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Politicians and the press bash Islam over anti-cartoon protests
The racist crusade against Muslims

February 17, 2006 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR explains why Arabs and Muslims are right to be furious at the West's racist attack on Islam.

THE CONTROVERSY over a Danish newspaper's publication of caricatures of Muhammad has highlighted the scale of the Western ideological assault on Islam as justification for anti-immigrant scapegoating and imperialist war.

At the same time, the crisis highlights the failure of the antiwar movement in the U.S. to champion the civil liberties of Arabs and Muslims, even as their plight worsens.

This controversy didn't start with the publication of the cartoons. It was triggered by years of political campaigns against immigrants in Denmark and across Europe.

The U.S. media, however, have focused on protests in Muslim countries--including the burning of Danish embassies in Syria and Lebanon. They portrayed the issue as one of freedom of expression, playing up racist stereotypes of Muslims as intellectually backward and violent.

Somehow, the deaths of well over 100,000 Iraqis as the result of the U.S. invasion and Washington's support for monarchs and dictators across the Middle East are seen as irrelevant to the protests over the cartoons.

Instead, politicians and pundits alike are using the specter of an irrational and violent Islam as an unstated but unmistakable after-the-fact justification for war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan--and, in the future, a possible Israeli attack on the Palestinian Hamas party and a U.S. military strike against Iran.

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THE PROTESTS over the Danish cartoon are not, as conservative academic Samuel Huntington argues, an example of the "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam. Rather, it is a sign of deep--and justified--anger at the U.S. and the West for humiliating military occupations that recall the colonial era.

In the U.S., stepped-up military aggression against Muslims and Arabs abroad has been matched by greater repression at home.

"Since the July 7 bombings in London, the crackdown on Muslims and South Asians in the U.S. has increased heavily," Ahsanullah "Bobby" Khan, executive director of the Coney Island Avenue Project, an immigrant rights group in New York City, said in an interview. "The neighborhood searches and deportations have increased. Just in the last few days in Brooklyn, six to seven people were arrested. It is happening in other neighborhoods as well."

Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, every one of the twice-weekly flights of Pakistan International Airlines from the U.S has carried two or three deportees, he said.

According to Khan, New York City agencies are routinely violating a directive by Mayor Michael Bloomberg not to inquire about the immigration status of residents. In fact, anyone who appears to be Muslim or South Asian is being forced to answer such questions from police and prosecutors--who are apparently cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, Khan said.

Proposed legislation in Congress, known as HR 4437, would require local law enforcement to adopt this policy everywhere. The bill, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and set to go to the Senate, would also make undocumented immigrants into felons; criminalize many forms of assistance to immigrants from teachers, social workers and clergy; speed deportations; and fund the construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

By targeting Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism, the right wing in Congress hopes to steamroller past opposition to the law.

Unfortunately, said Khan, "I don't see a lot of attention from the antiwar movement [on Arab and Muslim immigrants], although all these issues are related to the so-called war. So much is going on. About two or three months back, a Pakistani died in prison. There was no response, not even from activist and progressive circles."

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WITCH-HUNTS against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. are the inevitable result of a military drive that George Bush called a "crusade" after September 11, invoking the image of religious warfare.

More than four years later, the outrage among Muslims across the Middle East and Asia reflects not only anger at racist images of religious figures considered idolatrous in Islam, but the historic humiliations of colonialism, war and the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the dehumanization and systematic torture of Muslim prisoners by U.S. military and intelligence personnel.

While the massive protests in the Muslim world initially stunned Western political leaders, the White House soon moved to manipulate the crisis.

"You do not just go out in the streets of Iran and protest spontaneously, and in the streets of Syria and protest spontaneously," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a February 12 television interview, using the issue to bash Washington's next potential targets in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, right-wing politicians used the Danish cartoon controversy to advance their own anti-immigrant agenda.

"We [the Republicans] are the party that stands up for free expression around the world," anti-immigrant Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington February 9. "And we shouldn't apologize for it no matter how angry that expression may make some people, some religions or some governments."

Notorious for his openly racist rhetoric and legislative initiatives targeted mainly at Mexicans, Tancredo calls himself a devotee of Huntington and links immigrant-bashing and military intervention in the Middle East. In an interview with, Tancredo said, "I believe that what we are fighting here is not just a small group of people who have hijacked a religion, but it is a civilization bent on destroying ours."

A supporter of HR 4437, a viciously anti-immigrant bill that passed the House of Representatives last year, Tancredo says he'll run for president in 2008 if leading Republican candidates don't take a hardline stance against immigration.

While Tancredo has little hope of capturing the Republican nomination, he's posed to shape the national anti-immigrant agenda. By legitimizing the immigrant-hunting Minuteman Project in the halls of Congress, Tancredo has helped stampede Democratic Govs. Bill Richards of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona into declaring "states of emergency" on the border.

His strategy, in fact, follows that of the far-right Danish People's Party, which became Denmark's third-biggest party in 2001, forcing the ruling center-right coalition to rely on its support. In return, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen pushed through the harshest anti-immigrant laws in Europe, legitimizing the anti-Muslim racism that led to the publication of the caricatures of Muhammad, one of which portrayed the prophet's turban as a bomb with a lighted fuse.

The Danish far right, in turn, has modeled itself on the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a neo-Nazi who came in second during the French presidential election of 2001. Pressured by the National Front's calls for the mass deportation of mostly Muslim immigrants, the ruling mainstream conservative French government invoked a "state of emergency" to crack down on last fall's rebellion of mostly Muslim immigrant youths.

Similar examples could be given from several other West European countries. The pattern is clear enough: the far right makes extreme demands; the mainstream right adapts and implements policies that would have been seen as shocking in the past; and liberals tail along to avoid being seen as "soft" on the issue.

Those dynamics are showing themselves in U.S. politics as well--Bush's declining popularity and a lousy economy have left racism and immigrant-bashing as the Republican right's last cards to play.

Overt anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry will figure prominently in the politics of immigration in the 2006 elections and beyond. It's time for the antiwar and immigrant rights movements to join forces, defend Arabs and Muslims and stand up to all the racist attacks.

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