By Kourosh Ziabari
The unrelenting campaign of violence and bloodletting instigated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State across the globe and subsequent accusations directed against Muslims that they’re responsible for the spiraling growth of the radical militant group have made the dialog between the West and Muslim world ever more complicated and far-fetched.
During the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which just ended with the Eid al-Fitr celebrations, ISIS reared its ugly head in Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and claimed dozens of innocent lives through sophisticated attacks in four Muslim countries. In what was described as the deadliest terrorist attack to strike Iraq in about a decade, more than 290 Iraqis were killed in the Shiite district of Karrada in Baghdad on July 3, when a car bomb exploded on a busy street in the commercial center.
A couple of weeks earlier, an American gunman who had reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS raided a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and massacred 49 people in the worst shooting spree in the modern history of the United States.
At the same time, far-right politicians in the United States and Europe have employed the ISIS-directed violence to advocate further checks on the civil liberties of Muslims, surveillance against the mosques, banishing Muslim workers from public offices and other measures that are likely to widen the rift between the Muslim citizens and their non-Muslim peers in the Western societies.
An American journalist believes Islamophobia in the United States, as things stand today, is “arguably” worse than it was in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks. According to Daniel Denvir, those Americans who rally around the presumptive Republican nominee for the U.S. presidential election Donald Trump and sympathize with his xenophobic foreign policy possibly “see ISIS as a fair representation of global Islam” which ironically “plays into ISIS’s scheme” as both ISIS and the American right wing want a world “where you’re either with the Christian West or you’re with the ISIS.”
Mr. Denvir, however, believes Donald Trump is “a scary last-gasp of a retrograde and reactionary American political culture that is dying,” while Bernie Sanders campaign, even though he failed, “is a very clear sign of where American politics is going,” heralding a bright future in which the progressive minds can change the major political narrative.
Daniel Denvir is a contributing writer at the Salon magazine, and his works of writing appear on The Atlantic Cities, VICE, and The New Republic. He has been featured by The Guardian’s Comment is Free and Al-Jazeera America. Mr. Denvir is a recipient of the 2013 H.F. Guggenheim Journalism Fellowship at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the 2008 NACLA’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant.
In this interview with Truth NGO, Mr. Daniel Denvir talked about the explosion of anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. presidential campaign, the global immigration crisis heightened by the unremitting tragedy of war and destruction in Syria and the U.S. and European governments’ response to the alarming growth of the number of Syrian refugees.
Q: Do you agree with the premise that the United States immigration policies have changed drastically following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, especially subsequent to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which put in place new restrictions on the legal entry of foreign nationals onto the U.S. soil and complicated the immigration application procedures, especially for the Muslim and Arab citizens?
A: I think there have always, for a very long time, been strains of xenophobia in the United States, sort of a back and forth shift between this idea that we are a nation of immigrants and welcoming and that Americans are people from everywhere; my background goes to at least six different European countries and that’s the American story, but there has also always been the xenophobic strain, as well. One big part of that is “these immigrants are coming to take our jobs,” so it’s an economic thing. Then there’s the cultural thing, and also there’s the security thing. 9/11 really threw into high gear the idea that people coming to the U.S. from overseas pose a potential security threat. You see that really reaching its apex with Donald Trump and his demagoguery about barring all the Muslims from entering the United States. I think it’s interesting to look at the European case, which is similar in this manner, which is the vast majority of people who have committed the terrorist acts recently in Europe were European-born. So if Europe were really interested in solving the problem, they might look at their own track record and the failure of their assimilation model to inclusively integrate people who in many cases are from their former colonies into their countries. Instead, they say, “no, ISIS is coming here from Syria.” But that’s not true. People who are fleeing ISIS are coming from Syria and the people who are carrying out the attacks, by and large with a few exceptions have been born in these countries.
Similarly, in the United States, this is a country with incredible problems, especially domestically with the economy. Economic inequality is exploding and people’s living conditions are getting worse and they’re looking for answers to that, and I think that politicians on the right wing like Trump are able to turn people against immigrants because of the economic thing and also the security question. Sadly, in the United States, it seems like every few months, we have someone walking into a movie theater or a school, and because of some sort of mental illness or social illness, or easy access to high-caliber firearms, killing huge numbers of people. So frankly, in the United States, our citizens pose an enormous security threat to the rest of our citizens.
