Syria, the War on Terror, and the Left’s “Salafiphobia”

The spontaneous, massive protests against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban were an inspiring display of solidarity between non-Muslim and Muslim Americans. As encouraging as public backlash against this draconian policy has been, however, it strongly contrasts with the lack of public support Muslims have received during the past fifteen years of the so-called “War on Terror.”
For over a decade and a half, the War on Terror has devastated communities abroad through various invasions, and has wrought incessant bombing campaigns in seven Muslim majority countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. It has also resulted in extra-judicial assassinations, torture, and the targeting of the American Muslim community through surveillance, FBI entrapment, and Countering Violent Extremism policies that essentially criminalize being Muslim.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has expanded the War on Terror, particularly in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In March alone, for example, the U.S.-led campaign “against terror” claimed the lives of an estimated 1,782 civilians in Syria and Iraq, making it one of the deadliest months since Trump became president.

In order to truly tackle Islamophobia and empathize with the Muslim struggle, we must step beyond the thrill of the Muslim ban protests and address the War on Terror directly. Connecting what Muslims are being subjected to in the West, and discussing why Muslims abroad have to flee their home countries in the first place, is imperative. While Trump’s policies are particularly dangerous, they are simply an extension of the U.S. government’s longstanding, Islamophobic battle against “terrorism.”

The progressives and leftists who have stood up for years against the War on Terror and its deadly policies are, arguably, best positioned to pave the way for true solidarity with Muslims globally. Unfortunately, however, many of these leftists themselves engage in anti-Muslim rhetoric, cloaked as criticism of “Salafism” and “Wahhabism,” and even pursue campaigns which mirror right-wing Islamophobic agendas.
Looking through the articles and social media accounts of some leftist journalists, it is difficult to differentiate their beliefs from the sort of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, Zionist vitriol that Beltway think tanks, like the Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI), commonly produce. This is especially so in the case of Syria, where the problem, these leftists claim, is not the brutal Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers, but “Salafi terrorism”—an analysis meant to offer a de facto justification for the War on Terror currently underway in the country.
Phrases like “head chopping jihadists” and “armed extremists” are regularly used to paint the entire Syrian opposition as “terrorists” and offer soft legitimization for the Assad regime, while mocking the notion that there are “moderate rebels.” In some cases, rebel groups have been smeared as “radical Islamists” based on nothing more than having Islamic terms embedded in their names. When these leftists are inevitably challenged for their bigotry, they insist their remarks are not Islamophobic because they specifically target the “extremist, genocidal ideologies” of Salafism and Wahhabism—as though this is somehow a sensible justification. In reality, these articulations are blatantly Islamophobic (even when used outside the Syrian context), because they conceptualize extremism as emanating specifically from Islam.
There was a time when leftist journalists took mainstream media to task for hyping the so-called threat from “Islamic terrorism,” but today many of these same individuals seem angered that there isn’t more hysterical obsession with groups like Al-Qaeda in Syria. This is particularly disturbing considering how much worse the War on Terror in Syria has recently been for civilians when compared to the actions undertaken by the factions fighting in the country. Sadly, many leftists and Islamophobes alike appear to be more concerned with “the Taliban” and “Salafi Jihadists” taking over Syria and replacing Assad’s “seculargovernment, than with the indescribable devastation caused by the near-constant bombardment committed against civilians by the United States, Russia, and the Assad regime.
After eastern Aleppo was retaken by regime forces in December 2016, for example, many popular figures among the left were cheering, and claiming falsely that Christmas was being celebrated there for the first time since the “Salafis” took over. This is very similar to the way Zionists and other right wing forces have used the plight of Christians in the region to push forward their anti-Muslim agendas.
Assad’s campaign in Aleppo was indescribably brutal, but because rebel fighters were supposedly serving a “hardened religious ideology,” the left committed to discrediting them, instead of providing a more nuanced and realistic picture of the Syrian revolution and the nearly five year siege of the city. In this context, Islamophobia (or perhaps “Salafiphobia”) is the most compelling explanation for why these leftists have characterized Muslim religious beliefs as the source of “jihadi violence” and treated them as more dangerous than the countless bombs dropped by Assad and his allies.
Consider also the left’s response to the horrific chemical attack unleashed on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April. As videos emerged of children choking to death on poisonous fumes, most of the so-called antiwar left thought it better to complacently deny Assad’s responsibility for the disaster, and subsequently indict “Al-Qaeda,” instead of mobilizing emergency protests to condemn the atrocity.
It was not until Trump attacked a Syrian military airfield on April 7 that the “antiwar” left became visibly outraged, and organized worldwide “emergency” demonstrations to demand the United States keep its “Hands off Syria.” When the Assad regime returned to bombing Syrians from the exact same airfield Trump attacked less than a week later, there was nothing but silence from these same “antiwar” coalitions.
These are the very coalitions which failed to stage any “emergency protests” when it came to the countless other bombings the U.S. military has launched on Syrian civilians since September 2014 (particularly in rebel-held areas). This includes the bombing of a mosque filled with worshippers in March, which the U.S. government justified by claiming to be “targeting Al-Qaeda leaders.” Perhaps it is because leftists see no problem with targeted strikes against “Al-Qaeda” that they had very little to say about this tragedy.
It is hard to see how such an “antiwar” campaign is not simply Islamophobic apologia for the Assad regime.

