The false narrative that “Islamophobia” is a growing threat received a boost at the “Fourth Annual International Conference on the Study of Islamophobia: From Theorizing to Systematic Documentation,” which took place at the University of California, Berkeley on April 19 and 20, 2013 under the chairmanship of its foremost conceptual proponent, Hatem Bazian. A senior lecturer in UC Berkeley’s department of Near Eastern studies, Bazian directs the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project (IRDP), a program of the school’s Center for Race & Gender, and sits on the editorial board for the Islamophobia Studies Journal. The IRDP is heavily invested in promoting the belief that “Islamophobia” is on the rise globally and its annual conferences (click here and here to read about previous years) never fail to ratchet up the hysteria.
The conference opened just as a massive manhunt was launched in Boston for the two Islamic terrorists, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who bombed the Boston Marathon earlier in the week. Predictable anticipations of a coming “backlash” against Muslims—which never developed—were repeated throughout the event. Ironically, actual violence against Muslims came at the hands of Turks against Syrian refugees after a car bombing killed 52 people in Reyhanli, Turkey on May 11, 2013.
An audience of approximately sixty-five students, many of them women in hijab (head scarf), attended the second day of the conference, eager to learn about the “‘Othering’ of Islam,” the “racialization of Muslims,” and the definition of “Islamophobia”:
A contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure, which rationalizes the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilizational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise).
In other words, it was a day of mind-numbing jargon delivered by academics bent on creating the very panic and division they claim to decry.
During the “Islamophobia, Law and Public Discourses” panel, Keith Feldman, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, gave a presentation titled, “How (Anti)Terrorism Went Viral.” He focused on the likening in public discourse of terrorism to a virus or a disease that’s contagious, without boundaries, and to which no country is immune. Feldman’s evidence included comments by Newt Gingrich and former George H. W. Bush special assistant Richard N. Haass, and the 1979 Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism (an obsession of conspiracy theorists).
“In addressing the particular question of anti-Muslim racism,” Feldman concluded, such language is used to secure “the homeland against a medicalized threat in its capacity to pathologize subject populations”—a claim undermined by the unacknowledged fact that only the word “terrorism,” not “Muslim,” was used by those he cited to describe this metaphorical infection.
Saeed Khan, a history professor and lecturer in Near East and Asian studies at Wayne State University, began his lecture, “Islamophobia and Other Anti-Progressive Campaigns in the Midst of Americas Demographic Shift,” by alluding to:
[W]hat has transpired over the last several days in Boston and the unfortunate inevitable reaction I think many in the room are expecting will happen vis-a-vis Islamophobia in its various manifestations.
Noting that some estimates put minorities in the majority in the U.S. by 2043, Khan predicted “an age of multiple moral panics because of this demographic shift” among whites and in particular, white Republicans. “I am situating . . . Islamophobia within this meta-panic,” he added, before devoting the bulk of his talk to the six “anti-progressive” issues he attributed to various Republican legislators:
Voter ID and voter suppression efforts, immigration ‘reform,’ those efforts targeting the LGBT community, reproductive and contraceptive rights, collective bargaining rights at work, along with anti-Sharia, anti-mosque initiatives. . . . By some strange coincidence, a single political party is behind all these efforts: the same politicians targeting all groups. Muslim groups are part of a bigger ‘Other.’
Khan didn’t explain how opposing the implementation of Sharia law in the U.S. dovetails with issues such as gay and women’s rights. Instead, he detailed his plans to conduct a “study, hopefully ready in time for the mid-term election season in 2014,” which “will be looking at all fifty states and DC, locating Islamophobia within these six groups as targets of a coordinated effort.” He left no doubt that this “coordinated effort” would include targeting the Republican legislators in question for defeat.
Jasmin Zine, an associate professor of sociology at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, spoke on “Constructing the ‘Enemies Within’: Muslim Youth, Islamophobia, and the Racial Politics of Canada’s ‘Home Grown’ War on Terror,” as part of the “Islamophobia in the Age of War” panel. Having based her research on interviews with young Canadian Muslims, Zine asked rhetorically how she could guarantee the confidentiality of her subjects under the “politics of empire” in “Canada’s war on terror.” As she put it:
I am a well known activist, but . . . what if my data can be confiscated, because of a ‘person of interest’ label? . . . How do we do our research because of this context of Islamophobia?
