The handmaiden of empire

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire appears in a period when major American Muslim organizations have focused, especially in the Obama era, on a political strategy that revolves around interfaith dialogue, public relations campaigns, and collaboration with government officials and law enforcement. Their goal is to promote a moderate “American Islam” against the assumed tendency of Muslim radicalization and terrorism. In her latest book, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Deepa Kumar argues that Islamophobia must be fought in the realm of politics, and not religion, and weighs in with an important contribution to that effort, grounded in the social and political developments of Muslim majority countries, and a historical analysis of their oppression under colonial and imperial rule.

Kumar charts the development of Orientalist discourse from the first perceptions of Islam as an emerging, competing rival and threat to Christian Europe, to the depiction of a religion of backward, irrational and uncivilized people incapable of democratic self-governance and enlightened thought without colonial intervention from outside. Its continuity and staying power in contemporary times is a result of meeting the needs of a strengthened US empire emerging out of WW2 to take the mantle of its collapsing European predecessors. Islamophobia as an ideology to assert imperial hegemony and control over countries of geopolitical and economic centrality to the world capitalist economy is today the most successful and hegemonic justification of age-old racist colonial practices. Or in Kumar’s succinct phrasing, “Anti-Muslim racism—or Islamophobia—was becoming the handmaiden of empire”.

Kumar chooses to focus less on Islamophobia in the European context in order to analyze in greater detail how this has played out in the United States. This is an important intervention in the context of a historical weakness of the US antiwar Left, which didn’t challenge either Islamophobia after 9/11 or the role of the Democrats during the movement against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This resulted in the movement’s collapse after the election of Obama in 2008, and its resort to economistic arguments against military occupation, without taking up the scapegoating and state repression of Muslims. 

Kumar analyzes in depth the two wings of the foreign policy establishment in the US, liberal and conservative, and the unanimity of their shared commitment to the idea that the United States holds the unique right as a superpower to intervene militarily and economically in the affairs of any other country in the world, even if they disagree strategically about how to implement this. Kumar’s analysis of the Obama administration is particularly thorough, laying out the evolution of its brand of liberal imperialism and its role in the continued expansion of the War on Terror after the Bush administration had widely been discredited. She makes the argument that liberal imperialism was not only necessary to rehabilitate the image of the United States abroad and at home, it converged with the needs of an imperial policy abroad that emphasized a counter-terrorism strategy of drone strikes and special ops forces, over a failed counter-insurgency strategy of “winning the hearts and minds” of Afghans and Iraqis who were pushing US forces out. This required a strategic shift on the domestic front to a reliance on pre-emptive prosecution, with increased shredding of all remaining civil liberties, and the use of legal black holes like the nebulous and all-encompassing “material support for terrorism” charge.

This converged with the need for Obama to condemn publicly the rhetoric of Muslim-bashing and scapegoating that dominated the Bush era, while continuing and expanding those policies in practice. Kumar argues that there was a deliberate shift from the Bush era’s focus on Muslims as the enemy abroad to the Obama era’s focus on Muslims as the enemy within, cultivating and developing the claims and campaigns against “homegrown terrorism” that reached disproportionate heights in the middle of Obama’s first term. Escalating numbers of Muslims were caught in the net of pre-emptive prosecution through a cultivated system of FBI entrapment and the state’s attempts to develop a McCarthyite network of informants within the Muslim community that could be the eyes and ears of the government, reporting perceived signs of extremist activity. 

Although many Muslim civil rights organizations have identified and extensively documented the growth of the Islamophobic far-right, like the group Stop the Islamization of America, and their attempts over the years to push through “anti-Sharia” legislation in various states, and to protest the building of mosques and community centers, like Park 51 in New York City, these moderate civil rights groups have not challenged the role the state has played in fueling Islamophobia. The Obama administration’s rhetoric of dialogue and engagement with law enforcement continues to be a hegemonic argument within the American Muslim community when discussing ways to change Islamophobic policies. Kumar lays out how liberal Islamophobia and the government played a central role in actually enabling the far right’s arguments to become more mainstream. 

However, in recent years, a small but important minority within the Muslim community, trapped between a rock and a hard place, has been compelled to organize against state-sponsored Islamophobia. In 2012, several Muslim civil rights organizations boycotted the annual NYPD Ramadan Conference and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast over the NYPD’s behemoth spying campaign on New York’s Muslim community. In 2013, prominent Muslim American intellectual Omid Safi called for Muslims to boycott the annual State Department and White House Iftar dinners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, until the United States closed down Guantanamo, ceased all extra-judicial drone assassinations, and ended all domestic surveillance and racial profiling policies against Muslims. 

A breakthrough took place during the next Ramadan—occurring during Israel’s most recent brutal bombing and invasion of Gaza under Operation Protective Edge—when the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest Arab-American civil rights organization in the country, joined the boycott in protest against US complicity and backing of Israel’s genocidal attack. Further debate and discussion was generated both with the ADC boycott, and Obama’s humiliation of Muslim attendees at the actual Iftar event, when he invited the Israeli ambassador and used his time to give a speech justifying Israel’s actions. 

Although published early on in the wake of the emerging Arab revolutionary uprising in 2011, and not able to foresee the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in the next two years, Kumar’s chapter on Political Islam or Islamism nevertheless provides an essential materialist framework with an anti-imperialist lens for understanding Islamic political movements. Kumar analyzes the class basis of Islamism, and its historical emergence and re-emergence in relation to the weaknesses and betrayals of a radical left that could not provide a political alternative to neoliberalism and imperialism. This is far more clear-sighted and useful to making sense of social forces in the revolutionary process in the Middle East today than the premature (and sometimes exultant) declaration of the death of Political Islam by some sections on the Left and in the media following the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and political dissent in the summer of 2013.

Kumar argues for the necessity of disbanding the Orientalist trappings and Islamophobic arguments adopted by progressives and leftists when the self-determination of the oppressed in Muslim majority countries is the question of the day. She rejects attempts to defend US military intervention on humanitarian or feminist grounds, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, and arguments in favor of a brutal iron-fisted dictatorship ostensibly committed to more progressive secular rule, as in Syria or, more recently, Egypt. Instead, Kumar argues that the Left needs to adopt and articulate an alternative anti-imperialist framework that upholds the right to self-determination and unconditional support for the movements that emerge out of it, with the flexibility of tactics that can advance and strengthen the revolutionary aspirations of those challenging imperial oppression and neoliberalism.

Crucially, Kumar makes the case that the liberation of ordinary Americans and Europeans from war, oppression and capitalism’s deprivations hinges on a fight against Islamophobia and ending the massive economic and repressive apparatus of empire. From the growth of the far right in Europe in an era of economic, social, and political crises for the international working class, to the expansion of the surveillance state and NSA spying on the world’s inhabitants, Kumar’s point connecting the imperative for the scapegoating of Muslims to continued immiseration and oppression within society is an important reminder that solidarity is essential for our struggles to win.

In a landscape awash with books churned out by the professional bigots of the Islamophobia industry that have thrived in the post-9/11 era, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire is not only a welcome antidote but an essential primer and tool for activists, families fighting against pre-emptive prosecution, students, community organizations, mosques, and civil liberties groups to read, discuss and debate strategies for organizing and fighting against Islamophobia and the War on Terror at home and abroad. The urgency of that task has never been greater.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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