The Roots of Islamophobia

An interview with
Deepa Kumar

Donald Trump is no lone wolf. Islamophobia can be found across the political mainstream.

Seemingly every day since the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, reports stream in of assaults both verbal and physical on American Muslims. Already the mass killings in Paris had precipitated a backlash in the US and elsewhere against Syrian refugees. But San Bernardino appears to have added even more kindling.

Most troubling, of course, is the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his ilk. But as Deepa Kumar reminds us, to simply dismiss Trump as a crank overlooks the pervasiveness of Islamophobia — that it has both conservative and liberal variants.

So how did we get here? How bad is the uptick in Islamophobia in historical terms? And how can we fight it? Below, Kumar, the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, addresses these questions and more.


We’re seeing a toxic rise in Islamophobia that reaches its apex on the far right, but also extends to the center-left. The same week that Donald Trump proposed halting all Muslim immigration, for instance, the liberal writer Michael Tomasky effectively called on Muslims in the US to prove that they’re good Americans. What do you make of the current climate? How worried should we be about the uptick in this sort of rhetoric?

DK

We should worry for at least two reasons. First, we have seen an escalation of Islamophobia and the hate crimes that accompany it in the aftermath of San Bernardino and Paris. Glenn Greenwald has compiled a list of threats and attacks on Muslims over just a one-week period, and it is quite alarming. I know of friends who for the first time since 9/11 are wearing hoodies over their hijabs because they are fearful of attacks by random strangers.

While racist and xenophobic attacks are not new, they have been intensifying. We have seen waves of this kind of backlash since 9/11, such as during the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy and the Boston Marathon bombing, to name just two, and with every new incident the rhetoric reaches new heights. This is the new reality of the “war on terror,” with Islamophobia integrated into the very fabric of US society because it serves to justify empire and the bloated national security state.

The second reason we should be concerned is the timing. First, it comes on the heels of the Paris attacks, and the already polarized international climate which it created. Second, it has been swept into election year politics, with the Republicans jumping onto the Islamophobia bandwagon to score political points, as they have in previous election years.

The far right and the well-funded Islamophobic network have espoused blatantly racist ideas for some time now, but their rhetoric can spill over into the mainstream only when mainstream politicians and figures echo their talking points. What we have seen since the Paris attacks is that far-right ideas produced by a global Islamophobic network, or what has been called the “counter-jihad movement,” have been echoed and amplified by various Republican presidential candidates, Trump being the most vitriolic of them.

A recent report from a UK-based group on the counter-jihad movement documents the global scope of this movement and how their ideas have moved from the margins to the mainstream. People like Trump play an instrumental role in facilitating this process.

Now, many people have denounced Trump for his comment about halting Muslim immigration, including the other Republican candidates. The general consensus in the political establishment, and among pundits, is that he went too far and should be disqualified from running for the presidency.

Trump countered by saying that his plan is not unlike what President Roosevelt did in 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he signed an executive order authorizing the internment of 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent (of which over 60 percent were American-born). Indeed, Trump is correct in pointing out that both Democrats and Republicans have made use of racist policing to help consolidate the national security state and promote US imperialism, from the era of the Cold War to the war on terror. In fact, one could make a strong case that the connection between the two phenomena dates to the very founding of the country itself.

But Trump need not have looked to 1942, or earlier, for a historical precedent. His internment proposal has already been in process, albeit in different forms, since 9/11, with tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants and citizens having passed through the prison-industrial complex.

Immediately after 9/11, about 1,200 Muslim citizens and non-citizens were summarily arrested and questioned by the FBI and various state and local law enforcement agencies. Despite the fact that not even one of these 1,200 was found to have connections to 9/11 or terrorism, the pattern of detention and deportation has only grown since then. Mosques, community centers, and even children’s sports leagues have been subjected to surveillance, during both the Bush and the Obama presidencies.

When Trump called for a database to register all Muslims, Hillary Clinton tweeted that this was “shocking rhetoric.” Yet she ignored similar processes that have been at work for over a decade, such as the 2002 National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which had its origins in her husband’s 1996 terrorism bill. The system requires that male immigrants sixteen and older from twenty-five different countries be photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed, and their financial information declared. Already by fall 2003, more than 83,000 immigrant residents were registered through this system.

So we have to remember that we are in this situation today because both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to it. Donald Trump is playing today the kind of role that Enoch Powell once played in the UK with his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, which included racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and made him a politically polarizing figure.