Lamenting “Canadian images of the home grown,” she complained that the “terrible tragedy in Boston has evoked this home grown terrorist . . . before the facts of the case were known.” The fact that the perpetrators of the Boston bombing were Islamic terrorists or that a thwarted plot to derail a passenger train traveling from New York to Toronto the following week involved three Islamic terrorists rather undermined her comments.
Noting that her interview subjects had expressed hesitation at playing paintball or “violent video games in public concourse at the university” for fear of looking like terrorists, Zine added, “I call this the Panopticon of self-surveillance; internalizing the gaze.” She described how she and her nineteen-year-old son also suffer from this alleged malady:
We go to Muslim youth events. We play a game: Spot the agent. The guy with the beard, the curious white woman—who? We know someone is there watching; we are very aware of it.
Beyond her paranoia and narcissism, Zine seemed unaware that these “hardships” weren’t exactly heartrending during a week when a number of Americans were killed and maimed by the very Islamic terrorists she deemed imaginary.
On the same panel, Tamirace Fakhoury, a political science and international relations professor at Lebanese American University in Beirut who was a visiting postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 2011, spoke about “Debunking Islamophobia?: the Discourse of Arab and Muslim Student Associations at UC Berkeley.” Her presentation explored the level of activism the “non-state actors” and “transnational contesters” in these student associations devote to countering “Islamophobia.” Her jargon-filled, stream of consciousness digressions were opaque:
Colonialist and Orientalist perceptions generating counter-narratives; disentangling the Palestinian issue from Islamophobic connotations; recasting as a civil rights narrative . . . Transnational associations recasting discussion of Islamophobia . . . analytical framework, which consists of structural context and the discursive strategies of actions.
In time, Fakhoury shifted course and suddenly stated, “The question here is whether these international associations of students matter.” Answering in the affirmative, assuming that “resistance” is their primary goal, she provided a list of helpful suggestions, including improving access to resources and fellowships, checking the ethnicity box on student applications “so that they could separate themselves with other Arabs,” and asking for courses that challenge the “Orientalist colonial narrative.” She urged students to invite speakers to campus to “show how and why Islamophobia is a policy construct of the United States” and to take advantage of “Berkeley’s opportunity structure” to further their “global commitment to morality social justice coalition building.”
Fakhoury concluded that students’ most significant objective should be to introduce resolutions at various campuses condemning “Islamophobic hate speech,” including the assertion that Islam is “inherently dictocratic.” She never mentioned the importance of free speech, an apolitical education, or the cultivation of an identity separate from one’s ethnicity or religion.
Hatem Bazian concluded the day by examining Twitter activity surrounding the conference. A PowerPoint presentation featured the faces of the scholar of Islam Robert Spencer, blogger and activist Pamela Geller, and television/radio host Glenn Beck. Claiming that Spencer had issued an “Islamophobic tweet,” the contents of which he didn’t reveal, he warned the audience that, “The Islamophobes are there,” before adding jauntily:
I always say thanks. There’s no such thing as bad publicity; it’s what you do with it, so once again we want to . . . thank them for engaging us in this material.
He then invited conference participants to submit papers for the next issue of the Islamophobia Studies Journal before summing up the hyper-politicized atmosphere of the conference by claiming that, “education is about social justice.”
When an audience member who identified herself as being from Cambridge, MA, asked, “What would you do if you were mayor of Boston?,” no one on the panel answered. Another audience member finally blurted out, “Stay calm, I’d say,” to which Mahan Mirza, the panel’s moderator and a teacher at Zaytuna College, Berkeley’s “Islamic university” and a cosponsor of the conference, responded: “I would be a radical mayor and advise the populace not to believe mainstream media reports.” The awkward silence that followed was broken only when someone asked about the previous talk, at which point the audience exhaled a collective sigh of relief.
The brutal terrorist attack on Boston and the then-growing awareness that the perpetrators were Caucasian Muslims did not fit the artificial “racialized” narrative of an academic enterprise devoted to battling “Islamophobia,” demonizing critics, silencing dissent, and politicizing higher education. Ideology and willful blindness to inconvenient facts are poor substitutes for honest examinations and rigorous debate about Islamist terrorism in the U.S. and beyond. As long as America’s Middle East studies establishment refuses to admit the obvious, taking them seriously about the most vital issues of our day is a fool’s errand.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers may contact UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Center for Race & Gender Director Evelyn Nakano Glenn to express their objection to the highly politicized Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project:
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