Since 9/11, there has been a rampant and fashionable strain of Islamophobia among western politicians, journalists and analysts. It’s a response in part to the militant jihadism of the sort that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. Bibi Netanyahu is perhaps the master of anti-jihadist rhetoric. Shortly after the Al Qaeda attack, the NY Times quoted him:
Asked tonight what the attack meant for relations between the United States and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, replied, “It’s very good.” Then he edited himself: “Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.” He predicted that the attack would “strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we’ve experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror.”
This naked political aggrandizement at the expense of Islam characterizes his entire political career. He’s continued along this vein right up to today (more on that later in this post).
A similar world-view characterized the Bush administration, though only in a slightly more nuanced fashion. Pres. Obama has done scarcely better, as I’ve often written here. His counter-terror-fueled policy toward Arab and Muslim states is little-changed from the eight wasted years of George Bush.
Lately, anti-jihadism has really gone to town on the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Hillary Clinton, and they had a jolly good time ragging on that Islamist whipping-boy. This gives you a pretty good idea of what you can expect from eight years of Hillary in the White House:
“One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States,” she said. “Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.”
…“You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.”
Here you have a perfect example of the sickness I outlined above. In the 1950s communism was the bugaboo. Today, it’s jihadism. Clinton’s conception of the latter uses almost exactly the same terms as those of the Red Scare: words like expansionist, angry, violent, intolerant, brutal, anti-democratic. There’s even a touch of Reaganism in Clinton’s portrayal of the fall of communism. There’s the notion that through all of our machinations against the Soviet Union–the assassinations, the coups, the propping up of dictators–all of it helped in some unspecified way to topple Communism. She further bizarrely characterizes our anti-Communist strategy as an “overarching framework,” when it was little more than knee-jerk oppositionalism to the Red Menace.
What is most pathetic about this political stance is that it offers no sense of our own identity, of what we stand for. Instead, it offers a vague, incohate enemy against whom we can unite. We are nothing without such enemies.
On NPR, David Brooks followed on Hillary’s bigoted characterization of Islamism with this even more disturbing “analysis:”
I do think what needs to be said is something that actually Hillary Clinton said in here interview with Jeff Goldberg of the Atlantic, which we talked about a couple weeks ago, which is this is one big thing. And what she meant by that is whether it’s al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Hamas, jihadism is one big thing. And so when we talk about do you need military – or legal authorization to go into, say, to bomb Syria, to go further into Iraq, I think we have to understand this is going to be a long, low-level permanent thing, against one big enemy which is jihadism. And we shouldn’t treat it as isolated things, Islamic State over here, al-Qaeda over there, Hamas over there.
When I read otherwise intelligent folk like Clinton and Brooks sound like absolute idiots when they speak in such reductionist terms about Arab nationalism and Islamism, it makes my heart sink. The idea that the Muslim world and radical movements within it are “one big thing” is not just stupid, but dangerous. Hamas has nothing to do with al Qaeda or ISIS except that they stem from the same religion. To yoke them together is pernicious. It will fool us into thinking we can develop one approach to deal with all of them. That the answer to defeating one is the same as the answer to defeating all. And make no mistake, this view of the Muslim world makes no allowance for co-existence or tolerance or even understanding. It is all-out war. Perhaps low-intensity war at times and all-out war at other times. But with this mindset we will never live at peace with political Islam.
That has practical consequences for everyone involved. It portends perpetual war, for example, between Israel and the frontline states (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon). It means thousands more Israelis and Palestinians will die. It could mean we never reach a nuclear agreement with Iran and that there are hostilities with it as well. It could mean the resurgence of the Taliban after we leave Afghanistan and the disintegration of Iraq into warring factions and ethnic enclaves. What policy can this closed-minded attitude offer other than more drones, targeted killings, and other forms of state-sanctioned mass violence?
Bibi Netanyahu represents the most extreme form of anti-jihadism. He took the “one big thing” slogan to its ultimate extreme in a press conference with, of all people, Arab-American Congressmember Darrel Issa, during the Gaza war. In it, the Israeli prime minister attempted to hijack the world’s horror at the beheading of journalist James Foley, for Israel’s benefit. He did this solely to counter the awful press Israel had been getting after slaughtering 500 children in Gaza and other horrors:
“We face the same Islamist network and we have to fight it together,” said Netanyahu during a photo opportunity. “Hamas is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas. You saw the gruesome beheading of James Foley. We see the gruesome murder and execution of three teenagers which Hamas has just admitted that they did. These are both branches of the same poisonous tree. The free world, the democracies have to stand together against this terrorism. That’s the only way we’ll roll them back. Ultimately that’s the only way we’ll defeat them.”
There is poison in this passage but it isn’t the poison Bibi sees. It is, rather, a venomous, take-no-prisoners approach to the Muslim world. It’s a monomaniacal view of Islam as the root cause of evil. It’s a refusal to look at our own deeds and ideas as part of the dysfunction that’s characterized relations with the Muslim world. Any attempt to turn these issues into the dualism of good vs. evil, west vs. Islam, tyranny vs. freedom, primitive vs. modern, will end not just in failure, but in massive levels of violence.
Though we cannot control the jingoism of people like Netanyahu, we must demand more of our political leaders. We must tell Hillary Clinton that she will fail as a candidate by taking such a stupid approach to Islam. As for talking-heads like Goldberg and Brooks, no one expects better of them. The fact that NPR and mainstream media disseminate this sort of ignorant Islamophobia packaged as legitimate punditry turns them into a mockery.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.