“Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret, there’s a million other straws underneath it.” – Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), “Mathematics”
The controversies around “free speech” and Muslims that were provoked by the film trailer The Innocence of Muslims, the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the left leaning Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France, and more recently the racist pro-Zionist subway ads in New York City have quite predictably provoked a ground swell of anger, frustration, and confusion when it comes to dissent by those who happen to be Muslims.
While some protests abroad turned violent, and protests against the cartoons were banned in “democratic” France, President Obama himself weighed in on the topic at the United Nations recently, extolling the virtues of the U.S. and its support of “free speech” to the global community. But in making this an issue simply of “free speech,” the media pundits, talking heads, “experts,” and many Muslims themselves quite predictably relied on clichéd tropes that not only further cement deeply held racist ideas about Muslims, but also undermine and ignore the complex issues that these protests and dissent are rooted in.
Because “free speech” is held as the cornerstone of Western liberal democracy, interpreting these protests through this lens frames Muslims as being against free expression, and even freedom itself. More subtly and significantly, it suggests that Muslims are medieval and rooted in tradition, outside the fold of democracy and modernity. This has been a well-worn, tried and true way of talking about Muslims – part of a racist colonial past inherited by the imperial present in which “they” are savage, primitive, and irrational, while “we” are civilized, modern, and rational.
What made this racist framework abundantly clear were the recent pro-Zionist subway ads that appeared in New York last week and also in the Bay Area several weeks before that said, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” By invoking the language of “civilized” and “the savage,” these ads not only laid bare and made clear the deeply racist and white supremacist logic that drives the policies of the U.S. and its allies throughout the world, but they have also made abundantly clear to all of us who are really listening and watching that despite the wishes of those hawks who want to bring it back to “restore order,” or the guilty liberal consciences who believe it to be a thing of the past, the logic of colonialism is still very much alive and well, determining the fate and life chances of the vast majority of the worlds people outside of Europe and the United States.
That white supremacy and racism continue to define the “West” should not surprise anyone – though it probably does for some, if not many others. Remember Mitt Romney’s claim on his visit to London this past summer that Obama “does not share our Anglo-Saxon heritage”? A dog whistle comment if there ever was one, as Romney’s wink to the British and to the rest of Western Europe revealed something far more sinister. For we have to remember that “the West” is less a geographical marker and more of an ideological one, a catch-all phrase that stands in for a set of ideals, values and beliefs that are used to distinguish “the West” from “the Rest”: free speech, democracy, the “rule of law,” liberalism, and all things civilized, modern, and progressive.
But instead of these lofty ideals, a closer inspection would reveal a much more insidious reality: that the history of this thing called “the West” has its roots in slavery, genocide, the continuing saga of white supremacy, predatory capitalism and exploitation of the Global South. These are the “ideas” of the so-called West that are seen as having no geographic boundaries, and this is why the U.S. and Europe continue to dominate the world’s stage, for it is these “values” that all the world should embrace, or be made to, and that have become the lingua franca for the entire world. But instead we constantly hear the white noise that the West is benign and innocent, and is under attack as it stands to uphold the noble cause of freedom, democracy and individual liberty. For the West presents itself as David, when in fact, it is, and has been for centuries, Goliath.
All of this has huge implications for non-white people the world over, many of who happen to be Muslims. The fact that Muslims have become the quintessential global Other has historic roots that date back to the very genesis of “the West” and race in its modern form. In fact, the very idea of the West emerged directly out of the Moor, and was crystalized in 1492, the year that simultaneously saw the expulsion of Muslims from Spain and Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas that led to native genocide and the conquest of the Americas. Muslims occupy a particular role when it comes to race; it was beginning here that the idea of Europe and the “West” began to cohere around concepts of anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism, as whiteness and Christianity became inseparable in defining race. As European expansion led to colonialism and slavery, according to scholar Anouar Majid, “the world’s non-European natives or religions were stamped with the taint of Muslim impurity.” As a result, Islam and Muslims have represented a perpetual strangeness to the West and to whiteness. Although 9/11 is what seems to have raised the specter of Islam in relation to the West, a closer look reveals that the Muslim— as the Other to a normative whiteness—has not only haunted the very the foundation of the West since its inception but has also given the West meaning, defining who is civilized and who is savage, who is democratic and who is autocratic, who is peaceful and who is violent, who is human and who is not.
