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The Problem With Liberal Opposition to Islamophobia

Many of the arguments against Islamophobia turn out to replicate rather than subvert the underlying logics that demonize and dehumanize Muslims.

Between Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and the murder of six Muslim men in a mosque in Québec City, the debate around Islamophobia has again taken center stage in North American politics. On the other side of the Atlantic, anti-Islam groups like Pegida, the Front National and Wilders’ Freedom Party are gaining growing public support. Central to all of this is the rise of a militant xenophobia, with hatred of Muslims as one of its cardinal principles. At the same time, anti-racist organizers are also coming together — building our analysis, fortifying our ability to defend ourselves in the face of increasing and rampant bigotry, and mobilizing to turn the tide.

Unfortunately, however, many of the arguments against Islamophobia in anti-racist circles turn out to replicate rather than subvert the underlying logics that attack, demonize and dehumanize Muslims. Challenging the Islamophobic far-right cannot simply be about upholding the same capitalist and imperialist — even if slightly less racist — stances that have destabilized much of the Global South in recent decades, furthering war and displacing Muslims who have travelled to Europe’s shores only to be met with an explosion of nativist hatred.

With the departure of Barack Obama from the White House, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become a global icon of this supposedly progressive anti-racist politics. A self-professed feminist who flew in 25,000 Syrian refugees and greeted them with hugs and winter coats at the airport, Trudeau is often perceived as being emblematic of everything that fascists are not. Yet even under his government, many of the same anti-social policies that brought Donald Trump to power in the United States are now being intensified, while anti-immigrant measures remain on the books.

For this reason, it is crucial to critically assess some of the liberal arguments against Islamophobia that are often put forward by people like Trudeau, as well as by many activists who would situate themselves to the left of him. Many of these arguments, while appearing to be anti-Islamophobic, actually uphold the national security state’s framing of issues. In doing so, the dominant economic and social framework that underlies Islamophobic laws and policies, and the racist ideas incorporated within it, remains in place — thereby impeding our ability to move beyond it.

Argument 1: “Counter-Radicalization Is More Effective Than Harsh Counter-Terrorism”

When the previous Conservative government in Canada introduced a wide-ranging surveillance and policing bill — Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015— the public outcry was swift. Bill C-51 was dubbed the Secret Police Act, and hundreds of thousands of people signed multiple petitions against it. Central to the outcry was the argument that the bill was “ineffective.” The “more effective” strategy being proposed in Canada, and across Western Europe and the United States, would involve “counter-radicalization” or “counter-extremist” programs. Such supposedly pragmatic calls for counter-radicalization have gained increasing support — including by the Canadian Liberals under Trudeau — without any critical reflection on the deeper problems with such programs.

In a report released last February, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights Ben Emmerson criticized the prevailing approach towards counter-radicalization as conceptually flawed and ineffective, noting that “states have tended to focus on those [areas] that are most appealing to them, shying away from the more complex issues, including political issues such as foreign policy and transnational conflicts,” preferring instead to emphasize “religious ideology as the driver of terrorism and extremism.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, Article 19, and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University pointed out similar objections in a joint letter to Ben Emmerson, writing that counter-radicalization “initiatives in the United States and Europe focus overwhelmingly on Muslim communities, with the discriminatory impact of stigmatizing them as inherently suspicious and in need of special monitoring.”

Trump’s announcement that counter-radicalization programs in the US will now exclusively target “Islamist extremism” elicited a fair amount of outrage — but the reality is that such programs have long subjected Muslims to disproportionate attention, even if this was not always as explicit prior to Trump’s presidency. For instance, 68 percent of the 1,747 children and teenagers referred to the UK’s counter-radicalization program, Channel, between March 2014 and March 2016 were Muslim, while Muslims constitute only 8 percent of the population. Last March, a four-year-old Muslim boy was sent to Channel when his drawing of a cucumber was misconstrued as a cooker-bomb.

