE ARAB SPRING: An EU study has also suggested that this wave of Islamophobia may have escalated in Europe after the Arab Spring. The survey indicated that initial enthusiasm for the Arab Spring in Europe soon ebbed with the rise of political Islam in many countries in transition and the growing influx of an estimated two million Muslims seeking refuge in the West as a result of the protests that swept the region.

According to the survey, "in 2011 there was a 92.5 per cent increase of immigrants from Tunisia, 76 per cent increase from Libya, and 50 per cent increase from Syria." That influx soon made Islamophobia more visible, according to John Feffer, author of the study Crusade 2.0.

"[Islamophobia] in Europe has definitely got worse," Feffer said. "You can measure it in the electoral success of far-right parties. You can see it in the legislation passed that restricts the dress or religious practices of Muslims."

The US may be different here, however. Although the rise of political Islam in the aftermath of the Arab Spring may have been a source of anxiety in some political circles there, many analysts would not see it as causing the current wave of Islamophobia, but perhaps as being used as a tool, or scare tactic, in current anti-Islamic propaganda.

After all, explained political analyst and media professor at Cairo University Mahmoud Khalil, Western politicians, particularly in the US administration, were prepared for the advent of Islamists, and "even supported it on the grounds that it would ultimately serve the US agenda and Israeli interests in the region by inciting sectarian rifts [between Shia and Sunni Muslims and perhaps Muslims and Copts in Egypt]."

Manar Al-Shorbagi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), similarly argues that a systematic anti-Islam campaign in well-known circles has been going on for years now, attacking whoever believes in Sharia law.

Such circles, which not only include members of the far right-wing parties, but also those known for their bigotry against others, "try to convince Americans that Sharia is a threat in itself."

"For such circles, there is no such distinction between a moderate Muslim and an extremist. Whoever believes in Sharia is seen as a threat to the US," Al-Shorbagi elaborated. "That is the project that these circles have been working on, and their discourse has been adopted by the US political elite."

According to Deepa Kumor, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, this network of Islamophobes has been there since the events of 9/11, targeting Muslim schools, community centres and mosques in the US. The network includes "the Christian Right, which works closely with the Zionist right and the ex-Muslim right, and it is led intellectually by sections of the neoconservative camp, like Frank Gaffney and his group Center for Security Policy," according to Kumor.

"Essentially, these Islamophobic warriors have tried to reproduce the kind of atmosphere in the US that we have seen in Europe, where all symbols of Islam, such as mosques, veils and minarets, have come under attack," Kumor said in an interview with, a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East. "But up until the Obama era, their campaigns were largely failures."

Al-Shorbagi suggests that this network of Islamophobes was not so evident in the past as it is today because it used to work through the Bush administration, which welcomed its ideas.

Under the Democratic Party administration of President Barack Obama, such circles have had to take their battles elsewhere and seek other venues, which explains why their campaigns have come to the surface now, Al-Shorbagi said.

However, the Obama presidency, according to Kumor, has also provided this network of Islamophobes with openings in various ways. "First, they were able to accuse him of being a 'secret Muslim' whose agenda was to turn the US into a Muslim country," Kumor said. "Sadly about 30 per cent of the US population believes this nonsense."

Yet, "instead of pushing back against this" Kumor deplored how Obama has always been on the defensive. "Obama has insisted again and again that he is a good Christian, thereby giving ground to the implication that there is something wrong with being a Muslim," she said.

Kumor says in her book that the Obama administration represents what she calls "liberal Islamophobia", which despite its soft language, remains "racist at the core".

"Despite the talk of 'mutual respect'," Kumor told, "Obama like every president before him has acted in the interests of the US on the international stage: extending the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan, dramatically increasing the number of drone strikes and extending their use in Yemen and Somalia, participating in the NATO-led war on Libya, etc."

For Kumor, the Obama "kill lists" whose victims include "not just people who are suspected of being 'terrorists' but everyone in the vicinity as well," is another case in point.

"Without any kind of judicial procedure, the Obama administration has given itself the power to execute people around the world, including US citizens," Kumor went on. "But he can get away with this because he doesn't use phrases like Bush's 'wanted dead or alive' or 'crusade'."

ROOTS AND CAUSES: Islamophobia, many agree, has always been present in the West, but it has seen many ups and downs and has taken on many different shapes.

