Is there a genuine debate taking place about Islamophobia? When and why did the “concern” about Islamophobia reach the highest levels of government in North America and western Europe? On which particular goal do all governmental parties fundamentally agree in this alleged debate? What does the nature of the debate, and the interests that are vested in the debate, reveal about the ultimate goals and values of the key parties concerned? Those are just some of my questions about Islamophobia.
Now for some questions about extremism. In a recent speech after the latest London Bridge terrorist attack, UK prime minister Theresa May stated: “While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is—to be frank—far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society”. She is not being frank. There is not “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the UK. Who is she accusing of tolerance? How could Theresa May, of all people, accuse anyone of such tolerance? How is anyone not in power “tolerant” of extremism? Is the average citizen, with little power, no authority, and no say in the formulation and implementation of policy to be blamed? Theresa May is not one of those who have to pay a bloody price for their country’s destructive and aggressive foreign policy. Nobody in Manchester craved the immigration of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who belonged to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. May can say, as she did in another speech after the Manchester bombing, that the UK has “a spirit that through years of conflict and terrorism has never been broken and will never be broken” but how would her spirit, or body, ever be broken? When have those of her class, the dominant political and technocratic class, ever been caught up in a terrorist attack? Do they or their relatives ever face the gruesome consequences of the blowback they create? There has indeed been tolerance for extremism—in fact, it has received official encouragement. Such tolerance always comes from the highest levels. So unless May was hinting at a mea culpa, right before an election, she would have been wise to stay in hiding in her insulated, protective bubble. Meanwhile, it’s the ordinary citizen who is effectively placed on the front line, and that front line now runs through their neighbourhoods, concert halls, cafes, and shopping districts.
Two Strategies and a Fake Debate about Islamophobia and Extremism
My thesis here consists of the following explanations. First, when we examine the positions taken by government leaders in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada—the three to which I am restricting my focus—there is no actual debate about either Islamophobia or extremism. They are not themselves concerned about Islamophobia; rather, after leaders of the dominant political class appropriated the “concern,” they turned Islamophobia into what is largely a convenient fiction which can be manipulated toward other, strategic ends. All three claim to be alarmed by Islamic extremism, and all three claim, to different degrees, to reject Islamophobia. Yet two main strategies stand out. One strategy—chosen by the ruling political class in the UK and Canada, headed currently by Theresa May and Justin Trudeau respectively—is the “unity in diversity” approach, that nods to “multiculturalism” and denounces anti-Muslim bigotry. The other strategy—adopted primarily by US president Donald Trump and a select group of his advisors and supporters—also ostensibly rejects hatred of Muslims, but does advocate heightened, albeit selective, screening, surveillance, and immigration controls, and ultimately upholds the values of assimilation. The first strategy is treated by the hegemonic media as “anti-Islamophobic,” and receives the praise and support of media elites, while the second strategy is routinely constructed as “Islamophobic”.
The illusion that results is that there are two, sharply different strategies, and that they are profoundly opposed to each other. Seen incompletely, and out of the right context, there do appear to be two strategies—but to sustain belief you have to ignore the larger purposes of the strategies, and their silent working assumptions. The UK-Canadian approach attempts to demobilize, stifle, and censor any real or suspected popular expressions of alleged Islamophobia among ordinary citizens. The US-Trump approach instead seems to pacify and placate Islamophobia, by seemingly currying favour with virtues held in high esteem by Islamophobes—virtues such as security, national unity, and defense of Christianity. By making the right gestures, Trump can thus also achieve a form of demobilization, assuring followers that his leadership will put America on “the right track”.
Yet, despite the apparent differences, what all of these parties are absolutely unanimous about is continued, even deepened support for Saudi Arabia and its ultra-conservative ruling monarchy and the extremism which it supports, and the extremism which these Western states themselves support—and that is what matters first and foremost. The multiculturalist “politically correct” strategy aims to smother any criticism of any Muslims, with the contentious claim that such criticism is always essentially and ultimately “Islamophobic” and “racist”—and in that way they thwart denunciations of collaboration with Saudi Arabia, with Salafist and Wahhabi organizations, clerics, and militants. This strategy also permits the UK and Canadian governments to import members of such movements and plant them in the midst of their citizens, effectively offering safe haven and sanctuary to proven and potential terrorists while endangering the communities in which they are placed. They even have the gall to admit that such elements have been constantly monitored. When such terrorists act against what they see as their double-crossing hosts—who do use such Islamic militants for wildly contradictory purposes, as if they were a public utility that came with an on/off switch—the first impulse of state authorities is to call for unity and harmony, the better to preserve their pact. I say that militant Islamic fundamentalists are used as if they came with an on/off switch in the following sense: they are activated when necessary to destabilize secular, nationalist governments such as those of Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan before, and then it is assumed that jihadists will remain quiet as their same Western patrons proceed to selectively and strategically bomb other Muslims. Britain and the US have both had a duplicitous yet collaborative approach to Al Qaeda, and there must be consequences. Islamic extremists are otherwise very convenient for destabilizing anti-imperialist states, and for destabilizing societies in the West through endless cycles of conflicting signals about security–respect, and diversity–unity. The aim of governments in this context is to make sure they do as little as possible to permit major public offense against conservative Islamic jihadists and their retinues, and to keep the public confused and divided.
