Home > Global politics > Palestine and the Middle East > Islamophobia and spectacles of Muslim death
  • Current Issue

Islamophobia and spectacles of Muslim death

Bad-faith policing of anti-semitism has led to rampant Islamophobia. In the global north, we have become conditioned to watching Muslims die, argues Maura Finkelstein

4 to 5 minute read

The front pages of three national newspapers. Each shows images of people covered in blood. One headline says: 'bloodbath at Kabul airport'.

For months now, Palestinians, anti-Zionists and allies of all sorts have been speaking out against Israel’s genocide in Gaza, even as western leaders look away. We have to keep speaking out and the words we use matter. The language we use matters.

The horror in Gaza is a genocide, but it’s not just a genocide against Palestinians – it’s a genocide against Muslims. This is important. The Palestinian struggle is, of course, a specific political struggle for liberation from Israel’s settler colonialism and military occupation and impacts both Christian and Muslim Palestinians. But the violence that is enabled and carried out against Palestinians is also made possible through anti-Muslim ideology.

The vilification of Muslims

We in the west have become so accustomed to Muslims being slaughtered. We’ve framed them as terrorists through popular culture and political rhetoric that foments wide-spread Islamophobia. The world watches as thousands upon thousands of people are exterminated by the Israeli military and world leaders do nothing. These leaders, in addition to profiting from such violence, have been desensitised towards the spectacle of Muslim death. And so have we.

I am an anthropology professor. When I teach my introductory course, I often have my students watch Sut Jhally’s film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, a documentary based on Jack Shaheen’s book of the same name. Made in 2006, the examples used feel dated but the argument remains relevant. Widespread cinematic orientalist tropes, which frame Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, leak into our larger socio-political imagination and these representations imitate life.

Beginning with the Gulf war in 1990, and the slaughter of an estimated 1,000 to 3,500 Iraqi civilians, most of my life has been shaped by US invasions of Muslim countries and the murder of Muslim civilians. By the time the ‘war on terror’ reshaped the world in 2001, Muslims were well cast as the shadowy terrorist mob – instigators and civilians were collapsed into one hoard, allowing for an estimated 4.5 to 4.6 million civilian murders in post-9/11 war zones, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Now the world scrolls through genocide across the world – ethnic cleansing in Sudan and Ethiopia, Uighurs disappeared in China, the occupation of Kashmir and, as always, Palestine. Every day, we watch people die. And not just people – Muslim people.

Anti-semitism weaponised?

Over the past four months, there has been a surge in both Islamophobia and anti-semitism in the US, the UK and across Europe. Given our entwined histories of oppression, Jews and Muslims could (and should) be partners in fighting all forms of hate, including Islamophobia and anti-semitism. Instead, many recent claims of anti-semitism are actually Zionist-driven attacks on free speech, which are rooted in Islamophobia and used to silence critiques of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza.

In particular, anti-semitism is being used as a weapon across US college and university campuses, as when two university presidents, first Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and then Claudine Gay of Harvard University, were forced to resign in large part because they refused to agree with Representative Elise M Stefanik’s claim that chanting ‘from the river to the sea’ or ‘intifada’ was a call for Jewish genocide.

Couched in a false concern for the safety of Jewish students, these attacks are merely part of a conservative war against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives (which many Zionists have now signed on to). The comfort and safety of Jewish students on US college campuses (and Jews across the country and around the world) has become a pawn used by conservatives to dismantle free speech, whether in the classroom or by criminalising student protests.

With this in mind, it should be glaringly obvious that this seeming-concern for growing anti-semitism is a Zionist project that exists alongside an acceptance, justification and even acceleration of Islamophobia, as well as the utter silencing of Palestinians.

We in the west have become so accustomed to Muslims dying

Zionism is a settler-colonial project and colonists are not imaginative. They shape their world through violence and dispossession. This means they can only assume that, if their occupation were to end, the people they once subjugated would use similar acts of genocide as retaliation – captured in the maxim ‘they will kill us if we don’t kill them first’. White enslavers in the US made such an argument against emancipation and white South Africans made it against dismantling apartheid. Furthermore, and because of Islamophobia, Hamas and Palestinians have been collapsed in ways that cast the entire population as a threat and therefore worthy of extermination.

But just because Israel is a settler state with genocidal intent does not mean that the fight for Palestinian liberation is itself genocidal. In the face of apartheid and oppression, resistance is not only justified, it is vital.

We have to heed the call from Palestinians for their land and lives to be free, from the river to the sea. And we have to call out the rampant Islamophobia that is silencing discourse, enabling genocide and framing anti-semitism as our largest global threat.

Our words matter. We have to use them. Not only must we all call for a free Palestine, we must also start speaking directly to the global indifference to Muslim death and suffering that is allowing the genocide in Gaza to continue, even as the world watches.

This article first appeared in Issue #243 Palestine. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Maura Finkelstein is a writer, ethnographer, and associate professor of anthropology

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...