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Unholy Alliance

Since 9/11, I have written and published several essays examining the reductive discourses that sprang up, mushroom-like, in mainstream media particularly within the US, to explain that apocalyptic moment in terms of an “Us/Them” binary. Many of these limited, and in my opinion, spurious analyses (written and promoted by the likes of Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes etc) need to be challenged for obvious reasons. The most important of these, as far as I am concerned, is that linking Islam to terrorism does absolutely nothing to vitiate the anger and resentment millions of Muslims around the world feel toward the West in general and the United States in particular in this unipolar world, for what are essentially political reasons: the economic lop-sidedness of a top-down, winner-take-all globalization that serves to increase the wealth and power of the richer nations at the expense of the poorer ones.

The egregious example of the state of Israel, which is supported unequivocally by the USA militarily and economically to serve as its watchdog and policeman in the Middle East whose oil resources continue to fuel (no pun intended!), the imperial interests of the USA and other western nations, underscores for the vast majority of third world peoples, of whom Muslims comprise a substantial portion, the connection between the maintenance of global hegemony and colonial usurpation of indigenous peoples ‘ lands and resources and their concomitant subjugation and dehumanization. The ire against Israel that is manifesting itself increasingly vocally across not just the third world but within the heartland of Europe, should thus be seen for what it is: not as evidence of a “rise in anti-semitism” as supporters of Israel wish to paint it (including, unsurprisingly, prominent cabinet members of Ariel Sharon’s right-wing government that is busy erecting yet more settlements in the Occupied Territories on a daily basis), but as the legitimate frustration of the world’s have-nots against the haves. Israel, seen in this light, is simply the example par excellence, of the oppression and injustice upon which the contemporary world class system, the New world Order with USA at its head, is based. Insofar as the state of Israel proclaims itself to be a state for “Jews only,” the expressions of anger directed against it (in its capacity as Colonialism’s last outpost)–necessarily take on what appear to some to be the markings of anti-semitism, but are, in fact, the ire of colonized and neo-colonized peoples against the colonial Master.

In two previous essays of mine, “Here are the Muslim Feminist Voices, Mr. Rushdie!” and “Islam and Identity,” I critiqued Salman Rushdie for his abject willingness to mouth the most cliched of colonialist rantings against the Islamic world: that there are no intellectuals worth their salt within Muslim societies, particularly no Feminist intellectuals, since Islam is an utterly regressive and at bottom, profoundly anti-modern religion (are Judaism and Christianity profoundly modern, then??)–whose followers are “anti-semites” and whose critiques of Israeli state policies are labeled by Rushdie as “Islamic slander against Jews” (Op-Ed page, NYT, Nov 2, 2001). Such a sweeping indictment of Muslims and of Muslim societies is repulsive because it panders to dangerous stereotypes of Muslims-as-fundamentalist-terrorists, which is precisely the kind of thinking that has gotten us to the apocalyptic juncture of world history we are so unfortunately witnessing today, with battle positions hardening on both sides: the avenging (yet seen in their own eyes as “liberating”) Judeo-Christian armies of the West on the one hand, and the terrorist Muslim barbarian hordes massing on the gates of “Civilization” on the other hand. Such a dangerous, but surely cartoonish vision of the world into these simplistic binaries was popular only amongst the lunatic fringe, I used to think. However, that “fringe” has expanded since 9/11, to include most of the US citizenry today, what with the various polls revealing high levels of support for President Bush up until very recently (even now, a majority of Americans support his “war on terror,” despite angst over the mounting numbers of American dead, and no evidence to date of WMDs; these folks still believe, as one of my students wrote in an angry response to an anti-war poem I had them read in class, “just because we haven’t found them, does not mean these weapons of mass destruction do not exist”)! What is interesting, and more than a little frightening to observe, is that this type of fanatical, extremist way of thinking/carving up the world into “Us” and “Them,” has reared its ugly head on college campuses as well, those bastions of so-called “liberal thought” and “academic freedom.” I would like to comment on a recent incident on my own campus, Montclair State University, that reveals the overlapping and intertwined agendas which are shared, paradoxical though this may seem, by right-wing neo-conservatives on both sides of the ideological divide.

