Much of the study of Islamophobia is directed at the social and political causes and manifestations, including religious and political dimensions and racist characteristics. However, Islamophobia is also used as a strategic tool or weapon; i.e., in pursuit of national agenda.
Many of us are familiar with Islamophobic movements within the Buddhist majority in Myanmar (against the Rohingya minority), and within Hindu nationalist parties in India. It is important to note, however, that it is characteristic of these movements that they direct their Islamophobia against particular groups of Muslims within their own societies, and are less concerned with creating an international movement against Islam.
This is what makes the case of Israel unique. Although Israel, like Myanmar and India, seeks to marginalize and ultimately eliminate a specific population of Muslims – in this case the mostly Muslim Palestinians – part of its strategy for doing so includes encouraging and fostering Islamophobia internationally. Thus, for example, Israel has successfully pursued strong military and diplomatic ties with the governments of Myanmar and India, and especially the Islamophobic movements within those countries.
It is clear, therefore, that Islamophobia within Israel is not only a matter of organized bigotry and social hatred, which one finds in other societies, but also of instrumentalizing or weaponizing Islamophobia as a strategic tool to legitimize and justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the territories under Israel’s control, as well as to support Israeli aggression towards other mostly Muslim countries in the region. Promoting and fostering Islamophobia internationally helps to increase and solidify international support for the Zionist genocidal project. It is therefore treated as an important tool of Israeli and Zionist international influence.
My attention was first brought to this fact in casual but unusual circumstances. In early 1993 my family and I were on vacation at a Club Med in France where there were also Israeli intelligence officers and their families. I got into a discussion with one in particular, who said that with the fall of the Soviet Union, Islam would replace communism as the new enemy. It sounded a bit far-fetched, but in retrospect he knew what he was talking about, and more important, he was in a position to help make it happen, which of course it did.
The groundwork was laid much earlier. As Deepa Kumar at Rutgers University reports, the effort to tie Islam to terrorism started at a Zionist funded neoconservative conference on international terrorism in 1979. Then, after a second such conference in 1984, “both US neocons and Zionists worked together to convince Western policy makers that ‘Islamic terrorism’ would replace communism as the West’s next great threat. By tying Islam to terrorism, neocons would gain political cover for their imperialistic ambitions in the Middle East, and Zionists would benefit from garnering Western sympathies for their struggle against Palestinian ‘terrorism.’”
Since then, researchers like Sarah Marusek, David Miller and others have cataloged international Zionist networks that sponsor Islamophobic propaganda and policies. The work of Pamela Geller and the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative is one of the well-known examples. Geller’s anti-Islam billboards and bus advertisements are familiar to many, as well her so-called “Muhammed Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas in 2015, resulting in the police killing of two armed men.
Geller is hardly alone, however. According to the Center for American Progress, the US has six major organizations that manipulate Islamophobia in order to further US support for Israel. These are the Center for Security Policy, the Society of Americans for National Existence, the Middle East Forum, Jihad Watch, Stop Islamization of America, and the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Sarah Marusek includes even more groups in her paper entitled “The Transatlantic Network: Funding Islamophobia and Israeli Settlements”, published in the anthology, What is Islamophobia?
These organizations constitute a network, as Marusek says, but the complete network is much wider and more diverse than the assets concerned with promoting Islamophobia. They are known as the sayanim, the Hebrew word for helpers or assistants, and are composed of Zionists who have achieved important and useful positions in societies from which they can exercise powerful initiatives, especially when they operate in concert. Thus, for example, friendly journalists can work with lobbyists and others to quickly and massively spread influence, information, analysis and disinformation that are useful to Israel.
Such initiatives require coordination, intelligence, strategic planning, covert action, technical assistance, and other expertise. For many years, the sayanim were coordinated by the Mossad. However, following a 2010 report from the influential Reut Institute (a prestigious strategic think tank in Israel), organizational changes were made that moved such responsibility to the Ministry of International Relations, Intelligence and Strategic Affairs – better known as the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The report also notes that there are as many as 4000 sayanim in each of the major centers of power and influence, such as London and New York. A concentration of sayanim in important sectors of society that inform the public, such as film, entertainment, journalism, education and social media permits them to help shape public opinion.
In line with Reut Institute recommendations, the Strategic Affairs Ministry has grown in size and secrecy over the last decade. Reut projected that Israel’s main strategic threat would no longer be to its military security but rather to its image and influence in other countries, especially the US and Europe. According to this view, BDS was to be regarded as a serious threat, as well as the human rights NGOs, Palestine solidarity groups and the critical alternative press. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs was therefore selected to coordinate a major new effort to combat this perceived threat.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry has informally been called the Hasbara Ministry, using the Hebrew word for explanation or propaganda. It certainly is that, but also much more. The reorganization of the Strategic Affairs Ministry can be compared in scope to that of the Homeland Security Department. A lot of security and intelligence functions were transferred from or shared with Mossad. The Ministry became responsible for propaganda, influence and manipulation in other countries. Coordination of the sayanim became part of its purview, as did thousands of students who were paid or received scholarships in return for haunting social media and the comments sections of websites. The purpose was to dominate the media, insofar as possible, in countries vital to Israel’s plans and intentions, and to sway public opinion toward outcomes determined by Israel’s strategic goals.
