“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.

Protesters march in New York on September 11, 2010 in opposition to the proposed "Ground Zero Mosque" — Reuters
Protesters march in New York on September 11, 2010 in opposition to the proposed "Ground Zero Mosque" — Reuters

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.”

From academic justifications of imperialism, Kumar moves to an analysis of the American foreign policy thought, and finds that there is a consensus between the neoconservatives and “the realist/liberal camp” when it comes to “the right of the United States to assert its power around the world,” and on American exceptionalism — the idea that America is unique among nations because of its liberal values. Kumar charts these two trajectories through time and notes that while “[a]fter Vietnam, Cold War liberals backed away from open confrontation and intervention,” preferring, for instance in the Clinton era, coalition building and politically expedient, selective “humanitarian” interventionism, (if possible) with the endorsement of the United Nations, the neoconservatives remained committed to militarism. The difference, thus, is a matter of frankness about the use of violent means to the same imperial ends. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, left America with no global foe against which the neocon militarist fantasies could be enacted. To address this void, even before 9/11, neocons like Daniel Pipes identified Islam as the new threat to the West just as communism had been during the Cold War. But the installation of the Islamic enemy as the supreme villain to the West had to wait till 9/11. Kumar notes that “capitalising on this opportunity […] also meant orchestrating an elaborate public relations campaign designed to elicit public support and stifle criticism. Enter the War on Terror and the language of Islamophobia.”

Obama has hammered again and again that the US is not at war with Islam. It is not my purpose to argue that it is, but to point out how such statements serve to obfuscate the Islamophobia of American foreign and domestic policies. Liberal Islamophobia shuns the language of ‘clash of civilisation’ that one routinely came across in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Instead, it prefers the nicer-sounding ‘clash within’ thesis that holds that there is a war going on “inside Islam” between moderate Muslims (‘our friends’) and the extremist ones (‘our enemy’). Caught in the middle of a fight not of its own making, the United States, always both the innocent bystander and the reluctant, self-designated policeman of the world, needs to strengthen ‘friend Muslims’ through diplomacy, market initiatives, and of course, by visiting violence on the ‘enemy Muslims’.

Friend Muslims know that what’s good for America is good for the world. Enemy Muslims, on the other hands, are united by a common ideology that fuels terrorism, which, in Obama’s words, is “a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West.” Terrorism experts and various US state officials term this the ‘Jihadi narrative’: a stringing together of real or fictitious incidents of American aggression as evidence of America’s/West’s war on Islam. Ill- informed, irrational Muslims, so prone to conspiracy theories, get “brainwashed” and radicalised by this fabricated litany of anti-Muslim American violence, the theory goes. Radicalisation is conceived as a conveyor belt to suicide bombing and the person on this path, to quote from the aforementioned Obama speech, “is drifting towards violence.” Even if he has not committed any violence, it is deemed destined that he will — unless he is killed or captured.

This counterterrorist narrative about the ‘Jihadi narrative’ distracts liberals from developing a vigorous critique of the ‘war on terror’ as they recover from their fleeting feelings of shame about the frequent “flying while Muslim” incidents with musings about how ‘those radical Muslims’ must love such stories about America falling short of its ideals. Worse yet, this narrative becomes a way to silence any charges of Islamophobia and racism levelled at the United States’ global wars and Muslim critiques of American violence are dismissed with prejudice as ‘Osama-talk’. This last charged was also hurled at me by a Pakistani liberal, who took anti-imperialist critiques of the US to be necessarily right-wing talking points stemming from knee-jerk “anti-Americanism.” Having thus completely abandoned anti-imperialism as a relevant, progressive cause, Pakistani liberals then self-righteously wonder why so many of Pakistan’s middle-class (sub)urban youth grow fond of jingoist, military-idolising talking heads like Zaid Hamid who posit a besieged Islam as a veritable damsel in distress and Pakistan military with its phallic armaments as the guardian of its honour.

Much of the imperial rhetoric holds Islamism to be violent extremism — an Islamic problem, with, to quote the aforementioned Obama speech, “deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred” feeding it. In this narrative, these enabling factors have nothing to do with America, and are presumably inherent to Muslim society. In two stirring chapters, Kumar historicises the emergence of what is also referred to as political Islam. She reminds readers of the history of America’s arming and financing — as a bulwark against communism — what Obama referred to as “extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.” Kumar elucidates the “overarching conditions that enable Islamists to vie for hegemony” in the late 20th century, namely: the American role in the birth and propagation of violent global Jihad; the American-backed violence on secular nationalist political forces; the failure of the Left to step into the void created by the retreat of secular nationalist forces; neoliberalism’s relentless exacerbation of economic crises across the world that paved the way for the rise of right-wing religio-political movements across religions.

Kumar argues that developing a robust understanding of political Islam requires that it not be considered a unified phenomenon. Instead, each Islamist movement must be placed in its local context. However, she also says that the role local conditions play is beyond the purview of her exploration. If that is the case, Kumar’s claim to be looking at “the phenomenon of political Islam on its own terms” falls short, for however necessary the global conditions may be, they do not fully explain why this particular ideology (and not some other) came to be the political force that it is today. In other words, the question to ponder is: why did ordinary people partake in Islamism(s), and what about it/them captured their imagination and political energies?

A similar issue lies in conceptualising Islamophobia as a tool of the political elites, mobilised in order to serve their interests. Again, this does not tell us much about what compels ordinary citizens to follow the lead of the political classes/elites. In other words, when it comes to Islamophobia, what brings the interests of both the elites and the masses in consonance? Drawing a sharp dichotomy between the interests of the elites and those of the common people has the unfortunate effect of taking away the latter’s agency, rendering them into mindless cattle which can be herded into lynch mobs. It is a politically and intellectually debilitating position to take. On the one hand, Kumar believes that “it is from the ranks of ordinary people that activists emerge to challenge racism in all its forms. It is here that the hope for fighting and ending Islamophobia lies.” But when it comes to explaining why ordinary people espouse Islamophobic ideas, she states that this is because “those who rule a society tend to set the terms of discussion,” even though “ordinary people can and do resist dominant ideas.” History teaches us that the elite are not always successful in securing consent, despite the mighty ideological apparatus. But the question still remains: how do (some) elite ideas, in this case imperial Islamophobia, become dominant at a given moment in time? Knowing how ‘the masses’ are also pivotal to the maintenance of violent ideologies and systems can help one see the mundane, everyday workings of power, and ordinary people’s complicity in the very systems of dominance that oppress them. That may constitute a valuable lesson for us ordinary people in how to resist, or at least how not to enlist in, predatory social systems.

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (POLITICS) By Deepa Kumar Haymarket Books, US ISBN 1608462110 220pp.