The other, supposedly contrary strategy only offends a select minority—like citizens of the handful of nations listed in Trump’s attempted travel ban—while diverting attention away from Saudi and Gulf State allies, and misdirecting public animus toward Iran, with the astoundingly bizarre and fact-free claim that Iran is somehow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Aside from restricting officially allowable expressions of fear of dangerous Muslims to a small number of peripheral nations, the US-Trump strategy is identical to the British-Canadian one above, in preserving the pact with Saudi Arabia and tolerating the extremism which together they have fuelled and funded, trained and equipped, and actively defended.
The Iran Myth, the Saudi Prize
“But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran.”—US president Donald Trump, speaking at the Arab Islamic American Summit, May 21, 2017.
If the US has created an authorized and useful fiction of Islamophobia, it has likewise invented a fiction of Iran as the leading source of Muslim terrorism in the world today. Immediately following Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, there have been two prominent terrorist attacks in the UK (Manchester and London), dozens slaughtered in an ISIS attack in Baghdad, a massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, ISIS attacks in the Philippines, and a massive truck bomb attack in Kabul killing over 150 people, followed by bombings at funerals of the victims—that is in roughly two weeks alone. At no point did the authorities in the US either demonstrate or explain how Iran was in any way involved in these attacks, being the alleged leader in terrorism. Indeed, what is the last major terrorist attack that was even just attributed to Iran, rightly or wrongly, that the reader can remember? How many attackers on September 11, 2001, were from Iran, or supported by Iran? Even US government officials are left literally speechless when asked to explain how the US can condemn Iran on the very same grounds that it ignores about Saudi Arabia. Thus Trump’s travel bans are nothing more than an authorized fiction, a superficial and symbolic Islamophobia to pacify supporters who crave a Muslim ban, in order to obscure deepened support for Saudi Arabia and to sharpen pre-war sentiment against Iran.
Donald Trump’s liberal critics, even without their hands on the levers of power, do their part in sustaining these fictions. First, they denounce Trump’s travel ban as a “Muslim ban”—emphasizing Islamophobia. This sustains the fiction that Trump is actually delivering on a promise he made to his supporters, to temporarily halt all travel to the US of people from Muslim countries, without any stated exceptions. The actual ban was of a handful of nations, a tiny minority of the Muslim world. The irony here is that if Trump had produced a truly Islamophobic, all-Muslim ban, he would have been guilty of consistency and inclusiveness. At least the rationale would have been rational, on its own terms, which it is not now. But for liberals and leftists, this is convenient: it demarcates the space for an expedient politics of difference that allows them to present themselves as serious arbiters, as useful managers, as needed specialists who can promote and manage diversity. In addition to the usefulness of a fictionalized Islamophobia (plus an equally staged anti-Islamophobia, as in the recent CNN video below), displaced liberal political elites have for months been on a hysterical rampage about Russia. This has been useful to blackmail Trump, to destabilize government, and to thwart the coming of a post-liberal, post-globalized international situation based on national self-determination and social cohesion. Trump has no real domestic political opposition; they are all collaborators, at best ornamental dissenters who help to sustain Trump’s own preferred fictions. Both fictions—Islamophobia and Russian “interference”—do two more things that places Trump’s alleged opponents in the same camp with Trump: they silence concerns about actual, vivid, demonstrable collusion with Saudi Arabia, and sustain anti-Iran pre-war sentiment.
This does not mean that the liberal hysteria about Trump is not genuine, and genuinely deranged. It is, on both counts. These are professionals who have gone insane with rage that their hands are no longer the ones controlling the levers of power. That alone, that proprietary attitude towards governance as reserved exclusively for them, the entitled class of specialists, is an attitude that prevents them from seeing or admitting that what we in fact have is continuity under Trump. Since it is under Trump, and they would deny Trump anything, they also deny the continuity. But that is also useful, since it sustains the illusion of discontinuity, that is, change. “Change” is a powerfully loaded political signifier in the US, and Trump’s alleged opponents willingly hand him the crown. After all, there is no basis for protesting against Trump if Trump has not changed anything. Yet the meaning of their opposition is akin to burning an effigy, while the real entity represented by the effigy continues untouched and unmolested. In other words, no matter how melodramatic and shrill, the opposition is merely symbolic.