This has huge implications, because though the language of “civilized” and savage” is only the most crude and obvious expression of white supremacy, many continue to find it politically expedient and opportunistic to assume that this brand of anti-Muslim racism comes from a small cabal of well funded Islamophobes on the right in the U.S., instead of seeing it equally infecting and defining the Democratic Party and its policies, as well as much of the so-called progressive Left who continue to resort to tired Orientalist clichés about Muslims.
As a result, when it comes to these recent protests or any dissent coming from people who happen to be Muslims, the analysts, critics, lay people and even some Muslims themselves participate in a racist Orientalist logic – one that assumes that not only everything that a person who happens to be a Muslim does is driven by Islam, but also that everything that Muslims do can be understood through religion. This is tantamount to arguing that everything that the people of Latin America do is because of Catholicism, and that it is through Catholicism that they can be understood. Sounds ridiculous, right? But when it comes to Muslims that kind of “analysis” is not seen as ridiculous, but as rigorous.
But is this racist framing the only way to understand this current situation? Is it possible to back away from the screen, undo the myopia and gain more perspective? As is typical, both dominant and alternative media have failed to understand or know how to frame resistance and protest when it comes to Muslims. In framing it as an issue of “free speech,” the media have presented these protestors as “fanatics,” conveniently making this an issue solely about religion and not also about politics, power, and a referendum on U.S. and Western intervention in these countries.
As a result, this undermines the very real issues that these protests are rooted in, and it refuses to view these protesters and their supporters as complex actors, motivated by an array of issues and concerns. While Innocence of Muslims, the French cartoons, and the pro-Zionist signs in the subway may be part of the protests and discontent, these are only the tip of the iceberg, and symbols for a much deeper discontent that begs a more existential and ethical question: how much suffering are people expected to endure? Let’s not even go back through centuries of European colonialism or even 20th century U.S. imperialism and subversion of democracy through the backing of dictators and overthrowing of elected leaders. How about just the last eleven years of U.S-led domination where torture, indefinite detention, drone wars in several countries, targeted assassinations, unwavering support of Israel, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, threats and sanctions on Iran, destabilization and violations of national sovereignty, Guantanamo, the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, and the displacement of millions more has become normalized and acceptable? And what of the support for a neoliberal economic policy that has devastated the region for the benefit of the United States, Europe and their lackeys? Can’t this be considered a central factor of the political calculus of these protests and widespread discontent?
Second, in framing protests by those who happen to be Muslims as religiously determined, then these protests are assumed to have nothing in common with the recent protests in Spain, Greece, Portugal, the Occupy Movement, or throughout the Global South, all of which marks the protests in Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and the region as distinct and even in opposition to the “secular” global movements taking place around the world over economic inequality, corruption, and hyper-militarization. Instead, Muslims are framed as existing outside the framework and language of what is considered legitimate democratic protest and even broader left politics.
Unless Muslims protest in ways that mirror or affirm the ideas of the West more broadly, and the U.S. specifically – whether it be Western ideas of liberalism, U.S. intervention and foreign policy or neoliberal consensus – then those protests, the protestors themselves, and the issues that they are protesting, are not seen as legible or even legitimate to the West. This is part of a larger strategy of undermining dissent, especially when the protestors are in the Global South or racial minorities in Europe or the U.S. who seek to challenge powerful interests. Whether they be the immigrants in the banileues of Paris over the last several years, in Nigeria in 2011, London in 2012, or even in Los Angeles in 1992 – the response is that these are “looters,” “thugs,” and “mobs,” all synonyms for “violent extremists” that criminalizes the protestors and undermines the legitimacy of their discontent and the grievances that they have.