Even more frightening, however, is the fact that this neo-con agenda, which is increasingly being adopted by Zionist Jewish intellectuals as a way to serve the cause of Israeli state aggression against the Palestinians, is aided and abetted by the so-called fundamentalist Muslims whose extremist views on a host of issues (including the “proper role” of women) can be used as evidence of their overall regressive mentality leading to terroristic behavior. This is so clearly an apolitical, ahistorical analysis of the contemporary Muslim world that it continually astonishes me as to how anyone can believe it. Yet, Israel supporters can, with the help of these conservative Muslim groups, “sell” the US public the myth that Israel is a western-style democracy defending itself against Palestinian (re:Islamic, even though approx 7% of Palestinians are Christians) terrorists hell-bent on destroying it through the pathetic acts of suicide bombers whose Israeli victims to date number barely a fraction of the thousands of Palestinian civilians killed, maimed, rendered homeless on a daily basis by Israeli tanks, gunships and Apache helicopters all supplied by US, and engaged in state-sponsored terrorism against Palestinians whose lands have been and continue to be occupied by Israel in contravention of International law since 1967.

This type of analysis then extends itself as an explanatory prism through which to view ALL critics of Israel, especially if they happen to be Muslim, as potential terrorists, and indeed, such a way of thinking has already led Congress to pass a bill that would, in effect, police academics teaching in Middle Eastern and other Area Studies programs across the US.

On Oct 21st, 2003, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill, HR 3077, that, if passed into law, could require international studies departments to show more support for American foreign policy or risk their federal funding. Its approval followed hearings this summer in which members of Congress listened to testimony about the pernicious influence of the late Edward Said in Middle Eastern studies departments, described as enclaves of debased anti-Americanism. Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank, testified,” Title-VI funded programs in Middle Eastern Studies (and other area studies) tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticism of American foreign policy.” Evidently, the House agreed and decided to intervene. (Goldberg 2)

Clearly, if this bill passes into law, it will curtail federal grants to Middle Eastern studies departments and programs across US universities unless they can prove that their faculty are not inspiring “terrorist” thinking in their students simply by teaching them to critically examine US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere! The bill, sponsored by pro-Israel lawmakers and inspired by American-born Israeli citizen, Martin Kramer, wants to tie federal funding to an explicit mandate to heads of these programs to hire pro-Israeli professors in their programs, on the grounds that these programs are overstuffed with left-wing pro-Arab, pro-Islamic radicals, who constitute an intellectual fifth-column in the country. That such a”deranged fantasy” as Professor Juan Cole of the U of Mich points out, could be taken seriously as a basis for a Congressional bill, is a scary thought. Most of the “experts” receiving Title VI grants, according to Cole, are pro-Israeli hawks: Leonard Binder, political scientist at UCLA, actually fought on the side of Israel in the 1948 war, others, like Ellis Goldberg at Washington U, Joel Migdal at Harvard, Marc Tessler at U of Michigan, Gary Sick at Columbia, are all supporters of Israel. Thus, it is indeed disturbing that the fast-approaching obsolescence of academic freedom is being promoted by Zionist academics who have tremendous power in this government and within academia, and who are determined to prevent any criticism of US foreign-policy regarding Israel and the Middle East from affecting the minds of the American people, who might then reconsider the “war on terror” from quite a different analytic angle, one in which Zionism, Islamophobia as well as fanatical Islamicism and capitalist oppression of “others” all conspire together to preserve a status quo that is literally driving the world into the abyss of annihilation.

So, how are certain Muslim groups helping to further this conservative, capitalist agenda which supports injustice and oppression in the world as a fundamental precondition of its own power? The Muslim groups I am talking about in this particular instance are the various chapters of the Muslim Students Association found across the USA today. Most of these attract young immigrant or first generation Muslims looking for an identity to hold onto in the midst of confusing times. Unfortunately, it is the most regressive variety of Islam that holds sway in these organizations, and so, for instance, the students who are office bearers of the MSA at MSU are men who sport beards and name themselves in Saudi/Arab fashion (since Arab Islam, particularly of the Saudi variety is seen as the “authentic” version by conservatives), even when they happen to be of different ethnicities and backgrounds (case in point: the President of the MSA is a young man from India, who calls himself Anwar bin Omar–an appellation that has no roots in India but is in fact, an Arab construction). Women similarly present themselves in the most conservative way possible, heads covered in Arab-style hijabs, often wearing long coat-like garments to conceal their body shapes.

