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Deepa Kumar: Political elite have built Islamaphobia in US foreign policy to justify imperialistic ambitions

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

In the 12 years since 9/11, Muslim Americans have experienced extensive government surveillance and profiling. They’ve also experienced numerous hate crimes throughout the U.S. And this escalated in 2010 after an announcement that an Islamic community center would be built blocks away from Ground Zero. And just last month, North Carolina joined six other U.S. states in banning the use of sharia law in its judicial system. Some critics view this as an indication of a heightened Islamophobia in media and political culture.

Joining us to discuss this issue is Deepa Kumar. She’s an associate professor of media studies and Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University and the author of the book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

Thanks for joining us, Deepa.


DESVARIEUX: So, Deepa, let’s just first define Islamophobia.

KUMAR: Islamophobia is basically the term, the name given to anti-Muslim racism. It is a form of prejudice. And it involves making generalizations about an entire group based on the actions of a few through this mythical understanding of what Islam is supposed to be.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And we should mention that there was a poll that was conducted by the Arab American Institute that found that American attitudes towards Arab and Muslims, specifically for Republicans and Romney voters in this last presidential election, were rated to be strongly negative. Does this mean that Islamophobia is only a problem of right-wingers or conservative voters?

KUMAR: Absolutely not. I think it is true that larger numbers of conservative voters are racist. They are racist not just in terms of their attitude towards Arabs and South Asians, but also to a whole host of other groups. So it’s true that this idea sort of concentrated within those ranks.

But in fact Islamophobia is far more systemic than that. That is to say, the idea of a Muslim enemy, the idea of a terrorist enemy is one that actually goes back a couple of decades but was brought to light after 9/11 by the political elite, by our political leaders. So in fact it is built into the system of U.S. foreign policy in this country.

And to simply look at the far right and to ignore the fact that it has larger implications in terms of justifying U.S. foreign policy would be really to have only an incomplete picture of what is at work in this form of racism.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the mass media and how they depict Islam since 9/11. Can you describe for us how the mass media has depicted Islam?

KUMAR: Well, basically, the trauma of 9/11, the fact that, you know, 3,000 Americans died meant that it enabled the U.S. media to actually draw on stereotypes that have been, you know, propped up by Hollywood, by the news media, and so on for a few decades before that. And that was the idea that these are crazy, irrational people. They are all apparently driven by Islam to violence. And so we should lock them up, we should be suspicious of them, we should detain them at airports, and so on and so forth. And so that’s what you saw in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And this show called 24, which your viewers may know, is–it’s about a lot of things [incompr.] that it’s about justifying the building of a national security state and justifying practices like torture and so on and so forth.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And also the story of the day, of course, is Syria, and everyone’s attention is drawn to Syria. Can you describe for us just how does Islamophobia play a role in any of the arguments for intervention in Syria, really?

KUMAR: Okay. It doesn’t play a direct role in that.

It is–the idea of humanitarianism has a long history in the United States. The idea that there are victims all over the world, that the U.S. government has then got to make war in order to, you know, somehow defend them, this goes back all the way to the Spanish-American war of 1898, which was supposed to be about rescuing Cubans. And similarly, you see these sorts of justifications given. You know, Vietnamese need to be defended. In Iraq, it was babies, apparently, who were being bayoneted in Kuwait, and therefore the U.S. needed to intervene and defeat Iraq in 1991. So this idea of humanitarianism has a long history within the foreign policy establishment.

But what makes it particularly potent in this case is that after 9/11 what you see is the Bush administration projecting this idea of clash of civilizations, which is basically the notion that we in the West are democratic, we are rational, we are civilized, we are, you know, all things wonderful, and they in the East are barbaric, they’re misogynistic, and so on and so forth, and therefore we have an obligation, what used to be called the white man’s burden, to go off and rescue them.

