Juan Cole Robert Scheer SI Podcast Surveillance

Juan Cole: America Gets Islam All Wrong. Muslim Americans Pay the Price.

On this week's "Scheer Intelligence," Middle East expert Juan Cole talks about lesser known peaceful Muslim movements and how the U.S. maligns Muslims at home and abroad.
Middle East expert Juan Cole. [Twitter]

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As the United States continues to grapple with what led to the January 6th, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, many Americans ignore an indirect cause of the attack on democracy. In new piece for TomDispatch, scholar Juan Cole delves into the Islamophobic double standard between how agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation have treated Muslim Americans and homegrown white supremacist terrorists in the post-9/11 era. At the same time that Muslim Americans, who he calls largely “model citizens,” have been intensively surveilled and treated like second-class citizens, the rise of white radicals—who have been behind the majority of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the past two decades—has been actively ignored by the FBI. 

On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Cole joins Robert Scheer to discuss how Islam and Muslim Americans are maligned by the U.S. government and media despite prevailing narratives being inconsistent both with the majority of Muslim Americans’ actions as well as the Quran itself. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor professor has written extensively about Islam, most recently in his book “Peace Movements in Islam: History, Religion, and Politics” which, its publisher writes, “fills a gaping hole in the literature on global peace movements, bringing to the fore the many peace movements and peacemakers of the Muslim world.”

The Middle East expert and “Scheer Intelligence” host consider how religious people—be it Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus or others—have been persecuted through the ages and led resistance movements, but have also historically committed persecution themselves, such as during the Holy Inquisition. They also examine how the U.S. also has a double standard towards different Muslims, for example supplying its ally Saudi Arabia with countless deadly weapons—used most recently in a horrific crusade against Yemen—despite Saudis being involved in the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, the U.S. conveniently ignores a long Muslim history of peace movements, such as Bosnian women’s organizations and Mahatma Ghandi’s Muslim allies, as it continually harasses Muslim Americans at home and commits atrocities against majority Muslim countries, like Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Listen to the full conversation between Cole and Scheer as they take a more holistic, nuanced view towards Islam and Muslims than most of U.S. mass media. 


Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer

Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript: Lucy Berbeo

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And one I’ve had before this time, Juan Cole. He’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan; he’s written a number of very important books. I think maybe the critical one that people should read—I enjoyed it, and did a podcast—was Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. It’s a very different view of Muhammad, and his teaching, that you will find in the normal atmosphere of using Muslim religion as a scapegoat for all that ails the world. And his most recent work he edited is called Peace Movements in Islam

And the reason I wanted to talk to Juan Cole—we just ran a piece on Scheer Intelligence from TomDispatch. Juan Cole pointed out in this piece that for all of the great fear about the Muslims, and the Muslims are going to attack us, and the Muslims are an unreliable population, and we’ve harassed Muslims in America terribly around the world. Except when they’re our allies, like in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or when they’re being oppressed by people like China; then we can use the Muslims the other way. But basically, the uses of fear of Muslims. 

And he points out with the January 6 attack, probably the most serious attack on the functioning of American democracy that we’ve had, it came really from people who claimed to be Christians—white supremacist Christians, and kind of all kinds, and a number of whom are on trial now. So let’s just begin with that. This new book of yours, but also your basic thesis that the Muslims have been a scapegoat for instability in America, and it’s come from more familiar quarters. 

JC: Absolutely. Well, Muslim Americans are a big group. There are about nearly four million of them, according to the Pew polling, and it’s a little over one percent of the population. And they’ve been model citizens. I mean, many of them are physicians and professionals, and they’re pillars of their community. But since 9/11 in particular, the Muslim American community has been intensively surveilled and spied upon, even to the extent of the FBI putting saboteurs into mosques to encourage people to talk about violence in order to entrap them and arrest them. And you know, community centers and others have been spied on by—the New York Police Department spied on 250 mosques and community centers in that area. 

So, I mean, of course much of this surveillance is unconstitutional. And it’s been intense. And you know, if you’re a Muslim American, even just flying abroad and coming back into the country is a hassle; they pull you aside on the basis of your name or your birthplace and give you the long interview, and you’re held up at the airport for an hour or two, asking you what your parents did and all that kind of thing. So they’re hassled in all kinds of ways, and spied on. And perfectly innocent activities have sometimes been spoken of darkly by U.S. intelligence agencies—seminars on marriage and things like that, that were held in a mosque.