A. Sivanandan described Powell’s effect as follows: “What Enoch Powell says today, the Conservative Party says tomorrow, and the Labour Party legislates on the day after.” We have seen a similar dynamic in the US since the late 1970s, which is why the range of political discussion is so narrow in this country. This is why one cannot dismiss Trump as a crank or a lone wolf who will have little impact on the system.

When Michael Tomasky called for Muslim Americans to prove their loyalty, he was simply reinforcing what President Obama had said in his December 6 speech. Obama argued that because “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” it is the responsibility of Muslims to “confront, without excuse” this problem.

Presumably, in Obama’s book, an example of such an excuse is the argument that Muslims are no more to blame for San Bernardino than white Christians are for the actions of Robert Dear, the Planned Parenthood shooter. Yet we know that Dear is an evangelical Christian who idolizes the Army of God, an anti-abortion group that is responsible for numerous bombings and murders, and that right-wing terrorists have been responsible for more murders since 9/11 than jihadists.

Why then are white Christians not being called upon to take “responsibility” for the far right, and why has all attention shifted from Dear’s crimes to those in San Bernardino? When Obama states that it is “the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization,” he is articulating a liberal version of Islamophobia, according to which Islam is culpable for violence committed by Muslims, even if most Muslims are “peaceful.”

Thus, following every controversy, the range of debate remains restricted to right-wing and liberal variants of Islamophobia, although with an overall steady shift to the right. Hence, just as it is correct to point out that Republican denunciations of Trump’s rhetoric wring hollow, given their strong support for the logic that underpins it, the same applies to Democratic denunciations of Republicans, and for the same reasons.

While the Right views all Muslims as a problem and as a fifth column in Western nations, the liberal establishment sounds more reasonable in that it differentiates between terrorists and the majority of Muslims. But it nevertheless holds an entire group of people responsible. This is why establishment liberals believe that “moderate Muslims” should “take responsibility” for denouncing the terrorists, that leftists and anti-racists should get over their political correctness, and that everyone should join them in supporting the war on terror and its practices of war, surveillance, indefinite detention, and drone strikes.

Absent from the discussion is the context of empire, i.e. what imperial intervention produces abroad, how those interventions produce blowback on American soil, what they mean for racialized subjects, and the role that the entire American political establishment has long played in advancing imperialist intervention and provoking violence both at home and abroad.

What role do the media play in stoking this sort of panic and bigotry?

DK

There is a lot of discussion today about how Trump’s crazy rhetoric is getting so much play only because the corporate media have devoted so much attention to it. There is some truth to this, of course.

The corporate media eagerly cover controversial and sensational material because it draws larger audiences and serves to pad the bottom line. Trump’s horrific rhetoric — e.g., his calls to deport millions of Latino/a immigrants or to bring back waterboarding — is thus seen as newsworthy for this reason. The major broadcasting companies therefore certainly have a financial interest in cheering on the Trump phenomenon.

But it would be wrong to see the escalation of Islamophobia as simply the product of Donald Trump or the corporate media by themselves. In my book on Islamophobia, I examine what I call the “matrix of Islamophobia,” which outlines the structures and institutions responsible for shaping anti-Muslim ideology and practice. These include the political establishment (including both Democrats and Republicans), the national security apparatus, and universities and think tanks — all of which contribute to the production of the two strands of Islamophobia (liberal and conservative).

The key arena in which these ideas are propagated to the public is in the mainstream media. They amplify the rhetoric from these other institutions, but also play a part in limiting the range of debate between the liberal and conservative poles. It is only on rare occasions that anyone to the left of the permissible range can enter this space, and those occasions are almost always the product of protests and social movements that are strong enough to force the media to broaden the range of debate (a phenomenon I examined in my book on the 1997 UPS strike).

How have the media covered San Bernardino and other acts of violence committed by Muslim Americans compared to those committed by non-Muslims?

DK

First off, let me say a few things about gun violence, which, by the way, is as American as apple pie. The Center for Disease Control has reported that 406,496 Americans have been killed by firearms on US soil since 2001, in comparison to 3,380 killed worldwide due to terrorism. In the US, jihadists have killed forty-five people since 9/11 — in other words, a ratio of almost ten thousand to one between deaths from gun violence and those from terrorism.

In cases of school shootings or other mass shootings, the perpetrators are overwhelmingly white men and boys. Yet when a Muslim American is involved in this most American of traditions, as we saw with San Bernardino, it becomes the occasion to justify war, empire, and the national security state.

