Where conspiracy theories meet prejudice

Yesterday I got an old post at Muslim Matters, Muslims Need To Calm Down About Boycotts, tweeted to me while I was out in town, and I resolved to write a blog post about the subject because, as I responded, “Muslim boycott mania is often so irrational & oppressive to deal with & even shaikhs get sucked in”. Sister Safiya (Outlines) responded that boycotts were “often the junction where prejudice and conspiracy theories meet”, but I more often find them a source of frustration and irrationality. Most of the Muslim boycotts that have been promoted the last few years have been reactive, pointless and focussed on soft targets.

The author, SaqibSaab (Saqib Salman Shafi), related an incident in which a sister who worked at an Islamic school bought a coffee from Starbucks using a gift card she’d been given, but received a very hostile reception from her colleagues when she got back to work:

Unaware of the issue of boycotting Starbucks, she unknowingly walked into the teachers lounge one morning with a small Mocha in hand. She was then met with an uproar from her fellow Muslim staff. Without kindly explaining anything to her, they yelled at her, told her she wasn’t allowed in the room, that her drink was killing Palestinian babies, and that she didn’t care about Muslims in Palestine.

The sister apologized repeatedly, trying to explain that she didn’t know about the boycott and that she purchased her drink using a gift card. When the angry Muslim staff refused to listen and one of them began to cry, she then threw her nearly full drink away.

A few years ago, I noticed that Starbucks shops were often full of Muslims. I have noticed that there are much fewer in those places now. One reason might have been less to do with the boycott of supposedly pro-Israel companies as to do with a boycott of American companies during the Afghan and Iraq wars. However, it is widely perceived as a “Zionist” company and rumours have spread, for example, that a whole week’s revenue had been donated to the Israeli government, something that would not be tolerated by a public company’s shareholders (often pension funds and the like). The activities of the company are often confused with the private activities of its chief executive, who actually takes a tiny fraction of the group’s revenue (even if it’s a substantial salary).

Similar rumours used to go round regarding Marks & Spencer, alleging among other things that they donated some proportion of their Saturday takings to Israel (or even the Israeli army, in one version) as some kind of expiation for trading on the Sabbath. Given that Saturday is the biggest day for any high street retailer, it would mean a very large chunk of their revenue being given away to a cause which would bring a lot of bad PR, and not just among Muslims. That would not sit easily among the shareholders either, yet it turns up in the Jewish Chronicle as if that was some secret document that only Jews read.

At least the pro-Palestinian boycotts are aimed at a genuine target, an oppressive occupation of Muslim lands and people — although far from the only one, and quite possibly not the most oppressive such occupation. This cannot be said of the boycott against Danish goods which followed the cartoon affair, which was aimed to hit an entire country, particularly a food company with operations in several European countries, over cartoons printed in one privately-owned newspaper. Most of us would not want to be associated with junk printed in a trashy, bigoted mass-market newspaper — we can name a few in the UK — so why tar all Danish people with the same brush as that paper?

Furthermore, this particular food company produces (or at least produced) halaal food for export to the Gulf, but when the hysteria erupted over the cartoons, supermarkets in the Gulf stopped stocking Danish goods. If such things keep happening, of course, eventually companies will stop producing food for that market, because any small happening which has nothing to do with them could lead to their markets collapsing. The upshot is that we stop getting the halaal food, not only in the Gulf but also in England and elsewhere. The boycotts will hit ordinary workers first, causing job losses which could easily lead to agitation against Muslims living in the country being boycotted, and won’t hit those responsible for the offence. However, people simply will look at you with contempt or suspicion. or both, if you try telling them that they cannot do anything about the situation or that the offence caused does not merit the action. (It’s also noticeable that the usual targets are small countries; there was no boycott of French couscous over the ban on hijab and no boycott of Chinese electronics and clothing when they cracked down on the Uighurs a year or so ago; personal sacrifice is not the name of the game here.)

The problem is that a lot of Muslims will be suspicious of you if you don’t agree with what they “know” about some event or another: there was a time when you were suspect if you didn’t believe the most ludicrous conspiracy theory about 9/11, for example. Some Muslims believe as fact the ideas put forward by Holocaust deniers. In both cases, all those involved say what they say because they have an axe to grind, not because they have any grounding for what they say; in some cases, they do not actually believe it themselves. They say Hitler did not really kill 6 million Jews, Gypsies etc. because they are fascists and racists and want to “rehabilitate” Hitler. Similarly, 9/11 revisionists are often motivated by hatred for government for its own sake, or have a tendency to see conspiracies behind everything (and they often make their money proposing them), and Muslims, particularly when under pressure to answer for acts of terrorism they had nothing to do with, often instinctively resist believing that it was Muslims who did it. However, to retreat into denialism against the facts isn’t a good way to fight this kind of bigotry, and these boycotts are rarely an effective way of fighting oppression either.

