The liberal roots of Islamophobia

Today’s worst Islamophobes are not hailing from the ranks of the far-right movement, instead they claim to be liberals.

Maher - Milo screengrab
Maher interviewed the former Breitbart technology editor, and far-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos for his HBO show Real time with Bill Maher [Screengrab from HBO: Real Time with Bill Maher]

The disease of Islamophobia, the irrational and categorical hatred of Muslims and their religion – just as its corresponding malaise of anti-Semitism against Jews, racism against African Americans, misogyny against women, or homophobia against the LGBQT – will need a sustained course of critical thinking and persistent examination before we understand its pathological origins and globally expose and discredit its chief ideologues.

Today in the United States, the rising attacks by white supremacists against Jewish, Muslim, and African American people, institutions and icons have all come together under one propaganda outlet code named “alt-right”, whose chief ideologue Stephen Bannon (the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the “alt-right”) is now sitting right next to the president of the US in the Oval Office as his top consigliere.

What is the nature of this disease, and where does it come from? We already have a number of excellent studies on the matter, among them I might mention Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg’s Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy; Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire; Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims; and Carl Ernst (Ed), Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance; and to which we must add Terry Eagleton’s exquisite dismantling of the New Atheists, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

These studies have all been necessary and groundbreaking but nowhere near sufficient. The disease of Islamophobia – like any other kind of phobia – has varied symptoms and requires continued critical diagnosis.

Boastful ignorance

Today, the world attention is rightly drawn to top Islamophobes like Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka or the conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney and their ilk, all and more congregating around Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Hidden from sight under their disguise is a far more pernicious version of the illness in the far more popular liberal circles best represented by the mass-media manufactured court jesters like Bill Maher and his sidekick Sam Harris.

If you were to ask me who is the single most pestiferous American Islamophobe alive today I will not say Bannon, Michael Flynn, Stephan Miller, or even Gorka, all of them now chief among the career opportunist zealot Crusaders cheering Trump on.

I would say, without a moment of hesitation, Maher and Harris, and before he passed away that careerist Christopher Hitchens, are far more dangerous Stormtrooper lieutenants of Islamophobia.

These liberal Islamophobes are finagling their hatred of Muslims with smiling faces, silly jokes, phony arguments, forced laughter and manufactured consent – with the full cooperation of otherwise perfectly respectable outlets.

Masses of millions of Americans are out demonstrating against those notorious racists gathered around Trump. Maher and Harris are snake oil charmers selling their hate on prime time television.

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These liberal Islamophobes, proverbially the enemy of that which they do not understand, pontificate their pathological fear of Islam and Muslims with fake authority and false familiarity.

Sitting next to Maher, Harris issues an Executive Order that Islam “must be reformed“. But by what authority, what education, what knowledge, what scholarship and who gave him that authority?

Between the two of them Maher and Harris cannot tell a word of Arabic from Persian, Turkish, or Urdu if it hit them in the face, and yet, they sit there and like two Taliban bandits sharp shooting through camera lenses to the periodic laughter of approval by their popped up audiences.

Today, there are two complementary threats to that necessary internal reform definitive to Muslim intellectual history since its fateful encounter with European colonialism: Baghdadi and his gang of cutthroat criminals on one side and Maher and his fraternity club of liberal and right-wing Islamophobes on the other.


Think of it: Among the entire gang of liberal and conservative Islamophobes, they cannot tell an Arabic from a Persian word. They are the functional equivalent of ignorant sheikhs and their Shia counterparts across the Middle East who come and issue fatwas about the “West” without a word of English or any other European language to their names.

And right there is the predicament of our time caught in between two gangs of ignoramus xenophobes, pitting one battalion of armed ignorance against another.

Unhinged bigotry

They dare to talk about the “battle of ideas” without a single citation of any living or dead Muslim theologian, philosopher, mystic, poet, artist, or public intellectual evident in their vertiginously vacuous prose.

The monumentality of their ignorance is only sanctioned by their self-entitled white privileges. They are white; they can say whatever they want.

At the height of the Enlightenment modernity, Europe ended up in German concentration camps. At the height of American democracy, they are ruled by Trump. And they dare to talk about “battle of ideas”! What ideas?

The history of their own country began with the genocidal destruction of Native Americans, continued with the despicable history of African slavery, and at the heights of their technological achievements with dropping an atom bomb on Japan. Battle of what ideas against what ideas?

Such highfalutin nonsense about “battle of ideas”, however, is a subterfuge for a much simpler banality of ignorance. It is no longer a matter of accusing Maher of being the bigot that he is, for his open espousing of wanton racism is now a matter of public knowledge after his recent bromance with the notorious neo-Fascist poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos.

None of this is to say Muslims en masse are God’s gift to humanity. Islamophilia is as deranged as Islamophobia. There are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims around the globe. They have their share of criminal thugs, homicidal sociopaths, psychotic gangs, etc.

But to address such pathologies you will need a minimum of sympathy for the common humanity of millions of other Muslims who have nothing to do with these criminals.

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Today, there are two complementary threats to that necessary internal reform definitive to Muslim intellectual history since its fateful encounter with European colonialism: Baghdadi and his gang of cutthroat criminals on one side and Maher and his fraternity club of liberal and right-wing Islamophobes on the other.

This historic rise of Islamophobia will have a transformative impact on Muslims and the current turn in their critical thinking. The most serious among Muslim intellectuals are today undergoing the pains of moral and imaginative rebirth.

Their enemies like Maher and Bannon are the enemies of humanity, for Islamophobia is a thin subterfuge for a much more malignant xenophobia, fear of anyone and anything that does not look or sound like them.

We Muslims are privileged, perhaps we are even destined, to fight for our civil liberties in renewed universal terms – not just for ourselves but for all the other subaltern components of humanity fighting against white supremacy in the US and Europe.

We will emerge from this fight having morally universalised our political particulars. We will face Maher and Bannon face to face, eyeball to eyeball, with our learned humanity against their illiterate barbarity.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.