On the other hand, one has to wonder what Donald Trump’s most zealous anti-Muslim supporters make of images of their hero dancing with Saudi princes, accepting a gold medal from the King of Saudi Arabia, and lavishing praise on his Arab Muslim hosts. How do they explain it all away? Was it the “deep state” that forced Trump to dance, and to flatter his hosts in a way that one observer called nothing short of “politically correct”? How many excuses could his supporters make as they heard news that Trump signed a vast arms deal with Saudi Arabia, with $110 billion to be sold immediately, $350 billion over ten years? What lies would they need to tell themselves in their new career of supporting Trump as an end in itself, while US corporations made tens of billions of dollars worth of deals with Saudi Arabia during Trump’s tour? How vindicated did they feel when they realized (if they realized), that rather than combat violent Islam, all their hero had done was to deepen the US commitment to the Sunni side of a sectarian war with Shia Muslims? Here was Donald Trump, who said “Islam hates us,” the same man who pointed accusingly at Saudi Arabia for its role in 9/11, the man of endless tweets denouncing Saudi Arabia and condemning Hillary Clinton for accepting their financial support, the man who agreed with a statement accusing Saudi Arabia of supporting ISIS. No more was to be heard from Trump about the killing of gays and oppression of women in Saudi Arabia. He went there and was most critical of those who were not there and he did not have to face: representatives of Syria and Iran, two of the nations leading the real fight against ISIS. How would Trump supporters stomach the possibility that one day a challenger could come along and call Trump the “winner of the MVP award from ISIS”? Then Trump returned to the US and after the second London Bridge attack he resumed that old tough talk about not being politically correct and calling for a tougher travel ban. The only problem is that Trump then undermined his case, all by himself: he called for an expedited review of the “watered down” version, but strangely called for the tougher version, which he personally rescinded. So which is it? Why does he pretend to be an innocent bystander in his own government, calling on the Department of Justice to do its job? Is Trump no longer on speaking terms with his friend, Jeff Sessions? And when Trump says, no matter, the US has been doing extreme vetting all along anyway, then why call for any travel ban? Travel to the US was never free and easy, not even for those of us from visa-exempt countries. (As a Canadian, I recall personal experiences of the most humiliating and antagonistic grilling at the border by US officials, so hysterical they could become that I sometimes thought they would start screaming and punching. Fortunately, that ceased when a decade ago I resolved to neither travel to nor through the US.)
Tolerance for Extremism at the Highest Levels: US, UK, Canada
Nothing in the paragraphs above is meant to suggest that the US has only ever indirectly and accidentally supported Islamic extremists. On the contrary, the support has often been direct, purposeful and quite intentional, on multiple occasions. “Tolerance” for extremism always comes from the highest levels. In the US case, collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood dates back decades, and even then matters took a sharp turn when the US opted to fund, arm, and otherwise support jihadists in Afghanistan, starting in the late 1970s. The US government, with the support of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, produced violent jihadist literature which was then distributed to Afghan schoolchildren, and became part of the Taliban’s school curriculum. US strategic collaboration with Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists extended beyond Afghanistan, to Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. Then of course US officials, at the highest level (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton) have either privately or publicly confessed to knowledge that their allies—primarily Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar—were actively funding and arming ISIS in Iraq and Syria, just as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey together worked to destroy the Libyan state, overthrow Gaddafi, and back various reactionary Muslim militias on the ground. In my book, Slouching Towards Sirte, I identified the other ways that the US was accused by Gaddafi, with evidence, of supporting Saudi-backed extremists.
Gaddafi had warned that the people the West was backing in 2011 were Al Qaeda. He personally warned Tony Blair that the UK’s intervention in Libya would open the door to violent jihadis and attacks in the UK itself. His warnings, like many of his other statements that were mocked and dismissed by our hegemonic media and political elites, have been borne out and proven true. For her part, Theresa May was Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, and was thus in charge of the Home Office during the war on Libya in 2011. May had direct knowledge of the presence in Manchester of members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), active in the war against Gaddafi—the UK having provided safe haven for them. The Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, emerged from this foundation and had fought in Libya in 2011, where he travelled from Manchester. Until the war in Libya, some Manchester-based LIFG members were under travel restrictions—immediately lifted, with passports expedited, once May entered the Home Office. “No questions were asked” by British authorities, and once in Libya, Britain’s MI5 collaborated with them. It is more than justified for some to frame what has since happened as “blowback”. (Trump’s liberal and left opposition cannot be counted on to make these points—they were too busy cheering for the intervention in Libya in 2011, while deliberately marginalizing all critics whose dire predictions would be proven right.) The UK also bowed to terrorist threats directed against it by Saudi Prince Bandar, with the active support of British weapons manufacturer, BAE, in a lurid, atrocious case of government betrayal that involved obstruction of justice to protect corrupt arms deals. Tolerance for extremism, as I argue, always comes from the highest levels, but so does the extremism itself.
