ODVV interview: America has a problem with...
Stephen Sheehi is the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Chair of Middle East Studies and Director of the Asian and Middle East Studies Program at the College of William and Mary. A renowned orientalist whose work has been widely cited and reproduced for its academic vigour and reliability, Stephen Sheehi has written about the history of the West's relations with the Muslim world and Islamophobia extensively and one of his main books is "Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims".
Aside from his publications on the political economy of the late Ottoman Empire and the Arab Renaissance, he also comments on daily affairs, Israeli Palestinian conflict and the Arab American issues. Prof Sheehi has lectured nationally and internationally, including at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, and the Library of Congress.
Organisation for Defending Victims of Violence interviewed Prof Sheehi about the United States' problem of Islamophobia and its struggles with its Arab and non-Arab Muslim minorities. Prof Sheehi believes that Islamophobia materialises as structural racism in the United States and a lot of work needs to be done to make sure it is fought and eliminated.
"Islamophobia, for example, in the United States cannot be separated, of course, from its political agenda in the Arab and Muslim world but it also comes from its racial history, how it dehumanizes black and brown people, in the United States," he said in an interview with ODVV.
Prof Sheehi contemplates on the response to Islamophobic sentiments in the U.S. media: "In the United States, there are a number of Muslim-American voices heard on mainstream media although they remain few. For me, the problem is that in these media, Muslim Americans often critique Islamophobia and criticize Islamophobes from the perspective of “being American.”"
"They champion how Muslim Americans are in the government, business and military and how Muslim Americans die in the US’s wars abroad. Khizr Khan is an example. But this does not address how Islamophobia is a part of those wars themselves," he said.
The following is the text of ODVV's interview with Stephen Sheehi about Islamophobia and how it undermines the relations between the U.S. government and its good Muslim citizens.
Q: One of your major books is "Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims". Do you consider Islamophobia an artificial challenge created by certain groups and governments or is it the intrinsic outcome of the policies and approaches taken towards the Muslims in the West in the recent decades?
A: I believe that Islamophobia is a racist ideological formation that takes shape in different countries for different reasons. Islamophobia, for example, in the United States cannot be separated, of course, from its political agenda in the Arab and Muslim world but it also comes from its racial history, how it dehumanizes black and brown people, in the United States. On the other hand, Islamophobia in Britain comes out of its colonial history, its rule in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. I do believe that Islamophobia is used by governments to mobilize certain segments of their population for political purposes. Likewise, I think that certain regimes in the Middle East called opposition groups “Islamophobic” to supress political dissent. However, while Islamophobia is a tool that certain political organizations and governments use to justify racism against Muslims, it is important to see Islamophobia’s relationship with the conditions that make appealing those racists, whether they be in the USA, Britain, Holland, Russia or wherever.
Q: One of the major concerns pertaining to the relations of the Muslims and the Western world and the living conditions of Muslims in North America and Europe is the absence of Muslim figures in the mainstream media to raise their viewpoints, voice their concerns and respond to the allegations and accusations against the Muslims. What do you think about the representation of influential Muslims such as academics, authors and journalists in the Western media? Is their voice heard sufficiently?
A: Again, if we are to take Islamophobia on seriously, we have to understand it as a form of racism and as such we have to understand it within its own political and social conditions. I don’t think there is such a thing as “Western” media just like I don’t think there is such a thing as “Muslim” media. We know the difference in media representations in Saudi Arabia than, say, Lebanon.
In the United States, there are a number of Muslim-American voices heard on mainstream media although they remain few. For me, the problem is that in these media, Muslim Americans often critique Islamophobia and criticize Islamophobes from the perspective of “being American.” They say that Islamophobia and racism is “un-American.” They champion how Muslim Americans are in the government, business and military and how Muslim Americans die in the US’s wars abroad. Khizr Khan is an example. But this does not address how Islamophobia is a part of those wars themselves. Also, I do also feel that mainstream Muslim American advocacy groups, while they do their best to dispel stereotypes and fight Islamophobia, also spend less time and resources in discussing issues of Black American Muslims as well as Shiism, Ahmedis, Alawites, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups.
Q: Attacks against Muslims and Arab citizens continue to take place in the United States and European countries in different shapes and forms. Worrying reports about racial assaults on Muslims in the real world and cyberspace, on their accounts in Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere are heard frequently these days. Doesn't the refusal or failure of governments to penalise the perpetrators lead to the normalisation of such moves?
A: The twitterverse and social media can be a heinous place. Really disgusting. You just have to go on to the Facebook or Twitter account of any known Islamophobe and racist and you can witness in real time the vitriol of their hate. The real challenge is when mainstream figures and government officials such as political hacks and political trolls Ann Coulter and Laura Loomer, or officials such as disgraced convict Ray Moore or Twitter-spaz Trump himself are given a platform on social media and the mainstream media.
There certainly are prosecutions of crimes committed against Muslim and Arab Americans, and against other Americans who are mistaken for being Muslim. The problem in the U.S. is local and state police as well as federal law enforcement is far too hesitant to charge certain acts as “hate speech” when they clearly are racist attacks. This happens even more with violence against transgender women of colour and Muslim-Americans. A sad example is Nabra Hassanen in Virginia in 2017, who was beaten to death by a young man with a baseball bat. While the police considered it a murder-case, they did not consider it a “hate crime.”
Q: What's your idea about the Islamophobia registers, which record different instances of attacks against Muslims, mosques and Islamic centres and the response by the police to such attacks? Are they effective in reducing the anti-Muslim hate crimes like the anti-Semitic crimes registers?
