Why Fareed Zakaria’s Comments About Muslims Are Harmful

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Last Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recorded a segment where he made alarming claims that Muslims are “not doing enough” to confront “extremism” within their communities. As many Muslims know, this is not the first time we’ve heard this. In fact, since 9/11, we have been hearing politicians, newscasters, celebrities, teachers, co-workers, and even some of our friends constantly ask, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” or “Why aren’t the moderate Muslims doing anything to stop these extremists?”

As I wrote in my blog posts, “No One Hijacked Islam” (Part 1, 2, and 3), these questions about “where are all the moderate Muslims” are not only accusatory and assume that most Muslims are extremists, but they also reinforce the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binary. When mainstream media and Islamophobes ask about the whereabouts of the so-called “moderate Muslims,” they ignore the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world because they are looking specifically for the “Good Muslims,” i.e. the state-friendly, pro-imperialist Muslim who will justify racist policies, spy programs, drone warfare, military invasions/occupations, settler-colonialism, etc. The “Bad Muslims” are, well, everyone else.

Like I have said before, I don’t believe Muslims should apologize or answer for violence carried out by other people. White Christians are not demanded to apologize for the violent acts carried out by other white Christians, so why place this demand on Muslims? Despite my views on this, there are countless Muslim imams, community leaders, and organizations around the world who have been condemning the actions of extremist groups. However, the state wants more than just vocal condemnations. They want Muslims to “prove” their allegiance by serving the state (e.g. working as translators on imperialist missions, collaborating with law enforcement to spy and infiltrate their own communities, voice support and justification for wars against Muslim-majority countries, etc.).

What makes Zakaria’s comments about Muslims so harmful and, yes, Islamophobic is that they fuel an already dangerous narrative. That narrative being that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not only responsible for the crimes they didn’t commit, but are also to blame for Islamophobia itself. I’ll try to break down Zakaria’s comments point by point:

1. “There is a problem within Islam.”

Ok, when I listened to Zakaria say this, my first reaction was, “Are you talking about the religion or are you talking about the Muslim community in general?” When one listens to the rest of Zakaria’s segment, it is clear that he is talking about Muslim communities. In other words, Zakaria is not saying anything critical about the religion of Islam, but rather talking about the people who follow it.  This is what makes Zakaria’s language so problematic and irresponsible. It’s very Orientalist because it’s like looking at a map, pointing to a group of Muslim-majority countries, and then saying, “This is Islam. There is a problem within it.” It reminded me of a time when a friend and I were doing a university project where we went around interviewing people in a suburban town and asked them what came to mind when we used certain words. One of the words my friend used was “Islam,” and the respondent said, “Country.” Yes, this is an ignorant response that did not shock me too much, but for a journalist, who was born into a Muslim family, to not even make the distinction between the religion and its people (let alone consider the Islamophobic connotations of saying “there is a problem within Islam,” especially within the context of discussing extremists) just goes to show how racialized Islam and Muslims really are.

2. “It is not enough for Muslims to point out that these people do not represent the religion. They don’t. But Muslims need to take more active measures to protest these heinous acts.”

He talks about taking “active measures,” but is never specific. What constitutes “active measures” for people like Zakaria? Does it mean increasing the suspicion that already exists about Muslims? Does it mean permitting raids on Muslim homes like the ones that occurred recently in Australia? Does it mean working as an informant for the NYPD and getting paid $100,000 per assignment to take pictures, collect names, and monitor study groups of people in our community? Does it mean endorsing the NYPD/CIA to spy on Muslim students, neighborhoods, and mosques, which all proved to be ineffective? In fact, the only thing the spy unit was effective at doing was traumatizing Muslim communities. It has been revealed, for instance, that the FBI told white male informants (who pretended to be Muslim) that engaging in sexual relationships with Muslim women was permissible. Are these the “active measures” Zakaria is calling for?

