Script for https://youtu.be/kxiaVdsbCL0
Orientalism, Hollywood, some bad-ass librarians and one of my tattoos – all of this and more in this short introduction to Islamophobia.
Nearly two years ago, two men were killed and a third was injured on a train in Portland, Oregon. They had intervened when a fourth man, Jeremy Christian, began using racist and anti-Muslim slurs to harass two teen girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab. To many Americans, the men who were injured in the attack that day represented what it truly means to be American, standing up for what’s right, no matter what. But it was hard to pretend that their attacker wasn’t also inspired by thoroughly American principles.
Islamophobia goes back to the foundations of this country, and is rooted in Western traditions that go back at least another two thousand years, to long before the origin of Islam. In Khaled Beydoun’s recent book on the subject, Islamophobia is defined “as the presumption that Islam is inherently violent, alien, and unassimilable, a presumption driven by the belief that expressions of Muslim identity correlate with a propensity for terrorism.” Beydoun’s treatment of the subject is unique insofar as he connects private forms of Islamophobia to state-sanctioned policies, and traces the implicit links between the two. According to Beydoun, a widespread failure to connect the personal, private bigotry of individual citizens to the ways in which this is “endorsed and emboldened by the law…[and] carried out by government actors,” obscures the crucial mechanisms by which Islamophobia operates and leads to underestimations as to the true scale of the problem of Islamophobia. To trace these links, Beydoun goes back all of the way to the “Founding Fathers,” who associated Muslim-majority countries with despotism and drew upon a longstanding tradition of Orientalism.
Orientalism refers to the belief that Islam is the “civilizational antithesis of the West”…”at odds with American values, society, and national identity.” Here, Beydoun draws heavily upon the work of Edward Said, a literary theorist born into a British Palestinian Christian family. According to Said’s theory of Orientalism, the East helps to define the West as its opposite. If the West is moral, strong and enterprising; then the East must be immoral, weak and lazy.
Yet contradictions abound, for no one can deny that the West has a vested interest in the East, associating it with luxuries connected with trade going back to antiquity. But if the East is desirable it is also dangerous, because it resists conquest. This back and forth between desire and danger only adds to the titillation, with desire, danger, appreciation and appropriation culminating in propaganda pieces such as the 1932 original film, The Mummy, which draws on a Western tradition of Orientalism that predates the origin of Islam.
Orientalism can be traced back at least 2500 years, to the so-called Persian invasion of Greece, which was really more of a police action than an invasion. For modern western audiences, it doesn’t really matter that the Persians of The 300 film represent the pre-Islamic past. Anti-Persian narratives feed into anti-Muslim narratives and vice versa. Likewise, it doesn’t really matter to modern Western audiences that Egyptian mummies represent the pre-Islamic past. Anti-Egyptian narratives feed into anti-Muslim narratives and vice versa.
The original 1932 mummy film was actually inspired by an Egyptian tale, based on the life of Prince Khaemwaset, the son of Ramesses II and a high priest of Ptah. Prince Khaemwaset gained special notoriety for supposedly composing a few spells in the so-called Book of the Dead. His fame continued well into the Greco-Roman period, and the story that inspired the 1932 film is actually known only from a manuscript dating to early the Greek rule of Egypt.
Using an ancient Egyptian story as inspiration for an entire movie franchise implies a certain respect for Egyptians on the part of Hollywood. But in Hollywood’s hands, the original story, which was probably meant to be funny, instead exploits the Orientalist push-pull between horror and desire. In the western imagination—if not reality—mummification is uniquely associated with Egypt. Thus, the mummy emerges as a paragon of Egyptian identity, regardless of the ethnicity of the actor who is cast to play the part of the monster. And the Western scholar determined to penetrate into the heart of the Egyptian tomb is a stand-in for Western imperialism. The living Egyptians and Muslims who appear in these films are usually treacherous characters, who betray either the Westerners they’ve been hired to help or the Egyptian heritage that they, as Egyptians, should have at least a theoretical commitment to preserving. If he’s lucky, the Western hero has the help of a so-called “noble savage,” a character whose very existence exposes the false dichotomy of civilization versus barbarity. But of course that contradiction is never examined too closely. Naturally, the Western hero wins in the end. And the mummy is returned to the afterlife.
By stereotypically identifying colonial or modern-day Egypt with mummies, these narratives imply that indigenous threats to Western influence are dead, or at least they should be, leaving the West to reap the rewards of imperialism. And just to be sure we don’t miss that point, the most recent installment of the franchise moves the action to modern-day Iraq. That’s right, Iraq. Tom Cruise, who plays a Sergeant in the US army, stumbles across an Egyptian tomb while searching for Iraqi insurgents. And if Rachel Weisz playing an Egyptian bothered you in the last set of films, well, let’s just say that Tom Cruise’s contribution to the franchise will make your head explode.
