Monday, July 25, 2011

Norway: Terrible Side-Effect of Islamophobia

The horror, tragedy and seeming madness of the killing spree in Norway are almost impossible to imagine. There is a temptation to focus on the mourning and solidarity with people in Norway and to resist analysis as something cold and foreign to the human dimension of the tragedy. But, of course, Anders Breivik has ensured that any discussion of the events are infused with politics, since that was his motive. But, even more so, the wide reach of mainstream media analysis has also put politics front and centre. And, perhaps more than anything, now is the time to understand why this happened as a prelude to ensuring it never happens anywhere else.

In many ways, the initial response of the media and its associated punditry was proof enough of the origins of the ultimately demented and violent ideology that motivated Breivik. With no evidence other than an M.O. that looked nothing like other types of Islamist terrorism, the media was abuzz with claims that it was likely to be Islamists who were behind the dual attack. Even now that it has become clear that Breivik is a fascist and virulent Islamophobe, the attempt to associate his acts somehow with al Qaeda or "jihadism" continue to permeate significant sections of the coverage. This, of course, was no different than what happened after the Oklahoma bombing when every TV news blowhard and politician was pointing the finger at Muslims, leading to attacks in the streets. When it was discovered that, in fact, it was a white Christian man, there were no threats of pogroms, no Christians fired from their jobs, no deportations or no-fly lists, no commentaries and blog posts about the need for Christians to disassociate themselves from terrorism. He was just a "lone nut."

In the case of Anders Breivik it has been more difficult to call him a lone nut. His wide-ranging political associations with the far right in Europe, from the English Defence League and Stop The Islamification of Europe to the medieval militarism of the "Knights Templar" and various anti-Muslim and fascist blog sites, make it clear that he was part of a community of co-thinkers. Thankfully this has led to a public call to face up to the fact that the growth in anti-immigrant parties and movements in Europe demands a response.

But the trouble is, the far right has gotten encouragement and received support from mainstream political parties. Parties from the social democratic left to the ultra-conservative right have contributed to the sense of a "clash of cultures" and a "crusade" against "backward and violent Islam" with the War on Terror that has specifically targeted Muslim countries and Muslim leaders. Certainly the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had little to recommend them - but they had little to do with 9/11. Saddam Hussein was leader of a secular party - the Ba'athist Party - and had never even flirted with Islamism. The Taliban nominally ruled over Afghanistan, which was a base for al Qaeda but only a few years earlier al Qaeda was a CIA asset in the war against the Soviets. And the Americans didn't seem so troubled by the fact that al Qaeda had a training camp in Afghanistan that it prevented politicians and oil executives from entering negotiations with the Taliban for a pipeline across the south of the country. Besides, there were more and better organized Islamists in Pakistan - hell, they basically ran the country through the ISI, which worked closely with the USA during and after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the lack of any internal logic related to Islam, the Muslim world had the misfortune of being concentrated in areas of special strategic interest to the American empire. And not being sufficiently subordinate and useful to that empire, they became the target of attack. The use of Islamophobia to provide an ideological underpinning was an extension of the defeat in Iran, where a secular, American backed dictator - the Shah - was overthrown in 1979 by a coalition that was led by Islamists. If the political leadership had been Zoroastrian, then America would have demonized them, because by definition, anybody who fights America the Good is therefore evil. The fact that America the demonization of Islam was an utterly convenient and hypocritical tool of the American government was made clear by the fact that as they were ramping up the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the wake of the "hostage crisis" in Iran, they were starting to ramp up support, including military aid, to Islamist guerillas in Afghanistan.

The Soviets are now long gone and the Islamists no longer serve much purpose to the Americans, except in a couple of important outputs - notably Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. They are now the enemy and the full force of American propaganda has been levelled against them. By now we're all familiar with this particular narrative - Muslims are backward medievalists, they hate and oppress women, they are violent as represented by the concept of jihad, etc. Of course, none of these qualities has ever bothered America or Europe when it served their purposes - Contra guerillas in Nicaragua raped and tortured women; the motivation for numerous American backed death squads in Latin America was grounded in a particular reading of Christianity that was backwards and obviously cruelly violent. But the imprimatur of the US State Dept, along with the active support of most European capitals and a stereotype promoted through the news, analysis, TV and film entertainment, etc. made sure that this view of Islam was widely disseminated and accepted.

