Project Empire: How Anti-Muslim Sentiment is Used to Justify Imperial Adventures
Continued from previous page
There are two important conferences that Benjamin Netanyahu organized that brought together political figures from around the world, one in 1979 in Jerusalem and the other in 1984 in Washington DC. At the first conference Benzion Netanyahu [Benjamin Netanyahu's father] in his opening speech tried to equate the enemies of Israel (the PLO) with the enemies of the West, saying that the “terrorists” are really like fascists, like Nazis even if they claim to be fighting for freedom. You see here one of the early sources of the development of a concept that would arrive much later-- “Islamofascism.”
At any rate, the changes I discussed earlier meant that at the second International Conference on Terrorism in 1984, there was an entire section on Islam and terror. Orientalists like Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie and others are invited to this conference, who then use the language of Orientalism and Islamophobia to now talk about this threat of “Islamic terrorism.” Now the enemy had morphed into the “Islamic terrorist” and Benjamin Netanyahu in his opening remarks argued that the two big threats faced by the West were the Soviet Union and Islamic (and Arab) terrorists, he puts “Arab” in brackets. And by the way the neocons in the US and the Likud right in Israel have shared this view and jointly developed and propagated it.
AK: This distinction between Arab terrorism and Muslim terrorism--what’s your sense of that distinction today? Is it blurry? Is there a separation in people’s imagination?
DK: Today, there is no such distinction. All Arabs are seen as Muslims and therefore automatically as terrorists. This distinction existed at a point when secular Arab nationalism (whether of the PLO kind or Nasserism) was seen a threat to the US’s agenda in the Middle East.
“Arab terrorism” had a particular resonance at that time. With the decline of Nasserism, and the rise of Islamism, the two got collapsed into one. Keep in mind of course that the US cultivated Islamists during the Cold War to act as bulwarks against secular nationalism and the left, but these former allies then became enemies. So the upshot is that today this distinction doesn’t exist as much. Certainly Hollywood has a long history of constructing Arabs as terrorists and it was a seamless transition to constructing Muslims as terrorists.
One telling example of this conflation in the popular imagination comes from the 2008 elections. In the run up to the elections candidate Obama was “accused” of being a “secret Muslim.” Now at one of McCain’s campaign stops a woman who was berating Obama saying she doesn’t trust him (which McCain agreed with) then went on to state that she didn’t trust him “because he’s an Arab.” And McCain replied, “no, no, he’s not an Arab. He’s a decent family man and a citizen.” Of course, the assumption there is that Arab men are not decent or family men or US citizens for that matter. Arabs are Muslims and Muslims are terrorists—that’s the logic here, and it’s a logic that popular culture has played no small role in shoring up. That said, I don’t want to downplay the attacks on South Asian Muslims. Since 9/11 they too have been detained, questioned, deported and otherwise treated very poorly (as have Muslims from certain African nations as well).
AK: Let’s move on to the Obama era. I hadn’t seen the term “liberal Islamophobia” before reading your book. Can you explain liberal Islamophobia and why you think the Obama era is characterized by it?
DK: I use the term “liberal Islamophobia” to make a distinction between the rhetoric of the right, which is more nakedly racist, and the rhetoric which emerges from the liberal establishment. At its core, liberal Islamophobia flows from the logic of liberal imperialism. As several scholars have argued liberal imperialism is based upon using liberal ideas to justify empire, and spans the gamut from the narrative about rescuing women and children from brutal dictators to fostering democracy. Liberal Islamophobia flows from this logic.