Thus Edward Said appears to have been on the mark when it comes to the way the East functions in the Western imagination. We are who we are because we hate the East, and we hate the East, in part, because it resists our control. Yet debates continue to rage about Said. He was a specialist of Victorian literature; yet he ventured into fields well-beyond his training. Said’s arguments about the ancient roots of Orientalism remain controversial among Classical scholars, one of whom advised Frank Miller in the making of his racist, Orientalizing film The 300.
Said’s approach to gender has also been criticized. Focusing on how the West emasculates Middle Eastern and Muslim men to assert sexual dominance, Said overlooked the ways in which both the East and the West use women and non-binary individuals to express dominance and submission. What’s more, Said sometimes seemed to be re-inscribing the very binary that he was criticizing, essentializing the East and the West, and precluding ways of thinking or moving beyond that binary.
Of course, we can’t talk about that without also talking about the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Spivak wrote about the challenges facing a researcher who wants to access the voice of a person living under imperial rule, particularly if that person is forced to communicate in a language that isn’t his or her own native tongue. Spivak was talking primarily about people living under colonialism, but there are important implications for America today. Just think of Starr, the heroine of The Hate U Give, and the code-switching she has to do as she moves from the primarily black neighborhood where she lives to the primarily white private institution where she goes to school. Starr’s use of language isn’t straightforward. Taken to an extreme, the work of Said and Spivak could be taken to mean that Starr can’t communicate at all. But Starr does speak. Finding her voice is pivotal to the story. Starr’s communication is affected by the issues that Said and Spivak raise, but it’s a double-disservice to Starr’s character to say that she is incapable of expressing herself. Daniel Varisco suggests a promising path for moving beyond Said’s binaries, urging us to listen carefully to what the so-called “Other” does have to say for itself, focusing on individual people rather than a monolithic bloc of stereotypes, particularly at points of interaction with other peoples, when code-switching becomes most obvious. Starr is a good example of this.
Whatever you might think of Said, his depiction of the dichotomy between the East and the West has been enormously influential. And his critique of Orientalism certainly seems to fit the Islamophobic rhetoric of pundits such as Bernard Lewis and Sam Huntington, with their descriptions of a so-called “clash of civilizations” between Islam and America. Huntington’s New York Times-bestselling book argues that Islam as a whole is antithetical to American values. And Huntington doesn’t just mean that Islamic fundamentalism is a problem, he means that every Muslim man, woman and child poses a threat. In reducing Islam to a monolith, Huntington relies on stereotypes that are contradicted by the sheer diversity of Muslims in the real world.
Huntington’s work has been condemned by most scholars as ahistorical, pseudo-academic nonsense, but it’s been incredibly influential on American foreign policy and popular perceptions of Muslims, contributing to racist propaganda such as the 2014 film American Sniper, which further cemented anti-Arab and anti-Muslim biases in our collective unconscious, fostering the bigotry that gives rise to violent hate crimes. For Huntington, the conflict between East and West isn’t just a product of Orientalism, of contradictory fears and desires on the part of the West. Instead, for Huntington, this conflict is the result of a very real, fundamental division between civilization and barbarity, reason and irrationality. It’s as if Huntington set out to create a parody of the very thing that Said was criticizing, and then forgot the point of Said’s critique.
Right now some of you may be asking how I could possibly make such an argument in light of the historical record, with repeated violent clashes between the eastern Muslim world and the western Christian world. That’s a fair question. If Islam from its very inception has been opposed to a Christian West, then that would seem to be a point in favor of Huntington and others who argue that Islamophobia is a rational response to a very real danger, an argument supported by such luminaries as General Mike Flynn, whose raging Islamophobia actually undermined military operations under his authority. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory certainly seems to fit right in with rhetoric in which Ayatollah Khomeini referred to the US as the “Great Satan.”
But here’s where we have to tread with care if we’re going to avoid falling victim to the sort of circularity that gives rise to the structural problems that facilitate and ensure the survival of the terrorism that Islamophobes claim to care about. Terrorist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda assert that they have a special authority to define religious doctrine. They say that they know what real Islam is. In a bizarre fulfillment of their own worse nightmares, Islamophobes such as General Flynn take the Taliban and others like them at their word, declaring that these individuals represent the REAL Islam. If terrorists are the true Islam, then Islam must be a thing of terror. Therefore, we Americans must continue to support the policies that seek to wipe out Islam, engaging in our own religious war. And yes, this is a religious war, because it’s founded on the notion that the Taliban get to talk for God.
But who gets to decide who’s speaking for God? As a scholar of religious history, I’m used to a lot of people raising their hands when someone asks what God thinks about an issue. Almost everyone has an opinion and many of them claim to have special divine wisdom direct from God. It’s not my job as a scholar to say who’s right. In fact, as a scholar, I CAN’T know who’s right. None of my grad school classes included a lecture on how to talk to God. As a scholar, all I can do is illuminate the ways in which people fight over who has the right to claim that they are talking for God. I can say that so-and-so won this-or-that theological argument in the eyes of the majority of his or her fellow men and women, but that doesn’t mean that he or she was right, if only because there are still a lot of religions in the world, leaving the title belt unclaimed.
