By: Abdullah Thomson
Islamophobia – a thousand years of deadly lies
What we are witnessing in today’s socio-political climate is not the first period of intense propagation of Islamophobia in the West. There have been a few other periods which stand out in history and each is intimately linked with empire.
In the 11th century, Pope Urban II spread baseless fear of Islām to a European population who would have had almost no interaction with Muslims. He claimed that “Christianity was in dire peril, threatened by invasion and appalling oppression”. Ostensibly, his call to arms was to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslim infidels, but coming as it did soon after the beginning of the Spanish Reconquista, the capture of Sicily and expansion into Scandinavia from Sweden to Finland, forcing conversion to Christianity as they went, it’s safe to assume it was a smear campaign designed to recruit and motivate troops for an eastward expansion of the Christian Empire. When the streets of Jerusalem and every conquered city on the way ran thick with innocent Muslim blood it was the Islamophobic propaganda that allowed the Christian soldiers to be certain their killing was just and righteous; they had been convinced the Muslims were the aggressors and they therefore believed they were acting in self-defense.
700 years later and the Christian empire’s expansion had, by military conquest, captured almost the entire world. Not least of all by the British who had assumed themselves rightful rulers of India and considered the people therein to be their subjects. In 1857 those subjects “mutinied”. When news of this ingrate behaviour reached England, newspapers published embellished stories of barbarism by the Indians including mass rape and mutilation of British women and girls, claims later found to be baseless.
The reality was that just as many Hindus objected to British rule as did Muslims and the grievances were far broader than publicly admitted. Instead, the telling of the story was restricted to soldiers objecting to the use of pig tallow on gunpowder cartridges designed to be bitten; a nice, simple explanation that persists in the public consciousness to this day. It was said to be an honest mistake by the manufacturers and therefore it is an explanation which maintains the essential illusion of innocence of the imperialists, deflecting blame from years of British foreign policy and placing it back squarely onto the “extremism” instilled in the Indians by their religion. The Guardian of 30th June 1857, speaking about the “insurgency”, states:
“Our readers are familiar enough with the original source of the mischief – a report, whether true or false, that the cartridges served out to the troops had each been smeared in hog’s fat.” “Similar disturbances have before been aroused by causes still more trifling among these excitable and suspicious Orientals.”
The more insignificant the trigger seems to non-Muslims the more the accusation of “unreasonable fanaticism” will ring true. With the mutiny being blamed on orthodox Muslim agitators and not foreign policy, the British public called for merciless retribution to right the wrong done to them. An estimated 100,000 Indians were massacred with many tied to the front of cannons that were then fired. This awe-inspiring deterrent was perhaps what the Guardian journalist had in mind when he called for a response “Impressive enough to produce the requisite sense of awe and horror which should belong to a soldier’s idea of mutiny and its consequences.”
But then, interestingly, back in the UK in 1889, only 32 years later, the first mosque was built; the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, named after a Muslim Emperor of India. Another hundred years on and there are three times more Muslims than Hindus in the UK. In fact, Muslims were so particularly welcome in the UK that in 1961 the British government, four years into a Tory term, commissioned films to be distributed by the Foreign Office to encourage Muslims to emigrate here.
Incredibly the films started by suggesting that emigration to the UK was a religious duty in order to give da’wah or, at the very least, the British establishment understood the concept of da’wah being an acceptable reason for Muslims to leave Dar al-Islām and they were not afraid of a little Islamic proselytizing:
“Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar. This religion is sweet, that came to Prophet Muḥammed and filled the world with goodness and light. Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar. This religion is right. The Prophet emigrated in order to spread the message of the religion and its teachings, thus leading the way for Muslims to emigrate and travel”.
Interviewed British dignitaries described the equality and freedom Muslims were offered in the UK while the film showed that they were able to maintain everything essential to the Muslim way of life; they could pray, have mosques, madrasas, halāl meat. Numerous mentions were made of local ladies marrying Muslims and converting to Islām, including an interview with a revert who was fluent in Arabic and ran a madrasa.
It seems that when there is no effort made to spread anti-Islām propaganda the reality becomes clear; Muslims and Christians get along fine. It should come as no surprise as we have so much in common; our understanding of the nature of the creator, His creation and the requirements made on humans are all very similar, whereas, the eastern religions of Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism are much more alien to the Western mind.
So what about this current period, what has Islām to do with the current upsurge in Islamophobia? Just as before, the answer is almost nothing.
After WW2 the European powers relinquished colonial control of the Arab lands to be replaced by US and some Soviet dominance. It was a more subtle colonialism where a threat to a friendly country was seen as a threat to US interests, along the lines of a mafia protection racket. As long as the Arab leaders dealt favourably with the Western powers everyone would get along fine, and the Arabian Peninsula leaders have done just that ever since. The threat to the status quo came not from the orthodox Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula but from the Arab nationalist and secularist leaders of the North African and Levant Arab states who played the Soviets and Americans off against each other.
On the border between the Soviet empire and nations with US influence sat Afghanistan. In the late 70s it became the battleground in a proxy war. Even before the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan the US began a program to fund, arm and train a new generation of Mujāhidīn, a term not seen since the British were beaten back from Afghanistan a hundred years before. Crucially the US encouraged their resistance to Russian occupation on religious rather than nationalist grounds. Perhaps they did this because the orthodox Muslims of Arabia were western allies throughout the first and second world wars and had been far less trouble for the inexperienced US imperialists than the Arab nationalists in the period since.
In 1979 United States National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was filmed addressing a crowd of Mujāhidīn, looking like the Al Baghdadi of his day with index finger raised, telling them their war was a holy war, to fight for their mosques and that god was on their side.