Also, Zakaria is totally contradicting himself. If his statement above is read again, you’ll notice that he agrees that individuals like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau “do not represent the religion.” Yet, he insists that Muslims “need to take more active measures to protest.” So, the message here seems to be, “Hey, these people don’t represent your religion, but, um, PROTEST AGAINST THEM ANYWAY. DO SOMETHING! THEY’RE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY!”

3. “They also need to make sure that Muslim countries and societies do not in any way condone extremism, anti-modern attitudes and intolerance towards other faiths.”

This is troubling for so many reasons. Zakaria speaks as if every Muslim has a direct line to the governments of Muslim-majority countries. Again, the responsibility is placed on all Muslims to solve things like government corruption, discrimination against non-Muslim minorities, etc. How Zakaria managed to forget about the way power structures operate is beyond me. How can Muslims “make sure” that Muslim-majority countries don’t oppress religious minorities, for example, when Americans protesting the war against Iraq were not able to stop the war? Also, did Zakaria forget about the marches, protests, and revolutions that took/take place in Muslim-majority countries? The logic here is also terribly flawed and loaded with Orientalism. Yes, it is true that Islam teaches Muslims that we are all connected spiritually, but Zakaria speaks about Muslims as though we are a monolithic group; that we are all networked with each other, despite the immense diversity among and within Muslim societies and communities around the world.

As for “anti-modern attitudes,” this should raise our concerns about how “modernity” has become synonymous with western civilization, as well as how this language is heavily racialized. By calling Muslim-majority countries “anti-modern,” it fits into the ongoing narrative that Muslims are “trapped in the pre-modern” and have not “caught up” with the “modern/western world.” Colonialism, slavery of Africans, genocide against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, economic exploitation, incarceration of people of color, specifically black people, extrajudicial killings, using nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, waging wars and invading other countries, backing occupation and settler-colonialism in Palestine, appropriating a Middle Eastern man (Jesus) and transforming him into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white man to teach black people and other people of color that they are inferior to white people — these are all things that happened and happen in the so-called “modern” west. To resist these forces of oppression is to be “anti-modern”?

Of course, when these narratives of “modernity” are used against Islam and Muslims, they invoke things like human rights of women, LGBTQIA2-S, religious minorities, and so on. Because we all know the United States and other western nations are societies that champion “equality” and “justice” for “everyone.” I don’t raise this critique to ignore or invisibilize the very real struggles many marginalized communities endure in certain Muslim-majority countries, but rather to highlight on how western nations use and exploit these struggles to (1) justify exerting dominance and violence over Muslim-majority countries, and (2) trivialize and/or invisibilize the very real struggles that women, LGBTQIA2-S, people of color, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized peoples face in western countries. Perhaps most importantly, inherit in these “anti-modern” versus “modern” attitudes are violent notions of white saviorism, i.e. saving people through use of bombs and ruthless military invasions, as if the people living in Muslim-majority or non-western countries do not have a conscious for social justice or aren’t organizing, protesting, or speaking out against oppression. It’s the west, specifically the United States, that needs to save and modernize the “darker” and “uncivilized” people through the use of violent force.

4. “Muslims are right to complain that there is anti-Muslim bigotry out there. But they would have a more persuasive case if they took on some of the bigotry within the world of Islam as well.”

This part of Zakaria’s video probably upset me the most. I’ll get to his use of the term “bigotry” in a second, but the part about Muslims needing to have a more “persuasive case” against Islamophobia is quite disturbing. So, we have to be more “persuasive” to show white people that we are human? Because the way Islam and Muslims are demonized is somehow our fault? According to Zakaria, if Muslims experience Islamophobia, they cannot challenge it unless they “took on some of the bigotry in the world of Islam as well” (again, note the orientalist language: “world of Islam”).

