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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