In contrast, the white supremacists, the gun nuts, the white nationalists, have been violent in taking on the government, and being violent is absolutely central to the identity of a lot of them. And as you say, Bob, it was groups like the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Bois that staged the January 6 Capitol insurrection. But this comes in a long line of antigovernment violence, including going back to 1995, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. 

So the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, however, have treated those people with kid gloves. They’re not surveilled or monitored in nearly the way that the Muslim Americans have been, even though they stockpile weapons and they plot terrorist attacks. And one of the reasons for this is that the Republican Party depends on the white supremacist vote, to some extent. And they run interference for them. So in Congress, the Republican Party has pressured the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to leave the white supremacists alone. And offices that were dedicated to keeping an eye on those people have been closed down at the insistence of Congress. 

So it’s a complete—it’s a complete injustice. And also very unwise, because letting those people freely organize without any attention from law enforcement is what allowed them to plot to take over the Capitol building, and it appears to be that they intended to kidnap or do violence to high officials of the U.S. government, including the vice president and the speaker of the House.

RS: Yeah, so what we have here really is just another example of how we pick and choose our enemies. And traditionally, lots of governments have done that, and they certainly can find quotes or statements to demonize, and that’s the basis of anti-Semitism, the anti-Christian view, anti-Muslim. Religion becomes a handy foil when you’re looking for a scapegoat; we know that historically. Sometimes it’s political philosophy or what have you, but generally religion has been one. And for much of American foreign policy in the Cold War period, anti-Muslim baiting has been convenient, except when it’s not. 

And I’ll just take people through some of this history, which I would like to discuss with you. But for instance the Palestinians, who are not a particularly—or were not at the beginning of the creation of Israel, and the conflict with Israel—the most fervent Muslim population. Nonetheless, because of that, and Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, we have an idea of the Palestinian terrorist, the Muslim terrorist. And that became awkward, because the U.S. also wanted to sell a lot of arms to Muslim Saudi Arabia, which actually had a much more militant and extremist leadership of the Muslim religion. And we saw that, of course, that they sponsored—15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and they sponsored a lot of that activity. 

And yet somehow they got off the hook. And even Israel now has very good relations with Egypt, with the United Arab Emirates and so forth. And yet the Palestinians are somehow in that camp. And then more recently, we have this situation where the U.S. is, you know, I think picking a fight with China, but there is a legitimate human rights concern of how the Chinese treat a small part of their population, the Uyghurs, who are Muslims. And it’s convenient, now, to play the Muslim card the other way; we’re the defenders of the Muslims, and so forth. This was true when the old Soviet Union had its problem with Chechnya. So why don’t we talk about that: the uses of chauvinism in justifying one’s foreign policy, indeed one’s imperial ambitions. 

JC: Well, it’s an excellent set of points, Bob. And basically, Muslims have been put under the sign, as you say, of violence and terrorism, except where they’re not; where they’re actually seen as allies. And you know, Mamdani wrote that book, [Good Muslim, Bad Muslim], which is really about this U.S. hypocrisy, and its approach to the community. 

This is one of the reasons that I put together that book on peace movements in Islam, is that it seemed to me that there was an imbalance, not only in journalism but in scholarship, in how we have written about Muslims in world history. And even during the age of colonialism, in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, when European powers—and including the United States in parts of the Philippines—went out and conquered these people and took over their countries and dictated their lives. Which, you know, in many instances provoked a violent response on their part, and is one of the origins of the demonization of the Muslims, is that they didn’t go quietly with colonialism. 

But actually, if you look at it dispassionately, there were many Muslim movements in the colonial age that deployed nonviolent ways of resisting the European dominance. There was a big movement of Muslims in India, some of them in the circles of Mahatma Gandhi, who adopted nonviolent philosophies and techniques. The Sufi orders in Senegal weren’t happy about, you know, having the French up their affairs all the time during French rule, but they had an explicitly Pacifist ideology, and argued that the Prophet Muhammad made treaties with non-Muslims, and there was no intrinsic reason to resort to violence.

So there were a lot of movements of Muslims working for peace. And after the Bosnia war, where again the Bosnian Muslims were targeted by fanatical Serbs and Croats, after the war was over, there were lots of Muslim peace groups which worked for reconciliation. So you know, Muslim peace work has been a big part of modern history, and yet there has been very, very little writing about it. Even though peace history is a big field now, and it has journals, and there’s a lot of writing about Christian peace movements and about the nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement led mainly by Southern Black pastors, with a Christian tinge to it. But there’s been almost no—I can’t say no, because there is a little bit—but there’s almost no attention to Muslim peace work.