Now the Taliban and groups like them claim that they want to return Islam to the early days of the religion, to a truer, purer form of Islam. There’s a lot of talk about imposing shari’a law as if shari’a is a clear cut set of rules and stipulations, when in fact these are sometimes contradictory. Many of these rules are open to interpretation. In a helpful analogy, Beydoun compares the debate over how shari’a should be read to the debate over how the Old Testament and the US Constitution should be read. The strictest interpretation still leaves us with contradictions that are difficult to reconcile.
But for the sake of argument let’s take a look at early Islam. In 570 CE, in the city of Mecca, in what is now the country of Saudi Arabia, Muhammed was born. At the time, the Arabian Peninsula was filled with Christians, Jews and a few lingering pagans. According to Islamic teachings, Muhammed was visited by the angel Gabriel, who delivered a series of revelations that provide the core of Muslim belief as it’s recorded in the Quran, the oldest manuscript of which dates to the 7th century. Muslims believe that the teachings found in the Quran convey the true intentions of God, or Allah, reflecting Allah’s original revelations to Abraham. Muslims also believe that Jesus was a teacher with special knowledge of Allah, but that Jesus was neither divine nor the Son of God. According to Muslims, Muhammed was the last prophet of Allah. This belief is so central to the faith that a core part of the conversion process includes pronouncing the double shahada: There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is His prophet.
As Muhammed began talking about the revelations he’d received, he began to win followers. Some of these people were proper converts to Islam. But Muhammed’s early followers also included Christians and Jews who shared some basic religious traditions traced back to an Abrahamic religion and some social, economic, military and political interests. Joining Muhammed’s faction, these individuals retained their distinct identity as Christians and Jews.
Soon, tensions arose between Muhammed’s followers and his opponents in Mecca, inspired in part by religious competition but also by economic rivalry. Rich Meccans were especially annoyed with Muhammed’s insistence that they look after the poor.
The wealth of this region was based on the use ancient caravan routes, with merchants like Muhammed making serious bank on a mutual desire for goods in both the East and the West. Roman merchants would travel by sea from Egypt to India, or they would travel overland, relying on merchants like Muhammed. In India, rulers arranged for row boats to tow Roman merchant vessels through difficult waters. According to early Tamil poets, the beautiful ships of the Greeks would arrive with gold and leave with pepper, rich merchants coming from all over to fill the ports. Religious and philosophical ideas were also being exchanged. The second century Christian theologian, Clement of Alexandria, appears to have been particularly troubled by the competition that Buddhists, Hindus and Jains seemed to have been posing to Christians trying to demonstrate their piety through fasting and martyrdom.
Besides ideas, the 5 essential luxuries of Roman foreign trade were African ivory, German amber, Arabian incense, Chinese silk and Indian black pepper. When Attila the Hun ransomed the city of Rome in the late 5th century, his list of demands included 3000 pounds of black pepper. Arabian incense was particularly valued in the West, because it was used in religious rituals.
But the passion for eastern goods was also a source of annoyance for some Romans, who complained about the so-called waste of funds, with duties collected at every port, and what seemed to be an addiction to foreign luxuries. Roman poets complained that prostitutes were exposing their flesh in flimsy Chinese silks and that Roman wives were wearing Indian perfume and foreign jewels to commit adultery. And worst of all, some Roman men were supposedly imitating women, donning perfumes and silks. Merchants like Muhammed became associated with this so-called degradation of Roman morals because they were the middle-men for this trade.
But this debate over just what constituted real Roman identity had been going on for centuries. Some Romans prided themselves on the stereotype of Roman gravitas and simplicity. But this was political rhetoric. It fit a model of Roman greatness, whereby the Roman people believed that they had built themselves up from nothing, with Rome defending itself from invasion by the Gauls and helping their neighbors out of the goodness of their hearts. According to this self-aggrandizing narrative, the Romans were defined by their actions: fighting and achieving honor by defending Rome. And they were so good at it that they defeated all – or at least most – of their enemies, leaving Rome at its strongest. But this created a problem, because what were the Romans to do with all of the provinces they’d gained in the process? Rome’s newfound wealth gave way to an insidious love of luxury, and honor became a sham, leaving fine old Roman families lazy and corrupt. Thus reduced, the Republic fell, and Octavian Augustus became the first emperor.
All of this is very much in keeping with Said’s model of Orientalism, with the luxuries of the East supposedly encouraging an increasingly effeminate Roman aristocracy. But there’s a lot more to the story. This model of decline reflected an argument in Roman circles about just what it meant to be a Roman. It was a political argument used to leverage alliances and to manipulate opinion. It certainly wasn’t an objective portrait of reality, if only because the Roman Empire was hardly at its weakest under the first emperor.
