The Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project (IRDP)—a program of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender (CRG)—recently held its third annual conference, “Critical Discourses on Islamophobia: Symbols, Images, & Representations.” As in previous years, speaker after speaker decried an imaginary racist, imperialist, Orientalist Western juggernaut, while disregarding the very real predations of Islamism.
The first day of the conference brought in approximately eighty people at its peak, including a number of women in hijab (head scarf), typing furiously on laptops. Others sported keffiyehs and dreadlocks; a smattering of Arabic and French could be heard; and a scruffy, bearded fellow wandered around with what appeared to be a journal under his arm, Historicizing Anti-Semitism, that one suspects is not exactly kosher. It was just another day in Berkeley.
Hatem Bazian, IRDP director, Near Eastern studies senior lecturer, and conference convener started out by apologizing for the forty-minute delay in kicking off the event. He chalked it up to “Muslim Time”—a reference to the popular phrase among African-Americans, “Colored People’s Time”—and joked that “Swiss watches run forward, but Muslim watches run backward.” He thanked the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—an Islamist organization posing as a defender of civil rights— for its participation in the conference (Zahra Billoo, CAIR Northern California Executive Director, spoke the next day) and for partnering with CRG to produce the 2011 report, “Same Hate, New Target: Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States”—a report that falsely accuses a number of public figures of perpetrating “Islamophobia.” Bazian also thanked “individuals who send us hate mail” for demonstrating “the need for this conference,” about which, he claimed, there had been “considerable chatter,” including “wild” and “threatening” statements. All this “despite the fact that we have the first Muslim president,” he added, chuckling. This sarcastic reference to the American public’s perception of Barack Obama’s Muslim background would be repeated throughout the day as incontrovertible evidence of “Islamophobia.”
Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Oxford University professor of contemporary Islamic studies and grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, demonstrated a capacity for what his critics have described as doublespeak with his keynote speech. Titled, “A Global Perspective on Constructing Muslim Otherness,” Ramadan’s talk was rife with contradiction. At one point, he acknowledged that the “victim mentality” is counterproductive for Muslims and other minorities:
People are relying on fear, mistrust, [and] nurturing the victim mentality. You can see this among Blacks, Latinos, [and] Muslims. Sometimes they play the victims. Victims are talking to each other. We are the victims of your colonization, legal colonization. It’s the way you accept the role given by the dominant: you become the victim.
Yet pushing victimhood was the principal purpose of the conference. Moreover, Ramadan contributed to that narrative by implying that assimilation—the antidote to the balkanization caused by nurturing a victim mentality—was impossible in the U.S.:
At the end of the day, you might be a Muslim-American, Black, Latino, but not really. Us versus them. . . . After four generations, you are Muslim with an American background.
Ramadan admitted that something other than mere bigotry might be at the heart of what’s been disingenuously dubbed “Islamophobia”:
[S]ome of them are very sincere when it comes to being scared of the Muslim presence. . . . Try to understand the logic that is behind the whole thing . . . there is a great deal of mistrust towards our intentions as Muslims. We should go beyond the discussion of ‘we are discriminated’ towards a more comprehensive approach. . . . People can be genuinely scared; we have to face this.
He then added:
We have to get rid of this idea that the world is divided between the West and Islam. Instead of speaking about peace and living together, we respond with a discourse that is exactly the same.
But he went on to do just that, accusing both Republicans and Democrats of collusion—although he allowed that “some are less Islamophobic than others”—and claiming that “the people who are pushing it [are] the Tea Party and the Neocons.” Given that the Tea Party has focused exclusively on economic issues and that Neoconservatism is hardly a political force to be reckoned with of late, Ramadan’s rhetoric was hopelessly out of touch.
Ramadan eventually revealed why so many find him so dangerous by hinting at a belief in conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the Mohamed Merah shootings in Toulouse, France, which resulted in the deaths of three soldiers, a rabbi, and three children at a Jewish school. Acknowledging that “there is a new anti-Semitism in France, which is coming from Arabs and Muslims,” he then accused “strong Zionist groups” of complicity for somehow “nurturing this kind of racism.” As he put it:
I know about 9/11, but I still have some questions about behind the scenes, the way it was used . . . I still have questions about what happened in France [Toulouse]. We should try to understand the alliances we find behind old enemies.
To imply that “Zionists” are benefiting from atrocities against Jews and others goes beyond the realm of conspiracy theory into classical anti-Semitism.
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