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12 Apr, 2018

Confronting Islamophobia requires” a nuanced understanding of the forms repression can take” – Dr Nazia Kazi

Dr. Nazia Kazi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Stockton University. She delivered these remarks at a recent conference on Islamophobia at Istanbul Zaim University.

Salaam-alaikum. My comments today will be very brief. The title of this conference is “Contextualizing Islamophobia”. The title of this weekend’s event itself reminds us that our scholarship on Islamophobia is entirely dependent on context.

I come from the US, where I study Islamophobia in the context of the anti-Muslim regime of Donald Trump, as I did in the anti-Muslim regime of Obama before him. I come from the US, where I live at the heart of the most racist and destructive empire to ever exist. The day before I departed for Turkey, there were flyers being circulated in major US cities entitled “April 3rd is Punish a Muslim Day”. Just a week before that, police in California shot and killed an unarmed black man in his own back yard. Our military budget is a gargantuan $700BN, a number enthusiastically agreed upon by both of our imperialist political parties. Just last week, I was invited to deliver a talk at a university in southern Maryland, where members of the board of trustees have resigned because they brought in an Islamophobia studies scholar. This is business as usual at the heart of empire. It is in that context that I study Islamophobia.

Speaking of Islamophobia today, in Istanbul, given the recent context of which we’ve all been made aware, means something very, very different. As a scholar with a commitment to decoloniality, it would be disingenuous to simply deliver the talk I’d proposed, without acknowledging a reality that has become patently clear to me over the few days. After all, we have been tasked today with contextualizing Islamophobia.

My work is not scholarship “on Islamophobia” or “about Muslims”. Instead, studying Islamophobia has been a way for me to make sense of domination; to make sense of the possibilities of international solidarity; to make sense of how powerful states co-opt the language of liberation for sinister purposes. So here are the political commitments that foreground my work.

First, the brief comments I offer today in lieu of my proposed paper are not grounded in a particularly sophisticated historical analysis. My comments are not rooted in a deep understanding of local current affairs. The folks who reached out to each of the presenters to ask us to reconsider being here today – those are the people who would be better able to engage in that conversation than I would.

So rather than being guided by an empiricism, I am guided by ethical principles, principles that are shaped by what I’ll call “the spirit of BDS”. The BDS – Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that holds Israel accountable for their crimes – asks scholars to abstain from participating in spaces that are enactors of ethnonationalist violence, that are complicit in state crimes. Yes, it even asks those scholars who may not be intimately familiar with the facts “on the ground” to make these decisions, to make them based not on empiricism but on ethical commitments. I have often asked scholars to make decisions very similar to the one I was asked to make today. It is in that spirit that I offer these incomplete remarks.

Second, I accept that many of our political commitments reside in ‘grey areas.’ I’ve felt disgust in the past when I learned of comrades who accepted speaking engagements that were affiliated with Assad’s regime, for instance, even when those affiliations were oblique.

Here I am, declaring my own discomfort with the repressive state of affairs here – yet I myself hail from a deeply repressive state. I hope that we understand that such contradictions are at the heart of all political and intellectual praxis.

Third, I don’t believe in taking strange bedfellows as political practice. If anyone who stood up to Israel was my ally, well, then I’d be getting cozy with US politician Pat Buchanan, who a) espouses some horrendously racist and bigoted world views while b) speaking absolute truth on Palestine. No thanks to that alliance. No thanks to allying with, say, Indian PM Narendra Modi because he talks a good ‘anti-colonial’ talk in justifying his anti-Muslim and pro-business agenda. My enemies’ enemies are not my friends. This, for me, has been the most important lesson of decolonial scholarship. As I said earlier, this isn’t about enemies and friends. This is about unshakeable political commitments.

Any state that feels it imperative to purge academics has outgrown the need for the US’s propaganda to demonize it anymore. Any state that uses the language of anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, or fighting Islamophobia to enact repression is no longer engaged in anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Islamophobia, not in any form I can recognize.

For me, spending a decade studying Islamophobia and US empire has helped me to better understand how authoritarian states work, how repression of academic freedom works, and how Muslims themselves have at times been conscripted to carry out the very repression they want to fight. In other words, studying Islamophobia has allowed me to understand better how easily the very concept of Islamophobia can be co-opted.

I had wanted today to engage in a meaningful discussion of how the fight against Islamophobia must be a multifaceted one, committed to those most marginalized in society. Committed to dismantling oppressive state practices. But I realized, after enough emails landed in my inbox taking me to task, that contextualizing Islamophobia, as this conference calls for us to do, would require being attentive to the very context we find ourselves in.

I realized that if I am to rage against the repression of academic freedom in the US, especially as it targets Muslim and Arab scholars engaged in a critique of Israel, then I have to be equally resolute against all crackdowns on academic freedom. I realized that if I wanted to speak of the importance of standing against oppressive state practices in the US, that I would have to attend to the nature of state repression in general.

Today, I’d like to say something that may seem fairly obvious: if Islamophobia is to be confronted at all, it must be with a nuanced understanding of the forms repression can take. If Islamophobia is to be confronted at all, it must be with a sophisticated understanding of how authoritarian states work. If Islamophobia is to be confronted at all, it must be with a deliberate and principled commitment to academic freedom: academic freedom to speak robustly on the liberation of Palestine, to speak openly about the brutality of hegemonic states’ warfare, to speak openly about how powerful state actors disenfranchise their minority populations by labeling them terrorists.

African American revolutionary activist Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the US government in 1969, said “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best. We think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism, not with racism, but we’re going to fight it with solidarity. We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

What will we fight Islamophobia with? An alter-ego to US empire, or a radical alternative to empire altogether? Our own brand of academic repression, or a radical vision of academic freedom? For, to close with Fanon, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well.”