John Feffer to SHAFAQNA: Western Pride and Prejudices – looking through shattered glass

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SHAFAQNA- This January 2015, Shafaqna sat down with John Feffer the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A celebrated author he is also a fellow at the Open Society Foundation. His books include, Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War against Islam, a description of contemporary attacks on Islam, North Korea/South Korea: US Policy and the Korean Peninsula, a description of current U.S. policy towards Korea and its limitations, Power Trip, a narrative of American unilateralism during the George W. Bush administration, and Living in Hope, a description of creative responses by local communities to the challenges of globalization. Feffer also wrote the plays The Pundit and The Politician, both of which were performed at the 2013 Washington’s Capital Fringe Festival

His articles frequently appear on The Huffington Post.

Special mention – All ideas and opinions expressed in this interview are the John Feffer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Shafaqna.


SHAFAQNA – I’d like to begin by discussing your 2012 book, Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War against Islam where you refer and dissect western prejudices towards Islam and the Muslim community. If I recall correctly you mentioned that there are 3 main stereotypes western society holds against Islam. Can you please elaborate?

In my book, I talk about three major myths about Islam that have their roots in the Crusades and the mentality of the armed pilgrims of the Middle Ages. They are: Islam is inherently violent, Muslims want to take over the world, and Muslims can’t be trusted. I wouldn’t say that Western society as a whole holds these stereotypes. There are many efforts in the West, formal and informal, to engage with Islam, and in fact there are many longstanding communities of Muslims in the West. But these are nonetheless enduring myths, and they operate as all stereotypes do: they substitute a very small part for the whole. Yes, you can find violent Muslims in ISIS, Muslims in al-Qaeda who indeed want to establish a global caliphate, and some Muslims who believe that lying to non-Muslims (and sometimes to other Muslims) is justified. But these Muslim organizations and individuals are marginal and do not represent Islam as a whole. Indeed, their interpretation of Islam is even more repugnant to the vast majority of Muslims than it is to non-Muslims (who often have only a tenuous grasp of the basic tenets of Islam anyway).

Where these prejudices exist, however, in whatever societies, they are fundamentally dangerous and divisive, as all such prejudices are.

SHAFAQNA – Some experts have talked of a clash of civilizations in relation to the divide: West versus Islam, others have argued instead that it is an identity crisis, where do you stand on the matter?

I believe that what most people see as a so-called clash of civilizations is in fact a conflict within a civilization, namely within Islam itself. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have garnered world headlines for their attacks on non-Muslims. But these organizations are fundamentally sectarian ones, and their conflictual ideology must be understood within the context of the Sunni-Shia divide, the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the battle between Arab nationalism and political Islam, and so on. Yes, of course, there are tensions between Islam and other religions in Europe or the United States, for instance (or in Burma and India for that matter). And there are tensions between secularism and political Islam, as there are tensions between fundamentalist Christianity and secularism. And yes, there are many who perceive a clash of civilizations because such a frame gives shape to their understanding of their own civilization — as a civilization under attack and in need of defending. But generally I believe that Europe, the United States, and other countries are still fundamentally coming to terms with what it means to live in a multicultural world. And Islam is coming to terms with the key aspects of the modern project — capitalism, representative democracy, and so on.

SHAFAQNA – Do you believe Islamophobia to be a state of mind or a political statement? And how so.

It really depends on the person, and in this sense Islamophobia is similar to anti-Semitism or racism. Some people are knee-jerk racists. They find the mixing of races abhorrent in their own sphere but don’t care what happens outside that sphere. They are what we might call libertarian segregationists. They tell you, “You can do whatever you want in your own world just as long as it doesn’t affect my world.” Other people want to impose their views on others, and thus their intolerance takes the form of a political statement or project. When push comes to shove, most people are in the second category — because life in a modern society usually requires some kind of mixing: in the army, in schools, in municipal government. So, it is rather difficult to remain intolerant only within a tight circle.

SHAFAQNA – Throughout history, the Islamic and Judeo-Christian worlds have clashed and crashed into each other. Why is that? What are the inherent triggers of this historical struggle?

Well, except for recent history, the Judeo and the Christian worlds have clashed and crashed into each other for the last 2,000 years. And some scholars make a persuasive argument that Jews and Muslims share more in common — or that Christians and Muslims share more in common — than Christians and Jews.

But it’s also true that there have been conflicts between all three faiths. One reason is that although all three are Abrahamic faiths, they are exclusive monotheisms. In other words, you can’t be a Jew and a Muslim simultaneously or a Christian and a Muslim (except in some very minor sects like Unitarians). So, a clash at the religious level is to a certain extent inevitable. Second, these faiths all emerged in the same region of the world, and they all became associated with territorial projects. The religions clashed over who controlled a given territory, and those conflicts continued in areas far from the original sources of the religions.

More recently, I would say that there have been disagreements over what has been called the “Enlightenment project.” This is a body of beliefs that Jews and Christians, not all but the majority, have come to accept (though not without considerable conflict at the beginning). Islam has had its version of an Enlightenment project — several hundred years before Europeans embarked on such a path of discovery — and Islam today is also going through a similar reevaluation. But these two transformative traditions have not yet come up with a language of communication. The resulting misunderstandings have led to conflict.

SHAFAQNA – I’d like to discuss Sharia Law from a judicial perspective and more particularly an American perspective. Bearing in mind that the US has a long sanctioned corporal punishment — death penalty, rendition, torture and so on … where does Islamic law comes as such a cultural shock?

That’s an interesting question. The United States has indeed adopted such practices. But increasingly, the United States is out of sync with what is emerging as a body of international law and practice concerning the death penalty and torture. That hasn’t prevented the U.S. government from criticizing other countries that continue to engage in such practices. That is a function of American exceptionalism, the belief that America is, by virtue of its political traditions or its geographic fortunes or its “God-blessed” destiny, an exception to the same rules that apply to all other peoples. Many if not most countries embrace some form of exceptionalism. But the exceptionalism of superpowers is particularly noxious.

SHAFAQNA – Staying with the United States, I’d like to get your views on Islam economics versus capitalism. Isn’t it what really trouble America’s capitalists?

American capitalists want to make a profit. They generally don’t care how they do it. They’ll trade with anyone. They’ll establish factories anywhere. They’ll also adapt to the rules of other cultures if necessary. That’s why American capitalism is transnational, multicultural, and superficially tolerant. And that’s why American businesses work with oil companies in the Gulf, with furniture makers in Anatolia, with palm oil producers in Malaysia.

But perhaps you are referring to the practice in Islam of rejecting all forms of usury. I’m not an expert on sharia-compliant finance, but I believe that although it is growing, it still represents a miniscule fraction of international banking. As such, I don’t think that American capitalists consider it much of a threat to their way of life.

SHAFAQNA – Do you feel that that over the past decade there have been a dangerous shift whereby Islam has become somewhat a nationality, blurring some very dangerous lines?

We are still in the era of the nation-state. These entities exert an enormous influence. They are the basis of international law and international practice. Nationalism shapes the behavior of men and women in ways that few other forces do. It would be unusual for Islam to escape the pull of nationality. Some day I hope that we can all transcend the nation-state — not eliminate them but rather make them less important in the lives of people and institutions.

‌By Catherine Shakdam

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