We Can’t Understand Islamophobia Without Recognizing Its Roots in Imperialism
Anti-Muslim racism has become a central theme for right-wing demagogues in Europe and the US. Islamophobia isn’t just a bad set of ideas: it’s a product of imperialism and the destructive wars waged by the US and its allies in the Middle East.
- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Over the last twenty years, hostility to Muslims has become one of the central themes in political discourse throughout Europe and North America. From Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, far-right politicians have made Islamophobia into a central plank of their campaigning platforms.
At the same time, the United States and its allies have engaged in a series of wars throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The catastrophic fallout from those wars has further strengthened anti-Muslim racism.
Deepa Kumar is a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, a book that explores the relationship between imperial militarism abroad and Islamophobic bigotry on the home front. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the two-part episode here and here.
The Ideology of Anti-Muslim Racism
You argue in your book that we should understand Islamophobia as a form of racism rather than as a form of religious bigotry or discrimination. Why is that distinction important, in your view?
I think that distinction is important because if you want to end Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, you have to understand where it comes from. I try to push back against the liberal understanding of Islamophobia, which sees it as a set of bad ideas in one’s head or a misunderstanding of Islam. Of course, it’s true that people do have bad ideas. But the central argument in my book is that empire is what produces, sustains, and is in turn fed by anti-Muslim racism.
That can seem a little bit abstract, so let me concretize this a little more. Since 9/11, Muslims have been targeted by the US national security apparatus. They are seen as a “suspect population.” That is why we have the mass, intrusive surveillance that has been developed. It has a longer history: surveillance and racial profiling of Muslims goes back, in the United States at least, to the late ’60s and the early ’70s. But it was very much bolstered after 9/11.
The logic here is that Muslim communities produce terrorists and therefore the New York City Police Department (NYPD) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have to go in and watch these people. These organizations go into schools, kindergartens, mosques, bookstores, and other spaces. To some people, this is just smart security policy. But you have to think about the logic of it.
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are also responsible for political violence, just like the political violence of the perpetrators of 9/11. However, you don’t have the same corresponding systems of surveillance whereby white communities are infiltrated to gather information because those communities produce white supremacists.
Whether it’s the FBI’s model of radicalization or that of the NYPD, it’s all based on the racialization of the Muslim population and the assumption that Muslims are prone to violence. This logic is racist at the structural level. It doesn’t come from a few “bad apples.”
Races are produced at certain moments for certain goals tied to the political economy of empire. Barbara and Karen Fields describe the process of producing races as “racecraft.” Races have to be produced — they don’t simply exist in an ethereal fashion or in any objective way.
When we see it that way, we can see that Democrats and Republicans alike are responsible for this process of racialization, because both parties preside over empire. The rhetoric may be different — more liberal in one case, more conservative or reactionary in the other. But at the end of the day, anti-Muslim racism emerges from the bowels of empire and is important to reproducing empire.
The term Islamophobia became popular in the 1990s, when a British think tank called the Runnymede Trust published a report on the discrimination that Muslims faced in the UK. It is the term that has been used since then to describe the forms of stigma and prejudice that Muslims experience. That can range from being fired from jobs, to being the target of hate crimes, to outright murder.
That way of understanding Islamophobia is not wrong, but it is insufficient. It doesn’t get to the roots of where this is coming from. In the immediate context, it is the “war on terror” that has produced the framework in which Muslims are seen as security threats.
People can get confused when figures like Barack Obama or other liberal politicians spout a form of Islamophobia — they don’t see it as such. Obama attempted to bring Muslims into the security apparatus. Hillary Clinton enlisted a number of prominent Muslims, from her aide Huma Abedin to a Pakistani American whose son died in the war on terror and became one of her spokespeople.
But this politics of inclusion involves bringing Muslims into high places to neutralize criticisms of racism. It doesn’t change the realities of torture, surveillance, and drone warfare. The inclusion of Muslims in high offices within the empire is not going to do away with anti-Muslim racism. It’s important for us to use the term “anti-Muslim racism” and tie it systematically to the social structures that enable and benefit from this form of racism.
What are the main ideological frames that you identify through which Islamophobic discourse presents Muslims and Muslim communities?
