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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 opponent of the Park 51 Islamic community center at a protest in August 2010.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

The term “Islamophobia” became known to Americans after the September 11 attacks. Whether it was efforts on the left to combat anti-Muslim sentiment or efforts on the right to attack Muslim-Americans and deny that there was something called Islamophobia, the term was here to stay.

But if we only look at anti-Muslim sentiment post-9/11, we would miss a lot. In fact, as Deepa Kumar shows in her new book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, set to be released next month, the production of Islamophobia has a long history. Generating anti-Muslim fervor was central to projects of empire-building in Europe and the United States. “This book is about the image of ‘Islam,’ that mythical creation conjured out of the needs of empire that has led even progressives to claim that Muslims are more violent than any other religious group,” Kumar writes in the introduction.

I caught up with Kumar, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, over the phone, and we discussed “liberal Islamophobia,” the anti-mosque movement and how the Israeli right’s ascendance changed the framing of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Alex Kane: Lay out for readers what your book is about and the argument you make.

Deepa Kumar: The book is about the image of the “Muslim enemy” and the way that it has been used by elites in the West to forward their interests. In the US, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism assumed a prominent place in the public sphere after the events of 9/11. But what I show is that this form of racism is not new. So what the book sets out to do is to locate this ideology within the context from which it emerges. This context, I argue, at the broadest level, is empire. That is, Islamophobia has always been useful to imperial societies. So, the book begins with the crusades and the ways in which the “Muslim enemy” image was mobilized in the 11th century in Europe to advance larger political goals, and goes right up to the Obama era. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, which was the high point of European colonization of the Middle East and North Africa, you see a new body of ideas come into being called “Orientalism” that became the basis from which to justify colonization. Many of these Orientalist myths still persist today. So, the point of the book is to outline these continuities and to point to root causes and ways in which we can effectively fight back against Islamophobia.

AK: Reading the first chapter, I was struck by how, historically, Christian elites painted Islam as sexually deviant and perverse. That rhetoric is also heard today, with the “Muhammad is a pedophile” meme. I was also struck by Montesquieu writing that democracy is suited for the West and not for Muslims. Could you talk about these connections to modern day Islamophobia?

DK: Yes, this vilification of Islam and of the Prophet Muhammad has a long history. It goes back to the 11th century when the Papacy was trying to mobilize for the Crusades. The Vatican was horrified by the fact that Islam allowed men to take up to four wives, allowed for divorce, and even permitted divorced women to remarry! It was argued that it was this kind of promiscuity that allowed Islam to gain as many converts as it did (even among Christians). So the Church put forward the argument that Muhammad was a sexual deviant and therefore a false prophet preaching a false religion. These ideas have been resuscitated today by the far right.