But instead, even though there hasn’t really been what I would describe as a true terrorist attack since September 11, there have been years of bloodletting by Americans on Americans. To me, it’s like a pretty big distraction to say that the threat is coming from overseas. Obviously, sometimes threats do come from overseas. The 9/11 hijackers generated this important question of what sort of intelligence failures led to a lack of questions being asked about someone taking flight lessons who didn’t want to learn how to land, and such bizarre things. But September 11 changed the whole discussion for the worse, and it’s only getting worse recently with the rise of ISIS. Arguably, Islamophobia in the U.S. right now is worse than it was after 9/11, which is amazing and sad. It’s interesting to see this after the San Bernardino shooting in California, which in so many ways looks so much like so many regular American mass shootings. But this, people just said, “oh, that’s ISIS!” and that changes the whole framing of it and it becomes a bigger deal that requires a different sort of response. So yes, in short, I think that the increasing propensity to frame the migration question as a security question leads to policies that may further stigmatize and marginalize migrants and that potentially creates the very sort of enemies that supposedly take these actions in the first place. You see that in France, which has a horrible record of inclusion and immigration, where you have the imposition of this draconian state of emergency, which basically suspends many civil liberties in that country, and you see that in the U.S. The FBI has a track record of turning what should be the most important allies in terms of fighting terrorism in the Muslim community into foes and alienating them. Muslim Americans are still by and large very happy, proud Americans, but in the long-run, that sort of national security state policy that alienates migrants and alienates Muslims is not going to make us safer.
Q: Have the United States and the EU countries been able to wisely and efficiently tackle the refugee crisis generated as a result of more than five years of bloody war in Syria? Just recently, we had this deal between Turkey and the European Union regarding the repatriation of Syrian refugees from the EU countries, where they apply for asylum, to Turkey, if they fail to meet certain criteria. Any thoughts on that?
A: No, it’s a disaster and a profound moral failure. The U.S. has set a goal of accepting just 10,000 Syrian refugees, and we’ve only accepted, if I remember correctly, about 3,000 as of the end of last month. That’s nowhere near good enough. I think we should be thinking back to World War II when a ship full of Jewish refugees was turned back toward the Nazis. I think for decades, we looked back at that and said, “how could humanity have done that?” Well, we’re doing that again right now, and I think it’s profoundly sad and outrageous and any other negative word I could apply to that. And in Europe’s case, I think Angela Merkel initially did a very good job in terms of leading, and in terms of meeting the moral requirements to accept people who needed safety, shelter and security. But then, more recently, I think that deal with Turkey is very disturbing. It seems to be in violation of both international and European law. It’s premised on forcefully returning refugees, and it’s premised on the idea that Turkey is a safe transit country, and all the reports from the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say that’s absolutely false. Turkey has all but closed its border with Syria for almost a year. There are refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border. And Syrians are not being let into Turkey except those with severe medical issues. There have been allegations that Turkish border guards have shot refugees fleeing ISIS and Assad regime advances. There are allegations that Turkey has been regularly deporting Syrians back to Syria in large numbers. So, Europe’s complicity with this and their complicity in legitimizing a regime that becomes more autocratic and more hostile to human and civil rights everyday, I think is disturbing. Most recently, of course, Angela Merkel has been green-lighting the prosecution of a German commentator for mocking Erdogan. The fact that Europe is willing to bargain away its supposed core liberal values in exchange for keeping brown Muslim people outside their borders to me is very disturbing.
Q: How do you see the rise of far-right parties and politicians in Europe and the ascendancy of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race? Trump has time and again demonstrated his abhorrence of the Muslims and immigrants and called for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. What do you think these developments portend for the Muslims worldwide? Are xenophobic sentiments on a surge in the West?
A: I think it sends a very negative message to the world as a whole and particularly Muslims around the world, the rise of politicians like Donald Trump. Conversely, I think the election of Bernie Sanders, which has now proved impossible, would have sent a very different message: to have a Jewish president in the United States calling for peace, supporting Israel but also supporting the Palestinians. So you see that symbols matter a lot. Unfortunately, Trump sends the exact wrong signals.
