Reza Aslan, colonial erasure in discussion of Islamophobia at Northwestern University
On February 18, the Northwestern Community gathered to attend Reza Aslan’s talk entitled “Fear Inc.: The Industrialization of Islamophobia.” What ensued was a delicate dance of fallacies, faulty analogies, and criminal omissions, revolving around a weak interpretation of the title and concluding itself in the naïve thesis that Islamophobia ultimately solely exists because its perpetrators have not yet met enough Muslims. Aslan coupled this problematic argument with presenting Muslim assimilation as the solution – drawing upon the ‘similar’ history of the U.S.’ oppressions of the Irish & the Jewish communities. Despite all of this, it is what Aslan neglected to mention that is most problematic.
Aslan’s presentation progressed through personal anecdotes, jokes about the ‘Islamophobic’ rhetoric of presidential candidates, key statistics revealing the infinitesimal probability of Islamic terrorism in the U.S. and insightful poll results revealing stronger aversions to violence among Muslims than any other U.S. religious community. This was followed by data revealing the funds spent by certain groups, such as Christians United for Israel, to propagate anti-Muslim propaganda in the U.S. No mention was made, however, about the profitability of Islamophobia or the historical and political contexts that enable and motivate it.
The villainous omission of colonialism and imperialism as considerations enabled Aslan to fallaciously observe Islamophobia in the same light as anti-Irish and anti-Jewish sentiment, and therefore, to argue that its solution lies in ‘imitating the Jews’ and assimilating. In the latter two cases, however, hatred was solely imparted on the communities for purposes of buttressing nationalism; in defining an other to persecute, a nation is defining a self to celebrate. Such a sentiment of constructive othering was expressing by Jean-Paul Satre when he argued, “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” The Jew in this thesis, interchangeable with the Irish, offers no other significant considerations. This is where the analogy breaks down. The Muslim, whose lands and populations have been targeted by colonial powers for centuries and whose suffering through slavery has helped build this country, has always offered imperial considerations.
Though the European Powers’ struggle for the conquest and colonialism of the Muslim world stretches back a millennium, we only need to look at the past century to understand the importance of the Muslim world – and of anti-Islamic sentiment – to Western Imperialism. In simple, the Muslim world is endowed with an abundance of resources and strategically important geography, and the demonization of Islam makes this process of subjugation much easier.
For example, Israel—a European colony in Palestine—is able to maintain its prolonged illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza precisely because of the anti-Islamic sentiment that it can evoke in its official discourse. Consequently, all institutions complicit in and profiting off of the marginalization and oppression of the Palestinians are profiting directly from Islamophobia, and may therefore wish to disseminate it further – creating a feedback loop, where a portion of the profits obtained from ready-existing Islamophobia, go into propagating more Islamophobia. Analyzing these incentives of anti-Islamic messaging in foreign policy and imperialism are vital to understanding it.
The absence in Aslan’s speech of this colonial and imperial narrative is critical, particularly in light of Edward Said’s argument that “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.” Without remaining cognizant of the history of Islamophobia as an extension of anti-Blackness, one can never truly understand it, nor begin organizing to combat it.