Central to the assertions that counter-radicalization is a more effective mode of counter-terrorism is the assumption that there is in fact an existential threat to Western societies from groups of individuals wishing to cause it harm, many if not all of whom are considered Muslim. Terrorism as a concept itself remains unquestioned, and the state-sponsored project of defending “us” against “them” is legitimized — although using an ostensibly softer touch than the hard violence of war and criminalization. Instead of developing community-based or individual-focused programs to counter radicalization, the Islamophobic laws, policies and imaginaries that represent Muslims as a fundamental threat to Western society must be dismantled.

Argument 2: “Inclusion Is the Answer”

Greater inclusion of Muslims in white-normative societies is often posited as the solution to Islamophobia — and, from a national security perspective, to the alienation that supposedly produces the radicalization of young Muslims. Social inclusion is widely seen as a counterpoint to the exclusionary nativist rhetoric of Islamophobes and fascists. For example, the recent decision by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to permit women wearing the hijab to join the federal police force has been hailed as a positive move against the exclusion of Muslims. Similar examples of Muslims taking on roles in policing agencies are heralded the world over.

Such arguments for greater inclusion, however, often fail to challenge or transform the problematic dynamics of the entities within which inclusion for Muslims is being sought. The RCMP, for instance, has its roots in the North West Mounted Police, the settler-colonial police force developed to surveil and attack indigenous communities. Racial and gendered violence continues to pervade the everyday practice of the RCMP, and the presence of Muslims did not dampen the force’s deep-seated Islamophobia, but was actually exploited to entrap vulnerable Muslims in false terrorist plots staged by undercover agents presenting themselves as Islamic authorities. This experience parallels the FBI’s use of Muslim informants to build its surveillance dragnet of Muslim communities.

Inclusion of Muslims, then, does not necessarily eliminate or reduce Islamophobia. On the contrary, inclusion may perpetuate institutional racism by recruiting Muslims into existing structures of power — while at the same time making it more difficult to detect, since there is no overt exclusion involved. Instead of aiming for inclusion in existing power structures and institutions, the fight against Islamophobia must aim to dismantle institutions that sustain themselves through practices of racialized surveillance and criminalization.

Argument 3: “Islamophobia Plays Into the Hands of ISIS”

A common refrain heard in recent arguments against Islamophobic policies and anti-Muslim polemics is that the latter “play into the hands of the terrorists.” It is widely claimed, for instance, that the hateful rhetoric espoused by Islamophobic populists like Donald Trump and Geert Wilders actually reinforces ISIS’ narrative of a Manichean world divided between Islam and the West — a world in which there are no gray zones where Muslims can live harmoniously with non-Muslims.

In this framing, Islamophobia is considered objectionable mainly because of how ISIS might exploit it, rather than for its own intrinsic violence. Islamophobic statements are represented as the trigger or pretext for Muslims’ violence, rather than as something that is itself a source of violence — like illegal and aggressive wars, extrajudicial drone killings, torture, secret detention, hate crimes, invasive state surveillance, and so on. While Islamophobia may be the immediate object of critique, it is still Muslims and their supposedly terroristic propensities that feature as the fundamental problem in such narratives.

As a result, the argument re-directs attention away from Islamophobia and back towards Muslim violence, even while claiming to do the opposite. Our gaze ends up being diverted from the structural racism woven into the warp and woof of Western liberal democracies — a racism that has already undergirded the destruction of many Muslim societies in the name of fighting terrorism.

Argument 4: #NotAllMuslims — “Islam Is Peace”

In response to prevailing stereotypes that Islam is fundamentally a religion of violence, promulgated by extremist far-right ideologues, Muslims and anti-Islamophobic allies often insist that Islam is a religion of peace. Both sides of the argument — Islam means violence versus Islam means peace — cite portions of Islamic religious texts, particularly the Quran, to demonstrate some authentic true nature of Islam and Muslims.

The problem with such readings is that they perpetuate the orientalist assumption that all actions performed by Muslims are somehow determined by scripture — a reductionist conceptualization of Islam that does not reflect how Muslims have actually engaged with religious texts for centuries, through rich and diverse interpretive traditions. Theological and intellectual debates about interpretation that have gone on for 1,500 years are thus roundly ignored, and the vast cultural, political and social history of over a billion people that shapes Islam is subsumed in limited translations of particular verses.