As well as encouraging thousands of foreign fighters to join this “holy war”, incredibly the CIA provided American-made jihad-inspiring school books for locals with titles such as “The Alphabet for Jihād Literacy”. In 2005 Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary Robin Cook summed up the result:
“Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahedeen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.”
It is interesting to note that Robin Cook clearly implies the West’s involvement in the Arab world was comparable to the Soviet’s in Afghanistan. For what other reason would he say it is “inexplicable” that Washington did not predict a follow-on anti-Western resistance effort by Al-Qaida? Did they think the Arab fighters would not turn around after defeating the Soviets and notice that the Western powers had similar control over the Arab world? But the US likely did not expect the Mujāhidīn would actually win the war but perhaps thought they would at least halt the Soviets advance south and keep them busy. In geopolitics the limited options for a nation engulfed in a continuing war might be preferred for maintaining the status quo, while in peacetime, socio-economic development can be more unpredictable.
Contrary to popular myth it wouldn’t have needed a jaundiced thinker like the often blamed Sayyid Qutb (rahimahullāh) to highlight non-Muslim control of the Arab lands and feel an injustice was being done. If Robin Cook could see it why wouldn’t Al-Qaida? Conveniently though, Sayyid Qutb’s writings include a puritanical angle and this has formed the basis for the Islamophobic propaganda that Al-Qaida, and by association “The Muslims”, were only attacking the folks of the West because “they hate our freedoms”; as though political, economic and military subservience to a foreign power would be less of a concern than people thousands of miles away wearing miniskirts and freely mixing. Once again, the propagandist creates a story of innocent imperialists wronged by a simple to understand unreasonable religious fanaticism.
The CIA training and arming of Al-Qaida is frequently brought up by conspiracy theorists who point out that Al-Qaida has handed the US a perfect pretext to militarily overrun the parts of the Arab world it did not already control. However, before 9/11, Zbigniew Brzezinski seemed unconcerned to admit his critical role in the initiation of Al-Qaida, making it seem more likely to have been an unintended consequence which they have since taken advantage of. The following is transcript from an interview he gave in January 1998:
Question: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Question: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.
Brzezinski: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.
Since 9/11 he strenuously denies he was influential, blaming the rise of Al-Qaida and the Taliban entirely on the Soviet invasion.
To him, Islām generally looked like a waning force; the Ottoman Empire had crumbled from within, the Arab rulers quietly acquiesced to European, then US or Soviet dominance or succumbed to infighting. The fact was Brzezinski knew that Islām was not inspiring in the Muslims any significant anti-Western fervour.
A month later, two of those “stirred up Moslems”; Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a “global fatwa” requiring every Muslim to undertake violent jihād against “the Jews and the Crusaders”. This proved Brzezinski wrong in the sense that the Muslims he had stirred up were clearly some kind of potential threat, but also that he was right; the Muslim world was not even slightly united by or agreeing to their call for an anti-Western jihād and it was universally dismissed. If only everyone would remember that the sum total of “problem” Muslims were the ones the US themselves had trained and armed.
Lately, the call to jihad has been repeated in a more bastardised form by ISIS which, again, would not have got very far without the military aid of the USA and Britain. Western politicians and media repeatedly claim Saudi Arabia is fueling ISIS by promoting Islamic orthodoxy, which the West ignorantly insists on calling Wahhabism. But ISIS are not mobilised by Wahhabi Humvees and Wahhabi tanks that they conveniently found in the Iraqi desert with the keys in their Wahhabi ignitions. The leadership of ISIS are far from a background of Islamic orthodoxy being mainly Saddam loyalists and Baath party members, and they are far from implementing a “literal interpretation of the Qurān” or the Sunnah of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) as is too often claimed. On the contrary Saudi scholars have declared ISIS as Khawārij, “the dogs of the hellfire”, and the Islām they practice is very far from the Salafiyya of Saudi Arabia.
It is wanton ignorance to blame the influence of a reformer from the time of the French Revolution while failing to note that anti-Western militarism did not exist in the modern Arab world and does not maintain momentum there unless the West arms it, funds it and provides it a reason for being. But it is to be expected when a religion is falsely accused of causing harm that it will be assumed the more of that religion a people have the more of a problem those people will be. It is a natural consequence of that same old deadly lie; once again being used to mask imperialism and as a justification for controlling people with extreme violence. The ignorant Westerners sleep peacefully in their beds utterly convinced that it is necessary self-defense when those “fanatical Muslims” are killed by drone strikes in theirs.
There are two main points that we should take from this history. The first is that were the Islamophobia propagation to cease the worst of Islamophobia would quickly disappear from the minds of non-Muslims. Some people will always be suspicious of differences but the invented justification for baseless hatred of Muslims would soon be forgotten. The second is the solution to our international problems which is repeatedly advised by Muslims is in fact true: If the West stopped bombing, invading and pillaging Muslim nations, no Muslims will feel any need to attack the West because of our freedoms. In fact as Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted, barely any Muslims were even up in arms about the last few centuries of colonialism and pillaging, until the Americans gave a few of them arms and stirred them up.
For now, until we defeat the Islamophobic narrative, we are trapped facing violence with no way out; eerily similar to those Muslims in besieged medieval cities, trapped by crusaders who appeared one day from the West, violently defending Christianity against a non-existent Muslim aggression. While the reason for those rare anti-western attacks is claimed and believed to be our religious fanaticism Western people will continue to believe that they need to attack us, ideologically and militarily, until we have given up some or all of our religion. A deadly impasse and why we must do everything in our power to defeat Islamophobia.