To these young men and women, Islam is essentially a conservative ideology of life which can help resolve the contradictions of life in a consumerist, inegalitarian, capitalist society where everything, including the female body, is a commodity in the marketplace–by “restoring” the balance between men and women that has been disrupted by modernity (delinked from a class analysis). According to this logic, if women stay home and defer to their men, in a gesture mimicking subservience to God, all will be well–and ofcourse, an important part of that subservience has to be in the form of dress, since to expose the body is tantamount to disruption–creating “fitna” or chaos which is misogynistically linked to women’s bodies, women’s sexuality under the patriarchal class system common to all religious ideologies, including Islam. Thus, this conservative reading of Islam serves the ideological purposes of pro-Israeli cohorts on US campuses and everywhere else, for that matter,(which include the Christian right wing groups of which Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Tom Delay and indeed, the entire US White House staff appear to be a part of)– since it is a short logical step to connect the “oppression of women” endemic to the philosophy of such groups to their penchant for violence in other arenas. Indeed, in her review of Stern’s book, Terror in the Name of God, Isabel Hilton points out the similarity between fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims by quoting one of the former as reported by Stern:

Here in Israel, we don’t like to say this very loudly, but the radical right Jewish groups have a lot in common with Hamas.

Both, Stern goes on to add, have twin political and religious objectives and both use selective readings of religious texts and of history to justify violence over territory (NYT Book Review Section, p. 50, Sun Nov 16, 2003, my emphasis).

Control over the bodies of women conceived as the territory or possession of men for instance, is a form of violence that is discursively similar to that enacted against the inhabitants of Occupied Territories–in both cases, it is naturalized through discourse–religious in the case of the former, and nationalist/Zionist in the case of the latter. What is elided in both cases is that such ideological ruses (even when they are adopted by victims claiming “freedom of choice” as in the case of Muslim women who insist their covering of themselves is a “happy choice”) ultimately paper over the real issue of oppression of the many by the few: in other words, such an ideology serves to keep the status quo of a capitalist patriarchal world order in tact, with ruling-class men, be they named Bush, Sharon , Saddam or Osama, doing their best to keep the world in a perpetual state of War, which, as Orwell had so presciently foretold in his novel 1984, was the only way to keep the elite in power in their palaces and the rest of us disenfranchised and hungry to one degree or another.

My attempts, then, at finessing these links that I see between “Islamic” terrorism and Israeli/US terrorism, between the oppression of women and the oppression of the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless (epitomized in the inhuman treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government which serves as our colonial enforcer in the region) are basically aimed at deconstructing the links between Islam as a religion that has been hijacked to serve the ends of western imperialism and Muslim patriarchal control, and Islam as political rallying cry for the oppressed and the disenfranchised of the world, who are fed up with being subjected to new forms of colonialism through the globalization-from-above paradigm being forced down their throats. Yet, this de-linking, or re-linking of patriarchy, religion and realpolitik, if you will, has had equally unsettling effects on my liberal colleagues at MSU, including the Women’s Studies faculty on whose Advisory Board I have served for many years, as well as on the Muslim students; I have become a persona-non-grata with the Zionists on campus in this and other organizations, as well as with the religious Muslims. And those who are affiliated to neither camp, are more often than not, afraid to speak up and defend positions like mine, because they are afraid of “insulting” people who inhabit/identify with either extremes.

Thus, when a number of organizations on campus–with the Global Studies Institute spearheading the initiative, led by an ardent promoter of Israel, followed by Women’s Studies, the Women’s Center, the Department of Religion and Philosophy, and the MSA– decided to plan a year-long series called “The Many Faces of the Muslim World,” they, quite deliberately, left me out of their planning sessions. Nor, unsurprisingly, did they deign to invite me as a speaker at any of their listed events, despite the fact that I am perhaps the only faculty member on campus who is both a Muslim and a scholar of Islamic Feminism–with many published works in the area. A Muslim woman who says what I say is anathema to all these groups since I can neither be marshalled as evidence of Oppressed Muslim Womanhood, nor as a mouthpiece for pro-Israeli, anti-Islamic rhetoric, nor as an apologist for Islam.If I don’t inhabit a binary position, I don’t exist.

I would like to conclude this essay simply by suggesting that there is a dangerous convergence, not just of right-wing forces representing all religious ideologies, but what is perhaps worse, of scared intellectuals in various disciplines that are supposed to be committed to speaking truth to power (Women’s Studies being one of these supposedly exemplary fields)–where the conspiracy to silence around certain “sacred cows” such as the topic of Israel– outweighs the need to speak out unequivocally against injustice wherever it occurs. Such a convergence contributing to a pervasive culture of fear must be challenged if we are to reclaim our integrity not just as academics and scholars, but as human beings committed to finding just solutions to the problems and inequities of the world we live in.

FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is a professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She can be reached at: khanf@mail.montclair.edu

Bibliography:

Goldberg, Michelle. “Osama University?“, Salon.com

Hilton, Isabel. Review, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill By Jessica Stern. In The New York Times, Book Review Section, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003, p. 50.

 

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Fawzia Afzal-Khan holds a Phd in English from Tufts University, is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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