New York panel on Islamophobia talks U.S. empire, Zionism and how to fight back

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Members of a panel on Islamophobia. From left to right are: Fahd Ahmed, Kazi Fouzia, Madiha Tahir and Elly Bulkin. (Photo: Alex Kane)

Islamophobia has deep roots in this country. And it’s a political problem with political solutions.

That was the message, in so many words, heard last night as about 70 people gathered in the basement of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village to hear about anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. Organized by the group Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition, the packed panel event included activists and academics including Abdeen Jabara, who moderated the event and is a former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; Deepa Kumar, author of the book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire; Fahd Ahmed and Kazi Fouzia of the South Asian-led Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM); Elly Bulkin of Jews Say No!; and Madiha Tahir, an independent journalist covering Pakistan.

The event was titled: “Islamophobia, Empire and US Politics: What Are Its Roots? How Do We Respond?”

The focus of the various panelists zipped and zoomed from New York City to Pakistan to Egypt to Palestine and beyond, as a holistic and historical approach to the problem of Islamophobia was offered.

While the September 11, 2001 attacks were of particular focus to the panelists, the historical nature of anti-Muslim sentiment was emphasized time and time again. Abdeen Jabara kicked off the night by reminding the audience of Operation Boulder, an FBI program that spied on Arab-Americans, including Jabara, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Jabara himself was targeted by the FBI, and eventually won a lawsuit that forced the FBI to destroy the records they collected on him.

Kumar, an author and a professor of Middle East and Media Studies at Rutgers University, continued on the historical theme. “On the left, we still have a rather shallow understanding of what Islamophobia is,” she said, explaining that it’s not just hate crimes or the most blatant and atrocious examples of anti-Muslim sentiment that activists should be focused on. Kumar emphasized that Islamophobia is deeply connected to the project of U.S. empire, which her book focuses on. “Islamophobia is deep and systematic,” said Kumar, and the “idea of the Muslim enemy is used to justify US empire.”

But it’s not just US empire that has promoted Islamophobia; the roots of the phenomenon can be seen in the Crusades, for example. Kumar argued that the Crusades were a project of European elites to consolidate a European identity that was formulated as the opposite of the Muslim “other.” And today, there is a new way that anti-Muslim sentiment has been promoted. Kumar said that there is a “half-terrorist, half-victim” binary that is Islamophobic at its core. Muslim men are demonized as terrorists, while Muslim women, portrayed as lacking agency, are the victims of these Muslim men. The rhetoric around the Afghanistan War perfectly illustrates this. The bombing, invasion and occupation of the country was in part justified both by citing the menace of Islamic terrorists as well as the need to “save” Afghan Muslim women from their oppressors.

Tahir, who has done extensive traveling and reporting in Pakistan and is the author of a forthcoming book on the subject, picked up where Kumar left off, as she explained how Islamophobia functioned to legitimize drone warfare in Pakistan. “Pakistanis in the tribal areas [where most drone strikes are conducted] are dehumanized,” said Tahir. She also criticized the logic of a New York Times article making “the moral case for drones,” and noted that 176 children have been killed in Pakistan by drones.

Bulkin took the discussion to Israel. She summarized her and Donna Nevel’s investigative report in AlterNet that documented how “the people bankrolling illegal Israeli expansionism in the occupied West Bank are the same people fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.” She pulled no punches, eloquently calling out the right-wing Zionist funders behind both West Bank settlements and anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. For example, Bulkin noted that Frank Gaffney, a purveyor of the baseless notion that Muslims are trying to institute sharia law here and that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government, is also a “‘contributing expert’ to the Ariel Center for Applied Research, an Israeli research institute that reflects the hardline Likud position on Israeli security,” as Bulkin and Nevel put it in their article. “There’s an Islamophobia-Israel nexus,” said Bulkin in her talk.

And finally, the members of DRUM honed in on state violence at home and the class dimensions of Islamophobia. Fouzia, speaking in Hindi with Ahmed translating, spoke of her personal experience as a Muslim immigrant to the U.S. She also noted that “it is working class Muslims who are targeted” by the state. As an example, Ahmed said that Jackson Heights, where his organization is based, is a neighborhood that has the third-highest rate of “stop and frisk” incidents initiated by the NYPD. Many South Asians, some of them Muslim, live in Jackson Heights.

At the end of the night, Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace, a member group of the Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition, encouraged audience members to get involved with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s (JFREJ) new campaign against discriminatory policing. JFREJ, another member group of the Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition, recently signed on to the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, which is pushing for a number of City Council bills to address NYPD abuses. Among those abuses are the widespread and warrantless surveillance of Muslim communities in the city and in the Northeast. “We plan to build on JFREJ’s existing relationships and history of solidarity work to mobilize Jewish communities to join in the movement against discriminatory policing,” a flyer announcing the JREJ campaign reads. “We will work in partnership with the CPR campaign, Muslim and Arab organizations, and organizations directly impacted by policing and incarceration.”

It was a fitting end to the night. As DRUM’s Ahmed said, the key to combatting anti-Muslim sentiment is to “organize, organize and organize.” It looks like the Jews Against Islamophobia coalition and JFREJ are taking up Ahmed’s advice.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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