Let’s begin by defining what ideology is. Ideology is a set of ideas — a taken-for-granted framework, if you will — that presents the status quo as being natural and beyond question, simply the way things are. It naturalizes the existing system.
The cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall noted that ideologies work most effectively when we are not aware that the way in which we formulate and construct a statement about the world is underpinned by ideological premises. Our formulations appear to be descriptive statements of the way things are: “Little boys like playing rough games, little girls are full of sugar and spice.” In fact, that statement is predicated on a whole set of ideological assumptions about masculinity and femininity that have been culturally constructed in society.
It’s important to understand how ideology has been understood by various scholars in the Marxist tradition and outside of it — to see how certain ideas are repeated as if they are statements of the truth, when in fact they are socially constructed. With that in mind, I identify some of the frames that are paraded as common sense in the media and in “polite” conversation.
One is that Islam is a monolithic religion. There’s just one Islam — never mind the diversity of Islamic practices, with the varieties of Sunni and Shia Islam. In fact, as the religion spread, it incorporated the different traditions of the regions where Muslim rulers began to expand their empire.
That diversity of practice and culture is erased in order to create a monolith. This is an important move, because you can’t say that Muslims are all this or all that unless you ossify the religion itself, and then make the claim that if you practice Islam, you are, for instance, driven to violence. That is a necessary first step in racializing Muslims.
Secondly, there is the idea that Islam is uniquely sexist and that Muslim women need to be liberated by the West. This has a long history, going back to the high point of European colonialism in the nineteenth century, when the “white man’s burden” involved, among other things, the supposed responsibility to “liberate” brown women from brown men. In reality, of course, things have not played out that way. But this frame is a useful tool to enlist domestic populations in the West in support of empire.
The third frame holds that Islam is anti-modern and does not separate religion and politics. This is an idea popularized by figures like Bernard Lewis, who first coined the term “clash of civilizations.” The argument goes like this: in the West, there has been a clear separation between religion and politics in the modern era, coming after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with a pushback against Christian domination. However, the same thing has not happened in what is called the “world of Islam.”
Again, this is not accurate. There has been a de facto separation of religion and politics in Muslim-majority states going all the way back to the ninth or tenth century, when the “men of the pen” — religious scholars — and the “men of the sword” — political and military leaders — operated autonomously from one another.
People who like to peddle the myth of the separation of religion and politics in the West tend to sweep over the persecution of scientists by the Inquisition. Galileo Galilei was forced to recant on pain of being killed. He and other figures were challenging the Christian view that the Sun rotates around the Earth as opposed to the other way around. Such inconvenient truths are left out in the telling of this story.
That brings me to myth number four, which concerns the place of science in Muslim-majority countries. The argument is that the Muslim mind is incapable of rationality and science, which in turn is the basis for the idea that there is an irrational “Muslim rage” driving people to become terrorists.
This ideological frame erases the fact that after the decline of the Roman Empire in Europe and the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages, it was the Muslim kingdoms, from al-Andalus in Spain and Portugal all the way to India, that preserved the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Not only did those kingdoms translate the great works of astronomy, architecture, and other fields, but their scholars also built upon them. A number of people have argued that if it wasn’t for the work they did, Europe would never have come out of the “Dark Ages” and gone through the Renaissance.
The fifth ideological frame holds that Islam is inherently violent. This goes back all the way to the Crusades, but it has been revived in the post-9/11 era with a degree of virulence. It presents Muslims as if they were waiting to explode into violent rage. This is the ideology that helps justify the various surveillance and entrapment programs.
Finally, you have the sixth frame, which holds that the West has to spread democracy because Muslims are incapable of democratic self-rule. This is a classic example of the white man’s burden. The sixth frame presents the West (and especially the United States) as a beacon of democracy on the global stage. Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and the Global South must be advised and supervised by the United States. From this follows the wars and occupations we have seen.
Empire and the History of Islamophobia
One of the main arguments in your book is that the history of Islamophobia is inseparable from the history of empire. What would you say are the long-term historical roots of this phenomenon, going back to the late medieval and early modern periods in Europe?
In the first edition of my book, I understood Islamophobia to have emerged during the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista. This was a period in which some of the worst images of Muslims as enemies and a force to be vanquished were developed.
