Racism at the Heart of Empire

by Tom Mills

Scholar-activist Deepa Kumar's accessible, authoritative new book places Islamophobia at the very centre of modern imperialism.

First published: 27 August, 2012 | Category: Activism, Book Review, Culture, History, Media, Politics, Racism, Religion, Terror/War, The Right

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, by Deepa Kumar.  Haymarket, 2012.

Over the decades, and the centuries, as elites in Europe and North America have sought to expand their power eastwards, soldiers, merchants, businessmen and scholars have come into contact with what is broadly termed the ‘Muslim world’.  Sometimes the region’s religion and culture have been objects of study by Western intellectuals (often in the service of those who sought to dominate it).  Other times its people and their religion have been crudely demonised as enemies of Christian, or later, Western civilisation.  Myth after myth has thus been crafted about Muslims and Islam, creating a rich tapestry of racism that today has not only shaped the ideology of the far right in Europe and North America but has also impacted profoundly on mainstream politics and culture. 

In Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Deepa Kumar, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University in the US, identifies a cluster of such myths: that Islam is a uniquely sexist religion, that Muslims are irrational, that Islam is inherently violent and that Muslims are incapable of democracy and self-rule.  Underlying each of these, she argues, is the view of Islam as a monolithic religion.  This, according to Kumar, is the original sin from which all other Orientalist fallacies flow, for it is only by ignoring the conspicuous diversity and historical contingency of Middle Eastern societies that generalisations about ‘Muslim culture’, ‘Islamic civilisation’ or the ‘Muslim mind’ can gain any intellectual credibility.

Of course, as anyone with even a passing interest in the Middle East will know, Islam is in fact a hugely diverse religious tradition and, as a point of fact, is not the only religion practiced in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, influential American and European intellectuals have promoted an essentialist vision of Islam which underlines common Islamophobic ideas.  Orientalists, like Bernard Lewis, in particular, are taken to task by Kumar for their civilisational and racialist view of history and their belief that contemporary societies of the Middle East can best be understood by reference to classical religious texts.  In reality of course, such texts are not narrowly prescriptive in the way Orientalists (and for that matter the so called New Atheists) imagine, but are by their nature ambiguous.  They are interpreted and reinterpreted in specific social and historical contexts to create particular meanings and to empower and disempower different social groups.  Once this is understood and religion and culture are properly historicised, racist myths are easily undermined, and Kumar skilfully debunks each one of the myths she identifies.  She does not limit herself however to simply setting the record straight and presenting the reader with a more realistic account of Middle Eastern societies.  Her book is rooted in the basic, but crucial, understanding that racism is not born simply out of ignorance, but is intimately linked to questions of power and equality.  Kumar therefore does not concern herself with sketching the ideological contours of anti-Muslim racism, but attempts to detail the complex historical interplay between power and ideas, placing racism at the very centre of modern imperialism.  

Beginning with the emergence of Islam in the 7th century she traces Christian Europe’s encounters with the Islamic world – real and imaginary – up to the present day.  Naturally the historical account is more impressive in its breadth than its depth, but it is an accomplished overview which is attentive to important contradictions and nuances in imperialist politics.  Kumar notes, for example, both the need of elites to be provided with a realistic understanding of societies which they wish dominate, as well as imperialism’s better understood impulse to infantilise or dehumanise its subjects.  Drawing on Edward Said’s classic text, Orientalism, Kumar notes for example that Napoleon brought to Egypt around 160 scholars to help him understand, and therefore better administrate, Egypt – establishing an intimate relationship between scholarship and imperialism that persists to this day.  A similar attention to detail is brought to bear, for example, on the sometimes contradictory historical relationship between Islamists and the Western powers, and the tensions between the realist and neoconservative factions in the United States.  Kumar notes that: 

During the Cold War and up until the Iranian revolution of 1979, the United States enthusiastically supported forces that could Islamize the Middle East and serve as a counter to those that posed a challenge to its domination—secular nationalists and the left. In the period after the 1970s, policy makers forged alliances with those Islamists who were on the side of US imperialism and militated against those who refused to play this role.

