The second day of the University of California, Berkeley’s Fifth Annual International Islamophobia Conference—organized by the Center for Race & Gender’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project (IRDP)—featured as much hysteria, victimhood, and anti-Western rhetoric as the first (which we reported on yesterday). To read Part I, click here.
Viewing the second day’s antics via live stream, two commercials ran repeatedly: one featuring sexy Latina actress Sofia Vergara selling shampoo for her long, flowing, decidedly unveiled locks, and the other seeking recruits for the U.S. Marines. This led one disgruntled online viewer, expecting an anti-American atmosphere to prevail in the virtual world as well as at the conference, to ask in the comments section, “What’s up with these super wack commercials killing Arab, African brown people?,” which elicited an apology from the organizers, who assured him they had no hand in picking the commercials.
During the afternoon, Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Vermont, spoke on, “Muslim Subjects and Citizens: Discursive Ties, Lingering Orientalism, and Islamophobias.” She attempted to draw parallels between the era of British colonialism and modern-day America, claiming that Muslims were seen, then and now, as “traitors,” “fanatics,” and as having “suspect, dual allegiances.” She described this phenomenon as the “insidiousness of Orientalism,” before reaching the ahistorical conclusion, “We find the same thing over 200 years later in America.”
She next asserted that the “rhetoric after 9/11 was similar to the British Raj,” including seeing “Muslims as agents of sinister forces.” In a thinly veiled allusion to Sharia (Islamic) law, Fuerst condemned what she called “anti-foreign law legislation” and chalked it and other efforts to combat Islamism up to being part of an “extended, insidious Orientalist discourse” rather than to the obvious desire of Americans to retain their constitutional liberties.
Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of media studies and Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, presented, “Islamophobia in the Obama Era: Liberalism and the National Security State.” Kumar proved to be one of the funnier, more engaging speakers of the day; in lieu of dry academic subject matter, she focused on popular culture, interspersing her talk with clips from movies and television shows such as “Homeland.” Yet her lively humor couldn’t hide her stale political correctness.
Referencing the films Black Sunday (1977) and True Lies (1994), she noted that even before the Islamic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “Americans were convinced that terrorism comes with brown, male, Arab bodies.” She continued:
9/11 cements the imagination. It was no longer necessary to keep demonizing brown people, but to justify a massive national security state.
Shifting to the “post-racial era” of the presidency of Barack Obama, Kumar noted that:
The language of liberalism and multiculturalism comes to be used to strengthen the national security state. Obama has done this quite effectively, picking up where [President George W.] Bush left off.
To illustrate her point, she played clips from a Department of Homeland Security video DHS intended to “raise public awareness about terrorism” called, “If You See Something, Say Something,” the purpose of which she summed up as follows: “We are being recruited to become agents of a surveillance state.” Kumar argued that the filmmakers went out of their way to cast white actors as the suspected terrorists and a multi-ethnic group of actors as the good citizens who report them to the authorities. Despite its basis in reality, she mocked the film’s portrayal of “unattended luggage and backpacks” as threats, claiming that they, too, were merely stand-ins for “the brown terrorist.”
Instead of chalking up these decisions to liberal political correctness, she called them another form of “Islamophobia,” adding “This is how latent racism works: unconsciously.” By this logic, both portraying Muslims as terrorists in the pre-9/11 era and avoiding doing so in the Obama era are examples of “Islamophobia.” The question for Kumar is: what isn’t?
Arun Kundnani, who holds adjunct appointments at New York University, Queens College, and John Jay College (where he teaches terrorism studies), rounded out the panel with the presentation, “Racialization and Radicalization: Islamophobia and the Surveillance of Muslims in the U.S.”
Kundnani lamented the “legalistic, technical” tone of the debate on mass surveillance by the National Security Administration in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, which he claimed leaves out “the interlinking of race and surveillance” so that, “the last thing anyone wants to talk about is the experience of the targeted population.” He dismissed Snowden’s references to George Orwell’s 1984 and the idea that “digital surveillance is a new form of Big Brother” and claimed that “no one minds” that “surveillance works by targeting specific groups.” This surely dismisses valid concerns among Americans of all backgrounds over the potential loss of privacy to everyone, not just Muslims. Instead, Kundnani claimed we live in a “panoptical racist society,” in which “different races are policed differently.” Addressing the fact that Islam is a religion, not a race, he insisted that there are “racial signifiers in the discussions about Muslims,” which he compared to anti-Semitism.
Kundnani then likened U.S. authorities to the Stasi, the secret police in communist East Germany, but maintained that “using current data, we’re worse.” He associated Muslim-Americans with the “East German population,” alleging, absurdly, that the “everyday life of Muslims comports with classic accounts of totalitarianism.” Repeating his previous mischaracterizations, he concluded that “the minority is subjected to secret police because the majority doesn’t experience that.” Either Kundnani hasn’t properly understood the ongoing discussion about the scope of counterterrorism surveillance in the U.S., or he misrepresented it to suit his purposes, as the issue goes far beyond allegations of “Islamophobia.”
Ahmet Temel, a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, opened the next panel by speaking on, “Shariaphobia, A Recurring Obsession: Sharia as a Means to Justify Islamophobia.” Adding to the long list of supposed hatreds indicating a clinical diagnosis of “phobia,” “Shariaphobia” is used to smear opponents of the implementation of draconian Sharia (Islamic) law in the West.
Temel alleged that the “misrepresentation” of Sharia as “inherently brutal” and consists of only “three rubrics: punishment, the treatment of women, and fatwas,” which leads to “racism towards Muslims.” The “media creates an image of Sharia” that is “meant to make Muslims look archaic” and makes them “targets of Islamophobic attacks.” Moreover, “media reporting on Sharia shows images of stonings, veiled women, and bearded men,” which eventually leads to “physical attacks.” Yet Temel didn’t deny that stonings occur (he couldn’t given the numerous honor killings of veiled women by bearded men) and simply asserted that criticism of Sharia is nothing more than “a sophisticated way of attacking Islam as irrational, backwards, [and] violent.” He even bemoaned the “anti-Sharia, anti-Islamic agenda in the history” of his native Turkey.
The dissembling continued with Nancy A. Khalil, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Harvard University, who spoke on, “Jihad: American Media and Muslim Theology.” Disassociating jihad from its historic meaning, holy war, Khalil claimed that of the “different meanings of jihad . . . jihad against yourself is the most important one.” Similarly, she alleged that the word “Islam means both submit and peace.” She praised the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) “My Jihad” campaign, launched in response to activist Pamela Geller’s counter-jihad advertising series, as “reclaiming this appropriation of jihad from the association with violence” and “taking back jihad one hashtag at a time.”
IRDP’s is succeeding in its goal to instill the specter of “Islamophobia” into the West. In addition to the aforementioned December, 2014 conference in Paris, its expanded agenda includes upcoming conferences in both London and Salzburg. Last year, Bazian and other North American Middle East studies specialists participated in an international Islamophobia conference in Turkey, while the Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies Chair at Indiana University-Bloomington organized its own conference. Bazian is fulfilling his pledge to create the new field of “Islamophobia studies” As there is no shortage of academics invested in pushing this agenda, look for its widespread use by those seeking to censor critics of Islam.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at [email protected].