Canada’s federal government is no more innocent. Under Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia (valued at $14.8 billion—the largest military export contract in Canadian history), was pushed through. The deal was first struck by his predecessor, Conservative PM Stephen Harper. In court, Trudeau’s government admitted it knew that its weapons could be used in further atrocities in Yemen. Mastering the liberal art of hypocrisy on human rights, Canada under Trudeau has enforced an official silence about Saudi atrocities against civilians in Yemen. Meanwhile, just before the Canadian government proceeded to remove Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate from its official list of terrorist groups, the federal parliament passed the government’s “Anti-Islamophobia” motion (M-103). That is one very interesting, very useful coincidence, where the two facts can reinforce each other: criticizing any Canadian-based supporters of Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliates (the Al Nusra Front, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) could conceivably be construed by the authorities as an act of Islamophobia, a hate crime directed against poor refugees. Far fetched? When I wrote this article in 2011, “The Top Ten Myths in the War Against Libya,” which spoke of US support for “radical Islamist militias,” I immediately received a polite but stern email from an anti-Gaddafi Libyan émigré in Canada, warning me that I had probably crossed the line of “Islamophobia”. What “line” was crossed when the Islamist son of another anti-Gaddafi Libyan émigré in Canada decided to shoot up Parliament Hill in 2014? Does Canada show intolerance for extremism then?
It’s doubtful that extremism really raises all that many eyebrows in Ottawa: in 2015 Canada voted against the majority of the UN General Assembly, which passed a motion about combating the glorification of Nazism. Since then, it has been revealed that Canada’s current foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, lied about her family history of collaboration with the Nazis in Ukraine during WWII, choosing to instead portray her relative as a refugee and victim of the Soviets. On this even the mainstream media, quick to call the story “fake news,” backing Freeland’s conspiracy theory about Russian intervention in Canada, was forced to admit that it was true. Does violent extremism bother the authorities in Canada, is a question that should be replaced by: When does it bother them? Whose extremism bothers them?
The Destabilization of Society
We have two strategies to deal with two faked debates. The apparent goal is to tamp down all forms of domestic criticism that could drag in support for Saudi Arabia, and support for violent Islamic militias, by the governments of the UK, Canada, and the US. Another aim is to build up anti-Iran sentiment, in potential preparation for a war against Iran. However, beyond the cultural programs and political rhetoric designed to create a base, or a cushion, to prolong support for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies, to maintain the momentum of regime change against Syria and ultimately Iran, something else is at work. Whether it is the promoted ideal of “open borders,” or national identity confined to shoring up borders (and not the social content within those borders), both are premised on one big deficit: society. Since neoliberal ideologues came to power in the UK and US, with Thatcher and Reagan respectively, it is the very notion of a stable, integrated and cohesive society that has come under relentless attack. As Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “there is no such thing as society”. The reason for this is that “society” imposes obligations; “society” regulates; “society” is about, in a word, structure. The promoted fascination with “agency,” the narcissistic self-flattery about the uniqueness of the individual and the primacy of individual choice, individual action, and individual liberty, without any mention of social structure, is one of the ideological indices of the dominance of neoliberalism.
If society itself is the target of attack by the ruling elites, it means that war has effectively been declared on all of us. After consolidating the biggest ever wealth transfer in history, with the redistribution of wealth from the working classes and periphery to the top of the global power pyramid, the transnational capitalist class is anxious to defend its gains. One way to achieve that is divide and rule, to have all of us fighting against each other, hence the proliferation of wedge issues and special interests, versus those who falsely pretend outrage at the “craziness” but who indulge in identity politics with gusto because it butters their bread (Fox News, Jordan Peterson, and so on). Whether it is multiculturalism on the one hand, or instrumentalized nationalism (concerned only about security and walls) on the other hand, it is the working class that is annihilated. We are all meant to be packed in together, ignorant and suspicious of each other, like rats in a barrel…because that is what heightens competition, and as you know, competition is the mother of “innovation” according to the gurus of the “creative class”. Tolerance for extremism comes from the highest levels, and it is always ordinary citizens who are made to pay the price, by design. Society is thus reduced to a Eugenic Paradise.