At the empire’s strongest—during the so-called Pax Romana—trade with the East was at its height. During the Pax Romana, people of all different ethnicities were travelling throughout the Roman Empire, sharing culture and material goods. For instance, a Syrian by the name of Baraates travelled to Britain in the 2nd century. We don’t know if he was a merchant or a Roman soldier or just travelling for the sheer pleasure of it, but we do know that he set up a funerary monument for his Gallic wife, writing on the base in his native tongue of Palmyrene.
At its best, the Roman Empire facilitated this sort of multiculturalism, the same multiculturalism that is the secret to America’s uniqueness and our greatness, the sort of collaboration that offends Muslim fundamentalists. Indeed, Baraates’ hometown of Palmyra was recently targeted for destruction by ISIS, who was eager to sell off the contents to black market art collectors, all under the guise of religious propriety, claiming offense at Palmyra’s collection of temples to indigenous, Greco-Roman, Phoenician and Semitic deities.
With Western collectors using this kind of violence to justify their acquisition of Eastern antiquities, the East is deprived of its own heritage, a heritage which included Palmyra successfully taking over most of the eastern Roman Empire for a few years in the 3rd century CE. While some might look at Palmyra’s revolt in the 3rd century as an example of aggression on the part of the East, most scholars agree that Palmyra wasn’t trying to overthrow the pyramid of Roman power. Instead, they were participating in the conversation about what it meant to be Roman. After all, what could be more Roman than declaring yourself emperor and trying to take over?
And while some alt-right pundits have recently argued that vulnerability to diversity led to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, it wasn’t diversity that undermined stability in the West, rather it was the same sort of mismanagement that’s happening in Europe and America today, as we fail to adequately respond to mass migrations that are in large part a result of our own actions around the world. In fact, while the Roman Empire collapsed in the West with the barbarian invasions, it flourished in the East. This was the world that Islam was born into.
In this world, economic interests were difficult to separate from political and religious interests. Arabs had long served as allies to both the Romans and the Sassanians, with each side accusing the other of using religion and money as excuses to go to war. The most anti-Arab Roman sources accused the Arabs of playing the Romans and the Sasanians against each other, going to war for the sake of profit off of booty and pay as mercenaries. Later Muslim Persian sources suggest a fundamental difference between Arab and Persian identities, implying that this wasn’t just a matter of East versus West, but rather of Arab versus everyone else. Yet we can point to what, in hindsight, look like some basic mistakes on the part of the Romans and the Sassanians, as both sides turned against their Arab allies.
At this time, religious and military interests were going hand-in-hand. In 375, the Arab queen Mavia revolted from the Roman alliance and only agreed to rejoin once the Christian emperor agreed that she could have the Christian bishop of her choice. Later, when the Ghassanid Arab allies of Rome fell out of favor with the Roman emperor, at least part of the dispute involved the Arabs’ refusal to abandon their anti-Chalcedonian Christian faith. Arab leaders weren’t just military commanders, they negotiated resolutions to theological disputes and represented their people in religious debates. In this context, it makes sense that Muhammed would have been both a military and religious leader. To modern eyes, this might seem like a contradiction, but it was entirely in keeping with ancient sensibilities.
Several centuries of tension exploded as forces allied with Mohammed and his successors took control of the Persian Empire and Roman Syria, Egypt and Spain. But the so-called Muslim Conquest is more properly called a “Muslim-Arab Conquest,” so as not to erase the non-Muslim Arabs who participated. Islam wasn’t the sole reason for this conquest. But it wasn’t just an Arab Conquest either. Non-Arab Muslims also participated. And despite all of the conflicts between the Romans and their Arab allies up to this point, the Christian Ghassanids stood alongside the Romans at the crucial battle against Muslim-Arab forces in 636 at Yarmuk.
Based on anti-Muslim early Christian sources, older western scholarship exaggerated the amount of destruction that the Muslim-Arab conquerors did to Roman cities. Archaeological evidence shows that the Muslim-Arab armies generally did no more damage than other armies of this period. Synagogues and churches were often allowed to continue working more or less as-is. Seen in its proper context, the Muslim-Arab conquest wasn’t so much the product of a fundamental fissure between East and West, or between Islam and Christianity, as it was a contingent historical event, dependent upon the confluence of several different factors.
And just like there had been a debate in Rome about what it meant to be Roman, there was a debate in Muslim circles about just what it meant to be Muslim. Book collectors like the 9th century Ibn al-Nadim were avid collectors of literature that originated in Greco-Roman and pre-Muslim Persian circles. Muslim scholars were expanding upon this learning by leaps and bounds.
