“US liberal Islamophobia is rising – & more insidious than rightwing bigotry”
“When will Muslims step up and reform Islam?”
asked the self-identified “progressive and intersectional” college student, following a presentation of my book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, at New York University.
The student wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and a colorful assortment of pins and patches on his camouflage backpack calling for “equality now” and claiming that “The future is female”. The young man, by way of verbal admission and the myriad of political statements he proudly wore, was a political progressive. And indeed, a representative of a swelling population of leftists who embrace progressive principles yet see Islam as inimical to liberal values and in conflict with American identity.
The left is saturated with pundits and self-styled public intellectuals who disseminate discourses that Islam is monolithic; that Muslims must choose between liberal principles and their faith, and, echoing the college student I encountered at in March, a religion that is in need of “reform”.
A diverse and eclectic litany of prominent Islamophobes occupies the left. These liberal Islamophobes, like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, weaponize atheism as an ideology that not only discredits the spiritual dimensions of Islam but also demonizes it in line with longstanding orientalist, political terms. For these new atheists, Islam is illegitimate because it is a religion, but unlike other religions, is distinctly threatening because it is inherently at odds with liberal values.
Echoing Samuel P Huntington and the intellectual father of modern Islamophobia, Bernard Lewis, Harris writes:
“While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.”
Harris, the spearhead of the new atheist movement, which has broad appeal on the left, is a mainstay on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Furthermore, Harris’s influence on Maher, perhaps the most vivid and venomous liberal Islamophobe, is routinely on display on his weekly program – a program widely viewed by progressives and wildly popular with educated, cosmopolitan and middle-class liberals.
“The Muslim world has too much in common with Isis [Islamic State],” Maher has stated, and also declared in front of a live audience that: “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will kill you if you say the wrong thing.” Opinions that, at once, conflate an immensely diverse religious population of 1.6 billion believers with a terrorist network, and liken a religion to a criminal enterprise. This opinion was not much different from the one Donald Trump made while on the campaign trail, warning that refugees fleeing war-torn Syria “could be Isis”, or more broadly, that “Islam hates us”.
These statements flow from the fundamental Islamophobic baseline that Islam is more civilization than religion, and Muslims a homogeneous bloc whose free exercise of religion is a threat. The lone difference? Trump is peddling these views to a predominantly conservative base, while Maher is pushing it on to a progressive audience.
If Trump is the popular mascot of Islamophobia rising from the right, then Maher is his symbolic counterpart on the left.
Just like Trump, the loaded misrepresentations of Islam and condemnation of Muslims spewed by Harris and particularly Maher are reaching millions of leftists and progressives, and, as evidenced by raucous applause, television ratings or questions from college students, resonating. For these liberal Islamophobes, much like their counterparts on the right, “Muslims are the quintessentially illiberal subjects,” Long Beach state university scholar Yousef Baker said. In this view, the very existence of Muslims and their expressions of worship pose a threat to liberal values.
The new atheist front has been a key driver of Islamophobia rising from the left, but it is hardly the lone source. A growing roster of native informants, who capitalize on their religious and racial identity as a form of expertise, is also pushing Islamophobia from the left.
Maajid Nawaz leverages his status as a “former Islamist”, brown skin and an affiliation with Harris, to peddle Islamophobia within largely cosmopolitan circles and liberal audiences. His Quilliam Foundation adopts the Islamophobic tenet that radicalization is a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, and Nawaz has stated that “Islamism is the biggest form of extremism”, endorsing destructive policing programs that have eroded the civil liberties of Muslims in the United Kingdom. With the help of Harris, Nawaz has extended his native informant reach into the United States.
Nomani and Nawaz are joined by Irshad Manji, Zuhdi Jasser and a swelling crop of Muslim and former-Muslim pundits who are wedded to messages founded upon core Islamophobic tenets and tropes, such as Islam being distinctly homophobic and irreconcilable with western values, with deep resonance in disparate liberal communities.
Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now more aligned with the right, strategically exploits outwardly liberal values – like feminism – to move left-leaning audiences to adopt the position that Islam, a monolith in every respect, is sexist and uncompromisingly patriarchal. Beyond these known commodities, a new wave of outwardly liberal figures who endorse structural Islamophobic policies including counter-radicalization policing, are emerging from the ranks of the left.
Liberal Islamophobia is rising, in the United States and beyond, and rapidly metastasizing in the shadows while its tentacles on the right extend in the form of presidential rhetoric, state-sponsored travel bans and expanding surveillance. Yet, liberal Islamophobia may reveal itself to be more ominous than the bigotry trumpeted by Republican stalwarts and reactionary conservatives, particularly if we continue to ignore its uptick on television, college campuses, and liberal spaces beyond and in between.