However, in preparation for the second edition, I read more deeply into medieval history, and I wasn’t convinced by the arguments of those who trace the existence of race and racism all the way back to antiquity. There are others who argue very convincingly that the notion of race did not exist in the medieval era.
Europe was effectively a backwater on the global stage at this point in its history — that is, in medieval times. There were much more powerful empires in China, India, and the Arab states. If you look at the context of the Crusades and the Reconquista, the images of Islam are contradictory.
There is a genre of French epic poetry known as chansons de geste. You have some themes that are repeated again and again, with Muslims depicted as monsters, three-headed beasts, and so on. But you also have depictions of a Muslim antagonist as the equivalent of a French or European knight — noble and courageous. The only problem is that he’s a Muslim. In the scene where he is about to be killed, he decides to convert from Islam to Christianity and he is accepted into the fold.
These ideological products reflect Christian universalism, which was not based on a belief in permanent “Others” that constitutes one of the hallmarks of modern racism, but rather an attitude of assimilation. People were “Others” only to the extent that they were not Christian. Once they converted, they could be accepted.
Things began to change in the early modern era, particularly in Spain and Portugal, with the emergence of two powerful mercantile empires in the period from 1500 to 1800. I argue that a form of proto-racism began in early modern Spain with the proliferation of blood purity laws. These marked the first attempt to racialize people in biological terms.
There were many forced conversions of Jews and Muslims to Christianity at this time. However, even if you converted, your blood was still seen as impure. This was one of the first connections being drawn between biology and race.
Why did this happen? Interestingly, it was not promoted by Ferdinand and Isabella, the duo of Catholic rulers who kicked out the Muslims in 1492 and established the Spanish empire. The force behind this was the “old Christians” — people who had already been Christian before the “new Christians,” who converted from Islam or Judaism. The old Christians wanted to take high offices away from the new Christians.
There was competition over these jobs and over who would be able to go to the New World and claim all the booty. The old Christians wanted to get their competitors — particularly converted Jews — out of the way. In fact, Ferdinand and Isabella had converted Jewish relatives and they were not very happy about this. But the push of imperial expansion into the new world began a process by which these blood purity laws would spread throughout imperial Spain.
Fourteen ninety-two, in addition to being the year when the Reconquista was complete, also saw the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain. Jews had occupied high positions: they were part of the professional classes, but they were removed from these positions. Muslims did not immediately face the same fate, because they were not in those high positions to begin with.
Upper-class Muslims had left, as they saw the writing on the wall, and those who remained were agricultural workers and peasants whose produce was needed, so for a time they were shielded from the same kind of persecution. However, as they started to fight back against the Inquisition and the new atmosphere of intolerance, they began to be seen as a fifth column and as agents of the Ottoman Empire. They, too, became racialized enemies.
But this was still not full-blown racism because there wasn’t a uniform sense of inferiority associated either with Jews or with Muslims. It took the Enlightenment and the division of human beings into various groups within new classification schemes to produce that notion of uniform inferiority. When you think about it, it was hard to think of Muslims as being inferior when you had the Ottoman Empire or the Moghuls in India — states that were much more advanced than those in Europe at the time.
Another cultural example that I’ll give comes from the height of the expulsion of Spanish Muslims, who were known as Moriscos, in the early seventeenth century. Miguel de Cervantes wrote his book Don Quixote during that period.
One character in the book is a woman who is expelled from Spain and passes as a Turkish man — as a captain on a ship. She is caught and put on trial, whereupon she makes a fantastic speech about her circumstances — how much she loved Spain; how she was thrown out and deprived of access to her family wealth.
Her speech moves everyone to tears — so much so that the person presiding over the trial invites her to his house with her father, and the whole village comes to meet them. The idea that a Morisco could be “one of us” after all, at the high point of expulsion, is very interesting. It reflects a contradictory attitude, rather than the full-fledged colonial racism that you found at a later stage.
You argue in the book that anti-Muslim racism as you understand it developed in the post-Enlightenment periods. Could you explain your argument on that point?
As I mentioned, there were of course negative images of Muslims dating back to the Crusades and the Reconquista, as well as the rise of proto-racism in the early modern era. But you didn’t have scientific racism in early modern Spain — you had religiously inflected proto-racism. During and after the Enlightenment, such attitudes were elevated to the stage of science.
