Islamophobia and structuring the post-Cold War new world order

Hatem Bazian

The shift towards Islamophobia and using the Muslim subject as the singular global strategic threat emerged toward the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though a case can be made that the 1979 Iranian Revolution intensified the negative representation of Islam and Muslims in the West, particularly in the US, nevertheless, the scope of the demonization was not on the same scale that emerged in the post-Cold War era. In the U.K. context, the appearance of Islamophobia as a concept into public policy can be traced to the Iranian revolution and the Salman Rushdie affair, which brought an intense focus on the Muslim community due to the perceived or real support for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination. Certainly, the political leadership and the media discourses at the time were filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric and drawing a distinction between Iran (representing a feared aspect of Islam) and the West.

It is not surprising that Edward Said’s book, “Covering Islam,” was written to explore the media demonization of Islam and Muslims after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. On the other hand, Said’s “Orientalism” navigated the long history of representations, scholarly writing and stereotyping that often served as a stable source material for the reproduction of Arab and Muslim ‘otherization.’

The anti-Iranian and anti-Shia discourses in the Western and Arab press were balanced at the time with constructing a favorable view of the Sunni Afghan Mujhadeen, who had an important strategic function in confronting and bleeding the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Thus, a certain Sunni jihadi worldview was incubated in the US and Europe that supported, on the one hand, the war in Afghanistan and on the other a readiness to oppose and confront the Iranian revolution, the pretext of defending the eastern gate of the Arab world from the Iranian Shia expansion. This means that between 1979 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamophobia was given a localized and distinct anti-Shia aim rather than being an all-encompassing strategy to demonize Islam or Muslims as a single category.

Importantly, the focus shifted on Dual Containment in US foreign policy, a policy fixed on countering Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, which included targeting Iran for the Shia revolution and the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Libya, as well as Iraq until it joined the Arab and Western strategy to reverse, counter and bleed the Iranian Revolution. In this period, the “Islamic threat” specifically meant the Iranian Shia threat and “our” allies were the Sunni Jihadi fundamentalists that encompassed the full spectrum of Sunni-oriented groups and sects. Navigating this strategy required a careful cultivation of alliances and constructing a narrative that would resonate and enable Sunni majority governments to mobilize their intelligence agencies to recruit individuals to participate in the two-front war, the Afghan war against the Russians and on the Iraqi front opposing Iran. In both cases, construction of Sunni jihadi Islam was the needed “religious” tonic to bring forth foot soldiers to the battlefields in the thousands and unbeknownst to them assist the US, Europe, and the Arab and Muslim states in implementing the containment strategy.

Before and after the Cold War era: The watershed moment for the emergence of Islamophobia, an all-encompassing and undifferentiated in terms of sect and group, is directly connected to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the immediate outcome of the Gulf War and the Palestinian uprising that provided the stage for problematizing Islam and Muslims as a single threatening subject. Islamic groups, sects and organizations played an important role during the Cold War by providing a counter and indigenously framed religious epistemic to counter socialism, communism and self-determination oriented nationalism, which has proven to be a very successful strategy. However, the end of the Cold War and the shifts into a unipolar world produced contestation and a race at home and abroad to define the emerging “new world order,” but more importantly, a pursuit of opportunities to reshape the US military and economic priorities in the new era.

During this period and post-Cold War, Muslims and Islam become an otherized category in the US with multipronged levels of exclusion and forms of racialized discrimination inflicted upon individuals and groups. The othering process directed at Muslims was unleashed by the political elites that wanted to craft a strategy to contest and maintain power in the post-Cold War era, which included a heavy emphasis on the massive military expenditures, which might had been cut after the defeat of the Soviet Union. As the red “evil empire” came to an end, the machinery for crafting a “green menace” took shape in the form of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which provided the needed shift and the utilization of cultural racism as the basis for differentiation and hostility. Using cultural racism as the basis for the “Clash of Civilization” thesis is the rebranding of the pre-WW II discredited biological racism and is offered as a signpost for the same sets of racist attitudes and perspectives that were deployed in the earlier biological version.