There are two different frames used to cover violent acts in the US, one that is applied to white perpetrators and another to Muslims. In the first case, the causes of violence are seen as individual (e.g., the product of mental illness), the solution to which lies in apprehending the perpetrator and bringing him or her (though usually him) to justice.

In the case of Muslims, violence is explained as a product of the “clash of civilizations,” to which war on entire groups of people is seen as the only appropriate response. This is what Albert Memmi, the French philosopher, meant when he talked about the “mark of the plural,” in which the acts of racialized others are seen to be generalizable to entire groups, while those of whites are limited to the individual.

This logic is not true only of those we call conservatives, but also of liberals. Proponents of liberalism, which champions individual rights and freedoms, have long denied individuality — and therefore rights — to racialized “others,” whether in the metropole or in the colony.

What impact have San Bernardino and Donald Trump’s comments had on national politics?

DK

The Trump effect, as I noted earlier, is very much like the Enoch Powell effect. There is a codependent relationship that exists between the Democratic and Republican parties.

On the one hand, the Democrats’ complicity in the war on terror, the construction of the national security state, and the systematic discrimination against Muslims not only serves to legitimize the Republicans’ own role in these developments, but also gives the latter the freedom to adopt ever more extreme positions.

On the other hand, as the Republicans move further and further to the right, the Democrats are able not only to obscure their own culpability by pointing fingers at Republican extremism, but also to adopt more extreme measures themselves, albeit with less incendiary rhetoric and accompanied by assurances that they’re only after “bad” Muslims.

In this respect, Donald Trump represents a political Godsend for the Democratic Party establishment, a bogeyman whom they can use to frighten voters into supporting an “anybody-but-Trump” option in the 2016 general election.

A clear example of this is a recent editorial in the New York Times, which identified the danger of fascism posed by Trump’s racism. On the face of it, there’s nothing about the editorial that a reasonable person could oppose. However, the fact that it singles out Republicans as solely responsible for this climate of Islamophobia and the specter of fascism, simply because they’re the ones most willing to use incendiary rhetoric, overlooks the culpability of the Democrats, whose contribution to that climate is no less important.

It also plays into the hands of Democrats because the whole notion of a united front against fascism gives them greater freedom to carry out their own imperialist agenda, unencumbered by any criticism from their left.

None of this is to say, of course, that Trump doesn’t represent a frightening turn in US politics, but rather that we should try to understand the no-less-frightening political dynamic that makes Trump possible, a dynamic that is a product of the political system in its entirety. It bears reiterating that we need to understand this phenomenon in systemic terms — not as the product of a single individual or a single political party.

It’s also worth noting how Trump’s anti-immigrant bashing, whether directed at Mexicans or Muslims, fits into a long-established pattern of scapegoating. Like virtually all members of his class, Trump understands that immigrants are a source of cheap labor that have long been integral to the US economy, and that is especially true today. He also understands that keeping them vulnerable keeps them cheap, while scapegoating them serves to distract attention from the dismal conditions affecting the American working class as a whole.

And here too, we would be remiss to ignore the role that US administrations have long played both in generating displacement and immigration (e.g., NAFTA, the wars in the Middle East, the drug war in Mexico and Central America) and in subjecting immigrants to punitive treatment (e.g., Obama’s policies of mass deportation). All of this is a reminder that racism is a product of the class oppression and imperialist domination that are integral to the history of capitalist development.

The far-right National Front recently captured 28 percent of the vote in the first round of French regional elections (despite ultimately failing to win control of any region), and other xenophobic parties are also ascendant in Europe. Yet the far right in the United States has also long been a different beast from its European counterpart. How should we think about Islamophobia in the United States as opposed to Europe, and our respective far rights?

DK

The relationship of the far right to Islamophobia is in fact different in Europe. The main difference is that Europe has a long colonial history in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. What this means is that racist discourses about Muslims are much more entrenched both ideologically and in practice in various European countries.

In the case of France, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and France’s later conquest of Algeria were instrumental in the production of racist and Orientalist rhetoric. France also created systematic discrimination through the Code de l’indigénat, a set of laws first applied in Algeria and later to other French colonies, where the native population was accorded inferior status. Even after decolonization, racist ideas and practices continued. The National Front is a reflection of this longer historical process.

In the US, however, the history of Islamophobia is more recent. It is only after the US took over the imperial reins from France and Britain in the Middle East and North Africa following World War II that it had seriously to contend with the region. US Orientalism and Islamophobia have also been shaped by its close relationship with Israel. The production of the “terrorist threat” began in the 1970s, with the 1979 Iranian Revolution playing a key role in shaping this construction. As I have argued elsewhere, the neocon-Likud alliance shaped the development of the “Islamic threat” in the 1980s.