People like the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus began slotting people into different subspecies within the broader genus of human. He created a schema differentiating between Europeans, Africans, Asians, and American Indians. The German scholar Johann Friedrich Blumenbach went on to produce a more “scientific” means of classification.
As the historian Nell Irvin Painter argues, Blumenbach was significant in a number of ways. He used the term “Caucasian” to identify white people and advanced the notion that human difference was based on skin color as well as other bodily measurements such as skull size and shape.
In his book On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, Blumenbach identified five categories of human beings: Caucasians, Ethiopians, Americans, Malays, and Mongolians. Such differentiations of human beings developed by Enlightenment thinkers became very useful during the high point of European colonization in the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that all of the thinking associated with the Enlightenment was what we would consider racist. There was Enlightenment scholarship on Islam that was quite sympathetic, going against the medieval argument that the prophet Mohammed was an imposter. The French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire defended Mohammed as a greater thinker and the founder of a rational religion.
However, we saw the development of major European empires: first Spain and Portugal in the early modern period, then Britain and to a lesser extent France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rise of these empires led to the conquest of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This was when you saw the birth of Orientalism.
Orientalism was an ideology and a set of practices that were used both to justify and to administer empire. I would make a distinction here between official administrative Orientalism versus Orientalism as it expressed itself in art and literature. In the cultural realm, it was a contradictory phenomenon. The Romantic movement praised and venerated people in the Global South because it was a movement against industrialization.
But in the official realm, you had the development and extension of Enlightenment notions of classifying human beings in terms of various subspecies. This gave rise to the idea of Homo Islamicus, with Muslims as one such subspecies. It was a question of justifying colonialism and the white man’s burden. Britain and France had gone through their own bourgeois revolutions and now they were supposedly going to civilize and uplift people in other parts of the world.
Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 was one of the first examples of this “enlightened colonialism.” Napoleon arrived in Egypt prepared to dominate the Egyptian people. He had read the Quran and everything that had been written about Egypt. He wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people and secure an understanding from them that Napoleonic France was here to lift up the Egyptian people and push back against the Ottomans so that Egypt could return to its former glory.
There are a couple of paintings that I want to refer to in this context. One is called Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa. You can see this as one of the first instances of public relations. There was a rumor that Napoleon had poisoned his own French troops because they contracted the plague. To diffuse that, he commissioned a painting.
The painting has Napoleon in the middle touching some of the French soldiers, with Egyptians in the background on their knees, looking up to him as if he were a god. It was the healing touch of kings, combined with the idea of France’s “civilizing mission.”
Another painting called The Death of Sardanapalus is quite illustrative of the way that people in the Middle East were depicted. You see Sardanapalus, a cruel ruler who is reclining on a bed while all around him there is horror. Naked women are being killed. There is a woman who appears to be dead lying on his bed. Animals are being slaughtered.
It’s an example of “rescuing brown women from brown men” — although the women in most of these Orientalist paintings are very fair-skinned. The models who posed for the paintings were clearly French women. But the idea of extreme violence and misogyny was constructed as part of the Orientalist oeuvre in paintings like The Death of Sardanapalus.
US Empire and the War on Terror
As the United States moved into the space that was vacated by European colonial countries like Britain and France in the Middle East, how did its leaders and policy-makers perceive the cultures of Muslim-majority states, and how did those perceptions change over time, both during and after the Cold War?
The United States had very little knowledge of the region, so it drew quite heavily from the Europeans. A number of Orientalist scholars who were well established in Europe saw that the United States was now the main power in the postwar period. They moved across the Atlantic to take up academic positions. That was one stream of thought influencing policymakers.
Another framework that the United States employed in relation to the Middle East, as well as Latin America and other parts of the world, was modernization theory. Daniel Lerner’s book The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East was very influential in policy circles.
Part of the impetus for modernization theory to be elevated at the expense of Orientalism was that the United States wanted to position itself as being different from the old colonial powers. This was the period when you saw national liberation movements spreading across the globe from India to Algeria. The United States was very keen to differentiate itself from colonial powers like France and Britain. It wanted to present itself as a beacon of democracy on the global stage and as not being an empire at all. This was the logic of American exceptionalism.