In this context, Islamophobia is less about Islam or even about Muslims themselves, their lives and hopes but more about the insecurity of Western societies as a whole. The Cold War created a common framework and presented “us” as the good side fighting collectively against “them,” the communists who represented evil, but the question was what to do afterward and what was the path forward. Targeting Islam and Muslims is the way to define politics, culture, economy, religion and identity in the post-Cold War period. By magnifying the differences and then transforming them into an existential threat in the mind of the US and Western public, the forging of a fictitious sense of patriotic unity and purpose is possibly actualized. The US political elites that were suckled on confronting the “evil empire” emerged less confident and unsure about the present and future considering all the global political, economic and social changes that unfolded rapidly. The use of Islamophobia and demonization of Islam and Muslims serves the perfect diversion for populist politicians who have no real vision for the future and are able to monetize fear to slither their way into seats of power with venomous rhetoric promising restoration and greatness.

The clash of civilizations

Bernard Lewis’s Clash of Civilizations thesis, made popular through the writings of Samuel Huntington, offered the new framing for post-Cold War era by stating: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” For Huntington and the many who adopted his framing, the biggest challenge for the West will come from an emerging Confucian-Islamic connection, primarily concentrated around the asserted right to develop and deploy nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons, which are seen as a counter to the Western powers’ adoption of non-proliferation. In the Clash of Civilizations thesis, Western elites and state actors located a new enemy of choice through which the maintenance and extension of military, economic, social, and religious power can be extended.

The thesis translates Islamophobia into a foreign policy paradigm and re-orients Western states’ policies towards confronting the Islamic-Chinese alliance. Islamophobia becomes the tool needed for birthing the new world order. In an article published in the Nation magazine, Edward Said called the thesis “The Clash of Ignorance” whereby “Labels like “Islam” and “the West” serve only to confuse us about a disorderly reality.” Furthermore, Said said: “Neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture, or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam [is] Islam.”In chapter one of the book, Huntington uses a quote that goes directly into framing post-Cold War anti-Islam discourses, which for him serves as the means to define “what we are” at a moment of global change: “One grim Weltanschauung for this new era was well expressed by the Venetian nationalist demagogue in Michael Dibdin’s novel, ‘Dead Lagoon’ – ‘There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven.'” The unfortunate truth in these old truths cannot be ignored by statesmen and scholars. For peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential, and the potentially most dangerous enmities occur across the fault lines between the world’s major civilizations.” The purpose of the thesis is to locate and love ourselves by means of locating and hating what we are not, which for Huntington is represented by Muslims and the Chinese.

Understood correctly, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis is a call to affirm the worldview of the West, or more accurately the US, by drawing clear distinctions from the Islamic and Sinic civilizations. Here, Muslim and Islamic subjects (as well as the Chinese but this issue will not be addressed here) are instruments to forge an internal cohesion in the US that, in Huntington’s mind, is missing at present and is needed to maintain and extend America’s power and domination. Not surprisingly, Huntington’s follow-up book framed the problem as one of diversity and asserting that the perceived Western weakness is due to “multiculturalism,” which “is in its essence anti-European civilization. It is basically an anti-Western ideology.” In “Who are we?” Huntington is framing it as a question and answering it by problematizing the increasing presence of Mexicans in the US and viewing them as a threat to maintaining the cohesive nature of the country due to various factors that prevent assimilation into American society. Taken together, “Clash of Civilizations” and “Who are we?” provide an ideological blueprint for a new conceptualization of the problems that have beset right wing and conservative agenda since the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

The new world order: Precisely, the emergence of the Clash of Civilizations thesis allowed for the state, the far-right counter-jihad movement, the neoconservative movement, sizable segments of the transnational Zionist movement and assorted liberal groupings, including the pro-war left and the new atheist movement, to unleash a barrage of Islamophobic discourses to rationalize the new world order and their central role in countering it. Thus, Islamophobia becomes an ideological policy funnel through which international and domestic alliances and coalitions are formed whereby participants use Islam and Muslim subjectivities as the foil to array their varied political, economic and military interests. All the forces mentioned produced materials to saturate political circles, media coverage and public discourses to the exclusion or marginalization of the voices that are not committed to this framing. The case of Islamophobia is the same as the way that the anti-communist and Cold War period produced horizontal and vertical domestic and international alliances and forces committed to the policy.

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