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Sun 25 October 2020
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CJ Werleman traces the evolution of a plan to equate Islam with ‘terrorism’ to an ideology deployed by Arab Gulf leaders and autocrats everywhere

In his pre-recorded address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan slammed the Indian Government as one of the world’s great sponsors of hatred and prejudice against Islam, stating that it was a threat to the lives of the 200 million Indian Muslim citizens.

“[Hindu nationalists] believe that India is exclusive to Hindus and others are not equal citizens,” he said, also levelling criticism at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his Government’s human rights violations in Kashmir, which he described to be “serious crimes against humanity”.

Khan also identified a trend towards anti-Muslim animus throughout the world, calling on the UN to recognise an International Day Against Islamophobia.

Certainty, India has become ground zero in the global fight against Islamophobia in the ‘War on Terror’ era, given the way in which members of India’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and its associated paramilitary organisation Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – makes no secret of its desire to ethnically cleanse nearly a quarter of a billion Muslims.

“Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra by 2021,” declared Rajeshwar Singh, one of RSS’ leading office-bearers in 2014. “The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here, so they would be either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here.”

In order to achieve this aim, the Indian Government is attempting to make life for its Muslim minority as unbearable as possible. Citizenship laws, which discriminate against Muslims, have been passed – tacitly encouraging vigilante violence and stigmatising adherents of the Islamic faith as ‘invaders’ prone to terrorism, the most stubborn and pernicious of all Islamophobic tropes.

Linking Islam to terrorism and thus making Muslims the referent object in security discourse is not the sole domain of Indian mainstream politics, of course. Efforts to locate the religious belief in counter-violent-extremism and counter-terrorism strategies have become part and parcel in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere.

But what is particularly alarming is the way in which the dissemination of Islamophobic discourse has evolved over the course of the past four decades.

Right-wing Israeli and US political parties worked together to convince Western policy-makers that ‘Islamic terrorism’ would replace Communism as the Western civilization’s next great threat.


Framing Islam as Terror

The effort to mainstream Islamophobia by tying Islam to terrorism can be traced back to a neo-conservative and right-wing Israeli conference on international terrorism convened in Tel Aviv in 1979, with then citizen George H. Bush and Likud Party founder Menachem Begin among the attendees, according to Professor Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

The goal of the conference was to reach an agreement in which right-wing Israeli political parties and members of the American Republican Party would begin rooting Palestinian liberation aspirations in terrorism discourse.

Kumar says that, while the conference aimed to “serve as the new beginning of a new process – the process of rallying democracies of the world to struggle against terrorism and the dangers it represents”, it did not emphasise any specific ties between terrorism and Islam.

This would change five years later, however, with the second International Conference on Terrorism held in Washington DC. It was here that US neo-cons and the Israeli far-right anchored modern terrorism in Islamic and Arab radicalism, observes Kumar.

It was at this conference that Bernard Lewis, author of The Crisis in Islam, became the first public intellectual to overtly link terrorism to Islam by arguing that “Islam is a political religion”. He argued that, because terrorism is an act of political violence, the term “Islamic terrorism” applied, while also arguing that the same couldn’t be said for Jewish or Christian terrorism.

From this point on, right-wing Israeli and US political parties worked together to convince Western policy-makers that “Islamic terrorism” would replace Communism as the Western civilization’s next great threat.

The strategic benefits of this pact were obvious: in tying Islam to terrorism, neo-conservatives would gain political cover for their imperialistic ambitions in the Middle East, while the Zionist colonial project in the Palestinian Territories would benefit from garnering Western sympathies for their struggle against Palestinian “terrorism”.

Dr Remi Brulin, a research fellow at New York University, told me that the term “terrorism” was largely absent from American discourse until the Ronald Reagan administration began adopting a “very specific, narrow, and ideologically driven understanding of ‘terrorism” – one adopted from those tied to the respective neo-conservative and Likudite Zionist movements.

This discourse stayed mostly dormant, or within the confines of right-wing US politics, until the attacks of 11 September 2001. However, the fixation on Islamic terrorism within the mainstream media made way for what Nathan Lean calls the “Islamophobia Industry” – a nexus of individuals and groups that have sought to profit personally and politically from the vilification of Islam.


Counter-Jihad Expands

Today, Islamophobia is not only one of the single greatest causes of rot at the core of Western democracy but also the rise of fascist-authoritarian movements and violent right-wing extremism.

Were it not for Islamophobia, it is likely that Donald Trump would not be President of the United States, having launched his political career and built a political base by falsely accusing Barack Obama of being a foreign-born Muslim.

In 2020, however, and to the surprise of many, the Arab Gulf monarchies of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia count among the world’s most prolific cultivators of Islamophobia by funding Muslim-hating far-right groups and political movements throughout the UK, Europe and the US, while also propagating the idea that Islam is a gateway to terrorism – as evident in the way in which these governments have expressed public support for China’s Uyghur Muslim camps.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, these regimes have developed an obsessive fear of Islamic movements and political parties and an almost paralysing terror of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and violent extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.

“Based on dozens of conversations conducted over several years, we found that autocratic regimes in the region carefully cultivate conservative and far-right circles in the West that they believe lean toward their own anti-Islamist agendas,” observes Foreign Policy. “Arab propagandists claim there is an inherent connection between so-called political correctness and a tendency to downplay ideologies that lead to terrorism – claims that are seized on by Western conservatives to legitimise their own arguments.”

In 2017, The Intercept published leaked emails of the Emirate ambassador to the United States describing the ideology of political Islam as a “problem that needs to be dealt with”, while praising the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as “someone willing to address it”.

Today, it has become routine for Arab Gulf leaders to lavish praise on President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi and other right-wing political leaders elected on the back of stigmatising of Islam and Muslims.

Ultimately, the way in which Islamophobia has evolved, spread and been mainstreamed is a demonstration of just how politically effective and convenient this form of racism remains throughout the world.


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