On the neocons and the realists, Kumar points to their overlapping positions within the foreign policy establishment and their shared commitment to US power.  On the ‘liberal interventionist’ she quotes Stephen Walt, who suggests that: ‘liberal interventionists are just “kinder, gentler” neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionists on steroids.’ 

Having outlined the history of Islamophobia and imperialism, including the more recent record of US imperialism, the third section of the book deals with domestic Islamophobia in the United States.  Here Kumar provides an overview of the neoconservatives, Zionists, and Christian fundamentalists who have propagated the notion of an ‘Islamic threat’.  Such groups, she insists, are not marginal political movements, for their ideas draw significantly on ‘mainstream’ political culture and they are located within the US power structure. 

Like many commentators, when surveying the atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia around terrorism Kumar draws a parallel with Senator McCarthy and his notorious anti-communist witch hunts during the Cold War.  Unlike many liberals however, she places such extremism in its broader context, noting its usefulness to the political mainstream: 

In his book The Great Fear, Caute showed that McCarthyism wasn’t simply about one out-of-control senator, but a political system (including both Democrats and Republicans) that allowed a figure like Joseph McCarthy to set the political agenda. McCarthy was a useful tool in prosecuting the Cold War—particularly in creating a climate of fear where dissent could be punished and neutralized. The rightwing Islamophobic warriors play a similar role during the era of the War on Terror. They are not “alien outsiders” but emerge from within the political establishment, the security apparatus, the academy, the think tank milieu, and the mainstream media. Thus, far from “infiltrating” an otherwise good system, the new McCarthyites are a product of, and fit comfortably within, the structures of American empire; their role is to push the envelope.

 Kumar’s argument that the Islamophobes are part of, rather than distinct from, the political establishment in the US is powerfully reinforced by her account of the racism embedded within the institutions of the American state.  In some ways this is the most shocking section of the book.  She describes how racially charged theories of ‘radicalisation’ have been developed by Western scholars and deployed by US law enforcement against American Muslims.  According to the New York Police Department, simply being a young Muslim male effectively puts you on a path to ‘radicalisation’, whilst political activism is thought to be another step towards committing acts of terrorism.  Muslim communities are therefore closely monitored by the state and vulnerable individuals are subjected to undercover sting operations in which they are effectively encouraged to commit offences.  Meanwhile, Kumar notes: 

There is no preemptive prosecution of [white, Christian] groups, which span a wide ideological range that includes white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics, and various Christian fundamentalist tendencies, even though many such groups form “militias” and hold regular paramilitary training camps.

In an implicitly racist legal system, Muslims are tried for various non-violent ‘terrrorism’ related offences in highly securitised environments before a fearful jury who listen to evidence from dubious experts warning of deadly international terrorism networks and cells.  One case cited by Kumar is that of Fahad Hashmi, an American student who studied in London.  In 2006 he was charged with providing ‘material support’ for terrorism on the basis that an acquaintance who stayed at his London flat was carrying raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks which would later be delivered to al-Qaeda associates in Pakistan.  After four years kept in detention with extremely limited contact even with his family, Hashmi pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and is now serving fifteen years in a maximum security prison where he is kept in solitary confinement under ‘Special Administrative Measures’.  Such gross injustices, Kumar argues, are not abominations in an otherwise neutral criminal justice system, but are part of a pattern of systemic racism that cuts across the state and civil society in the US from foreign policy think-tanks, to universities, political parties and the security apparatus which carries out such prosecutions. 

The book concludes with a critique of the Obama administration’s miserable record on war and Islamophobia, followed by a call for broad-based, radical political activism that can tie together the interconnected issues of poverty, war and racial inequality – really the only logical response to the book’s central thesis. 

Though Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire offers relatively little in the way of original research or new perspectives on its subject, it is a well-written, accomplished compendium of critical perspectives which no doubt will prove to be valuable both as an accessible but authoritative introduction to its topic and as an asset for political activists.  It is clearly born out of a commitment to justice and equality and its intellectual clarity shines through as a result.

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of the New Left project.

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