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  • Salaam Alaikum,

    These boycotts often remind me of the frantic texts and emails that get sent round (falsly) declaring certain foodstuffs to be secretly haraam.

    These actions alongside making ludicrous declarations about multinational corporations, just makes Muslims look very stupid.

    And yes, I have heard a ‘Sheikh’ call for a continued boycott of Danish goods, long after the intial outcry, because one Danish magazine had republished the cartoons. .-= Safiya Outlines´s last blog ..In Space, No One Can Hear You Clean =-.

  • The only boycott I observe these days is the Israeli dates one, which can be easily verified by checking the packaging. Dates (and other fruits, I believe) are grown on stolen land and the Palestinian workers are treated badly. .-= iMuslim´s last blog ..Panto Update =-.

  • M Risbrook

    Out of interest, does the owner of this blog believe the official 9/11 storyline as being true? Please answer.

  • anon

    “The problem is that a lot of Muslims will be suspicious of you if you don’t agree with what they “know” about some event or another”

    I would say this works BOTH way, actually. I don’t know anything more than what they taught at secondary school about the holocaust, and since there was no critical questioning encouraged at the time, I take it all with a pinch of salt given the controversies I occasionally hear in the news about it. I don’t want to be forced to take a viewpoint on it. And yet there is an emerging fashion in our community to lambast me for not committing myself to the establishment viewpoint, and they’ll be all to willing to accuse me of racism for not doing so.

  • anon

    actually, please delete above post. Not worth the hassle of suspicion. Thanks.

  • Thersites

    I.J. if you do accede to !anon“‘s request to remove his posts, you neeedn’t post this. If you don’t, it might be wiser to explain why you don’t remove posts when asked. I don’t oppose it as a policy; I just think it should be explained.

    It’s a little paranoid for an anonymous poster using the nom de guerre “anon” to be worried about raising suspicions.

    Is it only what you were taught about “the holocaust” at school you take with a pinch of salt? Are you sceptical about the laws of gravity, for example, or whether locking yourself in a gargae with a car-engine running is likely to be lethal? For most things, in fact, we rely, and have to rely, on received ideas- what we were taught. When we are sceptical about such ideas, then it isn’t just a good idea but an obligation to go and find out for oneself.

  • M Risbrook

    Give me a good reason why should I believe everything school, the media, or the government tells me?

  • Thersites

    You do believe nearly everything school, the media, or the government tells you. To take an obvious example, you believed what you were told about the various scientific principles underlying the development of computers and the internet. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be able to use them.

  • M Risbrook

    You do believe nearly everything school, the media, or the government tells you.

    Well, I for one don’t. I have always been a resourceful type willing to investigate matters and question what most people accept as the norm.

    To take an obvious example, you believed what you were told about the various scientific principles underlying the development of computers and the internet. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be able to use them.

    I never learnt a thing about computers at school and neither was anything taught in science lessons related to the working of computers. I taught myself to program FORTRAN when I was at secondary school back in the days when the smallest computers were the size of a small fridge and took punched cards.

  • Unimpressed

    Risbrook makes a good point. Twain said it best :

    I’ve never let my school interfere with my education

  • Thersites

    I have always been a resourceful type willing to investigate matters and question what most people accept as the norm.
    And what precisely is “the norm”and how do you investigate it?
    I never learnt a thing about computers at school and neither was anything taught in science lessons related to the working of computers. I taught myself to program FORTRAN when I was at secondary school back in the days when the smallest computers were the size of a small fridge and took punched cards.
    And what of the various scientific principles underlying the development of computers and the internet? Did you work out the mathematical, scientific and engineering principles for yourself or did you accept their truth from other sources?

  • M Risbrook

    Thersites,

    During my career in IT encountered countless fine software engineers who had little knowledge of the underlying physics of computer hardware. Knowledge of electromagnetism, solid state semiconductor devices, and materials science is NOT required to develop software any more than it is required to play computer games.

  • Thersites

    So they- and you perhaps- do not question what most people accept as the norm there.

  • M Risbrook

    Theresites

    Stop trying to use word play to emphasise your point.

    I myself do have considerable knowledge of the hardware side of computers. I have also spat plenty of vitriol over the architecture of the PC which (sadly) became the world’s prominent computer format.

  • Thersites

    Considerable knowledge as in knowing and believing what people say or considerable knowledge as in willing to investigate matters and question what most people accept as the norm?