Empires carve out and sustain their political and economic privilege with unrelenting violence, but, without a hint of irony, deem their mission moral, ethical, and even altruistic. A necessary counterpart to this blindness is a paranoid fear of a dark, hostile world. Islamophobia serves these mutually reinforcing delusions, so pivotal to the American empire’s self-justification and erasure of its violence. In Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, Stephen Sheehi seeks to “historicise Islamophobia in its proper political context in order to flush out the fullness of its violence.”
Sheehi examines Islamophobia as fear, derision, and/or hatred of Islam and Muslims, not as an individual prejudice but as a socio-political reality instrumental in the control of domestic populations and the projection of American power in the world. Specifically, Sheehi’s study of Islamophobia in the United States is as an ideological phenomenon of the post-Cold War “unipolar world.”
Sheehi demonstrates how entrenched Islamophobia is in the US public discourse, across party lines, and how it underpins the state’s domestic and foreign policy; how the naturalisation of Islamophobia normalises a crackdown on immigrants, civil liberties, dissent, and academic freedom at home; and how it justifies colonial wars abroad. To take stock of these diffuse effects of Islamophobia, Sheehi structures the book on a dual methodology: Islamophobia “on the level of thought, speech and perception; then [on] the material level of policies, violence and action.” The first level, the ideological edifice of Islamophobia, is constituted by “discursive archetypes taken in the form of two master-narratives,” or two “similar but competing paradigms” — one by historian Bernard Lewis, and the other by writer and journalist, Fareed Zakaria. The linchpin of these two “master-narratives” is the binary between Islam and the West, reproduced in many garbs, reiterating the old dichotomy between barbarism and civilisation: Muslims and the United States, Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights, ad infinitum. These stories are told through popular images, news, analyses, etcetera and “function as ideological fulcrums” for state-discourses and policies. To understand these discursive archetypes, writes Sheehi, “is to understand the structured thought of the ideological justification of US policies.”
In the 1970’s, Bernard Lewis, whom Sheehi calls “the post-modern state-Islamophobe,” was a cheerleader for Islamic militancy as an effective anti-Communist strategy, and then in the 1990’s produced the concept of the “Muslim rage.” Muslims, the theory goes, are “fundamentally trapped within specific limitations of their culture, which make modernity incongruent to the Muslim mind.” Thus, Lewis provided a rationale for American dominance through an explanation of Muslim grievances without taking into account Western imperialism, one that explained them away as stemming from their own cultural deficiencies and dismissed them as irrational.
Fareed Zakaria, Sheehi’s other primary mark, shot to mainstream visibility immediately after 9/11 with his series of articles in the Newsweek starting with “Why They Hate Us.” If Lewis’ explanation was the ahistoric “Muslim mind,” Zakaria’s is the Arab culture. Zakaria posits that the Arab world is caught between autocratic states and illiberal societies. The autocrats that America supports — like the Saudi regime — are more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than the Arab societies which, if allowed to have electoral democracy, will inevitably bring the Islamist bogeyman to power. The Arab masses, therefore, have themselves to blame for the autocracies that rule them with an iron fist. For these societies, Zakaria prescribes the therapies of privatisation, trade and economic liberalisation, and structural adjustment — in short, the invisible hand of free-markets backed by the iron fist of American military. Zakaria’s is an Islamophobia with a neo-liberal twist, and Sheehi deftly demonstrates how it haunts Obama’s Cairo speech and Nobel Peace Prize lecture, and underpins Obama’s “smart power” paradigm, a.k.a empire with a smiley face.
In recycling and popularising these narratives, a transnational coterie of “native informants” plays a crucial role. By repackaging Islamophobic analyses as insider knowledge they whitewash and mainstream racism, and with their seal of “authenticity” confirm the racist fear of Muslims. To this class and their mobilisation of women’s rights discourse in the service of the empire, Sheehi dedicates a full chapter. Taken together, what the various kinds of media figures do is inculcate “the American public with racist stereotypes and analyses that comfortably fit with its own racial unconscious.” One way of doing so is terrifying the American public that a failure to pursue a never-ending, global war against the Muslim enemy threatens “our way of life.” Their dual task, thus, is shaping the nation and shoring up the empire.