The Left’s Moral Decay

The way Syria is being handled is but one part of the left’s broader relationship with Islamophobia. Another aspect is progressive groups that are willing to work with politicians who promote anti-Muslim hate.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has become a favorite among progressives since she broke from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and backed Senator Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential primaries last year. As has been noted by many, Gabbard is, in fact, a right wing Islamophobe who admires oppressive leaders like Narendra Modi in India and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt. She even fails the basic leftist litmus test on Palestine: she spoke at the conference of Christians United for Israel in 2015, is close to Sheldon Adelson, and criticized the Iran Deal, demanding Obama put himself in Israel’s shoes.
Despite all this, the so-called left has celebrated Gabbard as a progressive hero, with some going as far as teaming up with her to create a supposed antiwar agenda for Syria.
In January 2017, Gabbard introduced the “Stop Arming Terrorists Act,” which prohibits U.S. aid to Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, ISIS, and any individual or group that is affiliated with such groups in any way. There is clear evidence that the United States is not directly providing funding to the named groups. The major problem with this bill, however, is that its language is so vague and expansive it can be used to pursue and punish even unarmed groups, including humanitarian organizations working in war zones, as well as individuals with controversial political beliefs. Far from coincidental, the bill’s introduction was timed to coincide with Gabbard’s trip to meet Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, which was arranged by a fascist group in an effort to whitewash Assad’s war crimes.
Several antiwar, progressive groups publicly supported Gabbard’s bill and trip. Veterans for Peace (VFP), whose own vice president also went to see Assad in Syria in 2016 and came back proclaiming there was a “psychological warfare campaign to demonize Syria’s president,” endorsed it. Progressive Democrats for America (PDA) published a letter from Syrians thanking Gabbard for her trip—the equivalent of seeking out Egyptian supporters of Sisi’s regime to endorse a visit to Egypt. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), World Beyond War, and Alliance for Global Justice also circulated a similar petition in support of Gabbard.
Ironically, UFPJ, VFP, PDA, and other leftwing organizations have been quite vocal about their fight against Islamophobia. But, these claims cannot be taken seriously as long as they keep working with anti-Muslim politicians, like Gabbard, and pushing forward an Islamophobic analysis and agenda on Syria.

Realigning the Struggle

Human rights advocates who, for example, rightly fight against efforts to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, are simply embarrassing themselves when they smear Muslim activists as terrorists based on the claims of a brutal regime and its supporters. This hypocrisy should have no place in antiwar and pro-humanitarian movements.
By the same token, the left’s supposed disgust toward the Trump administration’s decision to ban all Syrian refugees from coming to the United States cannot be taken seriously when these same leftists are vociferously standing by politicians like Gabbard, who notably backed a GOP bill in November 2015 to require that refugees receive background checks from the FBI. How one can claim to be antiwar while supporting a politician who is supportive of the War on Terror—and actually blasted Obama for failing to escalate the ongoing bombing campaign against “al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria”—is beyond comprehension.
We cannot truly defeat destructive far right policies and structural Islamophobia if we tolerate these same positions among individuals and groups that label themselves as progressive. Now is the time to make clear that the left will not tolerate anti-Muslim bigotry even within its own ranks.