This article is based on a talk given at a Party for Socialism and Liberation forum held in San Jose, Calif.
Racism is not a natural, inevitable phenomenon, nor is it something that “just happens.” It is something that we can fight against. Throughout history, we see that racism is actively promoted and organized by the ruling class. Why? Because the ruling class is numerically only a tiny portion of the population. It cannot possibly impoverish humanity and hold on to its ridiculous amounts of wealth without sowing division among the workers. Racism is an effective tool in the hands of the capitalist class.
Millions of people were abducted from Africa and enslaved in the United States. The slave-owning class in the South owed its wealth to slave labor, people who were worked to death on its plantations. The slave-owning class had to come up with an ideology to justify the enslavement of millions of people. Slavery did not exist because of racism. Racism existed to justify slavery. Of course, the African American community continues to suffer oppression today because racism continues to serve the purpose of the capitalist class in dividing the working class.
Similarly today, racism against Muslims and Arabs, Islamophobia, does not exist because it is somehow natural and normal for people of different religions to hate each other. The ruling class has actively promoted and nurtured Islamophobia. It did not start on Sept. 11, 2001, but it reached new levels because of the purpose it served. The events around 9/11 give us a case study on how the ruling class uses racism to promote its own goals—imperialist plunder, and divide and conquer.
Sept. 11 attacks, PATRIOT Act, Afghan war
On September 11, 2001, I was in 11th grade, and I remember watching events unfold on news stations in class. As the news anchors still had no information as to who the attackers were, I remember thinking to myself, “God … please don’t let it be Muslims.” Even then, as a high school student, I had a glimpse of what was to come.
Domestically, the U.S. government was quick to launch an assault on civil liberties. The government decided to increase security by breaching citizens’ privacy and rights. The PATRIOT Act was used, and continues to be used, for arbitrarily tapping phones, reading e-mails, harassing activists and arresting, interrogating and torturing individuals considered to be terrorism suspects. Sept. 11 gave the ruling class an excuse to increase its powers of repression against the people here in the United States.
But the main function of the spread of Islamophobia was to justify a new wave of military conquests by empire. The Afghanistan war was launched less than a month after 9/11. How were racism and Islamophobia useful to the ruling class? Well, not a single one of the perpetrators of 9/11 was from Afghanistan. And, 10 years later, when the Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the occupation of Afghanistan was not altered the slightest bit, laying to rest the notion that capturing bin Laden had been the goal of the occupation.
It was only in an atmosphere of racist hysteria that the occupation of Afghanistan could be justified as an appropriate response to 9/11. In that racist atmosphere, what was the difference between Afghans and Saudi Arabians, people from countries over a thousand miles apart?
This is not to suggest that bombing Saudi Arabia would have been justified. Rather, we are saying that, without the anti-Muslim hysteria, it would have been impossible to justify invading Afghanistan as a just reaction to 9/11.
Eighteen months later, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq. It did not matter that neither Saddam Hussein nor any Iraqi citizens had anything to do with 9/11. In fact, the secular state in Iraq considered Al Qaeda its mortal enemy. But, somehow, the trumped-up issue of “weapons of mass destruction” was linked to 9/11, and the Islamophobic hysteria justified any action against Muslims anywhere, irrespective of whether they had anything to do with 9/11.
The real purpose of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq was to “redraw the map of the Middle East” to better serve the interests of the U.S. oligarchy. In fact, 9/11 itself, though tragically misguided, was a reaction to decades of U.S. crimes in the Middle East. In Iraq alone, over a million people had already lost their lives as a result of the genocidal sanctions imposed on the people, depriving them of food, medicine and even clean water.
Guantanamo and 'illegal combatants'
Then there was the matter of prisoners of war—people who had resisted the occupation of their lands. Well, they were called “illegal combatants” and denied the protections of international law accorded POWs. A decade later, people are still being held in Guantanamo Bay with no evidence and no due process.
How is it that the highest levels of the U.S. government can defend the existence of torture chambers, not just in Guantanamo, but in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan’s Baghram? Again, anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia, comes to the rescue. Much like the enslavement of Africans was justified by depicting them as subhuman, the massive torture and slaughter of Iraqis and Afghans is justified by portraying Muslims as sub-human beings.
Islamophobia in the United States
Of course, the fact that Islamophobia is promoted by the state and the corporate media, itself really an arm of the state, does not mean that more backward elements of the population do not buy into it. There are countless examples of anti-Muslim bigotry that continue to this day. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, several people were attacked and even killed merely for being Muslims or even “looking like” Muslims or wearing turbans. Mosques have been set on fire, the Quran has been burned, Muslims have been forced off planes with no justification, people have been accused of being terrorists, and the list goes on and on.
At my high school, one of our teachers would not allow us to miss sixth period on Fridays for prayer, saying, “Why don’t you pray on Sunday like the rest of us?” On the street, people have yelled at me, calling me, “Diaper head.”
