Muslims ate my hamster!

Issue: 144

David Szuster

Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto Press, 2012), £12.50

Nathan Lean’s book is a most welcome riposte to the Muslim scare stories that saturate our media, firstly by uncovering the falsity behind these stories and secondly by exposing the nefarious web of Islamophobic bloggers, businessmen, politicians, journalists, lobbyists and activists who manufacture and sell this paranoid vision of imminent Muslim takeover for their own political and private ends. For example, when Lean investigates the anti-Muslim hysteria surrounding the creation of the Park51 mosque, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”, he finds Islamophobic fear-merchants accusing its imam of promoting a “stealth jihad” (p64). Rather the Park51 mosque was created as a banal YMCA-like community centre that hopes to build ties between people of all backgrounds (p41).

Through a series of exposés of the major players within this “Islamophobia industry” (set mainly in the US) Lean creates a narrative that connects racist internet bloggers via the likes of Fox News, the Christian right and the Committee on Homeland Security to the murderous rampage of the white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik. These exposés are the book’s strength as each fear-peddler is exposed for their baseless bigotry and for what part they play within this (for profit) industry. However, there are fundamental weaknesses within this book.

While Lean’s book provides a wealth of evidence for the fabrication of fear of Muslims, he himself lacks the conceptual tools with which to interpret this evidence. Confronted with the ideological apparatus of capitalism that gives Americans both a scapegoat for the societal disintegration caused by capitalism and a bogeyman enemy to legitimise American imperialism, Lean unwittingly dilutes his account of the systematic demonisation of Muslims by not seeing the motive itself as “systematic”, to instead trace it to the simple bigotry, greed and caprice of Islamophobic individuals as narrated through their personal histories: “This is about a concerted effort on the part of a small cabal of xenophobes to manufacture fear for personal gain” (p14).

For example, Lean reveals the following connections: that between New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the Zionist-funded film Obsession (which he appears in and uses to train recruits) with the film’s narrator, Dr M Zuhdi Jasser. Jasser is also the star witness for the Committee on Homeland Security chaired by Congressman Peter King who is also “buddies” with Ray Kelly. This same film Obsession was then used as the ideological and evidential basis for the NYPD’s Muslim-focused anti-terrorism stings. But Lean interprets these connections simply as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (p151) as if caused by unconscious self-deception and bigotry rather than the very means by which the ideological apparatus of capitalism operates: an interlocking web of reinforcing connections sustained by the ideological necessities of American capitalist imperialism.

A further weakness is that racism is not given any socio-historical origin or basis but simply appears, in an idealist way, as a competing narrative which must be resisted by a counter-narrative which Lean tries to provide. Also the political-economic context for such competing narratives is replaced repeatedly by opinion poll data which exacerbates the lack of agency Lean gives to ordinary people, who seem to be merely passive receptacles of Islamophobic propaganda (or anti-Islamophobic messages). Lean never discusses the possibility of “anti-Islamophobia from below”, namely, the spontaneous resistance to Islamophobia generated through people’s daily struggles against the state and capitalists when allied with their Muslim neighbours. Rather the terrain on which Lean battles Islamophobia is the superstructural realm of academia, the media and government policy and so opinion poll data becomes the expression and methodological basis of Lean’s “anti-Islamophobia from above”. This idealist and individualist methodology then is to blame for a vague ending that urges people to resist Islamophobia (p184) but contains no collective organisational conclusions (building a united front like Unite Against Fascism, for example).

In addition, a glaring omission is any critique of new atheism (discussed elsewhere by Lean in his blogs) and how its reactionary atheism and Islamophobia have hobbled the liberal left’s reaction to the rise of the right in Europe and the US, which will hopefully be remedied in subsequent editions of this book.

In conclusion, The Islamophobia Industry is an important contribution to the fight against racism and a must-read for anti-fascist activists for the abundance of evidence Lean provides of the systematic demonisation of Muslims. However, one must read it with a critical Marxist eye to reap the full benefit.