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Project Empire: How Anti-Muslim Sentiment is Used to Justify Imperial Adventures

Deepa Kumar, author of "Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire," discusses the imperial roots of anti-Muslim sentiment and the rise of the anti-mosque movement.

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An associated theme connected to sexuality, and one that gets taken up in 19th century Europe, is gender. Europeans circulated the notion that Muslim women are horribly oppressed (without actually consulting or talking to Muslim women) and that Muslim men are misogynistic. What followed from this was that Muslim women needed to be rescued by white men swooping in on their horses. And this is, of course, the justification that was given for the Afghan war—at least it was one of the justifications beyond the revenge motive.

And of course if you look at that narrative, it doesn’t begin in 2001. For instance, Lord Cromer, who oversaw the occupation of Egypt in the 1880s, claimed that Islam has completely stultified the lives of women and that he was therefore going to emancipate them. British colonization of Egypt was therefore an enlightened project. In reality this is not how things worked out. If anything things got worse for Egyptian women. And it's not hard to tell why, because this supposed champion of Egyptian women’s rights worked tirelessly to deny British women the right to vote as a founding member and president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. If this justification was used by Cromer, an out and out sexist, over a century ago, George Bush who is no less of a sexist used the same argument again in the context of the Afghan war.

The other myth you mentioned was the idea that Arabs are incapable of self-rule and democracy and therefore it was the “white man’s burden” to bring democracy to these uncivilized people. Montesquieu explained why this was so by turning to the weather as an indicator of human temperament. He said that whereas in the West, which has cooler climates, men (and he meant men) were virile and active, in the hotter climates of the East the people were prone to being supine and servile. This is why, he said, they are better suited for despotism. This theory of “Oriental despotism” however is not unique to Montesquieu but was widely held by others. And this argument gets repeated in the early 20th century by Lord Balfour in relation to Egypt when he stated that the Egyptians are incapable of self-rule, and again by Theodore Roosevelt who said that the “Muslim fellaheen” are devoid of any traces of self-government in their entire history!

We find echoes of this again in the case of the 2003 war on Iraq. When weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, the narrative then shifted to one of democracy. The US was going to bring democracy to Iraq and create a new Middle East. Sadly, even people on the left bought this “white man’s burden” argument. And I for one was ecstatic to see the Arab uprisings of 2011 because it showed quite concretely that Arabs are capable of taking down dictators and struggling for more democratic and politically (and economically) representative societies…despite the hot weather!

AK: Later in the book, in your discussions of Zionism, you note that Islamophobia is not necessarily embedded in Zionism. The early Zionist colonists spoke of Arabs and Muslims in derogatory terms. But it was more a general sense of disdain for non-Jews than specifically anti-Muslim sentiment. But that changed in the late 1970s. Could you expand on this?

DK: Israel saw the PLO and secular Arab nationalists as their main enemy, and the vocabulary of the “Arab terrorist” grew out of this context. But a couple of things happen in the late 1970s and 1980s that shifted the language from the “Arab terrorist” to the “Islamic terrorist.” Internally, this period saw the rise of the far right in Israel and an electoral victory for the right wing Likud party; this would then orchestrate a shift rightward in public discussion. Externally, in 1979, the Iranian revolution destabilized the carefully cultivated pro-US and pro-Israeli status quo. In the 1980s, the birth of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine lead the Zionist right to conclude that its struggle was now one against “Islam.” This is the context in which the “Arab terrorist” gets morphed into the “Islamic terrorist.”