We really need to talk about Mehdi Hasan’s latest video for the Intercept.
In the clip titled, Caliph Donald Trump and the Rise of the Christian Taliban, broadcaster and journalist Hasan spends nearly four minutes warning his viewers about the “Christian Taliban”, or the “Bible-thumping fundamentalists who are bent on theocratising the US government.”
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Using Islamic terminology, Hasan raises the alarm about the policies of the Christian right. For instance, he argues that they want “sharia law”, of the “Biblical variety”, and then goes on to speak of the multiple “mullahs” in the Trump administration, ending with “Caliph Trump” himself. In the video, Hasan also compares the use of “To God be the Glory” by the Christian right to intervene in the secular legal system to the quintessential angry Muslim screaming “Allahu Akbar”.
Hasan is not the first person to invoke Islam when speaking of extremism within other religions. He is just part of a growing group of liberals and leftists who think it’s trendy to use Islam and Muslims as a prop against religious extremism around the world, and especially in the United States.
The use of comparisons is a quick and easy way to make a point and to appeal to moderates and liberals, who are often convinced that it is religious fundamentalism alone that is the source of all evils.
And certainly, religious fundamentalists of all stripes seek to use scripture to justify their actions. But whereas the intention of Hasan’s video, for instance, might have been to give a speedy (and clearly viral) lesson about the pervasive nature of religious extremism, his use of “the Muslim extremist” tropes and attempt to rely on Islamic terms is actually quite destructive.
Hasan’s video relegates Islamic terminologies, which Muslim leaders and scholars have been working hard to reclaim, to the inaccurate definitions advanced by Islamophobes. In turn, “mullah” – which simply refers to someone who is learned in Islamic law and theology – becomes synonymous with “religious bigot”.
Sharia – which is a way of life for Muslims – is equated with the right wing’s fixation on “sharia law,” or a myopic legal system that seeks to infringe on everyone’s rights.
Caliph – which means a civic and religious leader – becomes synonymous with a fascist ruler.
“Allahu Akbar” or “God is the greatest” – a phrase Muslims say during their daily prayers – is turned into a catch-all phrase embodying religious extremism.
In a more generous reading of Hasan’s video, one could see him suggesting that double standards exist in how people respond particularly negatively to Muslims who invoke religion. But herein lies the problem of this line of reasoning: what is, then, the standard that should apply? Is all expression of religion in the public sphere “bad”? Are we then to also speak of a Mullah Martin Luther King Jr?
In a global context that is predominantly defined by the so-called “war on terror” and rampant Islamophobia, operating a few Arabic words and injecting the fantasy of your favourite Christian fundamentalists dressed up in the black robes of the “mullah” figure is Orientalism at its best.
It is as if Hasan had forgotten everything he had ever written about the Iraq war, the killings of civilians by US drones, and the rise of the right in India to join ranks with a liberal, so-called “moderate crowd” (who of course would never kill civilians or deport en masse, or turn boats with refugees away, or intervene in other countries without legal justification).
What this approach does is merely perpetuate the trope of the unthinking, radical, fundamentalist Muslim – one who has no history and politics, but only zealotry that cannot be rationalised. It then transposes that figure into a completely different historical context.
Anti-Muslim racism has become so mainstream that the use of these tropes goes unquestioned, even by those who claim to combat it. How bad must US cultural literacy be that there is no way to discuss a domestic issue without invoking these Islamophobic tropes?
Another problem with this comparative approach is that it is historically selective. It establishes Islam as the gold standard for religious extremism. It is as if religious extremism can only be understood through the actions of Muslims and, in fact, it never existed before Islam itself.
Never mind that Christian fundamentalism has historically been joined at the hip with white supremacy, functioning as a key justification for slavery and colonialism.
Never mind that the very word “fundamentalism”, was itself a term coined in the early 20th century to describe the strict observation of certain Christian fundamentals and beliefs.
Why are the “mullahs” of Afghanistan then the obvious point of departure? If Hasan’s point is to educate people that religious fundamentalism and extremism exist outside of Islam, wouldn’t this then have been a perfect opportunity to root Christian fundamentalism in its own history and language that goes far beyond the abusive policies of the Trump administration? Why must Hasan deploy the Muslim bogeyman he has so often castigated?
In critiquing Trump’s America, Hasan also claims that, “as in the Middle East, to really politicise religion, you need a bunch of politicised clerics.” Again, the Middle East, which is now synonymous with Islam and Muslims, is deployed as the only space beyond rationality.
Surely Hasan must be aware that politicisation of religion in this erstwhile Middle East occurred while its populations endured colonialism by Western powers. Or that this process of politicisation continued under the auspices of the secularising, modernising postcolonial political leadership. Or that it is not just the clerics who “politicise religion”.
These absurd comparisons also undermine critical differences in context.
Christian fundamentalism in the US emerges in a majoritarian context, in a democratic country. Its closer parallel, then, is actually Hindutva, and not the Taliban. The armed group emerged out of a civil war that the US fuelled by supporting “religious fundamentalists” it called “freedom fighters” for fighting against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Or do the facts not matter when one is in search of the formula for that perfect viral video directed at a liberal class already in denial over its entrenched Islamophobia?
Such analogies also distract from substantive critiques.
In another example, The Guardian published a column in 2015 by British sculptor Anish Kapoor, who wrote that, “India (under Modi) was being ruled by a Hindu Taliban.”
And while Kapoor raised the concern of the assault on freedom of expression, dissent and the erosion of democratic values, as well as the battering of minority groups under India’s Hindu nationalist government, his column was met with outrage in India.
Hinduism as a peaceful religion was unlike “the kind of society or culture implied in the word Taliban,” one columnist argued.
As a result, the critical issues that the Guardian article had raised were completely overlooked. People were more concerned that offended Hindus had been compared to Muslims; Hinduism’s “peacefulness” versus Islam’s “violence” could never be reconciled.
If we are to speak to today’s destructive political moment, then let us do so with critical inquiry, honesty, and rigour. Now – when people of all faiths and backgrounds need to question their own role in perpetuating extremism and terror – is not the time for simplistic overtures.
For Hasan, who has sought to combat Islamophobia, this video ironically harps on the most basic of Islamophobic tropes. Surely, there is no need to implicate Muslims whenever we speak about religious extremism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.