The next flashpoint between the East and West occurred several centuries later, during the Crusades. It’s no accident that modern alt-right groups are fascinated with this period, fantasizing as they do of a modern-day Crusade that will wipe out Islam along with all people of color. But if we take a look at what Muslims were actually saying about Europeans during this period, we don’t find the vitriolic us-versus-them rhetoric that we would expect. Oh, it pops up here and there. But we also find dispassionate descriptions of European life and a genuine interest in how other people are getting along in the world. And it shouldn’t escape our attention that the bloodiest of the Christian Crusades was conducted not against the Muslims, but against fellow Christians, with so much carnage that blood was supposedly running through the streets of Constantinople up to people’s ankles.
So yes, the Muslim-Arab Conquest and the Crusades were serious confrontations. But we can’t afford to forget that the modern reception of this history is part of a larger discussion, with alt-right groups and Muslim fundamentalists such as al-Qaeda emphasizing a false binary in which we have to choose. And the anti-Muslim narrative in the West serves as an extension and over-reification of efforts to erase people of color from Medieval European history, both in reality and in fantasy.
In American Islamophobia, Beydoun describes this racialization of Islam at some length, showing how it functions to double stigmatize both people of color and Muslims, with Muslims of color eliciting phobias related to both race and religion. As a result, Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved person brought to North Carolina from Futa Tooro West Africa, pretended to convert to Christianity to protect himself from anti-Muslim sentiment. He died in 1864, one year before the abolition of slavery. Beydoun, whose work has been greatly influenced by the BLM movement, points out how this erasure of Muslim faith was essential to the project of dehumanization that made slavery possible.
And Beydoun draws a straight line between this and the naturalization laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These laws, which are so well-known for penalizing immigrants of Asian origin, also penalized any non-Christian, Muslims included. With lawyers arguing that “whiteness” was a prerequisite of naturalization, Muslim-identity was increasingly racialized. This left the US Court confused by Christian Arabs, who sometimes won their cases by arguing that they hailed from the same region as Jesus, the implication being that if they weren’t white, then neither was Jesus, and of course white Christian America couldn’t have that. Thus, according to Beydoun, Islam was transformed from a religion into a race, and the diversity of Islam was denied in favor of the simplistic stereotype of a Middle Eastern Arab.
It wasn’t until the US began to be interested in Saudi oil in the 1940s that the de facto Muslim ban was lifted, and Muhammed Mohriez was awarded citizenship despite his stereotypical Arab physical features and devout Muslim faith. Mohriez won his case, but the Immigration Act of 1924 was still in effect, meaning that quotas were still being imposed on immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated these quotas, but Islamophobia flourished, fostered by fear of unapologetically black and unapologetically Muslim figures such as Malcolm X.
Beydoun makes much of Muhammed Ali’s insistence on celebrating an identity rooted in both his blackness and his Muslim faith, even as anti-black and anti-Muslim biases collaborated to double-stigmatize the boxer. Beydoun also calls out the hypocrisy of white Americans in later choosing to forget their rejection of Muhammed Ali. This is particularly damning given the resurrection of the Muslim ban today, as black Muslims fall under increasing scrutiny. It’s not lost on Beydoun that Philando Castille was murdered by a police officer just outside of Minneapolis, home to one of the largest black Somali Muslim communities in America. Beydoun also devotes several pages to the ongoing problem of anti-black racism in non-black Muslim circles. Criticizing Muslim Americans as a whole for ignoring issues of race, Beydoun points out how this creates fractures in the Muslim community that actually facilitate the function of Islamophobia. Beydoun also criticizes the erasure of LGBTQ+ Muslim Americans and failures on the part of Muslim-Americans when it comes to showing solidarity with LGBTQ+ activists.
Because it’s clear that Beydoun believes that unity is needed in the face of modern American Islamophobia, which is rooted in the identification of Islam with terrorism. The next several slides lay out Beydoun’s argument:
Adopting Sam Huntington’s use of Orientalist binaries, modern American Islamophobia assumes that if you’re American you can’t be Muslim and vice versa, with Islam racialized, so that “terrorist” becomes a racial identifier. Thus, well-respected journalists like Connie Chung mistakenly attributed the Oklahoma City bombing to people from the Middle East. Even after the Attorney General identified Timothy McVeigh, a white supremacist, as the chief culprit, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer insisted that there was probably still a tie to the Middle East. Most of the terrorist acts carried out in the US are the work of non-Muslims. Indeed many of these acts are being carried out by white supremacists. Yet media and law enforcement don’t target white supremacists, focusing instead on the smaller threat of terrorism committed by Muslims.
The Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, policing program initiated under the Obama administration explicitly linked Islamic practice with terrorism, meaning that Americans born in this country suddenly found themselves on suspect lists simply for practicing their 1st Amendment rights by going to a mosque. According to the CVE model, as a person expresses more and more of their Muslim identity, it becomes more and more likely that they’ll be interested in terrorism. This model is based on the explicitly Islamophobic assumption that Muslim faith is directly correlated to terrorism
And the CVE model doesn’t work. Focusing on religion, it ignores more salient societal conditions in the making of a terrorist, such as the poverty that undermines the ability of Muslims to deploy resources against a state apparatus that specifically targets poor and working class neighborhoods for scrutiny. And by exacerbating Islamophobia, the CVE model actually encourages the sort of isolation that increases a person’s attraction to extremism.
