Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike and Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.
When the New York Times ran its story on Obamaâ€™s â€œkill list,â€ showing the president poring over names of people to potentially assassinate in drone strikes, it sparked a controversy. The content of that controversy was not over this extraordinary revelation about Obamaâ€™s use of power but rather over the leaking of state secrets, which Republicans accused him of doing to bolster his re-election campaign. Some liberal commentators (at Salon, The Nation etc.) were rightfully horrified and condemned such activity. But the Democratsâ€”and much of the liberal establishmentâ€”remained silent.
Deep in the Times article, another shocking revelation that hasnâ€™t received as much attention as the â€œkill listâ€ is the Obama administrationâ€™s effort to erase the deaths of some innocent victims by categorizing â€œall military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.â€ This excludes them from the civilian casualties count, allowing the administration to claim that civilian casualties have been minimal. All Muslim men in â€œcombat zonesâ€ in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have been presumed to be terrorists, and therefore worthy of death, simply for being of â€œmilitary age.â€
How did we get to a place where innocent Muslim men can be killed with impunity around the world with little public outcry? The short answer is that Muslims have been long been constructed as â€œterroristsâ€ upon whom righteous terror can be rained. The image of the Muslim enemy in the US is not new. While Hollywood and television play a key role in conveying that image to the public, they did not create it. The â€œMuslim enemyâ€ is inextricably tied to a long history of US imperialism.
The US and the Middle East
After World War II, the United States began take control of the Middle East from France and Britain. In so doing, all forces that stood in the way of US hegemony were cast as enemies, using the language of Orientalism developed in Europe. (I discuss this in greater detail in my book, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.)
Through much of the 1950s and â€™60s, secular Arab nationalists and leftists who failed to cooperate with this US agenda were seen as stooges of the USSR or as â€œterrorists.â€ The latter image intensified with the birth of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its use of armed struggle. The PLO was coded as â€œterroristâ€ because of the close relationship between the United States and Israel.
Following the infamous incident at the 1972 Munich Olympics in which a group of Palestinians took Israeli athletes hostage and murdered them, the Nixon administration launched â€œOperation Boulder,â€ giving law enforcement agencies carte blanche to investigate Arab immigrants and Arab American citizens in search of connections to â€œterroristâ€ activities related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, a violent act committed in Munich by a handful of Palestinians became the basis on which all Arabs were designated as â€œsuspiciousâ€; the process of racial profiling had begun in earnest.
The â€œArab terroristâ€ morphed into the â€œIslamic terroristâ€ after the 1979 Iranian revolution. When US embassy personnel were taken hostage in Iran for 444 days, the crisis generated daily front-page and headline news that effectively associated Islam with terror. Ayatollah Khomeini became the personification of all things evil, and all things Muslim. The Middle East henceforth would be seen through the lens of â€œIslam,â€ a distorted construction of the religion and the people who practiced it.
Under President Jimmy Carter Iranians were targeted, but it was for Reagan to take this much further though his counter-terrorism policy. He issued a secret National Security Directive designed to create a network of agencies that would prevent â€œterroristsâ€ from entering or staying in the US. One program by the Alien Border Control Committee called for mass arrests of immigrants from Iran and from Arab nations. During the first Gulf War, in 1991, the elder Bush launched a surveillance program against Arab Americans, which Bill Clinton would take to an entirely new level with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a precursor to the PATRIOT Act, which, among other things, made it legal to deport immigrants based on secret evidence.
Post-Cold War Politics
The 1990s witnessed a decade between what professor and Middle East expert Fawaz A. Gerges refers to as the â€œconfrontationistsâ€ and the â€œaccomodationistsâ€ in the American foreign policy establishment. The confrontationists argued that Islamism was the new postâ€“cold war â€œOtherâ€ and that the United States needed to confront and challenge this adversary in the â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ that was to follow. The key ideologue leading this charge was Bernard Lewis (a close associate of the neocons), who penned his views in 1990 in a now-famous essay titled â€œThe Roots of Muslim Rage,â€ in which he raised the alarm about an impending â€œclash of civilizations.â€ Samuel Huntington then popularized this concept in an essay titled â€œThe Clash of Civilizations?â€ in Foreign Affairs, followed by a book with the same title (minus the question mark). Huntington put forward the thesis that in the new postâ€“cold war era, conflict would be characterized by cultural differences between various civilizations. He named about seven or eight such civilizations, arguing that the Islamic civilization was among the more dangerous threats to the West.