When I worked for the Census in late 2009, I would have to go to people’s doors and ask them questions. In a few instances, people refused to talk to me because I didn’t look “American.” Others thought I was selling my religion and a few even made more offensive comments, such as stopping me mid-sentence and asking “Are you Arab?” to which I replied, “Yes.” Next thing I knew, a door was slammed in my face.
Islamophobia continues to serve the interests of the imperialist establishment. It serves to justify the continued occupation of Palestine by Israel, the U.S. watchdog in the Middle East. It continues to help justify the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The propaganda line is that the demonized Muslim people do not quite know the value of democracy, human rights and self-governance, so the U.S. government has to help these lesser peoples by bombing their cities, towns and villages.
Ongoing outcomes of Islamophobia
The state and the corporate media have to continue stirring things up. The government and media controlled by those in power have a definite interest in maintaining fear and hatred toward Muslims. An example is the anti-Shari’a laws being introduced in over two dozen states.
The idea that the United States needs to be protected against the imposition of Islamic law is simply ludicrous. When it comes to separation between church and state, a greater concern should be protecting us from the legal imposition of extremist Christian values enshrined in law. In any case, the anti-Shari'a law movement is being spearheaded by openly racist elements.
According to a 2010 survey of Muslim youths aged 11 to 18, conducted by the Washington-based advocacy group Muslim Mothers Against Violence, every respondent reported being called a name because of their faith, including 80 percent who said they had been called “terrorist.”
Another outcome of the pervasiveness of Islamophobia occurred in Europe. On July 22, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb and massacred 68 people attending a Labor Party youth camp in Norway.
Breivik had written a 1,500-page manifesto explaining his right-wing, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic ideology. An active blogger, Breivik faulted Norway’s Labor Party, the left-wing pro-capitalist party, for “multi-culturalism” and for allowing the “Islamification” of Europe. He saw a “Marxist-Islamic alliance” as a mortal threat to “European Christendom.”
It wasn’t just the act itself that was racist but the reaction to it by officials and the business media. On July 27, Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on religion and freedom of belief, stated, “The way in which some public commentators immediately associated the horrifying mass murder in Norway last Friday with Islamist terrorism is revealing and indeed an embarrassing example of the powerful impact of prejudices and their capacity to enshrine stereotypes.”
So, essentially, his Islamophobia, fueled by the world media, is what drove Breivik to kill these innocent peoples.
Mazda Majidi wrote for Liberation about the Norway massacre:
“Right-wing, racist movements and their ideology do not grow in a vacuum. They are one of the ways in which the capitalist ruling class attempts to keep people divided. While advertising itself as grassroots and spontaneous, the Tea Party in the United States is an example of a right-wing movement that has been funded directly and indirectly by big capitalists, such as the Koch brothers.
"Only under certain political circumstances have capitalist ruling classes been in favor of the direct ascension of the fascists into political power, and those were periods of extreme crises, when the survival of the system was in question. But extreme right-wing parties and movements serve their class functions at other times, as well.
“Right-wing movements are particularly useful to the ruling class during times of capitalist economic crisis, high unemployment and declining living standards. Fascistic ideologies provide a false explanation for the root cause of the crisis. They promote racism and hatred toward immigrants, people of color and oppressed countries to prevent the formation of unity among the working class and the oppressed, the victims of the capitalist system. Individuals like Breivik are by-products of this right-wing ideology.
“So long as the capitalist class has political power, racism will thrive, not spontaneously, but promoted and supported by that class.The way to combat racism is to struggle for working-class unity and solidarity along the lines of actively fighting racism. An organized, class-conscious working class will bring an end to the capitalist system, along with its inevitable diseases, including racism.”
Islamophobia is one of the many varieties of this racism. Islamophobia is promoted while, at the same time, other forms of racism are also promoted, such as bigotry against immigrants and African Americans. Racism serves to promote a false sense of unity between the oppressors and sectors of the oppressed, based on the commonality of race and language. Majidi concludes his article this way:
"When the capitalist system is overthrown, the state will no longer be stirring up racism to safeguard its interests. Instead, the state of the working class will be at the forefront of the fight against racism."
Oct. 7 marks the 10-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. Did you know that 92 percent of Afghans don’t even know about the 9/11 attacks? This so-called War on Terror has always been a farce and has caused immeasurable amounts of death, devastation and destruction around the world. That in itself is cause to oppose this war. But, in addition to that, money funneled into this war means money withdrawn from health and education in the United States. This siphoning has caused suffering to many working-class families here.
I ask you all to come out on Oct. 7 to the Protest and Die-In for the 10th Anniversary of the Afghanistan War. Translate remembrance into action! Do not be silent! We are all brothers and sisters on this Earth. Not connected at the heart—that is just a beating organ—but by some virtual umbilical cord. Any pain and suffering that happens to one person on this Earth should be felt by us all. Not only should we all identify with victims of the U.S. empire in other countries, we do not have to look far to see pain and suffering because we have it right here in the United States.