I think the establishment is eager to distance itself from these right-wing extremists, but a lot of the blame lays at their own feet in the sense that under both Democrats and Republicans in the United States in the last few decades, presidents and Congresses have pursued economic policies that have been disastrous for working-class people. Good factory jobs that used to sustain someone with only high school education in our country are gone. So that sort of misery and anger is real. It’s a legitimate anger. The problem is that that anger is being picked up by right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump. And instead of being turned against the economic elites who are the real villains, I think, it’s being turned against the migrants, against Muslims, against whoever else – against the other. And I think it’s the same thing in Europe. Angela Merkel did a great job initially, admitting so many Syrian refugees, but I truly feel that she played a key role in fomenting the sort of mean spirit of Europe when she crushed Greece’s efforts to get out from under their austerity regime. The economic crisis, especially in southern Europe, is making people’s lives pretty horrible, and her refusal to give Greece any legal room to forgive some debt and develop, I think has not only mobilized the sort of right-wing sentiments across the continent, but also by worsening the living conditions of these workers all over the region has made them more susceptible to right-wing messages. So I think they’ve somewhat made this bed for themselves.
Q: I am eager to have your take on a recent Congress bill that is actually an amendment to the U.S. immigration laws, and also affects the widely-acclaimed nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers. According to the HR 158 bill endorsed by the Congress, the citizens of 38 countries maintaining visa waiver agreements with the United States can no longer travel to the U.S. without a visa if they visit Iran, Syria, Sudan and Iraq, or have been to either of these countries since March 2011. I’d be very interested to hear your views on this piece of legislation.
A: On the first, most basic level, Iran aside, it’s a violation of our diplomatic norms with countries that we have visa waiver agreements with. That’s strange. And then, in terms of Iran, I’m not familiar with this particular bill, but there has been a lot of energy expended by the hawkish, militarist far right in the United States to undermine any sort of rapprochement between the United States and Iran, and we see a lot of criticism on the Iranian far right, as well, and attempts to undermine rapprochement between the two countries. At the end of the day, I think the people of the two countries have a lot in common and perhaps the right-wing Iranians and right-wing Americans can go and form a third country somewhere else where they can just yell at each other. Because the rest of us, I think, are ready to make peace!
Q: As we talk about Iran, many Iranians, especially the critics of the nuclear deal with the P5+1, complain that the United States is not living up to its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and is blocking the EU firms from doing business with Iran and obstructing international banking transactions with Tehran. This is while Iran has fulfilled its part of the deal and dismantled major parts of its nuclear program. What are your thoughts on the objections made by the Iranians who believe it has not been a fair and equitable agreement?
A: I don’t have enough expertise to speak authoritatively on this, so I can only respond generally as it’s not the area that I cover. So, what I would say though is that I think there are certainly people and political figures in the United States trying to undermine the deal, and I’m guessing it’s also true in Iran – and that the deal is incredibly important. The last thing either of our countries needs is another war. So, I can’t comment on how it’s being implemented because I don’t have that expertise, but I would say that implementing it is extremely important.
Q: So to conclude, let’s get back to our main topic. It sounds like the U.S. mainstream media are by and large inclined to depict ISIS as a full-fledged representative of Islamic faith and ideology. They don’t refer to this group by its Arabic name, Daesh, which its leaders consider to be a pejorative term, and insist on calling it “Islamic State.” Does the self-proclaimed Islamic State really represent Islam? Is it being instilled into the American minds that ISIS stands for Islam and its principles?
A: Yes, the sort of Americans who are rallying around Donald Trump I think likely see ISIS as a fair representation of global Islam, which is outrageous obviously, and I think ironically it very much plays into ISIS’s scheme. Both ISIS and the American right wing want a world where you’re either with the Christian West or you’re with the ISIS. There’s no in between and there can be only a war between the two. I think both ISIS and the American right wing share that mindset ironically. I’d also say that in the U.S., it’s not all bad, it’s not all Islamophobic and xenophobic. There’s a huge movement that is outraged by Donald Trump’s Islamophobic comments. On the Democratic side, and even amongst some Republicans, there’s huge criticism of his call to ban Muslims from entering the country. So, there are bad ideas that have some force in the U.S. right now, and there’s a very vigorous response and criticism to them. And in the long run, you particularly look at the young people aged 18 to 35 who overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders, including huge numbers of Arab-Americans. In particular, I think that young people, who by definition will be the future as they age – I’m very gladdened by how inclusive, progressive and forward-thinking their politics seem to be. So, I think Trump is a scary last-gasp of a retrograde and reactionary American political culture that is dying, and I believe Bernie Sanders campaign, even though he failed, is a very clear sign of where American politics is going. So Trump has got all this attention, but I think Bernie Sanders deserves more attention, because Trump is scary, while he represents an America that is going away, frankly, whereas Bernie Sanders is inclusive and progressive and represents the America that we are going to see in the coming years and decades. So it’s not all bad news.