This view was reflected in a slew of other articles. Journalist Judith Miller argued in Foreign Affairs that US policymakers should not try to distinguish between â€œgoodâ€ and â€œbadâ€ Islamists because there was a consensus among all Islamists to defeat the West. Confrontation, rather than co-optation or dialogue, was the only way to thwart this new enemy. Daniel Pipes, Martin Indyk (who served on Bill Clintonâ€™s National Security Council), Jeane Kirkpatrick (a one-time Democrat turned dogged cold-warrior Republican) and others added their voice to this chorus. The â€œclashâ€ thesis was not a partisan position; confrontationists belong to both political parties. The difference between the accommodationists and confrontationists was not over the goal of US hegemony; it was about strategy and rhetoric. During the 1990s, the accommodationist line dominated in Washington. The Bush pÃ¨re and Clinton administrations sought to win over Muslim-majority countries by appealing to universal values and, under Clinton, free market policies.
Domestically, however, the hysteria against Muslims mounted during this period. The fear generated by the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 ensured that in 1995, when white right-wing Christian terrorist Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, Arabs and Muslims were immediately blamed. Congress passed AEDPA in 1996. In short, even before the events of 9/11, the groundwork had been laid for the legalized targeting of Muslims and Arabs.
The â€œWar on Terrorâ€ Decade
The events of 9/11 brought this legal apparatus in line with the foreign policy establishment. Barely had the ashes settled from the Twin Towers when loud proclamations that â€œIslamic terroristsâ€ represented existential threats to the United States began to echo in the public sphere. From then on, US policy was geared towards â€œkeeping Americans safeâ€ from Muslim â€œevildoers.â€ The â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ rhetoric became the ideological basis for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as domestic attacks on Muslims and Arabs.
The war on Iraq, however, did not go the way the neocons wanted it to. Instead of greeting US forces as liberators, the Iraqi people resisted and rejected US hegemony. During his second term, Bush moved away from â€œhardâ€ power and toward winning â€œhearts and minds.â€ But by the end of his second term, the failing occupations in Afghanistan and Iraqâ€”as well as an economic crisis of proportions not seen since the Great Depressionâ€”meant that it was time for a changing of the guard. Obama was voted into power by an electorate disgusted by the hubris and arrogance of the Bush regime. The ruling elites also gave him their blessing, hoping to put a friendlier face on US imperialism. The Democrats were ready to take on this role.
In January 2007, a leadership group on US-Muslim relations headed by Madeleine Albright, Richard Armitage (former deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush) and a number of academics produced a document titled â€œChanging Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World.â€ The document, which received high praise, argued that distrust of the United States in Muslim-majority countries was the product of â€œpolicies and actionsâ€”not a clash of civilizations.â€ It went on to argue that to defeat â€œviolent extremists,â€ military force was necessary but not sufficient, and that the United States needed to forge â€œdiplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives.â€ The report urged the US leadership to improve â€œmutual respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims,â€ and promote better â€œgovernance and improve civic participationâ€ in Muslim majority countries. The reportâ€™s call to action stated that it would be vital for the next president to reflect these ideas in his/her inaugural speech and to reaffirm the United Statesâ€™ â€œcommitment to prohibit all forms of torture.â€
Barack Obama has proven brilliantly effective at embodying such a posture. In one of his first speeches, in Cairo, Obama rejected the â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ argument, emphasizing the shared common history and aspirations of the East and West. Whereas the â€œclashâ€ discourse sees the West and the world of Islam as mutually exclusive and as polar opposites, Obama emphasized â€œcommon principles.â€ He spoke of â€œcivilizationâ€™s debt to Islam,â€ which â€œpav the way for Europeâ€™s Renaissance and Enlightenment,â€ and acknowledged Muslimsâ€™ contributions to the development of science, medicine, navigation, architecture, calligraphy and music. This was no doubt a remarkable admission for an American president, but one that Obama clearly saw as vital to bolstering the United Statesâ€™ badly damaged image in the â€œMuslim world.â€ Indeed, this speech marked a significant rhetorical shift from the Bush era; a shift to the language of liberal imperialism and liberal Islamophobia.