Many readers are familiar with the “Brand Israel” campaign. Its function, suggested by the Reut Institute, is to mold Israel’s image in the media of the US and other countries. Its tactics are PR on steroids, such as, for example, slipping subliminal questions into the Jeopardy quiz program and idyllic holy land vacations into Wheel of Fortune, but permeating nearly everything we see, hear and read in film, entertainment, journalism, education and social media for the purpose of molding public opinion. With enough effort of this kind, we will presumably think of Israel as Disneyland.
Another example is Facebook and the personal collaboration between Mark Zuckerberg and Benjamin Netanyahu. After a meeting with Netanyahu, Zuckerberg hired a former employee at the Israeli embassy in Washington to be in charge of censoring so-called “fake news” on Facebook. Only Facebook has the actual figures of who gets censored, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that a lot more anti-Zionists than Zionists are affected. Similarly, Islamophobic postings and Tweets seem to be at least somewhat resistant to censorship compared to ones that are labeled anti-Semitic (which are often merely critical of Israel).
But it’s not just about making Israel look like the good guys. Demonizing and dehumanizing Muslims also helps to justify Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians, as well as its belligerent policies toward its mainly Muslim neighboring countries. A successful program of Islamophobia helps to support Israel’s pogroms of Palestinians in Gaza, its settlements in and economic strangulation of the West Bank, its invasions of Lebanon, its attacks against Syria, and its promotion of US wars against Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Making the US military a proxy for Israel greatly multiplies Israel’s capability, which is why Israel and its US lobby are working hard to create a new international war against Iran.
In order to provide the Strategic Affairs Ministry with all possible means of making such operations possible and successful, it has been assigned some important intelligence functions, including black ops and psy-ops capabilities, which used to be the exclusive purview of the Mossad. This gives the ministry greater capability to engage in digging up or inventing dirt about people it wants to harm or discredit, especially in the BDS movement and other pro-Palestinian groups.
The hand of the Strategic Affairs Ministry is not always obvious, and it takes care to shun the light. But occasionally its actions become known, as with the Aljazeera exposé of Israeli operative Shai Masot, working from the Israeli embassy in London and coordinating the actions of British citizens working with Israel. He coached them on how to demonize and “take down” members of parliament, including the Foreign Office Minister, Alan Duncan, who was considered insufficiently supportive of the effort to suppress BDS.
Al Jazeera has produced a similar exposé on the workings of Israel and its US lobby, but the release has been indefinitely delayed, which may be an indication of Israel’s power and influence and the effectiveness of the operations coordinated by the Strategic Affairs Ministry. Nevertheless, a glimpse of such operations can be seen in the 2004 espionage indictments against AIPAC lobbyists Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. The indictments were ultimately dropped, partly because sensitive information would have to be revealed in order to successfully prosecute the cases (or perhaps that was just the excuse used to cover the fact that Tel Aviv gets to decide who gets prosecuted, not Washington).
France can be considered an extreme case. People have been arrested there for wearing a Free Palestine T-shirt. PayPal and several large banks in France recently closed the accounts of all organizations that support BDS, which has been ruled anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is broadly defined, as you can see, and it is illegal in France. You can be fined or jailed for practicing it.
But not for Islamophobia. Islamophobia is free speech but anti-Semitism is racism. In fact, the French equivalent of AIPAC, known as CRIF, has publically declared that “Islamophobia is not a form of racism. We have long drawn attention to the danger of conflating Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. To do so would impede all criticism of Islam, such that the fundamental rights of [other] religions could not be respected. The CRIF will therefore block all resolutions against Islamophobia”.
The writings of Jacob Cohen are instructive in this regard. He has published a remarkable and very comprehensive exposé on the promotion of Islamophobia in France, including the actions of Israeli operatives and French Zionist organizations. But there’s a catch. In order to publish it in France without being arrested or sued, he has to disguise it as very thinly veiled fiction, in this case O.P.A. Kabbalistique sur les Nouveaux Indigènes. It is available only in French, but even in that language you have to know the persons and groups to which he refers with pseudonyms, and few outsiders know the French scene well enough to recognize more than a handful of them.
So what can we conclude from all this information about the involvement of Israel and the Zionist movement in sponsoring Islamophobia? The point is that some sources of Islamophobia are not attitudes or social structures. We have to face the fact that there is a very potent, resourceful, well organized and well funded international movement that sees Islamophobia as a strategic tool in pursuit of its national interest. For this reason, it is largely impervious to education or negotiation or legal considerations.
In fact, Israel is also pursuing an apparently contradictory effort to encourage interfaith cooperation between Jews, Muslims and Christians, but with the same goal in mind. That goal is to blunt criticism of Israel, whether by getting people to hate Muslims and thereby endorse Israel’s belligerence and ethnic cleansing, or by pressuring Muslims not to criticize Israel out of concern for potentially offending their Jewish brothers and sisters. Since the two strategies are aimed at different populations, I suppose that they might be able to work simultaneously. This is often how PR campaigns work.
The point is that in all the efforts at fostering tolerance and understanding we are faced with an adversary that is working quite diligently in the opposite direction for reasons that have nothing to do with how they view Islam as a religion or Muslims. This is therefore a different type of challenge in trying to overcome Islamophobia.
• This article is a revised version of a paper read at the 9th Annual Islamophobia Conference in Berkeley, California, April 29, 2018.