A: I don’t know what you mean exactly by “Islamophobia registers” and “crime registers.” The real problem is that the United States has a real problem with right wing, white-supremacist violence against Jews, Muslims, and people of colour. They have hate speech against Catholics as well but do not attack them or their places of worship. The local and state police as well as the FBI really have never dedicated the resources that they should to investigating and prosecuting crimes against Jewish, Muslim, Black, and Latino Americans. They certainly never established a regime of surveillance to the extent that they have spied on Muslim and Black Americans. Certainly, there is no “no fly” list made up of names of neo-Nazis, KKK, and white-supremacists who loudly advocate violence against Muslims, Jews, and people of colour in the U.S. Under Trump, however, it is worse as the federal government has explicitly dissolved or watered down federal efforts to investigate these racists, largely because they are Trump supporters and the U.S. Attorney General is a known racist.
Q: As a university professor, how much freedom do you see in the debate on Islamophobia across the U.S. universities? How much freedom did and do you have personally to raise vital and essential questions about Islam and anti-Muslim prejudice at the College of William and Mary and currently at the University of South Carolina?
A: I can’t speak to the conditions at the University of South Carolina as I have not taught there in four years. William and Mary has supported, to date, my own academic freedom and my students have usually been wonderful. That said, there are on campus across the United States a number of grave problems regarding Islamophobia. First, while we often discuss Islamophobia as a form of racism in courses throughout the United States, certain fields in North American and European academic institutions are often organized around “the threat of Muslim terror.” Topics like journalism, political science, security studies, criminology, and international relations often tend to assume that a topic of “Muslim terrorism” is a discreet topic rather than understanding all forms of “terrorism” as political violence, which we need to understand if we are to stop it.
Furthermore, the issue of “Freedom of speech” unfortunately has been retooled to allow hate speech on campus, where certain student organizations and off-campus organizations are successful in arranging outside, non-scholarly speakers who are often racists and Islamophobes. Of course, the campus speaking tours of Breirbart clown and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and white supremacist Richard Spencer are good examples.
Q: What's your take on the immigration ban imposed by the President of the United States on the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, popularly known as the Muslim ban? Where did this idea come from and why did the U.S. President Donald Trump embark on implementing it upon assuming office?
A: Simply put, Trump issued the “Muslim ban” because he and his supporters are either racists or don’t understand how immigration and visas to the United States actually work. He ran on this platform and it effectively mobilized the solid base that put him in the White House. It was a sound political move for him and one that could only win support among his demagogic supporters. The idea of the ban, however, does come from the Obama era that names a handful of countries, in particular Iran, to be singled out in applying for visas to the U.S. The U.S. government, however, already has provisions to require citizens from countries that they have designated as “sponsoring terrorism” to receive visas directly from the U.S. embassy and disqualified them for particular “waivers” for which other countries, including most Muslim-majority countries, are eligible.
Q: What do you think the United Nations and human rights organisations can do to tackle and eliminate the prevalent Islamophobia in Europe and North America?
A: The UN Human Rights Council does good work. Unfortunately, however, it has little pull or sway in the United States. Malcolm X tried to “internationalize” the civil rights issue of Black Americans in the 1960s. If he couldn’t do that during segregation, I don’t think the UN Human Rights Council is going to be able to do much regarding Islamophobia.
I do think that human rights organizations need to continue the great work they are doing now and be vigilant in watching and tracking who uses Islamophobia, how it is expressed, and for what ends. I think these human rights organizations are most effective when they can show how Islamophobia is a form of racism and is connected to, resembles, and often emanates from the same sources, people, and organizations that are racist and ant-Semitic. We need to continue to successfully locate Islamophobia in the anti-racist movements and organizations.
Human rights groups and the UN Human Rights Council have to continue to remain consistent and vigilant in not allowing Islamophobia to be used as defence by regimes to defend their policies, for example Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc. We need to be vigilant in calling out human and civil rights abuses in Arab and Muslim-majority whether Sunni- or Shiite-majority, while also making clear how criticism of human rights abuses is based on facts and avoids Islamophobic tropes and discourses.
Q: What would you say if you were to sum up and evaluate the living conditions of Muslims and Arabs in the American society today? Are they at loggerheads with the U.S. government? Are their rights recognised? Do they enjoy basic and equal freedoms as the non-Muslims? Are they accepted by the wider community?
A: This is a huge question. The United States suffers from structural racism. This racism is most powerfully and prevalently felt by Black and Latino Americans. The increased attention to the shameful number of incidents of innocent black men being killed by police shows us this. Muslim and Arab Americans don’t have it as bad. With that said, Muslim and Arab Americans face continued aggression and prejudice. With this said, I don’t believe the Muslim and Arab Americans are “at loggerheads with the U.S. government” although they are spied on by local and federal authorities and remain a subject of suspicion. The reason that Muslim and Arab Americans are “at loggerheads with the U.S. government” is that Muslim and Arab Americans are largely compliant citizens. They work hard and really just want to assimilate and be accepted. The real criticism is that Muslim and Arab Americans remain active with mainstream political parties and also inherent of many basic American attributes of political organizing, namely within the two main parties. The question has to do with of those parties who have room for Muslim and Arab Americans if those Muslim and Arab Americans adopt positions that confront Islamophobia but also some major political third-rails, like the U.S. support of Israel’s most egregious policies or American foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere?
By Kourosh Ziabari