The key characteristics of liberal Islamophobia are the rejection of the â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ thesis, the recognition that there are â€œgood Muslimsâ€ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged and a concomitant willingness to work with moderate Islamists. Liberal Islamophobia may be rhetorically gentler but it reserves the right of the US to wage war against â€œIslamic terrorismâ€ around the world, with no respect for the right of self-determination by people in the countries it targets. It is the â€œwhite manâ€™s burdenâ€ in sheepâ€™s clothing.
â€œThe truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bushâ€™s father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan,â€ Obama once said. Since taking office, he has embraced and expanded Bushâ€™s second-term policies. He has deployed 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, expanded the war into Pakistan, tried to bully Iraq into granting an extension of the US occupation (which failed), carried out drone attacks and â€œblack opsâ€ in Yemen and Somalia and participated in the NATO-led war in Libya.
Domestically, Obama has continued Bushâ€™s policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and pre-emptive prosecution. American Muslims continue to be harassed and persecuted by the state. Obama has even gone further than Bush in several ways, not only by securing the power to execute US citizens suspected of ties to terrorism without so much as a trial but also by signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which, among other things, allows the military to detain indefinitely without charge â€œterror suspectsâ€ who are US citizens. His 2011 â€œcounter-radicalizationâ€ strategy document elicits the help of Muslim American teachers, coaches and community members, who are to be turned into a McCarthy-type informant system.
Yet liberal Islamophobia does not target all Muslims. It acknowledges that there are â€œgood Muslims.â€ The report heaps praise on Muslim Americans who have cooperated with the state arguing that â€œwe must counter al-Qaâ€™idaâ€™s propaganda that the United States is somehow at war with Islamâ€ and instead affirm that â€œIslam is part of America, a country that cherishes the active participation of all its citizens, regardless of background and belief. We live what al-Qaâ€™ida violently rejectsâ€”religious freedom and pluralism.â€ Obama added that â€œour rich diversity of backgrounds and faiths makes us stronger.â€ This is the modus operandi of liberal Islamophobia: to roundly reject Islam-bashingâ€”and then proceed to institute proposals that target Muslims
When Representative Peter King held his McCarthy-style hearings in March 2011 to determine the extent of â€œMuslim radicalizationâ€ in the United States, he was rightly criticized by liberals. However, that August, when Obama institutionalized this process through his â€œcounter-radicalizationâ€ strategy, there was nary a peep.
At the end of the day, the fear of â€œIslamic terrorismâ€ is manufactured to grease the wheels of empire. Statistics show that Americans are more likely to die from lightning strikes and dog bites than an act of terrorism. In the ten years since 9/11, a comprehensive study shows that of the 150,000 murders in the United States, eleven Muslim Americans were responsible for the deaths of thirty-three people (besides themselves). Yet, this did not stop King from starting yet another hearing on Muslim American â€œradicalizationâ€ in June 2012.
Complaining that his earlier efforts had been â€œvilified by the politically correct media, pandering politicians and radical groupsâ€ King squawked that his efforts were intended to â€œprotect America from a terrorist attack.â€ While his anti-Muslim racism is thoroughly disagreeable, he is not incorrect when he states that this is a â€œnonpartisanâ€ issue and â€œof serious concern to national security and counterterrorism officials in the Obama administration.â€ Indeed. King is simply continuing what is a bipartisan policy with a long history. The mistake that progressives make is to focus on the most rabid Islamophobes, while giving liberal Islamophobia a pass. Whatever form it takes, racism should be called out for it is.