Some few months back, I watched a nationwide “March Against Sharia” rallies in the United States (US) that brought an unholy alliance of far-right actors into the streets.
While normally many of them would not be seen in the same room with each other, these different factions were drawn together by their mutual hatred of Muslims. Nazis and right-wing Zionists, LGBTQ activists and right-wing paramilitaries, hardened racist skinheads all took to the streets. Islamophobia is increasingly uniting formerly disparate factions. The rally was sponsored by the Islamophobic group ACT for America . The rally’s description said it was “In memory and support of victims of female genital mutilation, honour killings, and violence toward the LGBT community in the name of religion, culture or foreign law.” However, this was no gathering of human rights activists. Instead, it was a call for a range of (frequently misogynistic) far-right actors to shamelessly rally under a pretext of defending human rights.
These included fascists from groups like Identity Evropa, Vanguard America and Keystone State Skinheads; Islamophobic vigilantes like Soldiers of Odin; the Proud Boys, an alt-right fight club; the neo-confederate League of the South; and a variety of Patriot movement paramilitaries, including the Oath Keepers. The March Against Sharia was an even broader coalition, with more mainstream reach. And it congealed around an issue with staying power which has made its way into the mainstream discourse. Zainab Arain, coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), posited that this march is part of a third wave of US Islamophobia. The first emerged after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the second with the 1991 Gulf War, and the third with 9/11 and continuing since. But Arain said the recent marches were “the most striking examples of Islamophobic and far-right groups working together” that she had seen.
Like other conspiracy theories, Islamophobic ones often morph quickly as they adapt to fit new developments into their narrative. As Thomas Cincotta shows, some of the most frequent themes of recent years are Islamophobes demonising Muslims as a foreign “other” that exist both outside the US and other western countries, and as an unassimilable group inside of it. Islam is said not to be a religion at all, but rather a political ideology that seeks to dominate all cultures, either by force or subversion. US and European Muslims are portrayed as a fifth column who have infiltrated major institutions, including academia and the military, in order to replace Western constitution with Sharia law.
As with any good conspiracy theory, a circular logic insulates Islamophobes from criticism. When Muslims try to resist oppression using legal means, Islamophobes claim this is “lawfare” which is an attempt to subvert the judicial system. When Islamophobes are called out for their bigotry, they claim that the left, which they
Lindsay Schubiner says that US Islamophobes have imported apocalyptic fears of looming disaster from their European cousins, who “warn, outrageously, that Europe has already been lost to multiculturalism and advocate for closing the door to immigrants to preserve so-called Western civilisation.”
Islamophobia is important to the far right because it can fill the same political role as the old anti-Semitic narratives, and draw on the same emotional power, but it is far more socially acceptable and appeals to a larger audience.
For example, in some parts of the far right, Muslims have replaced Jews as a feared unassimilable religious minority that seeks to undermine the moral fabric of our society. Muslims are also perceived by many on the right to be lower on the socioeconomic ladder than US Jews, and therefore an easier target.
These Islamophobic narratives also update 1950s anti-Communist conspiracy theories, especially the notion that the major US and Western institutions are controlled by a foreign fifth column, with a new enemy. The two get combined as well. While anti-Semites have long claimed a “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy was at work, today, Islamophobes see a “Marxist-Islamic” conspiracy. Islamophobia is also a way to express white nationalist ideals while avoiding explicit appeals to race, since it is cloaked as a criticism of a religion, even though its targets are overwhelmingly people of colour. It is similar to, and has a large crossover with, the anti-immigrant movement. For example, one conspiracy theory is that ISIS sleeper cells sneak into the US through border towns controlled by Mexican drug cartels. And panic over Syrian refugees being secret terrorists combines both anti-immigrant and Islamophobic narratives.
But Islamophobia is more than coded white nationalism or, at least, there are other parts of the movement as well. These include the participation of people that white nationalist movements are usually allergic to, including people of colour, immigrants, ex-Muslims, Jews and/or LGBTQ people.
For example, in Canada Islamophobic groups include vigilante street patrol groups like Soldiers of Odin, which was started by Finnish neo-Nazis, who can be found next to the Jewish Defence League and Hindu nationalists.
In the heavily armed Patriot movement, Islamophobia looks like it has basically replaced the role that anti-semitism played in the 1990s militias. But others, including neo-Nazis and the ultra right, espouse both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the same time. And to make matters even more jumbled, a common Islamophobic position is to support Israel, which in their view is the frontline against the Muslim world, while also using thinly-veiled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as “cultural Marxism.”