May 22nd 2017

Trump on Islam: Neo-Orientalism and anti-Shi’ism

by Juan Cole

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Commentwebsite.

Trump’s speech on Islam, written by notorious Islamophobe Stephen Miller, who used to organize Orwellian Two Minutes Hate sessions against Muslims at Duke, is just as bizarre as everything else Trump does.

Miller-Trump imply, as has become common in right wing American discourse, that Muslims have a peculiar problem inasmuch as they produce terrorists. What do they think the Ku Klux Klan is? I estimate that people of European Christian heritage polished off as many as 100 million persons in the 20th century and that Muslims may have killed 2-3 million.

Trump seems to think that pumping $110 bn in new shiny weapons into a volatile Middle East will lead to peace! If there is any sure correlate of war, it is massive purchases by one regional power of new armaments. You have to use them while you have the advantage or your rivals also acquire them.

Trump managed to insult Islamic civilization by implying that the pre-Islamic civilizations in the region were better:

“Egypt was a thriving center of learning and achievement thousands of years before other parts of the world. The wonders of Giza, Luxor and Alexandria are proud monuments to that ancient heritage.
All over the world, people dream of walking through the ruins of Petra in Jordan. Iraq was the cradle of civilization and is a land of natural beauty.”

This is sheer Orientalism, an allegation that Pharaonic Egypt, Nabatean Jordan and Sumerian and Babylonian Iraq were great civilizations but that once Islam came, they went downhill. Miller-Trump do not know about al-Azhar University in Egypt being among the oldest in the world (George Makdisi argued it was *the* oldest). They don’t know about Harun al-Rashid’s House of Wisdom where Greek philosophy was debated in Arabic by the Abbasid caliph and his court sages at a time when Charlemagne was trying to learn to scratch out his name. They don’t know about the Abbasid invention of algebra or of Omar Khayyam’s use of geometry to solve algebraic equations. The only compliment they give Islamic civilization is that Dubai and Riyadh have skyscrapers, which is surely the blind spot of a Realtor.

Miller-Trump sweep up national resistance movements like Hamas and Hizbullah with al-Qaeda! Neither of these would exist if the Israelis hadn’t a) expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and then come after millions of their descendants and militarily occupied them in 1967 and b) if the Israelis had not launched a brutal war of aggression on Lebanon in 1982 and attempted to occupy permanently 10% of Lebanese territory. The Shiites of south Lebanon *liked* the Israelis before 1978. The 1982 invasion killed 10,000-20,000 people and involved indiscriminate artillery barrages and aerial bombing of Beirut, which Usama bin Laden alleged helped inspire him to destroy some American skyscrapers.

Designating Hizbullah a terrorist organization but not doing so to the armed Israeli squatters who routinely attack Palestinians in their own homes is typical of everything that is wrong with US policy in the region. Attacking civilians is always wrong (and is cowardly). But Hizbullah in 1984-2000 mainly attacked other soldiers, who were illegally occupying Lebanese Shiite land.

As for Yemen’s Houthis, they are not a creature of Iran, which has relatively little to do with them. They are rural Zaydi Shiites who resented Saudi attempts to proselytize them, marginalize them, and make them Wahhabis. You’ll never have peace in Yemen as long as you don’t recognize legitimate Zaydi interests.

For Trump to attack Iran, which just had a popular election where the electorate bucked the choice of the Leader, from Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where the populace have no rights, is weird.

The American Right is deeply implicated in radicalizing Muslims. Afghan Islam was radicalized by the Reagan jihad against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower and Reagan both attempted to enlist Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism against Communism. Most Palestinians were secular or mainstream until the Israelis cultivated Hamas as an alternative to the PLO.

Trump wants to site a center for combating extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia! The Wahhabi form of Islam practiced in that country encourages extremist ideology! The Saudis took the practice of takfir or excommunicating Sunnis and Shiites to the next level. In the 19th century they even excommunicated the Ottoman Emperor!

If the Saudis want to combat extremism, they have to formally abjure this unfortunate heritage of Wahhabism and roundly condemn the unilateral branding of people as non-Muslim when they maintain that they are Muslims. (In the Sunni and Shiite mainstream, takfir or excommunication of a Muslim is rare and disapproved).

Contemporary radical extremism in the Muslim world is founded on a few basic principles:

1. takfir or the excommunication of other Muslims for being insufficiently puritanical, anti-democratic, anti-Western, etc.

2. exalting holy war or “jihad” as they understand the word (it does not mean holy war but merely struggle for the faith in the Qur’an) to a basic pillar of the religion.

3. Willingness to commit suicide to blow other people up. Suicide is forbidden in mainstream Islam just as it is in Catholicism.

Saudi Arabia has to condemn all three– excommunication, the militarization of jihad, and homocidal self-sacrifice.

So Miller-Trump are barking up entirely the wrong tree here, as you would expect from completely ignorant people sticking their bare hands into about 50 bee hives.

Then they condemn Iranian intervention in Syria but don’t mention that Saudi Arabia backed the radical terrorist group Jaysh al-Islam that had genocide against Syria’s Shiites on their minds. Nor do they admit that without Hizbullah, Homs would have fallen to al-Qaeda in Syria (which the US has tacitly supported; yes) and could have been used to cut off Damascus to resupply.

