“Indeed, the success of American Muslims, and our determination to guard against any encroachments on their civil liberties, is the ultimate rebuke to those who say we are at war with Islam.” Obama made this pronouncement in his recent speech on the future of the ‘war on terror’ despite the abundance of evidence showing that the state, with Obama at the helm, has massively encroached upon the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, “our determination” to the contrary notwithstanding. Such state practices, shot through with Islamophobia, penalise people for being Muslim.
Take, for instance, the state’s monitoring of mosques inside the US. It marks mosques as places of danger for American Muslims, making it perilous for them to congregate. Similarly, the practice of sending informants into mosque-centered Muslim communities tears them apart from within as distrust of fellow Muslims sets in and discussions of the sociopolitical issues that directly affect Muslims become taboo. Such state measures make it all the more difficult for Muslims to be politically engaged and fight for their rights, especially as Muslims. The Islamophobia of such policing measures, however, is utterly lost on the “colour-blind” Obama-liberals. In their view, as a relic of the past, racism is the sole preserve of those Americans who’re not with the times — Conservatives, simple-minded country bumpkins, know-nothing mill workers. What emerges from Deepa Kumar’s trenchant critique of Islamophobia in her new book, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, is that Islamophobia as a potent imperial ideology is a bipartisan project. Kumar shines a bright light on liberal Islamophobia, and shows how the Obama administration’s emphasis on homegrown terrorism generated a lot of talk about ‘terrorists in our midst’ in the mainstream American media and presented right-wing Islamophobes with the opportunity they needed to (re-)popularise the old ‘Islamic peril’. As Kumar puts it, “The politics of liberal Islamophobia at the top of the society enabled the extreme Islamophobia of the right.” A feature of liberal Islamophobia is that you get to have a self-aggrandising guilty conscience about what you have had to do — which, nonetheless, had to be done for the greater good of humanity. Speaking of the civilian casualties from drone warfare, for example, Obama had this to say in the aforementioned speech: “For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live.” In other words, ‘shoot and cry’. The racism at the heart of modern imperial violence operates on indifference as much as on explicit hatred. The indifference to the many that die “over there” in the “badlands,” that such brutal military assaults can only be launched at will on a non-Western population, that the blatant state surveillance of entire neighbourhoods inside the US based on ethnicity and religion can only happen to the ‘Little Pakistans’ — all of this requires rendering certain people as justified ‘collateral damage’ to the civilising imperial mission.
It is this imperial racism and the dehumanising Islamophobic rhetoric of the so-called ‘war on terror’ that Kumar brings into focus in this most valuable primer. “Drawing on my academic training as a cultural theorist,” Kumar writes, “I situate the rhetoric of Islamophobia within the broader political, historical, legal, and social context from which it emerges to show that anti-Muslim racism has been primarily a tool of the elite in various societies.” She demonstrates in elegant, accessible prose that Islamophobia is neither timeless nor expressed and acted upon in any uniform way. It is not an eternal, unchangeable Western hatred of Islam and Muslims, but is actively whipped up when it is politically expedient to do so. This point is crucial. To be able to see Islamophobia’s making (and remaking) holds the key to its unmaking.
In Kumar’s telling, it is the age of modern European colonialism and its “systematic use of scholarly knowledge to serve the needs of empire” — what can be described as Orientalism — that Islamophobia acquires its full political potency from. The worldview produced by these Orientalist scholars was one, to quote Kumar, “in which the ‘West’ is seen as dynamic, complex, and ever-changing society which cannot be reduced to its key religion or any other single factor, while the ‘Orient’ or the ‘world of Islam’ is presented as unchanging, barbaric, misogynistic, uncivilised, and despotic.”
When by the middle of the 20th century, the US “took over the mantle of colonial overlord of the ‘Muslim world,’” it too began to systematically study the Middle East as the European empires had done. This American scholarship reproduced the Orientalist dualism in the form of the “modernisation theory,” a highly influential theory till the 1970s. Kumar notes that this theory categorised societies along the traditional-modern binary, roughly mapping on to the old East/West divide: “Traditional societies were agricultural and rural, slow to change, and politically authoritarian. Modern societies, on the other hand, were seen as industrial, quick to change, and politically democratic and egalitarian.” The so-called traditional societies could not change from within; they had to be changed from without by Western intervention. America’s mission, conceived through such a dichotomous understanding of the world, is that of ‘benevolent supremacy’: “the notion that an American-dominated world would ensure liberty and democracy for all through the mechanisms of free-market capitalism.” According to Kumar, such views are widely held. Even those that joined the massive anti-war liberal-left coalition against the Iraq invasion bought into the official line that the American occupation is necessary for democracy to bloom in Iraq. Kumar, an active member of the anti-war movement, writes that she “found almost unanimous agreement in the [antiwar] coalition that this was indeed the right thing to do.”