Interview with Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis BennisIn our special focus on Islamophobia, FPIF talks with Phyllis Bennis: activist, analyst, and writer on Middle East and UN issues for many years. Here she discusses how anti-Muslim sentiment has shaped U.S. perceptions of the democratic uprisings taking place in the Middle East today.

John Feffer: Can you talk about the way Islamophobia shapes media representation of events in Tunisia and Egypt?

Phyllis Bennis: The press coverage of these events is shaped by a certain kind of Islamophobia but it’s less all-encompassing than in other crisis periods. You see it in the constant focus on how what is taking place in Egypt affects us, the United States – this is not only Islamophobia, but Islamophobia linked to American exceptionalism, racism and America first-ism . This links all the networks, CNN, NPR, pretty much everyone. The debate becomes: is it a good thing for us or not? It’s all about us. It’s not about how great this is for Egyptians.

For instance, I was on Canadian TV and the anchor asked, as the first question, “How can the situation in Egypt be resolved in a way that maintains our security and doesn’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power?” My answer was, “Why do you think it’s up to you who comes to power and why is ‘our’ security the only question for us here?”

The Islamophobia is also part of the larger frame of how we look at Egypt according to the three major issues that dominate U.S. policy and our understanding of the Middle East: oil, Israel, and stability. Egypt plays a role in all three. It has some oil, but it’s more important as a transit point, controlling the Suez Canal, the transit point of so much oil. In terms of Israel, it’s the first Arab country to sign an agreement with Israel. In terms of stability, the United States sees Egypt partly as the country that controls the Canal and partly as the most important country in the Arab world in terms of influencing other Arab countries.

The United States had a huge stake in making sure that Egypt led the Arab world out of the non-aligned movement that Gamal Abdel Nasser helped create. We wanted to bring Egypt out of the “Soviet camp” that Nasser was ostensibly linked to and into the U.S. camp. But for Egypt to play that role, the United States had to provide a lot of carrots – in the form of $1.5 billion a year in military aid, the recognition of the Egyptian dictator as the most important U.S. ally in the Arab world, no pressure on the Egyptian government on human rights violations and torture. You give up lots of carrots in the interest of stability. Then it suddenly turns out that stability is a myth. Because those carrots were never given to the people of Egypt. As long as you give carrots only to those on top, there will be fat rabbits. But the starving rabbits don’t see those carrots. And what we’re seeing now is all the little rabbits ganging up on the big rabbit…

John Feffer: What role is the Muslim Brotherhood playing in Egypt today?

Phyllis Bennis: The Muslim Brother was formed in 1928. It was outlawed in Egypt in 1948 and again by Mubarak. It’s technically illegal, but it’s quite popular and influential. It has 60 or so members of the parliament with a front group that everyone knows is the Muslim Brotherhood but is called something else. They are a rather old-fashioned organization. They still provide social welfare through a network of clinics. They provide food to the most impoverished. It’s always been cautious. It’s not a street organization. It came to these protests very late. And there’s no evidence that they have some surreptitious plan to take over. In its first public announcements, the Brotherhood supported former IAEA head Muhammed ElBarradei to represent the opposition, including the Brotherhood. What’s interesting is: they are the most disciplined of those participating in the street protests. That’s so important when the protesters were attacked. It’s useful to have a more organized faction like that. Exactly what the Brotherhood represents is hard to know. Maybe it’s similar to the Islamist party in Turkey, the AKP. The Brotherhood has made statements about not discriminating against women. It has said that it’s not “against modernity.” It’s not claiming like some Islamist groups that it wants to return to the days of the caliphate. It wants to be part of the modern world, but with an Islamic frame. The more people affected by Islamophobia hear about what the Muslim Brotherhood actually is, the less nervous people will be.

Hillary Clinton said, essentially, that the United States won’t support any future government in Egypt that claims to be democratic but is creating a faux democracy, that we will not support any process that “leads to oppression.” This is a not very veiled reference to the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamist force. The administration dialed back from that position and has said that the Egyptian government should negotiate with lots of different forces including “non-secular” forces. God forbid they should say Islamist forces! And really, who are they to say who are the legitimate leaders in Egypt and who are not?

Look, when I think about having religious forces in government, I hate it. I’m a very secular Jewish girl from California! But it’s not my country, I don’t get to say. What’s interesting is how Islamophobic attacks are so tied to U.S. foreign policy interests. So you hear all kinds of crazy fears about the Muslim Brotherhood even though they were part of the Muslim contingents guarding Christians during prayers in Tahrir Square. But you don’t hear people talk about Saudi Arabia that way, where it’s actually illegal to practice another religion.

The second question people here have, after what it means for the United States, is: what is it going to mean for Israel? Here you see anti-Arab racism merging with Islamophobia (even though the vast majority of Muslims are not Arab) when people say that the first move of an Islamist government in Egypt would be to abandon the Camp David treaty. But that’s ridiculous: they’re not stupid. All the spokespeople have said, “We won’t do that, we want peace with everyone.” Anyway, through that treaty, they get $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, and they want that money. Of course, there certainly will be a change in Egypt’s policy on Gaza. When asked about the crossing to Gaza, the spokespeople of the Brotherhood and ElBaradei have said that just because they want peace with Israel doesn’t mean they will collaborate with Israel on the siege of Gaza. Those are not contradictory positions.