RS: It’s so insulting that one has to defend this major religion, which certainly every religion has had its failings, has had its evil spawn, has also had its virtue. I mean, my god, the Church, the Baptist Church in the South supported slavery and segregation, the white Baptist Church. And as you pointed out, the Black Baptist Church—both claiming to the Christian—were the people who inspired a lot of the Civil Rights Movement. And then we’ve had, you know, in Northern Ireland, where people claiming to be Christian or Protestant, do their best to kill people who claim to be Christian or Catholic, and vice versa. And of course, the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany was done by, most often, very good, so-called good Christians.

But I want to stick to the main point here, but yet refer to an area of major expertise that you bring: Muhammad himself, the inspiration for this offshoot of Christianity—which by the way still accepts the main premises of Christianity. And what was so valuable about your seminal work—and I use that word advisedly—on Muhammad is that you showed that Muhammad, as far as we know, the actual living Muhammad, was by virtue of his occupation, his involvement in trade, his education, the region that looked like at his time of all the warring factions that a salesperson, whom he was, had to negotiate, going from one country to another. I thought it was a brilliant examination in your book. Maybe we should say something here about where this religion came from and who the person that it’s named after is.

JC: Sure. Well, it ties in, actually, to the new book, Peace Movements in Islam, because I have a long chapter on the Qur’an, and ideas of peace in it, in that book. 

RS: This is a [Bloomsbury] book, right?

JC: That’s right, it’s I.B. Tauris, it’s an imprint of Bloomsbury. And so, right—you know, people don’t read the Qur’an. And if one actually read it, it says things like forgive your enemies and do good to those who do evil to you, win them over and pray for peace and security and prosperity for your enemies. And these verses are never cited by the Islamophobes, and it’s kind of a big industry of demonizing what’s in the Qur’an. It also does have verses where it instructs people to defend themselves when they’re attacked. And those are taken out of context, and it’s made to look as though the book is urging murder, which of course it’s not; murder is forbidden in the Qur’an. 

So Muhammad, you know, lived about 600 years after Christ, and lived in a world, as you said, that was at war between the great empires of the time, the Roman and the Iranian. And as a long-distance merchant, and as somebody embedded in the social customs of the urban areas of western Arabia, he preferred a path of peace where at all possible. And he wasn’t a complete pacifist; he allowed defensive warfare. 

But I point out that that’s the Christian stance. I mean, once you get away from the gospels themselves, the Church fathers, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, they all not only permit but actually order that innocents be protected from violence, and that there’s such a thing as just warfare. So I argue that the ideas of war in the Qur’an are no different from those of Augustine in that they’re urging just war. But the emphasis in the book is on conciliation, on making your enemies into friends and winning them over. 

RS: The book being the Qur’an.

JC: Yes. 

RS: Yeah. So let me say—now, the people who make foreign policy anywhere in the world know this, whether they’re the rulers of China, Russia, the United States, what have you. And I want to get back to the original theme, which is what we mean by chauvinism, is what we mean by scapegoating. It doesn’t really matter what people believe in their religion or practice; truth doesn’t matter. You want to use these people as a rallying cry, the hatred of them; you want to whip up hatred, you want to scapegoat. And you couldn’t have a better example than in American foreign policy, where actually we’ve been quite cozy with, really, the extreme center, if you like, of a militant Muslim interpretation, which is Saudi Arabia. 

And yet somehow the United States has not only coexisted with Saudi Arabia, but it’s sold Saudi Arabia an enormous amount of weaponry and what have you; it continues to this day. And the major so-called act of violence that we’re talking about was, you know, in a way coddled at least, if not paid for and sponsored by, Saudi Arabia. Which is what the original mission of militant Muslims through Afghanistan from outside of the country, and it’s how bin Laden got to be there. And support, in one way or another, for that sort of militant interpretation came from Saudi Arabia. 

And 15 of the 19 hijackers—I can never get that statistic out of my mind. None of them came from Palestine or the occupied territories; 15 of the 19 were good citizens of Saudi Arabia and had never gotten in trouble. And yet, in the case of, you know, our demonization, they escape it, you know. And so let’s just talk a little bit about that contradiction. 

JC: Sure. Well, I mean, one of my favorite anecdotes about this is that Donald Trump went on at length about how Islam hates us, and he’s afraid of Muslims and so forth. Then he goes off to Saudi Arabia soon after he’s elected, in spring of 2017, and he’s buddy-buddy with all of the Saudi bigwigs. And he actually joins in with the sword dance. You can see it on YouTube: Donald Trump dancing the sword dance with all of these armed Saudis. [Laughter] So he doesn’t seem actually to be afraid of them, and of course he wasn’t; it was all rhetoric on his part to play the rubes. 

