Book Review: Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

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A woman looks at books inside an exhibition hall during the 29th annual meeting of French Muslims organized by The Union of Islamic Organizations of France at Le Bourget, near Paris 7 April 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Gonzalo Fuentes)

By: Laura Durkay

Published Monday, March 18, 2013

When it made its US debut in January 2013, the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, in which CIA heroes torture, spy on, and kill an endless supply of Muslim terrorists in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was the country’s top-grossing movie. Meanwhile, on American TV screens, the series Homeland stokes fears of an international terrorist conspiracy involving everyone from Hezbollah to al-Qaeda. It’s reportedly one of President Obama’s favorite shows.

With such movies and TV shows so popular amongst the American mainstream, it should come as no surprise that their anti-Arab content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the real world, Arabs and Muslims in the US – as well as those who “look” Arab – face hate crimes by racist vigilantes and are viewed with suspicion from the state. The recently leaked NYPD operation to pre-emptively “map” Muslim communities in New York for “suspected terrorists” is just one of many examples.

In this context, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire by Deepa Kumar is a vital primer for anyone attempting to understand and challenge racism against Arabs and Muslims in the West. Kumar, a professor of media and Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, covers an enormous amount of ground in 200 pages, from Europeans’ first contact with Islam to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

The book begins by surveying early encounters between East and West. It was during the era of the Crusades that the demonization of Islam as a uniquely violent religion began to appear in European thought. But it was the heyday of European colonialism and the growth of Orientalism as an academic discipline in the 19th century that gave Islamophobia its modern form.

The book outlines five myths about Islam that have been used to justify European, and later, American imperialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The first is that Islam is a monolithic religion and all Muslims share certain characteristics. “The homogenization of Islam and Muslims is so taken for granted that it functions as the basis of all the other myths,” Kumar writes. If imperialists intend to argue that “Muslims are X,” it must first be established that all Muslims are the same.

The other myths will be familiar to anyone who watches the American media with a critical eye: that Islam is a uniquely sexist religion; that Muslims are fanatics, incapable of reason and rationality; that Islam is inherently violent; and that Muslims are incapable of democracy and self-rule and therefore their only choices are dictatorships or Western interventions that “bring democracy.”

The bulk of the text focuses on the development of Islamophobia in the US and how it has been used to justify both American intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. Kumar spends some time tracing the perpetuation of Islamophobia through elite American universities and its penetration of foreign policy think tanks.

Kumar outlines two basic wings of current US foreign policy: the neoconservative wing, epitomized by the Bush administration, and the realist-liberal wing of which Obama is a prime example.

While the realist wing may focus more on deploying the rhetoric of “humanitarian intervention,” and using multilateral institutions like the UN to sanction US military actions, the two wings agree on the fundamental goal: American domination of the Middle East and its resources.

Kumar also traces the evolution of the perceived enemy, from the “Arab terrorist” of the 1960s and ‘70s, to the construction of a specifically Islamic threat after the Iranian revolution of 1979. In particular, she points to two international conferences on terrorism, organized by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jonathan Institute and held in Jerusalem in 1979 and Washington, DC in 1984, which cemented the ideological and personal links between US neocons and right-wing Israeli politicians. These links allowed the Israelis to frame Palestinian liberation struggles and Lebanese resistance to Israeli invasion as “terrorism.”

In addition to wars and torture abroad, Islamophobia has been used to justify a vast expansion of the US police state and domestic spying. The US government, mainstream media, and a network of professional Islamophobes that Kumar calls “the new McCarthyites” have united to create a climate of fear that paints Arabs and Muslims as an internal enemy of the US.

Often the definition of enemy is extended from “Islamic terrorists” to Islam itself, as seen with the furor over the construction of a mosque and Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site in 2010, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

While a catalog of the ways US elites have used Islamophobia to justify war abroad and repression at home may seem like dismal reading, Kumar offers reason for hope in the stories of ordinary people resisting Islamophobia and standing up for their rights. These include immigrants struggling against unjust detention and deportation, the massive protests against the Iraq War, and the donations that poured in from across the US to rebuild a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee that was burned down by racists.

Many of these stories may be unknown outside the communities in which they happened, but they show that there are many Americans ready to challenge the Islamophobic stereotypes, and the policies they justify. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire is intended as a guide for these people. As history, analysis, and a call to action, it’s an invaluable addition to any anti-racist’s library.

Laura Durkay is a writer and activist living in New York City.

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