John Feffer: There’s sometimes a presumption that Islamophobes are right-wing. Can you talk about liberal islamophobia?

Phyllis Bennis: It’s far more dangerous! There’s a phenomenon known as PEP, which is similar to Islamophobia, that stands for “Progressive Except Palestine.” That it’s okay, when Israel is concerned, to support colonialism, violations of international law, crimes of aggression – and still call yourself a liberal. This is a hugely popular political position in the United States, but less so today since it’s become far more acceptable to be critical of Israel’s apartheid policies. You see this kind of position in Richard Cohen’s piece in The Washington Post about why the revolution in Egypt is bad because they might change their position on Israel. You see it in Joe Biden when pressed about whether he would call Mubarak a dictator. He hemmed and hawed and said, “Mubarak supported peace, he kept the peace in Israel, so I wouldn’t call him a dictator.” You see it in Leslie Gelb, who should know better, who said on the Warren Olney show on NPR that you can romanticize the people in the street but they are still mobs. Did he say that about the protesters in Burma or when people came out against Ahmadinejad in Iran? No, he said they’re heroes. People are deemed mobs or heroes depending on who they’re against.

You saw something similar with the U.S. triumphalism after end of the Cold War. I wrote a couple pieces looking at how, with the end of the Cold War, the United States was asserting itself as sole superpower. How do you show the world you’re still a superpower? You don’t announce it at a press conference. No , you go to war, you go to war against Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait. So, one Middle Eastern country invades another – that didn’t bother the United States before. This time, there was a very different kind of reaction from the United States. It wasn’t just about oil, which is fungible. It was about proving that the United States was still a global superpower.

We are in the death throes of that period. There is some recognition in the Obama administration that this imperial period is ending and they will have to find different ways of dealing with the world. The dictators the United States relied on can’t be relied on any more.

John Feffer: What made the Islamophobia we saw here in the United States this last summer different?

Phyllis Bennis: What was different was the rise of the right, a rising right wing that was partly in response to the economic crisis, partly a reaction to a black president. There were a lot of white working class men who were threatened. Their assumptions about supporting their families became fragile. When you’re losing the power to control your own life, and you see a president who is black, that’s a different kind of racism from racism toward people moving into your neighborhood. The right wing organized around that. And remember, this country is at war with the Muslim world. Obama won’t say that, but it sure looks like that. Are there any plans to bomb non-Muslim countries?

When you get that combination of fear, instability, people losing their houses, war , it all of comes back to this linkage between the fear and who’s to blame. Well, we’re already at war with those people – those “ragheads” and “camel jockeys.” You don’t hear that kind of racist language these days. There’s been education around that. But you see the same kind of racism. If you track who gets attacked, it’s a lot of Indians, Bengalis, people who have nothing to do with U.S. wars but are assumed to be Muslims. They are “living while brown.” There is a legitimation of an attack mentality. It’s all the language that culminated in the Tucson shootings. What would the response have been if the shooter had been Muslim, or had even glanced at some Islamic websites before he attacked? And who would have been prepared at that point to say, there is no connection between his act and his philosophy?

John Feffer: What do you think will be the future of U.S. relations with the Middle East?

Phyllis Bennis: Egypt was a wake-up call. This is when the bully pulpit of the presidency, which Obama has not yet sufficiently used, becomes so important. So far, he has not led on a new approach to the Middle East. He said he was going to but he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. It’s clear that now, in the midst of the Egypt crisis, that some in the White House, are aware that U.S. policy will have to change, beginning with Egypt but probably spreading throughout Arab world, and if not now then soon. Obama will have to prepare the U.S. people to accept that.

John Feffer: And what about the future of Islamophobia?

Phyllis Bennis: It will remain an important tool for those who want to mobilize support wars in the Muslim world, for treating Muslim countries as legitimate military targets. But it will also be important here, in the United States, just like anticommunism during the Cold War. In the popular idiom, this was “reds under your bed,” which turned into Soviet infiltration, into the Students for a Democratic Society being a communist underground. This didn’t have much to do with reality. At the foreign policy level, there was détente with the Soviet Union and China. We weren’t going to war with them. But you needed popular anticommunism to maintain support for big military budgets. It’s about fear, about having an enemy, to justify that spending when people are losing their jobs and homes. Unless people believe we’re doing that to be safe, you can’t get away with that kind of military spending.

With the fall of communism, we didn’t have Soviet Union to kick around anymore. But then came the idea of Islam as an enemy. That’s powerful. There are so many versions. It’s in a lot of countries. The “long war” can be a very long war. Islam is not going anywhere.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and is also a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. You can stay up to date on events in the Middle East with her free newsletter. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.