Trump’s Muslim Ban is just a continuation of the policy that tracked immigrants from Muslim-majority countries through NSEERS. While the White House was giving flowery speeches about its alliance with “peaceful Muslims,” its actions showed that all Muslims everywhere were going to be held responsible for the acts of a few.
Unlike WWII, the Cold War, and every other war America has ever fought, the so-called “war on terrorism” is not being waged against another nation, but against a people, against a culture and a religion. It’s aimed at all Muslims everywhere, even Muslim-Americans. In a flagrant violation of the 1st Amendment, a slew of legislation has appeared in state after state, legalizing religious discrimination against Muslims by banning the use of shari’a. And state Islamophobia feeds into private Islamophobia, culminating in violent hate crimes like the Portland train attack with which I started this video.
Even when politicians and the media seem to be turning over a new leaf, with their talk of “good Muslims” such as the Khans, their language feeds into the binaries that support structural Islamophobia, because the emphasis on “good” Muslims implies that we should expect Muslims to bad. As Beydoun points out, this binary between the “good” Muslim and the “bad” Muslim is especially problematic when we look at the way that blacks are targeted by the police, regardless of what they’re doing. Innocence is no protection.
My summary of Beydoun’s argument should make it clear that structural Islamophobia is hurting America and hurting Americans, from the victims of CVE policing to the soldiers sent to fight in a seemingly endless foreign war. Thus, whites and non-Muslims have a vested interest in dismantling white supremacy and the anti-Muslim bias that facilitate structural Islamophobia.
So how do we do that? Because this is an educational video, I’m going to emphasize the learning that, for many whites and non-Muslims, is a first step. Reading books like Khaled Beydoun’s American Islamophobia is obviously important—and I certainly recommend that you do read Beydoun’s book; my summary barely scratches the surface. But learning is a verb, a state of questioning. Sometimes you won’t be able to find the answers, sometimes all you can do is ask them. What does this look like?
Well, I have several questions about Joshua Hammer’s book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. So let’s take this opportunity to look at it through eyes that are on the lookout for Islamophobia.
The first time I read this book, I wondered about Hammer’s seemingly dispassionate account of Muslim extremists and American interventionists. Hammer’s language is lively but aloof. He avoids the damning descriptive language that can be found in the anti-Arab Roman tracts that I mentioned earlier. He lets everyone’s actions do the talking. At first glance, this looks like good and proper objectivity, but it lets Hammer off the hook when it comes to performing the really deep analysis that Beydoun’s critique seems to demand.
Hammer is writing for the book porn enthusiasts out there. You know who you are. You read books. You read books about books. You read books about books about books. Marie Kondo thinks you should declutter your shelves and limit yourself to 30 volumes? Ha! Try 300. If this sounds like you, then The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is right up your alley. It’s about the heroic efforts of a few librarians in Mali, who risked their lives to save a collection of manuscripts from al-Qaeda-allied forces. This wasn’t just any collection.
The manuscripts originated in medieval Timbuktu, when the city was home to one of the largest and most important universities in the world. Scholars came from all over the medieval world to study the manuscripts in Timbuktu’s collection. Scrolling Arabic script was translated into local languages in brilliantly colored ink, with decorative arabesques, flowers and vines. The manuscripts themselves were covered in jewels and gold leaf. Topics ranged from examinations of the Quran and medical treatises to works on astronomy and advice on increasing a woman’s sexual pleasure. Timbuktu’s medieval book trade explodes our preconceptions about the division between piety and secular thought in the Muslim world. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that Muslim extremists would take umbrage at such a collection. If it doesn’t fit their narrow definitions of Islam, then it must go.
In the 1980s, Abdel Kader Hadaira, book-lover and librarian, began travelling all over the hinterlands of Timbuktu, convincing weary book lovers to share their prizes. After the depredations of European book collectors—remember this scene from Black Panther?—it wasn’t easy for Hadaira to convince people to hand over their treasures. But Hadaira was enormously successful, amassing hundreds of thousands of some of the rarest books in the world and bringing them to Timbuktu, where they were restored, put on display and, for the first time in centuries, made available to scholars. The sheer volume and diversity of learning found in this collection exposes the racism of the Western intellectual tradition, insisting as it does that Africans are naturally incapable of achieving intellectual excellence.
But when Muslim extremists seized Timbuktu in 2012, these manuscripts were suddenly in grave danger. The extremists were burning music recordings, beating and imprisoning women for refusing to wear veils, cutting off the hands of supposed thieves, and stoning unmarried couples to death. It was only a matter of time before the extremists turned their sights on the manuscripts that challenged their rigid definitions of what it means to be a Muslim.