Rhetorically, the United States did push back against the old empires in some instances. For example, when the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, France, Britain, and Israel launched a war on Egypt, but the United States forced them to back down. This was not based on any sort of principled support for national liberation movements. Rather, it was a question of gently pushing the old empires out of the way so that the United States could consolidate its own position.
The ways in which policy-makers viewed the culture of Muslim-majority countries varied considerably. It depended on what the geostrategic and geopolitical aims of the United States were at different moments.
At first, the United States tried to cultivate the leaders of nationalist movements — people like Nasser in Egypt and Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran — during a period in which secular nationalist movements predominated. When the United States found that it couldn’t co-opt those leaders, it adopted a strategy of cultivating Islamist forces to serve as a bulwark against Arab and Iranian nationalism.
Mossadegh was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup with the help of Muslim religious leaders in Iran, such as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s mentor. In Egypt, the United States sought to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the oldest Islamist organizations. Even though members of the Brotherhood had carried out acts of political violence, the United States invited their leaders to meetings to help it realize its aims in the Middle East.
The main linchpin in this strategy was Saudi Arabia. One member of the Eisenhower administration said that they wanted to build up the Saudi ruler as a kind of Islamic Pope — someone who could act as a pole of attraction away from the secular nationalists. Inevitably, of course, this strategy came back to bite the United States. The CIA has a term for this: “blowback.”
In Afghanistan, the United States backed the Mujahideen fighters. They were seen as heroes resisting the Soviet invasion of their country. Ronald Reagan referred to the Mujahideen as being akin to America’s founding fathers. One of those fighters was Osama bin Laden, who went on to form Al-Qaeda and became enemy number one.
It went back and forth. Those who were useful for US imperial administration were “good Muslims” while those who were not were “bad Muslims.” In the 1980s, while the Afghans were heroes, the Iranians — especially Khomeini — were villains. You had a film like Not Without My Daughter which put forward a flat, one-dimensional portrayal of Iranian society. It was outright propaganda. Rambo III, on the other hand, was set in Afghanistan and presented the Mujahideen as heroes.
More recently, you can look at a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which is set in Pakistan. All Pakistanis are suspicious and bad, except for one translator who helps the Americans get to Osama bin Laden’s compound. This is how US policy and ideology have developed. When Muslims are useful, they’re “good;” when they’re not useful and they resist US imperialism, they’re “bad.”
What impact did the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror have on the development of Islamophobia?
September 11 significantly elevated anti-Muslim racism in terms of policy as well as ideology. It was the basis upon which the national security state was expanded and bolstered. Although there had been practices of racial profiling and surveillance going all the way back to the late ’60s, those practices were expanded quite dramatically.
I have a chapter with the title “Terrorizing Muslims,” which goes into all the ways in which Muslims were not only presented as racialized terror threats but were also subjected to terror in the form of intrusive surveillance, indefinite detention, and torture. Immediately after 9/11, 1,200 Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia were summarily arrested. They were interviewed by the FBI or local law enforcement agencies.
Not one terrorism conviction resulted from the tens of thousands of police interviews in the aftermath of 9/11. That gives you a sense of how members of an entire group were seen as a racialized security threat, even though they hadn’t done anything.
Programs of surveillance, detention, and deportation were rolled out, all premised on the logic that Muslims were a suspect population who were guilty until proven innocent. The infamous NYPD surveillance program in the tristate area was one example. It was shut down after an expose by the Associated Press, but the same practices have continued in very subtle ways, as lawyers and activists on the ground have documented.
What did that program involve? The NYPD sent informants and agent provocateurs into mosques. They were known as “mosque crawlers.” They were also sent into schools. At Rutgers, the university where I teach, there was an NYPD safe house just off our New Brunswick campus.
They were allegedly spying on student groups at my campus and faculty. We found out about this safe house because the landlord who was renting the apartment thought there was some suspicious activity going on and he reported it to the local police.
Another example is the FBI’s entrapment program. The FBI has routinely sent agent provocateurs into poor and working-class communities. That includes African-American communities as well. When we talk about Islamophobia, we should remember that black Muslims were a majority of Muslims in the United States until the 1970s, so it doesn’t just affect immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
The role of these agent provocateurs has been to entice people to do things that they otherwise would not be doing. Four African-American men in Newburgh, New York were enticed with money — one of them had a brother who was diagnosed with a fatal illness, and he needed the money for his brother’s care, so he took it. When some of them expressed hesitation about carrying out an attack on a synagogue in the Bronx, the agent provocateur berated them and said: “You have to do it.”