A few things: first, when Zakaria talks about anti-Muslim bigotry, his use of “bigotry” becomes a soft word here. He is reducing Islamophobia to interpersonal forms of racism, i.e. “hurt feelings,” and “individual people being mean and bigoted towards other people.” He is not addressing, let alone acknowledging, the larger structures of white supremacy and violence that is foundational to the United States. As I quoted Houria Boutelja in one of my previous posts, “Islamophobia is first and foremost state racism.” We have seen Muslims detained, deported, bombed, tortured, raped, occupied, discriminated against, denied rights, spied upon, demonized in media, collectively blamed — that’s not “bigotry,” that’s state racism — rooted in the U.S. political system which bell hooks describes as imperial­ist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Second, Zakaria is (deliberately or not) blaming Muslims for Islamophobia. His statement about Muslims potentially having a “more persuasive case” against Islamophobia if they would only challenge extremism in every corner of the world (preferably in superhuman fashion) aligns with the harmful notion that “Islamophobia only exists because of these extremists, therefore we must condemn their violence and eliminate them if we want Islamophobia to end.” Zakaria’s statements are harmful because they reinforce all of the mainstream and Islamophobic demands on Muslims, i.e. Muslims need to apologize for violence, they need to “do more” against extremism if they want to be accepted in the “modern world,” they need to stop complaining about bigotry because Muslim-majority governments are oppressive, etc. All of this vilifies Muslims, casts them as “suspicious” and “potential threats,” and silences Muslims who are victimized by Islamophobia.

This blaming of the oppressed is nothing new, as many people of color know. It was evident in history and it is evident today. When Zakaria hears about the surveillance of Muslim students or Muslim neighborhoods, does he think this violation of civil rights occurs because Muslims haven’t made a “more persuasive case” about their humanity? When Muslims of all ages and genders are physically assaulted or beaten for being Muslim, does Zakaria think the victims could have prevented this violence if they had only “took on some of the bigotry within” Muslim-majority countries? What is the correct response for Muslims when their mosques are vandalized, shot at, or on receiving end of threatening messages (like a pig’s head being thrown at a mosque entrance)? Is it, “It’s our fault, we are not doing enough to fight the extremists everywhere”? What should civil rights advocates say to people victimized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. — “Sorry, I can’t help you because you haven’t convinced me that you are human”?

Lastly, it’s time to play the broken record (which, sadly, needs to be replayed over and over again): White people are never expected to apologize or answer for the heinous actions of other white people. Look at the white men like James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, Timothy McVeigh, and countless others who cause so much terror and yet are never used to collectively blame the entire white population. Where are the leaders of the white community condemning these atrocious acts of violence against innocent people? Zakaria asks when “moderate Muslims will say ‘enough is enough,'” yet it is never asked when “moderate white people” will say “enough is enough” when it comes to police brutality and murder against black men and women, or school shootings, or the terrorist attack on the Sikh Gurdwara, or “white-on-white murder,” or the ongoing genocide against Indigenous Peoples. Where are the calls for white folks to “take more active measures to protest these heinous acts”?

It’s concerning when Islamophobia is downplayed on the news, especially when we consider the serious lack of Muslim TV anchors in mainstream media (I cannot think of any off the top of my head). Zakaria himself stated that he’s “never been defined by religious identity” and that “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that’s not mine, in the sense that I’m not a religious guy,” but it does not seem to bother him to use his platform on CNN to point fingers at Muslims and accuse them of “not doing enough.” Oddly enough, it also seems like he’s trying to speak for Muslims when he says, “Let’s be honest: Islam has a problem today.” Something very “native informant” about the way he frames all of this.

But, let’s be honest, Fareed: Islamophobia is a real problem that goes beyond individual acts of bigotry or “isolated incidents.” Even more so, there is a problem with white supremacy. It’s been around for a very long time and it is still disturbingly strong today. Otherwise you would have made countless videos calling on white people to do more to stop racist oppression, violence/war against men and women of color, terrorist attacks on schools, movie theaters, college campuses, the list goes on and on and on.