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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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One more recent example is the Obama “kill lists” whose victims include not just people who are suspected of being “terrorists” but everyone in the vicinity as well. Without so much as a trial or any kind of charade of justice the Obama administration has given itself the power to execute people around the world, including US citizens. But he can get away with this because he doesn’t use phrases like Bush’s “wanted dead or alive” or words like “crusade.”

AK: And you also say that liberal Islamophobia enabled the explosive rise of the anti-mosque movement, like the one against the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Could you explain that?

DK: The dynamic is one where liberal Islamophobia at the top of society creates a greater opening for the more rabid racists. Since the events of 9/11 a network of Islamophobes, who I call the “new McCarthyites,” have been involved in a series of campaigns targeting Muslim schools, community centers and mosques. This Islamophobic network includes the Christian Right which works closely with the Zionist right (and the ex-Muslim right) and they are led intellectually by sections of the neoconservative camp (like Frank Gaffney and his group Center for Security Policy). Essentially, these Islamophobic warriors have tried to reproduce the kind of atmosphere in the US that we see in Europe where all symbols of Islam (mosques, veils, minarets) have come under attack. But up until the Obama era, their campaigns were largely failures.

The Obama presidency gave them an opening in several ways. First, they were able to accuse him of a being a “secret Muslim” whose agenda was to turn the US into a Muslim country. Sadly about 30% of the US population believes this nonsense. Instead of pushing back against this, Obama has always responded defensively. He has assiduously avoided visiting mosques, and during his campaign two Muslim women in hijabs were asked to move because his handlers didn’t want them to appear in the same frame as their candidate. Further, Obama has insisted again and again that he is a good Christian thereby giving ground to the implication that there is something wrong with being a Muslim.

You asked about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. This really was the first instance when the new McCarthyites were successful in grabbing public attention and setting the terms of discussion. The way it went down was this. A group called “Stop Islamization of America” created a big brouhaha around the proposed community center called “Park 51” or “Cordoba House.” They argued that this was a “monster mosque” and an insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11. Their rhetoric was extreme; Newt Gingrich even said that this community center was the equivalent of building a monument to the Nazis outside the Holocaust museum. In short, their argument was premised on the notion that any symbol of Islam close to the site of the former World Trade Center was offensive. The logic is that all Muslims are to blame for 9/11.

Now in response to this heated rhetoric the Democrats, who supposedly represent the other side, put up at best a tepid defense on the grounds of religious freedom. They didn’t push back against the notion that Muslims are not collectively to blame for 9/11 and therefore it should not be offensive to build a community center (modeled on the Y and the Jewish community center) at that location. Instead, Democrats too jumped on the Islamophobia band wagon. For instance, Howard Dean, the great liberal Democrat said that the community center was “ a real affront to people who lost their lives” in the 9/11 attacks, and he argued that it should be moved. Similarly Obama argued that while he supports religious freedom he questioned “the wisdom” of putting a “mosque” in the planned location.