Understanding Islamophobia

Issue: 149

Brian Richardson

Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso, 2015), £9.99

Arun Kundnani’s book about Islamophobia deliberately references the 1966 Hollywood movie, The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! With its repetitive title and exclamation marks, it was indicative of the anti-Communist hysteria lying at the centre of that film’s plot. The Muslims are Coming! begins with an episode that, although all too real, reads like something out of a Hollywood studio. Kundnani describes how Luqman Ameen Abdullah, the Imam of at the Al-Haqq mosque in Detroit, was framed by the authorities and then assassinated by four FBI officers in October 2009. Luqman’s death was indicative of the excesses of the war on terror.

This is a timely and important book which describes how Muslims, with their distinctive religion and appearance, became an “ideal enemy” to replace the Russians in the aftermath of the Cold War. Focusing on the development of the War on Terror in both the UK and United States, its historical breadth is hugely impressive.

Kundnani locates much of the current discourse around extremism in the ­analyses of totalitarianism that emerged in the post-war period. He argues that while the authors of such theses were happy to denounce the tyranny of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, they did so without any reference to American capitalism and its role in pushing people towards accepting extreme solutions. He writes: “The anti-totalitarian discourse obscured the ways in which the domestic successes of liberal America were dependent on an illiberal foreign policy of using state terror to secure the international arteries of US-led capitalism” (p103). The concept of totalitarianism developed in that era is now being applied to Islamic extremism.

Kundnani suggests that the growing preoccupation with terrorism from the 1980s onwards provided: “ideological cover for state violence directed at those resisting US and Israeli power, whether they happened to be terrorists or not; a selective use of the term “terrorism” to exclude all those state and non-state actors using violence to achieve our political ends (such as the Contras in Nicaragua); and a suturing of Israel and the US as defenders of ‘Western values’ against Islamic fanaticism” (p45).

Of course, in one very significant sense, the Muslims aren’t coming. Both in Britain and the US sizeable Muslim communities have already existed for decades. Kundnani quotes a famous formulation of his mentor at the Institute of Race Relations, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, to remind us why that is: “We are here because you were there”.

As it happens many Muslims have tried to fit in. Kundnani cites a 2011 Pew survey which indicated that 44 percent of Muslims display a US flag at home, on their car or at the office. Some 80 percent of American Muslims do not attend mosques and have a secular outlook. Regardless of these facts, Muslims of whatever background or outlook are regarded with a hostility and suspicion that is neatly summed up by the comedian Dean Obeidallah: “It’s so weird. Before 9/11, I am just a white guy, living a typical white guy’s life. All my friends had names like Monica, Chandler, Joey and Ross…I go to bed September tenth white, wake up September eleventh, I am an Arab” (p51).

Kundnani shows how the war on terror theorists adopt a crude and a monolithic view of Muslims and develop theories of radicalisation based upon unfounded assumptions regarding “Islamist ideology”. He distinguishes between two types of critics, culturalists and reformists. The culturalists regard Islam as a backward ideology that has failed to adapt to modern society. Culturalists believe that, whereas in the West people make culture, in Islam, culture makes people. Thus, the purportedly reactionary ideas that lead its followers into terrorism can be found within the Qu’ran itself.

The reformists reject such arguments and profess to hold out the hand of friendship to responsible and respectable Muslims. They claim that Islam is not the issue in itself; rather, the problem lies in the way in which the ideas have been distorted to serve the interests of those with a totalitarian agenda. It is out of such crude characterisations that bogus theories of radicalisation are developed.

Kundnani is not afraid to examine the declarations of figures who have encouraged or participated in acts of allegedly “Islamist violence”. These include Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated in a drone strike in September 2011, and Michael Adebolajo, one of the men responsible for the gruesome murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Britain in 2013. Time and again these people highlight the impact of Western wars and imperialism in driving them to extremism. But such explanations are dismissed as part of an illegitimate “grievance agenda” and anybody expressing such views is pinpointed as a potential threat. This is what lies behind counter-extremism strategies such as the UK government’s Prevent agenda.

On the very day that I began reading Kundnani’s book the world witnessed a dramatic event which demonstrated just how counter-productive the “war on terror” has been. Friday 13 November seemed to begin so well. As dawn broke the headline story was the “vaporisation” of British subject Mohammad Emwazi in a drone attack. David Cameron rushed back to Downing Street from Chequers to boast about Britain’s involvement in that extra-judicial killing.

Reporting on the assassination of so-called “Jihadi John” for the BBC’s 6pm bulletin, North American editor John Sopel noted President Obama’s declared aim of “downgrading and destroying” Islamic State. Emwazi’s killing had not destroyed ISIS but, Sopel suggested, it had gone a long way towards downgrading the menace. Before the next scheduled broadcast at 10pm, news of the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris was coming through. In their wake, we are once again told that counter-extremism is “one of the great struggles of our generation”.

Kundnani’s book was originally published in 2014. In an afterword written for the paperback edition in 2015 he suggests with no pleasure that his analysis has been “repeatedly confirmed”. Hence, the spectacular rise of ISIS is not seen as being created in part by UK and US foreign policy but rather by “that bad version of Islamic belief that somehow takes hold of Muslim minds” (p291).

Regardless of the failures of the past decade, our governments continue to plough on down a path that can only end in catastrophe. In spring 2015 the Prevent agenda, which had been a central part of New Labour’s “CONTEST” anti-extremism strategy and continued under the coalition and Tory governments, was placed on a statutory footing. Public institutions such as schools, colleges and universities are now required to spy on and report anyone “at risk of radicalisation”. A new counter-extremism bill is intended to target anybody who expresses “vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. Although the strategy purportedly promotes inclusion, it took no account of the views of key Muslim organisations and representatives. Its proposals will simply stoke up Islamophobia.

As I write these words, the government is pressing ahead with military action in Syria. This will simply make the world more dangerous and, in all probability, ensure that there are violent reprisals in Britain. In such troubled times, analyses such as that presented by Kundnani could not be more important.