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Spreading Awareness or Smearing a Religion?

With much fanfare, a collection of far-right ideologues backed by right-wing “think tank” money are proclaiming an “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” on college campuses beginning Oct. 22. It is a calculated effort to vilify Islam in general, place Muslim Student Associations on the defensive, and generate support for further U.S. military action in the Islamic world.

Muslims constitute about a quarter of the world’s population and around two percent of the U.S. population. They include members of many ethnic groups. Arabs are a minority in the Muslim world; the most populous Muslim countries (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh) are non-Arab. The Muslim world is complex and divided, religiously (into Sunni, Shiite, and other groups) and politically. There are Muslim absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, secular states and Islamic republics. To understand this world, one needs to dispassionately examine it, avoiding stereotypes.

But immediately after 9-11, the Bush administration, having no patience with “nuance,” set about trying to link the secular republic of Iraq with the (mostly Saudi) al-Qaeda religious fanatics. It believe that having been attacked by al-Qaeda most Americans would support an attack on the completely unrelated target of Iraq. But what did al-Qaeda and Iraq have in common? The former hated the latter for its suppression of Islamic religious activism, and its tolerance for Christians and other religious minorities. But somehow Bush was able to conflate the two, so that even today about a third of Americans believe Saddam was involved in 9-11. Those on the Christian right are most inclined to this view, and to embrace sentiments like those expressed by right-wing extremist Ann Coulter in National Review Sept. 13, 2001: “We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” But they’re joined by secular neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz who has called on Bush to bomb Iran, which he calls “the currently main center of the Islamofascist ideology.”

Iran is another country with no ties to 9-11 or al-Qaeda, and indeed a mortal enemy of the latter. But it is another Muslim state in the Bush administration’s crosshairs, along with Syria-yet another, very different, Muslim country. It’s in this context, and that of general disillusionment with the Iraq War, that the radical neoconservatives are pushing this “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” It’s the brainchild of David Horowitz, professional “former leftist” and Fox News commentator, proponent of the Iraq War who called one antiwar demonstration in 2002 “100,000 Communists,” and author of a book attacking college professors as “far left” in general. He founded (as a non-student in his 60s) “Students for Academic Freedom” which insists that conservative students are treated unfairly in academe. Horowitz is known for his 1990s ads in student newspapers protesting calls for reparations for slavery, stating that African-Americans should be thankful that they’re here. In 2003 he maligned Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli military bulldozer while protesting a house demolition in Gaza, as a “terrorist” supporter. He is not about spreading “awareness” but selectively focusing on aspects of the Muslim world that might produce sympathy for more U.S.-sponsored “regime change.”

The “Islam-Fascism Awareness Week” strategy is apparently to focus on gender inequality in the Muslim world. Participating students invite women’s groups and gaylesbian groups to get involved, hoping to build a united front of general indignation at Islamic oppression of women and gays. Of course, in the Muslim world the status of women varies; under Saddam’s secular Iraqi women were subject to no dress code, were among the best educated in the Arab world, and served in government, while under U.S. occupation their status (and that of gays) has plummeted. There is a big difference between the status of women in Syria and in Saudi Arabia. Recall how Laura Bush made a big deal about the burqa in Afghanistan, implying that the U.S. invasion would somehow remove it? It’s still worn by the great majority of Afghan women. It was not invented by the Taliban and has not disappeared just because the U.S. has installed a client regime.

The term “Islamofascism” itself—popularized by Eliot Cohen (Condi Rice’s deputy), Frank J. Gaffney and other neocon writers for the National Review, and used by President Bush in saber-rattling speeches—is highly problematic. It’s defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “a controversial term equating some modern Islamic movements with the European fascist movements of the early twentieth century.” I teach every year Japanese fascism in the 1930s and 40s. I discuss different definitions of fascism, pointing out how some seem to fit the Japanese case, while others don’t, causing some scholars to even reject application of the term. But there is precious little in any mainstream scholarly definition of fascism that applies to the Islamic world in general or even specific countries. What “ideology” links the disparate targets of this administration-the al-Qaeda and Taliban Sunni fanatics, the Baathists of Iraq and Syria, the Shiite mullocracy”guided democracy” of Iran—other than the common denominator of Islam? But you can’t in polite company attack Islam in general, so you dub it “Islamofascism.”

Those seeking to link contemporary Islam with European fascism emphasize feelings of victimization and dreams of restoring lost glory. But where in the Muslim world is the charismatic leader? Bin Laden? The Baathists and Shiites hate him. Where’s the mass-based party? Where’s ultranationalism or racism? Islam emphasizes the equality of peoples before God, while the Qur’an explicitly states that righteous Christians and Jews will enter Paradise.

The real intention here is to couple “Islam” with a powerful epithet, devoid of analytical content, conjuring up images of a universally detested past. Bush insists on comparing the constitutionally weak Iranian President Ahmadinejad, leading a country that hasn’t attacked another in hundreds of years, with Hitler (as his father compared Saddam to Hitler). Similarly, the proponents of the “Islamofascism” concept want to play upon emotions rather than really spread “awareness.” Their historical analogies are absurd, while their planned week is more than an affront to Muslims. It is an insult to everybody’s intelligence.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

(This column originally appeared in the Tufts Daily.)

 

 

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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