It's Not Just Hate Crimes: Islamophobia Is the Outgrowth of a Deeply Racist System
2015 was a horrific year for Muslims. Even CNN noted that it “has been one of the most intensely anti-Muslim periods in American history.” The previous highpoint was 2010 during the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy when there were 53 attacks on mosques. In 2015 there were 63 incidents.
What explains the rise of anti-Muslim racism almost a decade-and-a-half after the events of 9/11? Why has Islamophobia become more virulent even though there has been no 9/11 type attack since then? The number of Americans killed by jihadists in this country since 9/11 is a grand total of 45. This figure pales in comparison to the over 400,000 killed by gun violence during the same period.
The answer to these questions lies in how we understand Islamophobia: what it is, where it comes from, and whose interests its serves.
CNN uses the attacks on mosques as a measure of Islamophobia. While a useful empirical measure of anti-Muslim sentiment, it is also quite limited. One might expand it to talk about hate crimes which include not just the desecration of mosques and Muslim community spaces, but also physical attacks on Muslim and Muslim-looking men and women. Sikh men who wear turbans have come under attack because it is assumed that they are Muslim. Muslim women who wear a hijab or a veil tend to be attacked more than their male counterparts. The outward symbols of Islam—mosques, veils and turbans—have been attacked, and the people in them have been dehumanized, becoming mere vessels of an “evil ideology.”
The FBI defines a hate crime as “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
It is important to count such information and to hold the perpetrators accountable, to the extent that this is possible in the current legal system. But Islamophobia is about more than hate crimes committed by individuals who hold a “bias.” Such a definition fails to explain why individuals hold these views. Why have incidents of hate crimes spiked in the US after 9/11? To what do we owe this rise in bias? To answer these questions, we need to look beyond the individual and at the structures of US society.
Ironically, the progressive scholarly community, which could shed light on such structures, has tended also to focus on individuals. The manifestations of anti-Muslim racism have been viewed through the lens of daily acts of hostility i.e., the daily verbal attacks, insults, and dismissals experienced by people of color. Coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce to discuss the experience of African Americans, the term "microagressions" has since been expanded along the way to include other people of color, as well as women, LGBTQ people, the disabled and others.
No doubt, Muslims and those who look Muslim endure constant microaggressions, which collectively cause psychological trauma and have impacts on their health and well-being. It is draining to be at the receiving end of such treatment as I am constantly reminded by friends on Facebook. However, Islamophobia is about more than microaggressions.
Daily acts of hostility, hate crimes and even job discrimination (such as the recent firing of NJ school teacher Sireen Hashem), are the outward manifestations of a system that is fundamentally racist.
It is this system we must name, understand,and organize against if we are to put an end to anti-Muslim racism. In my book, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, I set out to explore how the image of the Muslim enemy is tied to a set of practices that sustain and reproduce empire. In an earlier essay in 2010, I had argued that Islamophobia is an ideology that has come to be accepted as normal, as common sense, in the War on Terror era. In this sense, it is not just an individual bias but a systematic body of ideas which make certain constructions of Muslims—that they are prone to violence, that they are misogynistic, that they are driven by rage and lack rationality—appear natural.
But ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger structure, in this case empire. The current shape and structure of US imperialism, while it has long roots, draws most immediately from the reconfiguration of American society after World War II. The US was one of two hegemons on the global stage and policy makers, particularly Cold War liberals, would shape and realize a national security state. In 1947, the National Security Act was passed which entrenched “security” as a key element of the post-war order. It created the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The top-secret National Security Council Paper NSC-68 laid out a vision for US post-war grand strategy. Written in 1950 and declassified only in 1975, NSC-68 was one of the most influential foreign policy documents of the Cold War. It called for massive increases in military spending, a civil defense program to ensure loyalty among the citizenry, a media propaganda campaign to build and sustain public support, and psychological warfare and propaganda programs abroad. Every aspect of life—social, political, intellectual, and economic—was conceived as playing a role in national defense, and a massive security establishment was constructed, paid for by significant tax increases and cuts in social welfare programs and services not related to the military. US objectives, moreover, could only be met by abandoning any effort to “distinguish between national and global security.” Confronted by the collapse of the European and Japanese empires and the rise of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Revolution, it fell to the US to take on the mantle of world hegemon and to beat back the threat to “civilization.”
