Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Islamophobia: A Bipartisan Project [2 of 2]

by Deepa Kumar

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 “Islamic terrorists” represented existential threats to the United States began to echo in the public sphere. From then on, US policy was geared towards “keeping Americans safe” from Muslim “evildoers.” The “clash of civilizations” 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 “hard” power and toward winning “hearts and minds.” But by the end of his second term, the failing occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq—as well as an economic crisis of proportions not seen since the Great Depression—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 “Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World.” The document, which received high praise, argued that distrust of the United States in Muslim-majority countries was the product of “policies and actions—not a clash of civilizations.” It went on to argue that to defeat “violent extremists,” military force was necessary but not sufficient, and that the United States needed to forge “diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives.” 

The report urged the US leadership to improve “mutual respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims,” and promote better “governance and improve civic participation” in Muslim majority countries. The report’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 States’ “commitment to prohibit all forms of torture.”
Barack Obama has proven brilliantly effective at embodying such a posture. In one of his first speeches, in CairoObama rejected the “clash of civilizations” argument, emphasizing the shared common history and aspirations of the East and West. Whereas the “clash” discourse sees the West and the world of Islam as mutually exclusive and as polar opposites, Obama emphasized “common principles.” He spoke of “civilization’s debt to Islam,” which “pav[ed] the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” and acknowledged Muslims’ 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 States’ badly damaged image in the “Muslim world.” 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 “clash of civilizations” thesis, the recognition that there are “good Muslims” 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 “Islamic terrorism” around the world, with no respect for the right of self-determination by people in the countries it targets. It is the “white man’s burden” in sheep’s clothing.
“The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan,” Obama once said. Since taking office, he has embraced and expanded Bush’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 “black ops” in Yemen and Somalia and participated in the NATO-led war in Libya.
Domestically, Obama has continued Bush’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 “terror suspects” who are US citizens. His 2011 “counter-radicalization” 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 “good Muslims.” The report heaps praise on Muslim Americans who have cooperated with the state arguing that “we must counter al-Qa’ida’s propaganda that the United States is somehow at war with Islam” and instead affirm that “Islam is part of America, a country that cherishes the active participation of all its citizens, regardless of background and belief. 

We live what al-Qa’ida violently rejects—religious freedom and pluralism.” Obama added that “our rich diversity of backgrounds and faiths makes us stronger.” This is the modus operandi of liberal Islamophobia: to roundly reject Islam-bashing—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 “Muslim radicalization” in the United States, he was rightly criticized by liberals. However, that August, when Obama institutionalized this process through his “counter-radicalization” strategy, there was nary a peep.
At the end of the day, the fear of “Islamic terrorism” 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 “radicalization” in June 2012.
Complaining that his earlier efforts had been “vilified by the politically correct media, pandering politicians and radical groups” King squawked that his efforts were intended to “protect America from a terrorist attack.” While his anti-Muslim racism is thoroughly disagreeable, he is not incorrect when he states that this is a “nonpartisan” issue and “of serious concern to national security and counterterrorism officials in the Obama administration.” 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.
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.
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