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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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Towards the end of Bush’s second term the US had really sullied its image on the world stage, and particularly in the Middle East. It was clear to the elite in this country that the American image would have to be rehabilitated. The Democrats were ready with a plan. A leadership group on US-Muslim relations headed by Madeleine Albright (Clinton’s secretary of state who presided over the era of “humanitarian imperialism” in the 1990s) put out a document that argued that the Bush rhetoric of the “clash of civilizations” was too harsh, and that the next US president needed to reject this thesis and start to patch things up with the Middle East. Obama has proved very effective at this. Rhetorically speaking he has indeed toned down the harsh rhetoric of the Bush era. So during his inaugural speech he actually acknowledged the presence of Muslims in this country, which I think is a first for an American president.

And then, at one of his first speeches abroad in Cairo--he rejected the ideology of the “clash of civilizations,” which sees the East and West as polar opposites, and stressed the interconnections between the East and the West. He also went out of his way to acknowledge how scholars in the East laid the basis for astronomy, medicine and so on. This is a remarkable admission for an American president. But even while Obama has toned down the rhetoric from the Bush era, he hasn’t rejected Bush’s policies. If anything he adopted Bush’s second term policy goals both externally and internally. What he has done quite effectively is to pursue the goals of US imperialism using language that is more palatable.

Towards the end of Bush’s second term there was a shift towards the use of “soft power,” that is the “winning of hearts and minds” and that is what Obama adopted whole heartedly. But despite all the talk of “mutual respect,” Obama like every president before him has acted in the interests of the US on the international stage: extending the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan, dramatically increasing the number of drone strikes (and extending their use in Yemen and Somalia), participating in the NATO-led war on Libya, etc.

At the end of the day, liberal imperialists, for all their talk of “speaking softly,” accept the logic that the US can and should intervene anywhere it wants to around the world to pursue its interests with no respect whatsoever for the right of self-determination of the people in the countries it targets. Liberal Islamophobia is still racist at its core.

Now, most people can see and detect rabid racism against Muslims. So when Peter King holds his routine hearings on Muslim American "radicalization,” which smacks of McCarthyism, he is roundly criticized by civil rights groups and by liberals. However, when Obama does the same people don’t recognize it as Islamophobia.

For instance, Obama released his own “counter-radicalization” strategy in 2011 which called for the formation of a McCarthyite type informant network involving Muslim American teachers, coaches, and other members of the community. No one said a peep. This is because if you read the document it is filled with praise for Muslim Americans who have cooperated with the government, and it lauds the US’s multiculturalism and religious plurality. But it then goes on to target Muslims because like King the Obama document too views Muslims as “potential terrorists” who can become “radicalized” and must therefore be monitored and put under surveillance. It is not an aberration that federal money was used for the infamous NYPD spying program. And to the best of my knowledge Obama has neither spoken out against it nor has he tried to shut this (or other similar programs run by the FBI) down. The way liberal Islamophobia works is that it roundly criticizes Islam-bashing, thereby preempting charges of racism, but then it goes on to champion programs that target and vilify Muslims.