The agent provided them with what was meant to be a bomb. As they were getting ready to carry out the attack, the NYPD showed up with the media in tow to announce that another terror plot had been foiled. It’s quite stunning when you realize how many alleged terror plots are actually the product of the FBI’s entrapment program.
The national security state in the United States has also operated on the basis of “preemptive prosecution.” This is the domestic equivalent of preemptive war. It means that the security state needs to target people and ferret them out before they do anything. It’s somewhat like the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report where a “pre-cog” unit arrests people before they do anything. But this is not a film — it’s the reality of what has happened to Muslims.
Two lawyers produced a report on the terrorism-related convictions from the Department of Justice between 2001 and 2010. They found that a majority of those convictions — 72.4 percent — were cases of preemptive prosecution where the defendant’s ideology was the basis for the conviction rather than his or her criminal activity. In other cases, people were involved in minor criminal activities that were not related to terrorism, but the facts were manipulated and inflated so they could be presented as terrorists.
A racialized, essentialized understanding of Muslims has informed these security practices. The practices developed to target Muslims have now been expanded to other dissident groups as well. The NYPD spies on liberal or left-wing groups as well as Muslims. The FBI has used agent provocateurs to interact with Occupy Wall Street activists. Native Americans protesting the Keystone Pipeline project were targeted using counterterrorism tactics.
In summary, 9/11 elevated anti-Muslim racism and put the image of a Muslim terrorist threat front and center. It was on that basis that an expanded national security apparatus was developed, which was then used against all threats to the status quo, to empire, or to capitalism.
Islamophobia and US Politics
How did the rhetoric of US government officials shift during the passage from George Bush to Barack Obama, from Obama to Donald Trump, and most recently from Trump to Joe Biden? Beneath the rhetoric, what was really happening in terms of policy?
The policy has been fairly consistent, with one president borrowing from another. Tactics might change, but the strategy of strengthening US imperialism has been consistent throughout this period. September 11 provided a golden opportunity for the political elite to consolidate and strengthen US imperialism.
The neoconservatives were in power at that time with the Bush administration. Before 9/11, the Project for a New American Century think tank had released a report on how to assert US domination around the world and especially in the Middle East. The think tank essentially said that it wouldn’t be possible to realize this policy unless there was something like a “new Pearl Harbor.” Of course, that’s what 9/11 was. It presented an opportunity that, as Condoleezza Rice said, had to be taken advantage of before the moment had passed.
Ideologues like Bernard Lewis and Fareed Zakaria were brought into the orbit of the Bush White House. The idea of a “clash of civilizations,” to use the term first coined by Lewis, was a form of neo-Orientalism. If the war in Afghanistan was about anything more than simply getting revenge and going after bin Laden, it was meant to be about rescuing Afghan women — of course, that didn’t really happen on the ground.
That was how the process of orchestrating the war on terror began. The doctrine of preemptive war, which was originally proposed in the 1990s and had been roundly rejected by the administrations of George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton, was now accepted. This was the idea that the United States could act unilaterally around the world to take out threats on the global stage before they became real forces that could threaten US global hegemony.
However, by the time of George W. Bush’s second term, it was clear that the war on terror wasn’t going well. US soldiers were not greeted as liberators. The image of empire was taking a beating on the global stage. This was where Barack Obama came in as a sophisticated orator who could serve to rehabilitate empire.
After being elected, he went to Egypt and made a speech about the contribution of Muslim civilizations to human history, distancing himself from the “clash of civilizations” framework. Obama went back to the policy of multilateralism on the international front. Yet in domestic terms, he expanded surveillance dramatically and ratcheted up counterterrorism programs, with a focus on countering “homegrown terrorists” and violent extremism.
Abroad, there was a sharp increase in the use of drones and the number of regions where drone warfare was being conducted. Obama himself was involved in picking the number of people who were to be killed by drone strikes. That included US citizens, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, who were being killed without trial. Obama expanded and consolidated the national security state.