Any fair-minded and knowledgeable person in the Middle East would read this speech as a farrago of Orientalist prejudice against Muslims, coddling of Wahhabis, slamming of Shiites, and continued rank unfairness toward the Palestinians in favor of holding the Israelis completely blameless for their massive ethnic cleansing campaigns, which are ongoing.

That terrorism can be addressed by vague words and by failing to address the underlying social causes is a non-starter. That war and violence can be tamped down by unfairly taking one side in a sectarian struggle or by flooding massive new arsenals into the region are the pipedreams of bigots who cannot face their own bigotry.




Related video added by Juan Cole:




For Juan Cole's web site, please click here.


To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.



Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACT: "That said, even if Europe were to improve its deterrence capabilities, it would be unwise to assume that leaders necessarily make rational decisions. In her 1984 book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman observes that political leaders frequently act against their own interests. America’s disastrous wars in the Middle East, the Soviet Union’s ill-fated campaign in Afghanistan, and the ongoing war of blind hatred between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with its potential to escalate into a larger regional conflict, are prime examples of such missteps. As Tuchman notes, the march of folly is never-ending. That is precisely why Europe must prepare itself for an era of heightened vigilance."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: " Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack. In January, Cofnas published a post called “Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem.” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left." ---- "The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions. That was certainly true for me." ----- " But my admiration for the Chinese people and the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years persists. I still disagree with the consensus view in the West that the Chinese miracle was always doomed to fail. Moreover, I remain highly critical of America’s virulent Sinophobia, while maintaining the view that China faces serious structural growth challenges. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for mutually beneficial conflict resolution. My agenda remains analytically driven, not politically motivated."
Apr 11th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The insurrection began just after 8 p.m. on November 8, 1923, when Hitler and his followers burst into a political rally and held the crowd hostage. ---- The Nazi attempt to seize power ended the following morning, ---- After two and a half days in hiding, Germany’s most wanted man was discovered ----- Hitler was charged with treason, and his trial began on February 26, 1924. ---- .....the judge, having found Hitler guilty, imposed the minimum sentence....That miscarriage of justice was facilitated by the trial’s location in the anti-democratic south, and by the role of the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a conservative who was happy to allow Hitler to use his court as a platform to attack the Republic. ----- Like Hitler in 1924, Trump is using the courtroom as a stage on which to present himself as the victim, arguing that a crooked 'deep state' is out to get him."
Apr 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "If Kennedy’s emphasis on healing suggests someone who has been through “recovery,” that is because he has. Following the trauma of losing both his father and his uncle to assassins’ bullets, Kennedy battled, and ultimately overcame, an addiction to heroin. Like Kennedy, Shanahan also appears to be channeling personal affliction. She describes grappling with infertility, as well as the difficulties associated with raising her five-year-old daughter, Echo, who suffers from autism," ----- "Armed with paranoid conspiracy theories about America’s descent into chronic sickness, loneliness, and depression, Kennedy has heedlessly spread lies about the putative dangers of life-saving vaccines while mouthing platitudes about resilience and healing. To all appearances, he remains caught in a twisted fantasy that he just might be the one who will realize his father’s idealistic dreams of a better America."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACT: "....the UK’s current economic woes – falling exports, slowing growth, low productivity, high taxes, and strained public finances – underscore the urgency of confronting Brexit’s catastrophic consequences."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACTS: Most significant of all, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has suffered significant losses over the past two years. As a result of these Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin decided to relocate the Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland. Compare that with the situation prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia had a secure lease on the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042." --- "Ukrainian efforts have clearly demonstrated, however, that the Kremlin’s, and Putin’s personal, commitment may not be enough to secure Russia’s hold forever. Kyiv’s western partners would do well to remember that among the spreading gloom over the trajectory of the war."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "As the saying goes, 'It’s the economy, stupid.' Trump’s proposed economic-policy agenda is now the greatest threat to economies and markets around the world."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "Russia, of course, brought all these problems on itself. It most certainly is not winning the war, either militarily or on the economic front. Ukraine is recovering from the initial shock, and if robust foreign assistance continues, it will have an upper hand in the war of attrition."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "...... with good timing and good luck, enabled Trump to defeat [in 2016] political icon Hillary Clinton in a race that appeared tailor-made for her. But contrary to what Trump might claim, his victory was extremely narrow. In fact, he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes – a larger margin than any other US president in history. Since then, Trump has proved toxic at the ballot box. " -----"The old wisdom that 'demographics is destiny' – coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – may well be more relevant to the outcome than it has been to any previous presidential election. "----- "Between the 2016 and 2024 elections, some 20 million older voters will have died, and about 32 million younger Americans will have reached voting age. Many young voters disdain both parties, and Republicans are actively recruiting (mostly white men) on college campuses. But the issues that are dearest to Gen Z’s heart – such as reproductive rights, democracy, and the environment – will keep most of them voting Democratic."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "How can America’s fundamentalist Christians be so enthusiastic about so thoroughly un-Christian a politician?" ---- "If you see and think outside the hermeneutic code of Christian fundamentalism, you might be forgiven for viewing Trump as a ruthless, wholly self-interested man intent on maximizing power, wealth, and carnal pleasure. What your spiritual blindness prevents you from seeing is how the Holy Spirit uses him – channeling the 'secret power of lawlessness,' as the Book of 2 Thessalonians describes it – to restrain the advent of ultimate evil, or to produce something immeasurably greater: the eschaton (end of history), when the messiah comes again."
Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."