Deepa Kumar’s important new book on Islamophobia explores the link between the politics of Empire and domestic attacks on Muslims in Western nations, finds Sean Ledwith
Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (Haymarket 2012), 238pp.
The history of capitalism is also the history of racism. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx drew attention to how this mode of production systematically divided the oppressed as one of its principal means of survival. In his exile in Britain, he noted how anti-Irish sentiment was intentionally generated by the ruling elite as an ideological weapon to be used to divide and rule the working class:
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.
Later waves of Jewish, Afro-Caribbean, Asian and East European migrants would similarly be subjected to vicious discrimination and stereotyping, as the capitalist class sought out new victims for targeted racism.
Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire is a comprehensive study of the system’s most recent choice of political scapegoat for its failings; the world’s one billion Muslims. Taking her cue from the ‘red scare’ persecution of the American left in the aftermath of World War One, she labels this latest phase of capitalist paranoia, ‘the green scare’. The title indicates the materialist nature of her analysis of this issue. Islamophobia is best understood as the ideological response of a series of Western empires starting with the Crusader kingdoms of feudal Europe, right up to the exercise of Obama’s so-called soft power today: ‘anti-Muslim racism has been primarily a tool of the elite in various societies’ (p.3).
The starting point for her analysis is, unsurprisingly, the 9/11 attacks. She recounts how on that infamous day a colleague at her university in New Jersey shouted at her, ‘Are you happy?’, assuming that her South Asian appearance indicated she must have supported the bombers (p.1). Later the same day, a checkout clerk insisted she apologise for the attacks before he served her. With impressive presence of mind, she asked if he was equally willing to apologise for the Oklahoma City bombing six years earlier, carried out by Christian fundamentalist, Timothy McVeigh! The daily reality of this form of ignorance faced by Muslims is her launch-pad for a wide-ranging and incisive historical survey of how the West has distorted and suppressed the real story of its interaction with Islam over fourteen centuries. More specifically, Kumar explains how the US since 9/11 has manufactured a ‘War on Terror’ as an ideological device for legitimating its global hegemony.
US foreign policy since 9/11 has partly been informed by a group of neo-con historians who have devised a simplistic narrative of inevitable conflict between Islam and the West stretching back to the origins of the faith in the seventh century CE. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations is the best known of these accounts. Books such as this were ‘the ideological basis for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as domestic attacks on Muslims and Arabs’ (p.130).
Kumar dissects the myth of a long-running religious struggle between ‘East’ and ‘West’ by highlighting how both geographical regions have witnessed the flourishing of apparently ‘alien’ cultures within them. The most advanced civilisation in the West for several centuries was the Islamic Umayyad dynasty in Spain. The latter was crucially responsible for the translation and study of classical texts from antiquity that contributed to the Renaissance in the early modern period: ‘Intellectually, Europe owes a debt of gratitude to scholars in the Near East’ (p.13).
The book then recounts how the rise of capitalism in the early modern era enabled Europe to overtake the Islamic states of the Middle East, so that, by the nineteenth century, the Western powers were encroaching on the territories of retreating Muslim powers such as the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Algeria. This phase of colonial expansion gave rise to another phase of Islamophobic prejudice defined by the concept of ‘Orientalism’ (p.29). Western scholars devised this to manufacture an image of the Eastern cultures as intrinsically depraved, misogynistic and corrupt; conveniently necessitating the intervention of ‘civilised’ European armies to drag such places out of barbarism. The pretext for the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the West is only the most recent manifestation of this ideological smokescreen.
By the end of World War Two, the US was in position to replace the European states as both the dominant global enforcer of capital and also as the epicentre of myth-making about Islam. Kumar highlights the pivotal meeting between President Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia’s King Saud on a US warship in the Mediterranean in 1945. At that point the deal was struck that Washington would protect the semi-feudal Gulf states in exchange for generous oil concessions for American companies (p.63). In addition, the US would offer economic and military support to these states as its bulwark against Russian influence in the Middle East. The latter was apparent by the resurgent left in the region as substantial Communist Parties emerged in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Iran.
