Review: Arsalan Iftikhar’s Scapegoats



If there’s still some debate as to whether the safety and freedoms that American Muslims and Muslims in America can enjoy are in some way impinged by the War on Terror and its resulting Islamophobia, the three incidents of violence just this week should dispel them: a New York woman tried to rip the hijabs off of two women who were walking their children in a Brooklyn park, also in New York, Scottish Muslim tourist had her shirt set on fire by a crazed passerby, and a mosque in Florida was the site of an arson attack simply because the Pulse nightclub shooter had occasionally attended services there. Our election cycle, the attacks on cultural difference and decency by the right, and the legitimization of hate groups by the mainstream media has resulted in empowering those who believe that being American is synonymous with being Christian and white. There are obviously no easy answers to what’s going on in our world, but if you’re looking for something to read to help put this into context, I recommend Arsalan Iftikhar’s slim volume, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps our Enemies and Threatens our Freedoms, which deftly tackles this hefty topic. As its title states, the book explores the way Islamophobia is deployed by the media and the political class to demonize Muslims. One of Iftikhar’s central claims is that this kind of rhetorical violence and causal bigotry has come to be accepted in way that would not be palatable should the targets of such attacks have been part of other marginalized communities. In other words, the social, cultural, and political climate of our country is such that it’s open season on Muslims. When politicians or pundits make Islamophobic claims, Iftikhar notes, they are very rarely called on the carpet for their bigotry, xenophobia, and racism. In fact, the ironic and defining characteristic current Islamophobia is that it isn’t any of those things according to those who regularly mobilize such rhetoric.

Scapegoats rests on certain recurring motifs: Muslims are viewed negatively by large numbers of the American population (the percentages of negative views are higher in people who identify as conservative, but there’s not much to write home about on the left, either); Islamophobia is de rigueur on CNN and in American politics (Iftikhar only glances at the xenophobic politics in other so-called secular, liberal democracies, like France); and that Islamophobia is a manifestation of hostility against Muslims that is similar to those faced by other populations in the United States (like Germans during WWII, Jews, Irish, and African Americans), thereby placing Muslims in an historical trajectory that might end with assimilation. This idyllic dream is problematized, I think, by the reality of racism and the fact that many African Americans continue to be made to feel that their ties to this country remain fragile and conditional.

One of the many strengths of Scapegoats is its readability. This is a book about a very serious subject, but it’s told in a lively and engaging fashion. Indeed, Iftikhar’s animated prose makes his lessons in the recent spate of verbal, physical, and lethal instances of Islamophobia a lot easier to swallow, even as they leave a bitter aftertaste. This is a book that will appeal to general readers wanting to know what Islamophobia is about, as well as to Muslims who are desperately trying to put their experiences into context. In fact, one thing that Iftikhar stresses throughout the book, is the very many times he’s called to answer for the heinous, brutal, and disgusting actions committed by terrorists in the name of Islam. While most of us might not be making media appearances in the wake of such incidents, we are very often having similarly coded conversations with neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, and sometimes even friends. Why is it that average Muslims, who generally have no training or expertise in theology, have to answer for the actions of these disgusting individuals? Why is it that public intellectuals, like Iftikhar, have to make appearances on the news circuit to endlessly condemn these actions? It’s because of western constructions of guilt by association. Scapegoats takes pains to explicate how such characterizations of Muslims are damaging and demonizing and also how they play into a cultural double standard.

The double standard constructs all acts of violence that are deemed to be terrorism to be undertaken by Muslims. While other similar instances of deadly violence, such as Dylan Roof gunning down nine members of a Bible study group at Emanuel AME church in Charleston or Robert Dear shooting up a Planned Parenthood in Colorado for Jesus, are not awarded the label of terrorist. What Iftikhar leaves unsaid, but is made blatantly clear throughout Scapegoats is that in the minds of many Americans, such media and political framing results in the following equation: all Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim. This tidy syllogism is necessary for a number of reasons, two that Iftikhar points out are the very real profits (monetary and political) accrued by the Islamophobia industry and our country’s 15-year War on Terror. Even as some officials take pains to assure American Muslims and the so-called Muslim world that the War on Terror is not a war on Islam, on the home front, in the homeland, American Muslims are increasingly feeling that there are forces in this country that see them as potential enemy combatants. A persuasive argument for this is the government’s CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) program, and as Iftikhar indicates, the NYPD’s clandestine Muslim surveillance program, which not only profiled American Muslims but also sought to entrap them into terrorist activities. Events and programs like these expose the fault lines in America’s promise of belonging and the uneasy and treacherous terrain that American Muslims must navigate.

One of the most compelling chapters of Scapegoats is  its final one: where Iftikhar turns his critical lens inwards, to interrogate the Muslim community, and the very easy way in which some Muslims fall for every idiotic provocation thrown their way by religion-baiters. Two prime examples that Iftikhar cites are the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad and the film The Innocence of Muslims. Both of these cultural—I use this term very loosely here—productions were created to offend Muslims, and true to form Muslims were offended and reacted with violent demonstrations to defend the “honor” of the Prophet. These are obvious taunts: created and designed to get a rise out of Muslims. As Iftikhar points out in this chapter, we have to learn not to lower ourselves to their level, not to react in the predictable way, the way they want. Two points are stressed here: the honor of the Prophet is not so fragile, and when he was insulted during his lifetime, he did not retaliate. If Muslims really care about living a life like the Prophet’s then they need to follow his example, and cultivate thicker skin.

Scapegoats is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the phenomenon of Islamophobia and wants to learn not only how Muslims are demonized but why it’s politically expedient for some to do so. It’s also a great book for Muslims who are trying to understand how this country’s attitude toward them has changed so drastically and dangerously since the advent of the War on Terror.

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