So Abdel Kader Hadaira and his accomplices risked their lives to sneak the manuscripts out of Timbuktu, barely escaping the extremists’ attention, and transporting the manuscripts hundreds of miles to safety. The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu claim to have saved over 300,000 manuscripts.
Thanks to European military intervention a few months later, the Muslim extremists were forced out of Timbuktu. And plans are underway to return all of the manuscripts to Timbuktu, where special facilities exist for the preservation of these delicate artifacts.
Hammer mostly avoids questions that have since been raised about just how many manuscripts were really saved. But even if the numbers were exaggerated, it’s clear that Timbuktu’s librarians are the good guys. A book-lover myself, it’s easy to get behind this narrative.
But I can’t but help wonder how all of this fit into the larger story of Western colonialism and ongoing Western intervention in Africa. Hammer briefly acknowledges these issues, but quickly shies away.
And after reading Beydoun, I found Hammer’s method of distinguishing between the good librarians and the bad jihadists on the basis of religion especially problematic. Hammer emphasizes the piety of the extremists versus the librarians, for whom religion supposedly didn’t “play a major role.” In setting up this binary, Hammer seems to implicitly support the same Islamophobic assumption that drives CVE policing: the more devout a Muslim is, the more dangerous he is. Just imagine saying the same thing about the Pope today or the Dalai Lama. And Hammer’s own narrative undermines such an Orientalist binary.
For instance, at one point when describing the occupation of Timbuktu by extremists, Hammer quotes the imam of one of Timbuktu’s oldest holy places, who said to the extremists: “We don’t want your kind of Islam here…How dare you say you’re going to ‘teach us Islam’? We were born with Islam. We have had Islam in this city for one thousand years.” Here, seemingly without Hammer’s realization, a Muslim holy man rejects the false identification between extremism and piety.
Yet, when Hammer is describing how the extremists destroyed the holy shrines of local Sufi saints, he parrots the extremists’ arguments, as if he’s convinced that they’re right, and that these shrines are so-called innovations and not permitted in true Islam. Who is Hammer to make such a decision? Who are the extremists to make these claims? Hammer’s approach obscures the degree to which this is part of a larger argument over who gets to define Islam, because religion doesn’t belong to any one person. It belongs to Muslims everywhere, from imams to ordinary men and women praying for their children’s health.
The fact that there are disagreements about what to believe is just as important, if not more so, as the fact that there are points on which there is agreement, which is why I was so struck by Hammer’s description of an argument between the extremists and Timbuktu’s local religious experts, when the latter wanted to celebrate a popular religious festival. Each side brought out hadiths to support their argument. The extremists refused to give in, but the point was made. Islam doesn’t belong to them. Unfortunately, Hammer doesn’t appear to appreciate the full implications of that point.
Hammer concludes by asking how long it will be before Timbuktu’s manuscripts are once again in danger. He cites a long series of incidents in Timbuktu from the 14th century to today, when scholars were persecuted or books were destroyed. In response, I’m tempted to engage in whataboutism: to list all of the times that scholars and books have been in danger in the West.
Alexander the Great was still infamous a thousand years later, among the 9th century book collectors of Baghdad, for allegedly ransacking the contents of Persian libraries, and destroying what he didn’t steal. One particularly compelling theory for the burial of the so-called Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi suggests that they were disposed of by Christian monks who were afraid of being caught with books that were considered heretical. According to Ibn al-Nadim, the 9th century Muslim book collector I mentioned earlier, at least some of the books making their way to the Baghdad bazaar—at that time, the world’s largest book market—were being sent by the Emperor of Byzantium, who was afraid the books would encourage heresy if left in the West. And, in a curious inversion of Western prejudices regarding the intellectual potential of Muslims and people of color, a 9th century Muslim scholar by the name of Al-Ģaḫiz thought the Byzantines had to be lying when they claimed to be the heirs of Greco-Roman learning; according to Al-Ģaḫiz, Christians were simply too irrational for lofty intellectual pursuits. Obviously it’s more complicated than Christian versus Muslim, “us” versus “them.”
But I won’t pretend that there are easy answers.
In the prologue of American Islamophobia, Beydoun admits to feeling a sense of uncertainty and self-betrayal, as he recalls how he once advised an undocumented Latino to reconsider moving forward with a conversion to Islam. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic of Muslims in America, but Beydoun knew that increased commitment to Islam would place this Latino at increased risk for government surveillance, a dangerous place to be, especially for an undocumented immigrant. Imagine feeling compelled to warn a person against pursuing a relationship with God, especially your God. Did Beydoun do the right thing? He isn’t sure.
And terrorism certainly hasn’t gone away. Knowing the historically contingent and structural conditions that give rise to terrorism doesn’t necessarily mean that we know the solution.
While we need to be honest when it comes to acknowledging the Obama administration’s expansion of surveillance and drone programs, I have no interest in giving talking points to hypocritical racists seeking any excuse to vilify Obama.