Instead, the world is told that this is about words, cartoons and movies. But are Muslims only mad at some B-movie about the Prophet Muhammad, or might they also be angry and insulted at the thousands of films and television programming put out by Hollywood and the media industries that continue to dehumanize them. A canon of cultural codes that sit at the heart of the West and lubricates a deep anti-Muslim racism that generates public support and political capital for domestic and foreign policy.
And are Muslims simply mad about a cartoon in any one newspaper, or rather at the larger public discourse in the U.S. and the West that stands in for informed journalism and analysis. A corporate and even alternative media agenda that gives sanction to either outright wars of aggression, targeted assassinations, intervention, and drone wars in Muslim countries, or approval to the “soft” power of “humanitarian intervention,” sanctions, indefinite detention, surveillance and diplomatic pressure against Muslims both in the U.S and around the world.
But this question of media and framing begs another question about where does “free speech” exist? Or is it, like the idea of “democracy,” simply a red herring – a way of holding up the idea that the West is advanced so that it can claim a kind of moral and civilizational superiority over everyone else?
What of “free speech” when six multinational conglomerates with interlocking interests control 90% of media outlets in the U.S., or when combined with telecommunications policy, the influence of public relations firms, advertising interests, and “editorial decisions,” that there is a profound impact on alternative voices emerging? And what of “democracy” when a private corporation formed by both the Democratic and Republican parties (the “Commission on Presidential Debates”) determines debate content, formats, and colludes to exclude third party candidates? Or what about the purging of voters, the power of lobbying groups in shaping policy, the more fundamental fact that two parties with only slightly different ideas represent the interests of free market imperialism, or even more obviously the 2000 “election”? If “free speech” and “democracy” are going to be used, then lets admit that these are not absolutes but rather deeply flawed and limited ideas, even in the West.
So instead of the reductive and racist arguments being made, can these protests be seen as rooted in historical and political grievances? Not what Samuel Huntington and his ilk would claim is a kind of “Muslim insecurity” or “humiliation” about the “superiority of the West,” but rather a real and justifiable demand for justice, dignity and sovereignty? To make this simply about some bad film, a cartoon, and ad, or previously, the burning of a Qu’ran, misses the point entirely. But then again, maybe that is the point: to undermine and divert attention from the more systemic sources of Muslim discontent that continue to undermine, limit and destroy Muslims lives and livelihood.
What Muslims need to do is to embrace our racial Otherness in relation to the West, and as bell hooks and others argue, use it as a site of resistance against the realities that we are facing. Because to embrace our Otherness means to recognize the force of white supremacy and the fact of the colonial present that we live in. An embrace that can then lead to real anti-racist and anti-imperialist solidarities with Black and Latino communities, and not the path of “honorary whiteness” that so many have followed under the guise of “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” And instead of denial and hubris on the part of “the West,” there needs to be more honest reflection in order to get at the more troubling and difficult issues that have to do with history, politics, and power – an alchemy of brutality that has created an uneven playing field in which both minorities inside, and the overwhelming majority of the world outside of Europe and the U.S. is having to endure. Because if this more difficult and self-reflective process doesn’t happen, then these protests are just a trailer for what may yet come.
Sohail Daulatzai writes about race, U.S.-Muslim relations, film, hip-hop, U.S. political culture, and American foreign policy. He is the author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America (2012) and is the co-editor (with Michael Eric Dyson) of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic (2009). He has published in numerous anthologies and journals such as Basketball Jones, Black Routes to Islam, The Vinyl Ain’t Final, Souls, Amer-Asia, and SAMAR, as well as having written the liner notes to the upcoming release of the 20th anniversary of Rage Against the Machine’s self titled debut album. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies and the Program in African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He currently lives in Los Angeles and is working on a graphic novel.