In politics there is always a connection between one action and the next, a continuous chain of causality that usually contains its own profound ironies. Islamophobia and a muscular imperialism throughout the Muslim world is no different. The support for repressive, kleptocratic dictators - both secular and sectarian - and the wars of against non-compliant nations like Iraq and Afghanistan, have driven large numbers of Muslims to Europe's and North America's shores to escape the impact of our policies. But with the demonization and stereotypes already in place - as well as an abiding anger against western imperialism by a significant minority in the region, which a vanishingly tiny minority turned into a justification for terrorism - the stage was set for an attack on immigration and multiculturalism, which couldn't avoid being seen as too permissive of "backward" cultural practices of the sort ascribed to Muslims.

In the first instance, the source of this backlash against immigrants was from mainstream politicians and news media, who whipped up campaigns against Muslims. In some parts of Europe - notably France and Belgium - this has included outright bans on head scarves and the like in order to "protect" vulnerable Muslim women from the prey of repressive Muslim men. Of course, white women aren't protected from becoming prey to predatory plastic surgeons who impose unhealthy and invasive breast augmentation at a rate of close on 300,000 per year in the USA, not to mention the social coercion that makes women feel un-womanly if they don't wear short skirts, diet, wear torture implements known as high heel shoes, and spend thousands of dollars to paint their faces. This has never been about protecting women but about "bringing home" the wars that we are fighting abroad and in using already widely accepted characterizations to redirect the public anger experienced by millions whose lives are getting worse under neo-liberalism and a capitalist economy in crisis, onto easy and vulnerable scapegoats.

Maine Tea Party: condemned by their own words

This backdrop is important to understand because it is simply not true that the arrival of immigrants a priori leads to a right wing immigrant backlash - but that is now the dominant discourse being peddled. The article in the New York Times linked to at the bottom of this post makes precisely this matter-of-fact, common sense claim:

Immigration from Muslim countries to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe has set off a deep political debate across the continent and strengthened a number of right-wing anti-immigrant parties.
Canada, at 5.6 migrants per 1,000 population has had much higher rates of immigration than Norway at 1.7 migrants per 1,000 population. This is not to say that there's no racism in Canada or no Islamophobia - there most certainly is. But immigration is central to our economic growth and is accepted as such by every major political party and major media outlet. There has been no sustained campaign against multiculturalism in most of Canada - though Quebec experienced some controversy about "reasonable accommodation" and Harper tried to make an issue out of full face veils at election booths. Not surprisingly, Canada has no significant far-right presence and there are no fascist parties of which I'm aware.

But in Europe - and America, which has combined Islamophobia with hysteria around illegal Latino immigration - the sustained and aggressive mainstream campaign leads some to draw the full logical and horrifying conclusions: that the nation must be protected from an "invasion" by dangerous outsiders and a war on "indigenous" values. In Norway, it had dramatically tragic results. However, the rot is deep and widespread - much deeper than Breivik. Just take a look at the front page of the Maine Tea Party website, which celebrates Breivik as "Man of the Year, 2011". The Tea Party has taken over a significant portion of the Republican Party. And it is only one component that included the Minutemen Project, vigilantes who "patrol" America's borders - whose politics are reflected in anti-immigrant laws in places like Arizona. The truly horrifying lesson from this is that unless the mainstream bigotry of Islamophobia is challenged, this will not be the last such tragedy. Western imperialism created Islamism, in large measure, by destroying all alternative avenues for political expression in the Middle East and the Muslim world. It has no created fascist violence at home by demonizing all Muslims as Islamists and Islamism as a particularly notorious ideology - ignoring the wide spectrum of beliefs and policies that guide various Islamist parties. As British socialist blogger Richard Seymour wrote in an excellent dissection of this whole phenomenon on his blog:

The Islamophobia that has been energetically disseminated by the belligerents of the 'war on terror', the view seriously entertained by many that Europe's Muslim minority constitutes a threat meriting legal supervision and restriction at the very least, has provided the intellectual and moral basis for the mass murder of Norwegian children. No one who is not prepared to countenance this can have anything morally serious or even creditable to say about this slaughter. And anyone who starts from the idea of blaming Islam is placing themselves in a contemptible affinity with the perpetrator.



Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S. - NYTimes.com
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