Soundbites from the discussion of a two-state solution are all too often twisted into Islamophobic or anti-Semitic narratives. Quite selfishly, I can’t help wishing that Beydoun devoted more space to this issue, especially in light of how masterfully he handles other thorny matters, particularly with regard to anti-black sentiment in Muslim American circles.
Of course, the latter can go two ways, with questions being raised, for instance, about the use of an obvious stand-in for Boko Haram in Black Panther. Should we interpret these scenes as standard events in the hero’s journey, as an example of women helping women, or as propaganda meant to undermine alliances between blacks and Muslims?
This suggests another thorny issue that I wish Beydoun had devoted more space to: women. Female genital mutilation and so-called ‘honor’ killings aren’t unique to Islam, but the American imagination continues to make the mistake of connecting them.
White feminists from Christian backgrounds such as myself need to be clear when it comes to situating our feminism so that it works to ensure that all women enjoy the freedom to make decisions, even when these decisions aren’t the ones that we might make ourselves. Because, yes, there are women and girls fighting for the right not to wear headscarves, but there are also women and girls fighting for the right to wear them, some of them right here in America. We need to make sure that our desire to support other women doesn’t in fact reflect a kind patronizing arrogance that actually fosters imperialism. And white women such as myself need to be mindful of the ways that we foster the white supremacy that racializes Islam. If nothing else, the prevalence of domestic violence in white supremacist circles makes it clear that racism isn’t in our best interests. We need to start supporting Muslim women, period.
Personally, I find that some genuine soul-searching is needed for this kind of work. As diverse as my childhood neighborhood was, I remember the anxiety I felt the first time I went to a mosque. It was for a college assignment. And every Islamophobic stereotype was running through my mind, bigoted though I knew they were. I no longer consider myself Catholic, but I have to wonder how my unconscious Christian sensibilities might encourage me to support policies in pursuit of a modern Crusade.
My claim to atheism certainly doesn’t let me off the hook, especially when proponents of atheism such as Richard Dawkins are spewing Islamophobia. Secularism isn’t necessarily free of Orientalism or Islamophobia, either. Talal Asad traces secularism to its roots in the Reformation to convincingly argue that it functions as a tacit Christian response to an internal Church dispute. Thus, western efforts to spread secularism throughout Muslim-majority countries could be interpreted as a form of religious imperialism.
Bill Maher’s anti-Muslim rants are proof enough that the left has a long way to go when it comes to cleaning house. And the progressive haven of Vermont that I call home certainly isn’t immune to Islamophobia.
I can never forget how my own body is marked, either. For me, this tattoo symbolizes the flowering of Greco-Roman and Egyptian collaboration in the form of the hermetic tradition. But, when getting this tattoo twenty years ago, I let myself forget that the collaboration that gave birth to this hermeticism was carried out under the auspices of imperialism. And whatever the Greco-Roman contributions might have been to that collaboration, the wadjet eye is thoroughly Egyptian. Wearing this symbol on my finger is an act of cultural appropriation.
I struggle with questions about how we might promote the beauty of other cultures and people—how white people might talk to other white people about this—without verging on Orientalist exploitation. And I still love mummy movies. They’re the reason that I went on to study Roman Egypt. I wonder about the implications of that and whether art like this has a place in the kind of world I want to live in.
I also recognize that I’m taking up space that a person of color or a person from a non-Christian background could be using. I hope that my voice is still of value when it comes to reaching whites and people from Christian backgrounds who would be more likely to listen to someone like me. And I hope that they and everyone else takes my advice and goes on to listen to people of color and non-Christians on these topics. My video is just an introduction. It’s not the end of the work.
So thank you for listening. I hope you found this video both entertaining and informative.
On Orientalism: Edward Said’s Orientalism and Daniel Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid
On Islamophobia, particularly in America: Khaled Beydoun’s American Islamophobia and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWyuscGvGLM
On women and Islam: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? and Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran
On Islam, including some history: Reza Aslan’s No God but God
On early Islam in particular: Fred Donner’s Muhammed and the Believers, Fred Donner’s The Early Islamic Conquests, and Hugh Kennedy’s “From Polis to Medina” https://archive.org/stream/KennedyMedina/Kennedy-Medina_djvu.txt
On early Muslim book collecting: Shawkat Toorawa’s Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur and Arabic Writerly Culture: A ninth-century bookman in Baghdad
On Medieval book collecting and the modern preservation of these manuscripts: Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
On early and Medieval Muslim translation and expansion of Greco-Roman learning: George Saliba’s Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Kevin Van Bladel’s The Arabic Hermes, Dimitri Gutas’ Greek Thought, Arabic Culture
On early Muslim perceptions of Europe: Nizar Hermes’ The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture
On people of color in Medieval Europe: Matthew Vernon’s The Black Middle Ages
For the autobiography of a Muslim enslaved person in America: Omar Ibn Said http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/community/text3/religionomaribnsaid.pdf
On secularism: Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion