It is no secret that the rise of Islamophobia in the West is a byproduct of the global “War on Terror.” In the United Kingdom and the United States, Islamophobia has resulted in attacks on hijab-wearing women, as well as those seeking to defend Muslims. It has also brought about the systematic persecution and monitoring of Muslims under the guise of Countering Violent Extremism programs (known as CVE in the United States and “Prevent” in the United Kingdom), and is now most apparent in Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.”
Left-leaning liberals have generally condemned these Islamophobic policies, and even formed broad coalitions with Muslims, on the basis of mutual opposition to the “War on Terror” and support for the Palestinian cause. This is why, for example, the United Kingdom’s overtly left-leaning Stop the War Coalition (StWC) is currently filled with countless Muslim constituents. Since the time of the Iraq War, many of StWC’s leading figures have been insisting that Islamophobia is a consequence of their government’s policies, and on the need to stand with Muslims to fight it. This has naturally curried favor with many British-Muslims, such that, in March 2012, one of StWC’s leading figures, George Galloway, won his parliamentary bid in a heavily Muslim area of Bradford in Northern England.
But, while these leftists have stood firmly by their “Western Muslim” co-nationalists, they have failed to be allies of Muslim victims of the War on Terror in countries like Egypt and Syria—especially those Muslims affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or other conservative, political, or revolutionary Islamic movements. Arguably, this is the consequence of the left’s failure to understand that Islamophobia is not unique to the West or perpetrated only by those of European descent. Islamophobia also afflicts Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, it is the glue that binds together the ongoing counter-revolution in Syria, post-coup Egypt, and the limitless demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United Arab Emirates, among other things.
Many liberals nonetheless support (or at least fail to meaningfully condemn) these counter-revolutionary, anti-Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamophobic policies in the Middle East. In this way, many so-called liberals and purported Muslim allies are themselves subtle practitioners of Islamophobia.
Oblivious as they may be, left-leaning liberals are often quite Islamophobic in the “non-Western” context. In their denunciations of “Wahhabism,” “Salafism,” and “Jihadism,” these liberals are referring not only to extremists like Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), but also groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and vast swathes of revolutionary Muslims in Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere. In embracing this rhetoric, these liberals echo the policies of so-called “secular” Arab regimes—like that of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria or Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt—as well as the perspectives of prominent Arab liberals.
After supporting their country’s January 2011 revolution, many Egyptian liberals turned around and supported the 2013 military coup, which undid the democracy they had just fought to establish. Instead of condemning this tragic political blunder, many left-leaning liberals in the West, including the well-known Egyptian-American “feminist” Mona El-Tahawy, echoed the same anti-Brotherhood, pro-coup lines which helped justify Morsi’s ouster. This reaction seemed to be the result of an overt, and largely unfounded, antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Islamist current,” more generally.
The same Egyptian liberals who coddled the coup would later scramble to explain why they would not, and did not, commemorate the 2013 Rabaa massacre—committed by Egyptian security forces against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood a few weeks after the coup—even though they honored similar tragedies like the Maspero Coptic Massacre. According to one Egyptian liberal activist, the Rabaa demonstrators did not deserve respect or protection because they “were a group of people who were essentially angry because they were ousted from power, and who on any other day would be happy to see me get shot and die as well.”
Egyptian intellectuals—known for being critical of state policies—also echoed these beliefs, and supported the awful crackdowns in Rabaa in 2013. According to novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, for example, the coup was a resurgence of anti-imperialist Arab nationalism against the so-called Western-supported Muslim Brotherhood, who he described as “terrorists.” Like other Egyptian liberals and supporters of the coup, Ibrahim appeared to deny the nature of the massacre in Rabaa.
Of course, Egyptian liberals are not alone in their hostility to social and political groups with connections, however remote, to Islam. The Syrian and Lebanese secular left are guilty of much of the same. They similarly opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, were unapologetic about their support for the 2013 coup, and slandered the Rabaa martyrs. While some claim to support the Syrian revolution, for example, they continually disown Islamist factions such as Ahrar Al-Sham, Jaysh Al-Islam, and other mainstream “Muslim groups” in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for no clear reason other than their Islamic orientation.
Western leftists have generally rehashed these same anti-Islamist tropes, helping to provide rhetorical cover for the counterrevolutionary beliefs of Arab liberals. Rania Khalek—an independent journalist self-proclaimed anti-war activist—is one of the loudest and most persistent American leftist voices known for denouncing “extremist Muslims” and “Wahhabi-Salafis” in the Middle East. Of course, Khalek and those like her insist their criticisms are not Islamophobic, because they “target fascism”—which is the same nonsense Arab liberals spew to justify their opposition for Muslim groups, like the Brotherhood, and support for Assad and Sisi.
While these liberals are a small demographic, their impact on counterrevolutionary discourse should not be underestimated. Their hostility to Islamism goes beyond critiquing specific Islamic movements and their politics. Much of the criticism directed at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, was not actually grounded in the specific things its members said or did, or how it operated, but rather in Islamophobic and classist sentiments. The widespread mocking of Morsi’s wife for wearing the hijab was one instance of this, and drawing insulting cartoons of Brotherhood members mocking their beards was another.
These are the kinds of realities leftists living in the West hardly ever mention. They ignored the monitoring of mosques that followed Egypt’s coup, as well as the placement of severe restrictions on night-time prayers during Ramadan since 2015. In June that year, an Egyptian Ministry official told Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat that “[t]he restrictions have been made to prevent any members of the Muslim Brotherhood or extremist organizations from entering mosques and holding meetings.” He added that “[m]embers of the Salafi al-Nour Party and Gamaa al-Islamia loyal the Brotherhood will also be prevented from giving religious lessons, as they have done in past years, and leading tarawih prayers in ministry-run mosques. Violators will be prosecuted on the spot.”
For Western liberals, then, defending Muslims outside the West is necessary only when they are secular or their Islamic identity is simply “cultural.”
Islam & Nationalism
As anthropologist Talal Asad asserted in Formations of the Secular, secularity is not purely the separation of religion and state, or freedom of religion in the public sphere. It is, instead, state control over religiosity and its power to distinguish the religious from the profane. In other words, it is a mode of governance that regulates religion. This particular understanding of secularism can be traced back to the formation of the modern Arab state and the manner in which the region’s authoritarian regimes attempted to quell opposition from Islamic groups (notably the Muslim Brotherhood) by appropriating religion and bringing religious authorities under their control. This can be seen in how Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser exerted control over mosques and Al-Azhar, as well as Bashar Al-Assad’s alliance with the urban Grand Ulema.
With religion incorporated into the state structure, the Qur’an and Hadith were no longer the final say on religious issues. Instead, it was the government, party leaders, and their approved religious elites that defined the terms of religious debate. Thus, the “good Muslim” became synonymous with the “good citizen”—one that practices a state-sanctioned form of Islam, and confined their practice to the private sphere. A Muslim that demanded social, political, and religious reform was simply a threat and not acceptable.
When Western liberals repeat this authoritarian logic, when they treat Islam as a cultural identity, instead of as a faith that informs multiple aspects of a Muslim’s life, including her politics, when they refuse to respect the resistance of democratic Islamists fighting authoritarian regimes, when they lend credence to wholesale massacres of Muslims in counterrevolutionary contexts, they repeat the logic of “good” and “bad” Muslims propagated by authoritarian Arab regimes, whether they realize it or not.
The political processes that regulate expressions of religiosity, and Islamists, in Arab states also regulate and restrict the rights of women, homosexuals, atheists, religious, and ethnic minorities. The same police who massacred Muslim Brotherhood members also harass the liberal community in downtown Cairo. Those who censor Islamists also censor books that depict sexuality. The problem is not Islamism. The problem is the dictator-state. Leftists and liberals around the world would do well to come to terms with this fact.
While leftist liberals, in the Arab world and West, want to build a “third way” between Islamists and dictatorships, they foolishly attempt to accomplish this by repeating the Islamophobic sentiments of the secular Arab regimes they claim to oppose. So long as they continue to do this, they will inevitably support the forces of counterrevolution in the region, which suffocate the air of freedom so many dream of smelling.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: this article has been updated to reflect Rania’s Khalek’s title as an independent journalist.