Instead of propagating essentializing constructions to rehabilitate the image of Islam and Muslims, an anti-Islamophobic stance should focus on critiquing the state policies and public discourses that have made such rehabilitation efforts seem necessary in the first place: policies and discourses that criminalize, incarcerate and wage war against Muslims, while providing a cover for civilian attacks like the shooting at the Muslim community centre in Québec City.

Argument 5: “Non-Muslims Are Also Terrorists”

To counteract the overwhelming tendency by fascists and other right-wing extremists to equate the concept of terrorism with acts of violence committed by Muslims, it is essential to point out that significant amounts of political violence in both North America and Europe are committed by non-Muslims, in the name of causes like white supremacy, anti-immigrant activism and nationalism. However, the assertion that all these various forms of violence should also be labeled terrorism, as Prime Minister Trudeau recently did for the Québec mosque attack carried out by a self-avowed white supremacist, fails to challenge the legitimacy and cogency of terrorism as a concept.

This is undesirable for at least two reasons. First, because certain types of violence against civilians — most importantly, violence committed by states — still tend to be excluded from or marginalized in the definition of terrorism. The primary focus remains on non-state actors, even though states are the most significant purveyors of violence in our world.

Second, it is undesirable because many governments have claimed that the existential threat posed by terrorism requires the expansion of their own powers: through implementation of emergency laws, for example, and deterioration of the rights of individuals, through measures like preventive arrests and detentions. Broadening the category of “the terrorist” may therefore serve states — from the American to the Syrian — seeking to rationalize their own violence as necessary for fighting terrorism.

Instead of widening the scope of who is considered a terrorist to include white supremacists and fascists, the notion of terrorism must be deconstructed altogether: to demonstrate that the term depends on spurious criteria to distinguish some forms of violence (delegitimized as terrorism) from other, equally terrorizing forms of violence (legitimized as counter-terrorism).

Argument 6: “Muslim Women Are Not Oppressed — They Choose How to Dress”

In North America, as in several European countries, Muslim women’s attire has become a primary focus for Islamophobic attacks — by the state as well as by individuals. In Canada, for example, the Conservative federal government that preceded Trudeau’s issued a policy manual in 2011 preventing women wearing the niqab from swearing the oath of citizenship (this policy was eventually overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal). And there have been several efforts in the province of Québec to pass legislation barring women in niqab from receiving or delivering public services. In these initiatives, the niqab and hijab are represented as inherently oppressive pieces of clothing imposed on Muslim women by religion, community and/or family. State prohibition is pitched as an attempt to save Muslim women from sartorial subjugation.

In response, arguments against niqab and hijab bans often emphasize that Muslim women actually choose to veil. In doing so, they reaffirm the problematic premise that the value and legitimacy of a person’s actions should be judged by whether they are an expression of free choice: choice exercised without any limitations or restrictions. But choice — all choice — is of course fraught: the ability to see choices and pick between them is always constrained by one’s upbringing and social context. Individuals never have full information or full agency. Choice also changes, and can be misconstrued.

Furthermore, the ideology of free choice has often been allied with imperial projects of violence. From the French colonization of Algeria to the American invasion of Afghanistan, multiple wars have been waged around the world in the name of bringing choice to Muslim women. But individual choice is not necessarily seen in all places and times as the central organizing principle of human life, as it is within liberal states. As Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor of Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Columbia University, appropriately asks: “Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Living in close families? Living in a godly way? Living without war?”

Responses to anti-hijab laws and rhetoric cannot begin and end by valorizing choice. Rather, they must be about limiting the power of the state to withdraw benefits and services from its constituents as punishment for living lives that may not accord with liberal norms and priorities.

Argument 7: “Muslims Are Citizens Too”

The assertion that Islamophobic counter-terrorism measures violate the rights of Muslim citizens of Western liberal democracies — who should be treated equally, without any discrimination on the basis of race or religion — is a popular theme in organizing against such measures. However, it is inadequate to simply defend the rights of citizens while ignoring the situation of those who are not citizens of the state, but made subject to its power and violence in the name of national security. As University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin observes, Canadians have long tolerated serious abrogations of rights and freedoms for non-citizens that would likely be considered unacceptable against citizens. The same is true in the United States and across Europe.