However, the growth of the military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned us on Jan. 17, 1961, did not recede with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Instead, it gained a new lease on life with the War on Terror, as the threat to “western civilization” once posed by communism was replaced by the “clash of civilizations” generated by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, as was true more than a half century ago, the emergence of this new supposed threat has served as justification for new wars abroad, particularly in the Middle East. It is thus not possible to understand the rise of Islamophobia without placing it in this longer historical context of militarism and US intervention.
It is this imperial system, born in the post-WWII period and strengthened in the War on Terror, which is the crucible of Islamophobia. Drawing on the work of scholars and activists who have examined various aspects of this system, I offer a matrix of Islamophobia in my book. This matrix includes numerous institutions such as federal, state and local governments, the legal system, the electoral arena, the academy, think tanks, the corporate media, and the national security apparatus (from the FBI to local police departments).
In each of these spheres, Islamophobia informs or is generated by a set of practices and serves certain goals, all of which are tied, directly and indirectly, to the war on terror and empire. I will discuss three—the electoral arena, the corporate media, and security apparatus here.
In the political sphere, particularly during an election year, Islamophobia serves to garner political support for candidates which they hope to translate into votes. In recent months, even those not running for office have sought to make hay of the opportunities presented by the ISIS attacks in Paris and the Syrian refugee crisis. The list of government officials making anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian statements is long.
While Donald Trump is the most egregious and visible voice of anti-Muslim racism in this group, the phenomenon is far bigger than Trump. As I have argued elsewhere, this is a bipartisan project. The endless war on terror that has consumed trillions of dollars could not be sustained without the fear of a Muslim terrorist enemy. Indeed, ISIS is the perfect enemy, as its constant attacks on Western targets promotes fear and provides a rationale for continued US intervention in the Middle East and a bloated national security state.
The corporate media cover every attack, or even threats of attacks, with relish on a 24/7 loop because terrorism coverage is good for ratings and good for business, just a wars pad the bottom line. Various terrorism “experts” from numerous think tanks offer the talking points that are then reinforced by politicians, as well as former and current generals and CIA heads and other officials, in order to keep alive the fear of terrorism in the public imagination.
Various agencies of the national security state have targeted Muslims by sending informants into mosques and community centers, and not only for purposes of surveillance. In numerous cases, such as the “Newburg Four,” agent provocateurs have instigated terror plots in an effort to entrap people. Investigative journalist Trevor Aronson, who studied 500 terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, showed that over half of these involved agent provocateurs. Aronson concludes that the FBI, through the use of its 15,000 informants (many of them criminals), creates terrorists out of individuals who otherwise would not have turned to political violence.
The FBI benefits from the process of entrapping innocent people. In fact, every two months or so the FBI announces another high-profile arrest of a Muslim terrorism suspect, keeping the US on its war on terror footing and sustaining the multibillion-dollar homeland security industry.
It is important here to note, however, that the majority of people who are part of the national security state are not self-conscious ideologues as Arun Kundnani shows in his book The Muslims Are Coming. They likely do not have a sense that they play a part in reproducing empire, rather they see themselves as involved in keeping the American public safe. What is significant is that they operate in a climate in which the ‘Islamic threat’ is taken for granted, naturalized and seen as common sense.
This is how ideology operates; while there are ideologues that produce and disseminate ideas, most bureaucrats, media producers, and other agents of the imperial state are largely oblivious to these narratives, they nonetheless reify it through their activities.
Fighting anti-Muslim racism therefore involves not only organizing in the here and now against the far right, pushing back against discrimination, fighting for justice in cases of hate crimes, entrapment, racial profiling, racist convictions, imprisonment and deportations, but also having a long term vision. This vision must of necessity include the dismantling of empire and the class relations that sustain and benefit from it.
 Arun Kundnani develops here in more detail and depth the notion of Islamophobia as common sense or a lay ideology.