Next came Donald Trump, who replaced the liberal imperialism of the Obama era with his “America First” policy. Some people think that Trump was an isolationist, but that’s not the case. He continued many of the policies of the Obama era, including the pivot to Asia.
His policy is better described as illiberal hegemony. It was a policy of aggressive unilateralism with the abandonment of the multinational organizations and treaties through which the United States has dominated the world. It was neoconservatism on steroids, combined with Trump’s transactional approach to dealmaking. But in terms of rhetoric at least, and to some extent in terms of policy, it was a break with the bipartisan strategy of liberal or benevolent hegemony.
Liberal hegemony meant that both parties were committed to the US state superintending global capitalism beneath the veneer of benevolence. The goal was to integrate the states of the world into a so-called rule-based neoliberal order of free trade and globalization, and to prevent the rise of any competitor or rival alliance of states.
In place of this, Trump implemented a toxic combination of economic nationalism, unilateral imperialism, and a transactional relationship with all the states in the world system. However, he basically continued with the same approach to Israel and Saudi Arabia and aligned himself with the worst elements in both of those countries. He escalated the drone program, and he continued Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, although he broke with it in the case of Iran.
With the election of Joe Biden, you have a return to the liberal hegemony of the Obama era, without much in terms of substantial policy change. Trump promised that he was going to end the “forever war,” although he didn’t actually do it — it was Biden who pulled out of Afghanistan. However, that did not really constitute the end of the war on terror at all. The infrastructure of empire that has been created is still very much in place.
What is the relationship between the right-wing Islamophobia network that you identify in your book and the political mainstream in the United States today?
I argue that there are three forms of anti-Muslim racism: liberal, conservative (by which I mean the neoconservative “clash of civilizations” variety), and right-wing, reactionary Islamophobia. I’ve already spoken about the liberals and the neoconservatives. The right-wing Islamophobia network is a well-funded network of groups who work together to push back against what they see as a threat to Western values and Western society.
The United States is the key intellectual and tactical hub of this global “counter-jihad” movement. It’s wrong to see these forces as if they were extreme elements outside the mainstream of the US system. I refer to them as the new McCarthyites — in other words, they are not outsiders, but are in fact very much part of the security establishment of think tanks, media organizations, and so on. They function in the way that Joseph McCarthy functioned during the Cold War.
McCarthy served a very useful purpose in policing domestic dissent. He pushed the envelope and drove US politics further to the right. The new McCarthyites perform a similar role. Their theories are so extreme that they make liberal Islamophobia appear normal.
They promote the idea that Muslims are trying to take over every institution in this country and trying to impose sharia law, so they have to be stopped from doing that. You have very extreme figures in this network who argue that when the End Times come, Muslims are going to fight alongside Satan.
People like this are invited to give talks at counterterrorism conferences. They’re not an anomaly — they’re very much part of empire. Some of the videos promoting these absurd conspiracy theories were shown to NYPD recruits.
Of course, Trump legitimized and elevated these conspiracy theorists. In the run-up to the 2016 election, he argued that the United States should close the door to Syrians fleeing the horrific violence of the civil war in the country, claiming that they were coming to infiltrate American society. As president, he went on to introduce the Muslim ban on people from seven countries, even though nobody from any of those countries had carried out a terrorist attack in the United States.
That’s the far right. For them, all Muslims are bad — there are no good Muslims. But they’re not alone: they are enabled by liberals. There are mainstream thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who’s part of the neoconservative camp, or the late Christopher Hitchens, who used to write for the Nation, who have deployed much more sophisticated language to express the same kind of ideology that I spoke about at the start of this interview. Unfortunately, they are accepted and believed in what they say.
The New York Times ran a major profile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali calling her a feminist. Yet her brand of so-called feminism is imperial feminism. It involves getting imperial powers to go out and supposedly rescue Muslim women. In fact, research by human rights organizations on the status of women in Afghanistan has shown that while there were some improvements in city centers under the US occupation, the vast majority of Afghan women in rural areas saw their situation get worse.
Overt and covert racism exist on a spectrum. Liberals, conservatives, and the far right are all part of the same spectrum. They may use different language, but they all serve to bolster and enable empire, and they mutually reinforce one another.