In Canada, for instance, many cases involving terrorism have not been tried using criminal law, but dispatched with using immigration law, enabling the deportation or indefinite detention of suspects under a lower standard of proof and without many of the procedural safeguards (such as they exist) of criminal trials. The argument that Muslim citizens should not have to suffer Islamophobic laws and policies because they are citizens perpetuates the disadvantage and vulnerability of non-citizens.

Furthermore, in settler colonial states like Canada and the United States, the institution of citizenship is built on a foundation of indigenous genocide and dispossession. In these contexts, the quest for inclusion in citizenship risks normalizing the colonization of indigenous nations. Upholding citizenship as the ultimate source of rights, freedom and belonging tends to prevent critique of the violence and exclusion embedded within citizenship: against indigenous peoples and against migrants. The struggle ahead must be about collective liberation beyond inclusion in liberal frameworks of citizenship.

Argument 8: “Obviously Innocent Collateral Damage”

Cases of white progressive activists monitored as national security threats are frequently cited to demonstrate the absurd overreach of counter-terrorism. The injustice involved in these cases is meant to be apparent and inarguable. The protagonists are represented as obviously innocent collateral damage of counter-terrorism, and their entrapment in the expansive net of national security as a manifest wrong.

Such examples are considered persuasive because the victims are not generally regarded as legitimate objects of suspicion. This is in stark contrast to Muslim, South Asian, Black and Arab men, who are consistently demonized as national security threats, and who have suffered extreme state abuse because of this — extraordinary rendition, torture, secret and/or indefinite imprisonment, and so on. The innocence of this demographic is not taken as obvious, but must be proven time and time again against a default presumption of guilt. Unlike the targeting of “obviously innocent collateral damage,” the state’s surveillance and securitization of brown- and black-skinned men is not widely treated as inherently irrational.

For example, Professors Deepa Kumar and Arun Kundnani observe that while the exposure of the National Security Agency’s massive warrantless data collection program generated widespread condemnation, the revelation that Muslims were specifically targeted for surveillance attracted far less attention and outrage. While many objected to the US government collecting private data on ordinary citizens, Muslims tend to be seen as reasonable targets of exceptional surveillance — simply because they are Muslim.

Arguments invoking the obvious innocence of certain victims of national security problematically entrench the problematic distinction between those who do not deserve to be treated with suspicion. They perpetuate the state’s normalized suspicion of precisely those groups that are most vulnerable to the violence of counter-terrorism.

Moving Beyond Liberal Anti-Islamophobia

Critiquing common liberal arguments like these can help organizers imagine and articulate other types of responses to Islamophobia: responses that do not merely shift the position of Muslims in the state’s existing racial landscape, but upheave and re-make this terrain altogether. Doing so is particularly important in our present political moment, when the ostentatious Islamophobia of far-right organizations and the Trump administration is often understood as exceptional — occluding continuities and similarities with the Islamophobia of liberal governments like Obama’s or Trudeau’s. This in turn perpetuates the dangerous illusion that liberal politics are a refuge from right-wing racism, when the truth is that they are constructed of many of the same components.

Of course, opposition to Islamophobia should not remain limited to the discursive field. It should also include — and in fact prioritize — building and organizing within racialized communities to assert dignity, power and freedom. Examples of such organizing abound. For instance, the first iteration of Trump’s Muslim ban was met by a general strike by the primarily Muslim New York Taxi Workers Alliance, whose inspiring actions set off a spate of airport shutdowns that were crucial to defeating the administration’s first set of executive orders. Similarly, hours after the Québec shooting, Muslim organizers and their allies issued a call for days of action across Canada against Islamophobia, white supremacy and deportations.

Deconstructing widespread liberal fallacies is therefore by no means a comprehensive or sufficient approach to a genuinely anti-Islamophobic politics. What it may do, however, is strengthen and further our collective struggle against the intertwined scaffolding of racism, patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism upon which the Islamophobia of the neoliberal security state and the neo-fascist right continues to rest. Deepening our analysis in the days to come, when it may seem easier not to, would be a critical first step in building towards the worlds we want to live in.

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