“Before I get started, I just wanted to say that we are meeting on stolen indigenous people’s land. That’s really important to acknowledge.” So declared San Francisco State University race and resistance studies professor Rabab Abdulhadi, at the University of California, Berkeley’s Seventh Annual International Islamophobia Conference in April.
Abdulhadi’s seemingly disjointed declaration was typical of the post-colonial, “intersectionality”-driven jargon of the entire conference, which sought to link the mythical plight of America’s prosperous, content Muslim population, with the struggles of every oppressed minority known to man. It was also an opportunity for two academic centers at opposite ends of the country to join forces and promote what was euphemistically referred to at the 2015 UC Berkeley conference as“Islamophobia studies.”
While UC Berkeley Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project (IRDP) director and conference convener Hatem Bazian gave the opening remarks, John Esposito, founding director of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) and project director of ACMCU’s Bridge Initiative, “a multi-year research project that connects the academic study of Islamophobia with the public square,” was the undisputed star.
Esposito was introduced by Munir Jiwa, director of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, who, after noting that one of the scheduled speakers on the same panel was unable to attend, added with a smile, “I’m sure Dr. Esposito will be happy to take up the time.” Esposito did not disappoint, delivering a long, rambling talk filled with humorous asides and one-liners to which the audience responded with hearty laughter. He clearly reveled in being the center of attention and joked at the outset about his family, “They think I’m a humble person; my wife will tell you that I’m faking it.”
Musing on his experiences in academe regarding Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Esposito claimed that prior to that, “there was no Islam unit in the American academy” and thus, “no jobs when I finished my degree.” He later returned to the subject: “The first half of my career, people treated me like an academic, which means they ignore you. You’re in the Ivory Tower, who cares? The Iranian revolution changed that.”
Esposito lamented that the “lens through which Islam and Muslims came to be seen was people chanting, ‘Death to America,’” and, blaming the U.S. instead of Iran’s bellicose theocracy, concluded, “The danger was that we’re looking for a new global threat” and “Islam was the only global ideology.”
Presenting “Islamophobia” as an empirical fact, Esposito wondered aloud that there are “still those who want to say it does not exist.” He criticized “the mainstream media” for promulgating this alleged bigotry beginning with the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and, after announcing that “media coverage of Islam hit an all-time high” in 2015, conceded that “the causes are fairly obvious and some of them are good reasons to be concerned: international terrorist attacks.” Yet, he accused the media of “hyping the threat in America and Europe” and insisted, referencing the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, that the “main terrorist threat is from white, anti-government, also often Christian-identity type movements. That has to come out.”
Turning to the “anti-Islamophobia” movement, Esposito praised reports from biased, complicit sources such as the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR)—a conference cosponsor—and the Center for American Progress for exposing a “cottage industry” and funding “for these kinds of things,” before directing the audience to the Bridge Initiative website. He said nothing about the conflict of interest in Bridge’s substantial Saudi funding, instead focusing on the initiative’s efforts to “set up alternative narratives,” “penetrate social media,” and achieve “search engine optimization,” before deducing, “It’s the storytelling.”
Clearly, that “storytelling” has had its intended effect in Western academe, for, in a revealing statement, Esposito pointed out that, “As someone who speaks at a lot of conference and universities, the last few years, ninety percent of my invitations [in the U.S. and UK] have to do with Islamophobia.”
It’s little wonder that “Islamophobia studies” appears to be proliferating. IRDP is certainly doing its part with its politicized bi-annual publication, the Islamophobia Studies Journal, and by linking this year’s conference with the Bridge Initiative and by extension, the East Coast with the West.
“Islamophobia studies” may be in its infancy, but the growing number of national and international conferences devoted to the subject indicate a disturbingly bright future for this anti-intellectual endeavor. And why not? Given the politicized, pro-Islamist nature of Middle East studies and victimology’s pride of place in contemporary academe, it’s a Faustian bargain for our time.