Thus, it was only in the 1990s that the far right in the US began to engage with Islamophobia, and even then it was only after 9/11 that it started to get some traction around it. This is in part because anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US does not neatly line up with Muslim immigrants as in Europe. It is primarily Latino/a immigrants who are scapegoated here in the US. That said, the US far right collaborates with and learns from its European counterparts and vice versa in this global counterjihad movement.

The far right in Europe has also seen much more electoral success using anti-Muslim rhetoric than its counterpart here. The key turning point was 2010, when far-right-wing parties across Europe, using anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, made unprecedented electoral gains both domestically and in the European Parliament elections.

The British National Party, which has its roots in fascist parties of the past, got almost a million votes and its first two seats in the European Parliament. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in Holland made significant gains as well. Even in countries considered liberal, such as Holland and Sweden, far-right-wing parties had breakthroughs. In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats gained power in the parliament running on a blatantly anti-Muslim campaign. Its leader, Jimmie Akesson, called for restricting immigration and stated that Islam was the greatest threat facing the Swedish nation.

The European far right has made gains in the context of a prolonged economic crisis, once again illustrating the connection between the diminished life conditions of the working class and the salience of racist appeals. European governments responded through imposing austerity measures and attacking the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, traditional left parties have failed to offer an alternative. In this political vacuum, the Right has been able to tap into voter anxiety by scapegoating Muslim immigrants.

In 2010, France’s upper house voted almost unanimously to ban the burqa. When the vote passed in the lower house, the left parties (the Socialists, Greens, and Communists) abstained. Rather than put up a principled defense of Muslims and try to defeat the measure, they decided to sit out the vote instead. The Socialist Party then came forward and stated that it too objected to the veil, but didn’t support constitutional measures banning it. This pathetic response from the Left has only strengthened the far right.

Europe is a mirror of what can happen at the level of mainstream politics in the US if the far right is not pushed back. Yet Europe also offers lessons for the US left.

How do those similarities and differences affect how we organize against racism and Islamophobia? What should the Left in the US and elsewhere be doing to combat the increase in Islamophobia?

DK

The first lesson from Europe is that we cannot fight the Right from the center. In the face of hyperbolic rhetoric that blatantly demonizes Muslims, a weak-kneed response that attempts to be moderate only strengthens the far right.

The second lesson is that the Right is facing resistance from ordinary people, sometimes organized by smaller far-left groups who have tied together anti-austerity with anti-racism. The non-mainstream left in various European nations has a historical memory of what it takes to fight the Right.

For instance, the Anti-Nazi League in Britain that successfully pushed back the fascist National Front, the precursor to the British National Party, organized on two fronts. First, they articulated a principled defense against racism. And second, they also articulated a broader politics that situated racism within the broader political economy, thereby putting forward a systematic critique and a progressive alternative.

The key thing to keep in mind is that Islamophobia is the handmaiden of empire. It is not going to go away on its own. I have argued that interfaith dialogue and education about Islam is not enough. We also have to organize demonstrations, rallies, and other actions to make our collective voices heard.

But we need a strategy that not only deals with the immediate threats posed by the far right emboldened by the Donald Trumps of the world, but also addresses the root causes that make these (and other) threats possible. In other words, we need to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time, devising short-term tactics that put out fires in the present but without undermining the prospects for long-term change and thereby forcing us to confront even larger and more frequent fires in the medium to long term.

For too long, this has been the central weakness of the Left — too often opting for short-term tactics born in a moment of fear and divorced from any clear sense of what got us here, much less where we want to go or how we’re going to get there.

Thus, in order to combat Islamophobia, or racism more generally, it is going to take a great deal more than uniting in opposition to its most egregious manifestations (whether a single individual or a single political party). Far more important is dismantling the institutional and structural foundations upon which Islamophobia is built and which provide sustenance to both its liberal and conservative variants.

In other words, it is going to require a radical approach, one that gets at the very root of the problem, and that means, at a minimum, putting an end to the war on terror, dismantling the national security state, and undoing the class power that underpins that apparatus. That in turn is going to require a politics in which the strengthening of mass social movements and the democratization of our political system is paramount.

This may seem like a tall order, but if we set our sights on anything short of that, we would be underestimating both the real threat that we and the rest of the world face at this moment and how best to fight it.