I would say, Bob, I don’t think the Saudi government had anything to do with 9/11. I think obviously Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, but those people—the al-Qaeda types—were the equivalent of our white supremacists. And they had gotten in trouble with the Saudi government and had their passports taken away, had to run away to Sudan and Afghanistan. And so, yes, among the hijackers there were a lot of Saudis, but Osama bin Laden picked—they were hand-picked by him from his group. And they were mostly the muscle in the operation. 

So, you know, the thing I point out to people is that the Saudis are very heavily invested in the U.S. stock market, the Saudi wealthy and the elite. And it’s predictable what would happen to the stock market if an operation like 9/11 were pulled off, and it did happen; I remember I lost a lot of money in the stock market. Of course it was a tragedy in much more serious ways, so many people were killed and so forth. But the point is that nobody who was heavily invested in the U.S. stock market would want to see a 9/11 happen, and the Saudi elites certainly did not.

So I think we have to make a distinction between al-Qaeda and the radicals—who again are like our own homegrown radials, willing to use violence, stockpiling weapons, hating the government—and the Saudi elite, which has its faults, and their traditionally preferred form of Islam is xenophobic and hardline, and very different from the Islam of most Muslims in the world. I mean, the Senegalese and the Egyptians and the Indonesians are mostly appalled by the attitudes of the Saudis. But the fact that the Saudis had this hardline version of Islam, and promoted it around the world, as you said, never interfered with the United States supporting the regime in Riyadh to the hilt. And indeed, it’s been useful at every point in modern history, because the U.S. tried to deploy the Saudis against the communists. 

And I mean, I don’t want to excuse anything on the Saudi part, but I have to point out that the idea of getting the Saudis to give money to jihadis—to people who wanted to fight holy war—was Ronald Reagan’s. There’s every reason to think that the Reagan administration pressured the relatively, at that time timid Saudis, to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and started giving people the idea that it’s all right to take on a superpower with these irregular Muslim religious forces. So the U.S. is implicated in a lot of this turn to violence and paramilitary activity, and used it against communism, and then they’ve been interested in using it against Iran and so forth.

So, sure, the policies are full of contradictions and hypocrisies. And the overall lesson of the some 14 major non-NATO allies, the vast majority of them are Muslim states. The United States has designated them as allies.

RS: Yeah. Including Turkey.

JC: Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain.

RS: So let me just pick up one historical point here. And you know, I hope I didn’t misrepresent the Saudi regime. But it seems to me that they have given room—I mean, bin Laden came from a very respected family, and there were flows of cash. But I don’t want to go into that. But I’m just talking about the uses of a view of the Muslim religion as inherently violent and primitive in its fundamentalism and so forth. 

But I’d just take the example of Israel, for example. I think—and I certainly know very little about this compared to you, but I was in Israel and Egypt at the time of the Six-Day War. And the Palestinian population was not particularly given to a very fervent, fundamentalist view of Islam. And also, the Palestinian population didn’t have the capacity to wage war, and indeed did not wage war against Israel at any serious point, with any serious military, but certainly not in the Six-Day War. 

On the other hand, you know, you had Egypt—let me take it away from Saudi Arabia for a minute—Egypt, which claimed it had this strong religious influence, had the military capacity, Jordan also. And they were occupiers of these fellow Muslims in Palestine, and yet Israel had been at peace with Egypt all these years while it continues to occupy Palestine. And so, but yet we hear all about Muslim terrorists; you mostly think Palestinians, who in fact have not done that in recent history. 

So I just want to throw that out there; I don’t know if you want to comment or not. But I want to go—if you do comment, take it to a more recent experience, and that’s the Uyghurs in China. We’ve got the Olympics going on now, and they’re in Beijing. And one of the reasons that the U.S. government says it’s not officially attending these Olympics is supposed to be the Chinese government’s maltreatment of the Muslim population in China, which has basically a homogeneous population in its Han majority, but yes, clearly the Uyghurs in one region of China have been very poorly treated and oppressed and jailed and everything else. 

But let’s talk about that most recent example, I think, of hypocrisy: playing the Muslim card when it’s convenient one way, playing it another; you know, it’s like the wild card, but only it changes in value. And either you’re supporting Muslim rights when the Chinese communists seem to be against it, and you’re opposing it when it’s Palestinians. But go on. 

