Keith Feldman, an assistant professor in UC Berkeley’s ethnic studies department, opened the first panel with a jargon-riddled talk titled, “Seeing Time: Visual Culture in the Drone Wars.” Against a backdrop of the now famous photo of President Obama and his national security team watching the strike on Osama bin Laden from the situation room, Feldman noted that the name for the mission was “Geronimo” and, from this, claimed that killing the terrorist mastermind was a “residue of late nineteenth century colonial settler violence.” Later, he used a photo of a black lynching victim from the 1880s to make the same ahistorical comparison, stating, “Take out the lynch victim, take out the body of Osama bin Laden, and see what the architecture of violence looks like.”
Feldman spent the bulk of his lecture arguing against using drone strikes to kill terrorists, which he dubbed “racialization from above,” and then asked, “What happens when Islamophobia takes to the skies?” Undeterred by the marked increase in drone strikes under Obama, Feldman reserved his ire for former President George W. Bush, whom he called “the illustrious geographer of the war on terror.” From what he described as “the borders of U.S. imperialist cartography to the everyday violence of homeland security,” there was no method of combating terrorism that Feldman found acceptable.
Munir Jiwa, founding director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Islamic Studies and assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Graduate Theological Union, followed with a talk on, “the hegemonic frames through which Islam and Muslims come to be framed.” These included the controversy surrounding Park 51, otherwise known as the Ground Zero mosque, about which he contradicted himself. First he criticized Park 51’s opponents by stating, “The idea that a mosque would contaminate the sacred ground of Ground Zero needs to be put into question.” Then he railed against those who welcomed the project because organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was perceived, as a Sufi, to be a moderate, noting sarcastically, “Because they were Sufis, it was palatable. These are the good Muslims building a community center open to all religions.” In other words, neither the project’s proponents nor its opponents can win.
Jiwa opposed Western intervention in the Muslim world in the interest of protecting women’s rights, drawing an absurd moral equivalence between the circumstances of Afghan and American women in the process:
What if Afghan women were coming to the West to save American women? What if Afghan women in burkas hearts’ bled for women in this part of the world?
Furthering engaging in moral and cultural relativism, Jiwa added, “What’s more insidious is the new discourse around gay rights that Massad talks about.” Jiwa was referring to Columbia University associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history Joseph Massad, whosecontroversial book, Desiring Arabs, posits that homosexuality in the Muslim only exists as a product of Western cultural imperialism. The young men being hanged in Iran for the “crime” of homosexuality would beg to differ.
Jiwa issued an apologia for Muslim violence in response to perceived blasphemy by asking of the Danish cartoon controversy, “Why it is that people need to provoke?” He then blamed author Salmon Rushdie for not “understand[ing] why Muslims were hurt” when his book, The Satanic Verses, earned him a death sentence from the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
Zaid Shakir, co-founder—with Hatem Bazian and Hamza Yusuf—of Zaytuna College, a self-described “Islamic university” in Berkeley, spoke towards the end of the day. Insinuating that American Muslims’ struggle for justice is analogous and therefore as righteous as that of black Americans, Shakir urged “Muslims . . . to champion African-Americans’ struggle because it’s the same issues.” He then made the hysterical claim that, “anti-Muslim fervor allows Latinos to be put into concentration camps.” Co-opting the language of the Holocaust to refer to detention centers for illegal immigrants was Shakir’s odious way of inflating his own cause.
Repeating Bazian’s opening joke, he referred to “Obama, the first Muslim president” before launching into a conspiratorial tirade about thedocumentary, Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, which he blamed for the alleged rise in “Islamophobia” around the 2008 election:
The financiers of the Islamophobic media are the same people financing Obsession. It was designed to defeat Obama so that a more pro-war candidate, more right-wing, could win—someone more subservient to Zionist interests.
Of course, Obama won the election, and with a majority of the Jewish vote. No doubt, Shakir will chalk up either a win or a defeat for Obama this year to the Islamophobic Zionists.
It was a day of contradictions, ahistorical comparisons, numbing jargon, and, most of all, the elevation of victimhood to a privileged status. If aliens from another planet observed this conference, they would deduce that the streets of America were filled with murderous mobs and ranting rednecks out for Muslim blood. Then they would wonder how that is so when the academics at this conference, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, exhibited the very opposite: comfortable, professional lives buoyed by accolades and accommodation. If this is the product of “Islamophobia,” then they have little to fear. Of the consequences of Islamism, however, the same cannot be said.
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