The US cynically used Islamist organisations to undermine the growth of these parties and of the wider secular left in the region. This calculated manipulation of radical Islamic groups climaxed with US support for Bin Laden and the Mujahedeen during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Similarly, the Reagan administration had no reservations about covert supply of weapons to Khomeini’s Iran as means of funding right-wing rebels in Central America. The US attitude to Islam in this post-WW2 period was therefore motivated by real politick; ‘Islamists were not always seen as enemies’ (p.64). Muslim leaders and organisations could be useful externally as a means of curtailing Russian influence in the Middle East, or internally as a means of thwarting the development of the secular left in Arab states.
This strategy was radically altered by the 9/11 attacks. The fall of the USSR in the early 1990s had been a double-edged sword for American foreign policy. It left the US as the undisputed global superpower but also created the need to locate a new external foe which could be presented as the justification for further expansion. Even before 9/11, neo-con commentators had been speculating that Islam would fit the bill; ‘Like communism during the Cold War, Islam is a threat to the West,’ wrote Daniel Pipes (quoted on p.177). This drive to demonise Islam was also fuelled by the growing influence in the US State Department of Zionist voices. Defeat in Vietnam had convinced American policy-makers that reliable client-states around the world had to be identified that could act as proxies for US interests. Israel’s supporters eagerly seized the opportunity to present the Zionist state as a willing watchdog for Washington in the Middle East. Part of this packaging of Israel as ‘an unsinkable aircraft carrier’ would be a caricature of Islam as an alien threat to Western culture. From the Six Day War in 1967 to the present, Israel has been conjoined to US policy in the region partly under the cover of resisting Islamic fundamentalism.
One of the ironies of this alliance was that the initial target of Israeli subversion was the secular Palestinian left of the PLO. One of the best insights of this book is the little known fact that part of this subversive campaign was actual support for the embryonic Islamist movement that would evolve into Hamas:
‘When the Israeli state recognised and formally licensed the Mujamma (the forerunner of Hamas) in 1978, the logic was simple - the Islamists’ hostility to the secular left made them useful. Some have argued that Israel even funded these forces’ (p.122).
Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza last November therefore represented a classic example of blowback; a capitalist state cultivating an opposition movement to hurt one enemy only for that movement to develop into even more formidable enemy.
Another valuable feature of the book is the way in which it further undermines the rapidly declining myth that Obama represents some more enlightened form of American leadership. As Kumar puts it: ‘Liberal Islamophobia may be rhetorically gentler than conservative Islamophobia ... but it is nonetheless racist and imperialist in that it takes for granted the white man’s burden ... self-determination does not enter their framework - and benevolent supremacy remains supreme’ (p.133). In contrast to the disastrous full-scale wars of the Bush Jr. era, Obama’s strategy for hegemony in the Middle East deploys ‘air strikes, drone attacks, and counterterrorism and special operations forces as well as cyber warfare’ (p.135).
In domestic policy as well, the Obama administration only represents a change in style not substance regarding America’s Islamic minority. Kumar describes the appalling case of Fahad Hashmi, a Muslim US citizen and graduate student who is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Colorado prison. Hashmi’s crime ‘was that he had allowed an acquaintance to stay in his London apartment … who was carrying items that would later be delivered to al Qaeda ... by the government’s logic, Hashmi should have smelt a rat...’ (p.149).
This manufactured Islamic threat provides the US security services with a smokescreen to attack civil liberties: ‘Of the fourteen thousand Americans murdered in 2011, not one death was the product of Muslim terror plots’, Kumar points out (p.153). She goes on to note that ‘fifteen times the number of Americans who were killed on 9/11 die each year because they don’t have health insurance’.
The book covers a broad canvas so inevitably certain aspects of this issue are explored in greater depth than others. Kumar could have stressed the relevance of an explicitly Marxist approach to racism more, but she is particularly insightful on the close links between the State Department, neo-con historians and Zionist pressure groups in the US. Overall, the book is a valuable weapon to counter the Islamophobic mentality that increasingly plagues Western societies; from the so-called ‘muscular liberalism’ of the French government that has banned the veil, to the homicidal delusions of Anders Breivik in Norway. She adopts a clear socialist perspective that the campaign against this prejudice ‘is in the interests of the vast majority … who have had trillions of dollars stolen from their health care, education, infrastructure and public transportation and funnelled into the death machine’ (p.199).
Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in Philosophy and Politics at York College. He is a member of UCU, York People's Assembly and Counterfire. He has also written contributions for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.