Khalil tracks the phenomenon to the 1973 October War, when the Arabs were portrayed in the Western media as using oil as a weapon to pressure the US into abandoning its support for Israel.

"That perhaps marked the start of a discourse that linked Islam to politics," Khalil explained. "The Western and US media at the time started to portray Muslims in cartoons as Arabs dressed in khaliji [Gulf] outfits, sitting on large bundles of dollars." At the time, Muslims were stereotyped as wealthy and perhaps brainless individuals who did not deserve the money they got from oil.

"But that narrative remained mainly an elite one that did not necessarily translate into the provocative actions we see today," Khalil said. Many analysts add that Islamophobia developed in the early 1990s to fill the ideological gap after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

"The West has been in dire need of an 'enemy' to help mobilise in the service of its policies," writes Hisham H Ahmed, a Palestinian-American scholar. In an article entitled "The Arab Spring, the West and Political Islam," Ahmed insists that "nothing could play this role more effectively than Islam and its perceived threats and dangers."

Analysts say that the 9/11 attacks on the US also gave Islamophobia an unprecedented boost and had a tremendous impact on debates related to Islam. 9/11, many agree, has boosted the image of the "Muslim enemy", perhaps also as a result of "the War on Terror" that the Bush administration launched in response to the attacks in 2001.

"This marked a shift in the depiction of the Muslim character in the Western media," Khalil noted. "Muslims were stereotyped this time round as terrorists, and Osama Bin Laden was used as a symbol of the Muslim character in the largely biased Western media."

Today, anti-Islam campaigns have shifted their focus towards insulting Islam and its symbols, most prominently the Prophet Mohamed, in a way that is provoking Muslim outrage, according to Khalil.

ISLAMOPHOBIA AND THE BUILDING OF EMPIRES: In Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Kumor writes that the current vilification of Islam and the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) dates back to the 11th century, however, "when the Papacy was trying to mobilise for the Crusades."

"The Vatican was horrified by the fact that Islam allowed men to take up to four wives, allowed for divorce, and even permitted divorced women to remarry," Kumor told "It was argued that it was this kind of 'promiscuity' that allowed Islam to gain as many converts as it did, even among Christians. So the Church put forward the argument that Mohamed was a 'sexual deviant' and therefore a false prophet preaching a false religion. These ideas have been resuscitated today by the far right in the West."

Kumor's argument is that anti-Muslim sentiment has historically been used as a tool in projects of empire-building in both Europe and the United States, with the West fabricating stereotypes of Muslim women as discriminated against in attempts to justify imperialism, for example.

"What followed from this was that Muslim women needed to be 'rescued' by white men swooping in on their horses," Kumor said. "And this is, of course, the justification that was given for the Afghan war, or at least it was one of the justifications beyond simple revenge."

The same ideas were once used by the British pro-consul in Egypt during the period of British colonial rule, "Lord Cromer, who oversaw the occupation of Egypt in the 1880s, claiming that Islam has completely stultified the lives of women and that he was therefore going to emancipate them," Kumor said.

Another myth created and used by the West to justify its imperialistic projects is that Arabs "are incapable of self-rule and democracy," according to Kumor. This idea was used to convince Westerners that it was the "white man's burden" to bring democracy to "uncivilised peoples".

As a result, said Kumor, "when weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, the narrative then shifted to one of democracy building“ê¶ The US was going to bring democracy to Iraq and create a new Middle East. Sadly, even people on the left bought into this 'white man's burden' argument at that time."

Kumor similarly argues that the Arabs started to be portrayed as terrorists in the 1960s, when Israel regarded the Palestine Liberation Organisation and secular Arab nationalists as its main enemy. Two major events took place in the late 1970s and 1980s that shifted the language from the "Arab terrorist" to the "Islamic terrorist".

The rise of the far right in Israel was one reason behind this rhetorical shift. In the meantime, the 1979 Iranian Revolution prepared the ground for the current wave of Islamophobia, together with "the birth of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine in the 1980s, leading the Zionist right to conclude that its struggle was now one against Islam," Kumor said.

"This is the context in which the 'Arab terrorist' gets morphed into the 'Islamic terrorist,'" Kumor added. "Today, there is no such distinction. All Arabs are seen as Muslims and therefore automatically as terrorists."

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