Sheehi conceptualises Islamophobia as an ideological formation within the context of the American empire. Doing so “allows us to remove it from the hands of ‘culture’ or from the myth of a single creator or progenitor, whether it be a person, organisation or community.” An ideological formation, in this telling, is a constellation of networks that produce, proliferate, benefit from, and traffic in Islamophobic discourses. These networks are made up of key individuals, such as intellectuals, media pundits, academics, journalists, businessmen and industrialists, politicians, state officials and collectives, such as lobbies and political action committees. These individuals and collectives — embedded in various organisations, think-tanks, university programmes, and policy institutes — facilitate and operate at the nexus of corporate and state power in America. The alliance, or at least alignment, “between neoconservatives, democratic hawks, evangelical Christians and hard-line American Zionists and their pet ‘intellectuals’ attest[s] less to a conspiracy than to a systematic structure by which political interests, political ideologues, economic interests and policy makers symbiotically serve each other’s interests.” These networks, however, do not plan behind closed doors about destroying Islam. As a political class, these elites of varying political beliefs are brought together by common interests: empire and capital. This ideological formation is the scaffolding upon which the present-day American imperial machine is constructed and to which its workings pinned.
An all-important component of this Islamophobic ideological formation is the general US public that participates in Islamophobic discourses and acts. Without sufficient focus on this dimension, the “ideological formation” becomes a fairly top-down concept, consigning the American people to the status of mindless consumers of Islamophobia peddled by a powerful clique. Given that the site of Sheehi’s study is policy-level politics, it is perhaps understandable that he does not flush out why Islamophobia has so much traction with US public. But it is a pity that he leaves cryptic references to America’s “political unconscious,” “cultural unconscious,” and “racial unconscious” unpacked, as if they emerged out of thin air fully-formed. Take, for instance, the American tradition of what Timothy Marr terms as “American Islamicism” — a tradition of engaging with Islam in ways to contain its global challenge on the domestic screen, and using Islam in fashioning a national self-image to be projected globally. Studying how this domestic American tradition has morphed and mutated through history, and how it plays out in the present would be immensely beneficial to understanding Islamophobia.
Yet another area of critical reflection is the political, legal, cultural, and representational processes by which Muslims are racialised to fit in the American racial taxonomy and global labor supply, and the map of the Global War on Terror. With these other studies complementing Sheehi’s study of the material interests that sustain Islamophobia in the American polity, we can begin to come to grips with the longevity of American Islamophobia, its ebbs and flows, and how it has manifested itself in the post-Cold War period as, in Sheehi’s words, “Orientalism on steroids.”
Sheehi’s book, however, is not to be taken as a defense of Muslims, or Islam, or religion in general. Islamophobia, as Sheehi shows, is about power and domination; Islam and Muslims, as ciphers to be utilised instrumentally towards that end, are somewhat incidental to it. As an anti-Islamophobia strategy, defending Islam, portraying and representing it in positive light, or showing Muslims as model human beings and citizens is at best ineffectual, and at worst, one that is beholden to the very framework of Islamophobia.
In Sheehi’s words: “The very idea that Islam needs to be defended… is Islamophobic, as it completely erases the intricacy of the religion and reduces the cultural, regional, and religious variations to a monolithic religion with a monolithic believer, i.e. The Muslim.” With a conception of Islamophobia unmoored from the purported exceptionality of the Muslim difference, the battle against Islamophobia can be engaged in a framework of global justice and anti-racism, along lines of solidarity across nations and denominations, and within its generative context: empire and capital.
Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims (WAR ON TERROR) By Stephen Sheehi Clarity Press, US ISBN 978-0932863676 272pp. $16.95