JC: Yes, well, you’re right about the hypocrisy and how we play both sides against the middle in the United States. The United States, you know, talks a good game often about Palestinian rights—the Trump administration didn’t, but traditionally the State Department will say, you know, Palestinians should have rights of citizenship, they should have their own state. 

But the U.S. doesn’t actually do anything to make that happen, and indeed gives tremendous support to Israel, which is doing everything it can to stop the Palestinians from having the rights of citizenship, and to keep them stateless, and to continue to take away from them their property and territory. And also to flood in hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the Palestinian territories, so as to dilute the demography of the Palestinians and to make it easier to control them and to split them up. 

And in many ways, there’s a parallel between what the Chinese are doing in Xinjiang province and what the Israelis have done in the West Bank. Because the Chinese also have also flooded in Han Chinese into a traditionally Uyghur majority, Xinjiang, and they have put the Uyghurs under heavy surveillance. And more recently they’ve been arresting them and putting them through reeducation camps, and have been, you know, disfavoring them. 

And for the same reasons, because the Chinese are afraid that if the Uyghurs remain a compact minority in its northwest, that they have separatist tendencies. And it may well be; U.S. intelligence has played a role in whipping up those tendencies. And the Israelis are deeply afraid that the Palestinians, if they remain a compact population, will eventually manage to erect a Palestinian state. 

So the U.S. response to these two policies is night and day. With regard to China it’s vocal, it denounces; with regard to Israel it’s mostly silent and keeps giving Israel more and more money to buy arms with, which the Israelis use to regiment the Palestinians. 

RS: You know, this cynicism that you’re attributing, really, to U.S. policy here—and it doesn’t make it any better to say other nations do it—ah, but it’s so profound, and so many people get hurt, I don’t want to end this conversation without giving it some texture. For instance, it’s not just now in China that we’re going to play the card one way or another; the whole Afghan War, for instance, the longest war we ever had, and now Afghanistan seems to be in worse shape in many ways; the latest story is there’s starvation in large areas, and people are fleeing and so forth. So we set, maybe set back Afghanistan. 

We initially got involved with Afghanistan—and again I have to always say when I’m talking to you, you know a thousand times more than I do about the actual history of these countries. But it seems to me under the old king originally, and its whole system, Afghanistan was not the worst place to live. It was a poor country, but in many ways quite tolerant, and certainly the condition of women was much better. And then it got caught up in Cold War politics, and there was a government in Afghanistan that was leaning towards the Soviets, and then they were secular. 

And the United States got involved with some people who were more, claimed to be in the Muslim tradition, who were going to oppose it. And there weren’t enough of them in Afghanistan, to put it crudely, that the U.S. got involved in recruiting people from all over, and particularly the Middle East—bin Laden was such a person—to beef up the anti-pro-Russian government. And as a result, we got the whole nightmare of Afghanistan. They won, they became—they supported the Taliban, and after that we got 9/11. 

So there you have an extreme case of playing the Muslim card in a chauvinistic way coming back to haunt you. And probably the most graphic case. Why don’t we end by talking about that kind of—it’s not just a question of getting it wrong or being opportunistic. It’s a question of spewing hate and evil in the world that comes back to destroy you. 

JC: Well, Bob, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think you’ve made the case very well. And it’s been a great conversation. I fear I have a thesis defense I have to run off to, but I really appreciate your reaching out, and it’s always great talking to you about these things. And despite your constant cautions, you’re one of the more knowledgeable people I know about these issues.

RS: So can you give me the one-sentence view of the misuse of the Muslim card, and particularly now that we close the chapter on Afghanistan. I see this as an incredible tragedy.

JC: Yeah. Well, the U.S. in various ways has been responsible for either promoting or provoking Muslim terrorist groups. It did, as you say, the CIA actually trained the mujahideen in training camps, and gave them CIA tradecraft techniques, which were probably then passed on to al-Qaeda. But then, you know, it did things like invade Iraq for no good reason, which provoked a Muslim fundamentalist response among, especially, Sunni Iraqis, who had been secular, as you say; there’s a long tradition of secular movements in the Arab world and the Muslim world, including communist movements. And the U.S. has worked through the last 70 years to destroy them often, and either to promote the fundamentalists or to provoke them.

RS: On that note, I’m going to let you go to your thesis defense. Thank you, Juan Cole. And let me also thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts. Joshua Scheer, who is our boss here, the executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the introduction. And the JWK Foundation, which in memory of a great journalist, Jean Stein, helps fund the work of our podcast. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

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