Here's a story that's never left my mind. Back in 2011, Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis was the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the war on terror across the Greater Middle East, and he was obsessed with Iran. He cooked up a scheme to launch a strike to take out either an Iranian oil refinery or power plant in the "dead of night," an act of war meant to pay that country back for supplying mortars to Iraqi insurgents killing American troops. And in those years, when asked by President Obama to "spell out his top priorities" in the region, the general reportedly replied: "Number one: Iran. Number two: Iran. Number three: Iran." His Iranophobic obsession finally unnerved the Obama administration enough that, in 2013, he was removed from his CENTCOM post five months early.
I bring up this ancient history only because these days Mattis, reportedly in danger of being ditched by the president after the mid-term elections, has proven to be just about the only "adult in the room" in Washington when it comes to Iran -- and doesn't that just speak worlds about the Trump administration? After all, the president's National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has wanted to bomb that country since something like the dawn of time, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both Iranophobes (as well as Islamophobes) of the first order, as is the president who has already torn up the nuclear pact the Obama administration negotiated with Iran and seems to be careening toward some kind of a conflict there. If so, given the American experience of the last 17 years in the region, what could possibly go wrong? As British journalist Patrick Cockburn ominously pointed out recently, "The exaggeration of 'the Iranian threat' by the Trump administration this week at the U.N. General Assembly in New York was very like what was being said about Iraq 15 years earlier."
As the redoubtable Juan Cole, whose iconoclastic new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, has just been published, makes clear today, Donald Trump and the congressional Republicans have wielded Islamophobia domestically the way the anticommunists of my childhood once did McCarthyism. When you stop to think about it for a moment, they might be considered addicts on the subject: they just can't keep away from it or get enough of it. And here's the weirdest thing of all: yes, their Islamophobic program is to keep you know who out of this country, and that's often noted, but it seems, as well, to have another goal: to keep us in the Greater Middle East, militarily, until hell freezes over. After all, even under a president who once decried the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've never made it out of either place. We're now more or less permanently in Syria as well and seemingly no less permanently enmeshed in the Saudi war in Yemen. Next stop: Iran? Tom
Hating Muslims in the Age of Trump
The New Islamophobia Looks Like the Old McCarthyism
By Juan Cole
These days, our global political alliances seem to shift with remarkable rapidity, as if we were actually living in George Orwell's 1984. Are we at war this month with Oceania? Or is it Eastasia? In that novel, the Party is able to erase history, sending old newspaper articles down the Ministry of Truth's "memory hole" and so ensuring that, in the public mind, the enemy of the moment was always the enemy. Today, there is one constant, though. The Trump administration has made Muslims our enemy of the first order and, in its Islamophobia, is reinforced by an ugly resurgence of fascism in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and other European countries.
It's hard today even to imagine that, in the late 1980s, the rightwing Christian Voice Magazine published a "candidate's biblical scoreboard," urging its readers (and potential voters) to rate their politicians by how "biblically" they cast their ballots in Congress. One key measure of this: Did that legislator support the anti-Communist Muslim jihadis in Afghanistan, a cause warmly supported by evangelist Pat Robertson in his 1988 presidential campaign? Now, attempting to appeal to twenty-first-century evangelicals, President Trump has announced that "Islam hates us."
The kaleidoscope of geopolitics and Islamophobia is now spinning so fast that it should make our heads spin, too. At times, it seems as if Donald Trump is the anti-Ronald Reagan of the twenty-first century, idolizing former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, but seeing former U.S. allies in the Muslim world like Pakistan as purveyors of "nothing but lies and deceit" -- until, that is, with bewildering rapidity, he suddenly gives us the "good" (that is, oil-rich) Muslims again, willingly performing a sword dance with the Saudi royals, seemingly entirely comfortable with the scimitar of the Saracen.
While the president oscillates between abusing and fawning over the elites of the Muslim world, his true opprobrium is reserved for the poor and helpless. His hatred of refugees uprooted by the horrific Syrian civil war, for instance, stems from his conviction that this population (predominantly women and children, as well as some men fleeing the fighting) might actually be adherents of the so-called Islamic State group (also known as ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) and so part of the building of a secretive paramilitary force in the West. He's even speculated that "this could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe."
This summer, he also tweeted: "Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!" And a day later claimed it had risen by 10%. Though immigrant communities can indeed produce some crime until they find their footing, the crime rate in Germany, despite the welcoming of two million immigrants in 2015 alone, has fallen to a 30-year low, as have crimes by non-German nationals.
Nor, of course, is there an army of terrorists the size of the active-duty forces of France or Italy among those hapless Syrian refugees. Still, that outlandish conspiracy theory may be part of what lay behind the president's blatantly unconstitutional 2015 call for a "total and complete shut-down" of Muslims coming to the United States. Consider it a great irony, then, that some significant part of the turmoil in the greater Middle East that helped provoke waves of refugees and an Islamophobic backlash here and in Europe was, at least in part, the creation of this country, not Muslim fundamentalist madmen.
The Islamophobes like to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion, that its adherents are quite literally commanded to such violence by its holy scriptures, the Qur'an. It's a position that, as I explain in my new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, is both utterly false and ahistorical. As it happens, you would have to look to far more recent realities to find the impetus for the violence, failed states, and spreading terror groups in today's Greater Middle East. Start with the Reagan administration's decision to deploy rag-tag bands of Muslim extremists (which al-Qaeda was first formed to support) against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That set in motion massive turmoil still roiling that country, neighboring Pakistan, and beyond, decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Of course, al-Qaeda notoriously blew back on America. Its September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were then used by American neoconservatives in the administration of George W. Bush -- some of whom had served in the Reagan years, cheering on the American-backed Afghan fundamentalists, as well as their Arab allies -- to set the United States on a permanent war footing in the Muslim world. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, promoted on the false pretext that Saddam Hussein's government supported al-Qaeda, kicked off a set of guerrilla insurgencies and provoked a Sunni-Shiite civil war that spread in the region.
Hundreds of thousands would die and at least four million people, including staggering numbers of children, would be displaced over the years thanks to George W. Bush's boondoggle. The al-Qaeda franchise ISIL (formed initially as al-Qaeda in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion) arose to expel American troops there. Ultimately, its militants made inroads in neighboring Syria in 2011 and 2012 and the U.S. allowed them to grow in hopes of putting pressure on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
As is now all too clear, such policies created millions of refugees, some of whom streamed towards Europe, only to be greeted by a rising tide of white Christian bigotry and neo-Nazism. There's no way to measure the degree to which America's wars across the Greater Middle East and North Africa have, in fact, changed our world. When, for instance, British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed on to Bush's illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, how could he have foreseen that he was helping set off events that would result in a British withdrawal from the European Union (a decision in which anti-immigrant sentiment played an outsized role) -- and so the diminishment of his country?
Having helped spread extremism and set in motion massive population displacements, Western elites then developed a profound fear of the millions of refugees they had helped chase out of the Middle East. Executive Order 13769, President Trump's abrupt January 2017 visa ban, which created chaos at American airports and provoked widespread protests and court challenges -- many of its elements were, however, ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court -- appears to have been premised on the notion that a Trojan Horse of Muslim extremism was headed for American shores.
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