Racism and Islamophobia help explain the Western world’s horror and swift actions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, speakers agreed in a March 3 discussion organized and livestreamed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
There is “some inconsistency, to put it mildly, in the way the Western world has reacted to this crime” compared to others, said CAIR deputy director Edward Ahmed Mitchell. Muslims in China, Kashmir and the Palestinian territories are not seen as heroic when they resist oppressors.
“There are only two differences: white and religion, Muslim,” he said later in the program.
No one making this argument considered why seeing Russia—one of the world’s nuclear powers, led by a dictator bent on expanding his empire—launch an unprovoked war in Europe might trigger strong reactions in the West. The challenge to NATO allies was never mentioned.
There are key distinctions that the people pushing this message tend to ignore.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine are much more consistent with anti-Israel forces than they care to recognize.
That’s the Palestinian rejectionist formula best exemplified by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Their own charters make it clear that the options for Israeli Jews are to surrender or face unceasing violence.
“Jihad is the solution to liberate Palestine and topple the infidel regimes,” say PIJ bylaws. It rejects “any peaceful solution for the Palestinian Cause,” and declares “jihad [the] solution and the martyrdom style as the only option for liberation.”
The goal is to create “a state of terror, instability and panic in the souls of Zionists, and especially the groups of settlers, and force them to leave their houses.”
Hamas’s revised principles, which aimed at softening the original charter’s blatant anti-Semitism and calls for killing Jews, still reject any peaceful coexistence with Israel: “Hamas believes that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded. … Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.”
In addition, a Jerusalem Post editorial on March 1 notes that there has never been any Ukrainian rocket fire aimed at Russian civilians. “Ukrainians never tried to throw the Russians into the Black Sea” or “arm their people with explosive vests and encourage them to ride buses in Moscow and blow themselves up along with as many innocent passengers as possible.”
No serious person can argue that Russia is acting in self-defense. Putin claims that he is freeing Ukraine from its Jewish, yet somehow Nazi, president.
Rather than acknowledge these elements driving Putin’s Ukraine war or any role violent Islamists have played in the other conflicts, it’s easier to just blame bigotry.
“The people of Ukraine are ‘European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed,’ while Palestinians are Arab and have a darker complexion,” wrote Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who runs the university’s Islamophobia Studies Center.
In an article published on March 2, he argued that Ukraine’s heroic resistance against a Russian invasion is a lot like Palestinians fighting Israel, except the world hasn’t rallied to support the Palestinians.
“When an officer in Ukraine blows himself and destroys a bridge to prevent the Russian (sic) from advancing, then he is celebrated for this sacrifice. … Palestinians are demonized for merely being Palestinians, and any and all resistance are framed as terrorism.”
Again, there are significant and obvious distinctions that must be overlooked to buy this argument.
Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych did not try to kill anyone else—soldier or civilian—and by making the ultimate sacrifice, he may have saved his comrades’ lives. That’s not exactly the agenda jihadi suicide bombers follow.
“When is resistance justified?” Justice for All Washington director Hena Zuberi wondered during the CAIR discussion. “Is it only when the resisters are white? And especially when they’re not Muslim?”
When Muslims resist, she said, the West thinks “these are terrorists, and they are rising up against our ally.”
The public reaction shows the “embedded Islamophobia” that exists in the world, said executive director of CAIR-Los Angeles Hussam Ayloush. “The life of a Muslim is worth much less” than white, Christian Europeans.
Envy over the world’s admiration for Ukrainian grit and courage in the face of overwhelming odds is also growing.
“I dream of the day armed Palestinian resistance to foreign invaders & occupiers in their homeland is treated by American media with the same sympathy & lionization that Ukrainian resistance is rightly portrayed,” former Arab American Institute deputy director Omar Baddar tweeted on Feb. 26.
“Islamists and others claim that Americans respond differently when whites or Christians are oppressed than when non-whites and non-Christians suffer. This is both offensive and patently untrue,” said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum. “One example: In 1990, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait not only prompted an outpouring of sympathy for Kuwaitis similar to that now for Ukrainians, but U.S. forces then did something in Kuwait out of the question in Ukraine; they fought the invader and expelled it. Americans fight oppression regardless of skin color or religion.”
Zahra Billoo, CAIR’s executive director for the San Francisco Bay area, retweeted the message to her followers. During a March 2 panel discussion with Bazian, she made her own attempt to liken the Ukrainian and Palestinian causes.
“Really resonant for what we’re looking at this week, of course, around double standards is how white presenting Ukrainian refugees are being treated versus how black Ukrainian refugees are being treated,” said Billoo, who is known for spewing anti-Semitism. “Or frankly, how the Palestinian resistance movement is treated as compared to how the Ukrainian resistance movement is treated. And so, to get to the core of the issue, we have to start to … pull apart the double standards and the hypocrisy.”
Billoo and her boss, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad, also believe that Israel has no right to exist. Awad made that clear in November when he referred to Tel Aviv as “occupied.” And Billoo has flat out acknowledged that “I am not going to legitimize a country that I don’t believe has a right to exist. And that’s where I am.”
That’s awfully close to what Vladimir Putin thinks about Ukraine.
Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism; the author of eight books on national security and terrorism; the producer of two documentaries; and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.