And so you see some of that language, which is the idea that Arabs cannot bring democracy by themselves, they cannot make change, and so we need to intervene. So it’s a combination both of the victim narrative, which has a long history, combined with this language of clash of civilizations.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And how does this fit into domestic policy? How do they work Islamophobia into domestic policy?

KUMAR: Right. I mean, the comparison I make in the book and that I’m actually working on in the next book is that the U.S. government, and U.S. imperialism in particular, always needs an enemy. That is, when there is no humanitarian cause, an enemy is an extremely useful way to justify wars abroad, as well as the policing of dissent at home. So, for instance, during the Cold War we had been menacing enemy of the Soviet Union, against whom both a hot and a Cold War had to be waged. And, of course, this justified, then, McCarthyism, because there’s always a reflection of the external enemy inside, and these people have to be rounded up, blacklisted, and so on and so forth. So that’s the logic back then, and, of course, it was entirely about a politics of fear.

Today we have the same sort of thing. After 9/11, the war on terror comes into being precisely about fighting endless wars. Remember, back in 9/11 the Bush administration was going to start with Afghanistan, go to Iraq, and then Iran, Syria, and so on and so forth. It didn’t work out that way. But the idea was to drum up this fear of this menacing terrorist enemy, which justified wars all over the world in order to gain the U.S.’s interest in [incompr.] particularly in the oil-rich region in the Middle East.

You asked me about domestic politics. Always there was a reflection of the domestic in terms of the international threat. And so what you’ve seen is innocent Muslims–and often actually not even Muslims, people from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, some of them Sikhs, some some of them Hindus, some of them Christians, and so on, being racially profiled because that is the logic that comes out of this.

I have a whole chapter in the book about how the legal system has been reworked so as to justify things like indefinite detention, things like torture, things like deportation. And, frankly, the infiltration of agents into our schools, into my school, into colleges, and so forth. So, you know, it’s truly horrific the extent to which Muslim Americans and people who look Muslim have been demonized since 9/11.

DESVARIEUX: How do you sort of categorize or interpret these votes by different states to ban sharia law? What’s your take on that?

KUMAR: Yes. This is actually the work of a far right wing Islamophobic network. These people have been active for the last two decades, and they get, you know, funding to the tune of $45-$50 billion over the last seven, eight years. These people hold the view that there are no moderate Muslims, all Muslims are somehow connected to Islamist organizations–Hamas or the Muslim brotherhood and so on. And even though they pretend to be moderate, right–this is the language some of these people use–in fact they are involved in a conspiracy to take over the United States and to replace the Constitution with sharia law. Of course, this is nonsense, this is complete conspiracy theory. But these are the people. They are lawyers, they are academics, they are people in the military, they are people in the security establishment. They are responsible for this campaign where, you know, about half a dozen to a dozen states across the U.S. have adopted these laws. It’s a process of fearmongering, and it enables the right wing to actually grow in their ranks and promote this kind of hate.

DESVARIEUX: What’s the name of that specific group? You said billions of dollars this sort of contingency has.

KUMAR: Yes. There was a very thorough report called Fear Incorporated which actually charted the sources of money that these groups actually get. And I summarize some of their research in my book. But essentially it is a coalition of about four groups. There is the–there’s a section of the neoconservatives, people like Frank Gaffney, who sort of provide the talking points to the rest of this network. There are right-wing Zionist forces, people for whom any criticism of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic. There are Christians, conservatives, evangelicals, people like Franklin Graham and John Hagee and people like that.

And then, interestingly, there is this group called–you know, they are–Former Muslims United they call themselves. They are people from Muslim majority countries. And their role within this network is to say, I was born in Lebanon, I grew up in Egypt, and let me tell you how horrible these Muslims are. And so they add credibility to the kind of caricatures and, frankly, the hateful rhetoric about Muslims. And they have connections to the Tea Party.

And so these are the people. You started earlier with the, quote-unquote, Ground Zero Mosque controversy. These are the people who are responsible for it, people like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

And I’m happy to say that I was on the other side. I was part of the coalition to stop their hateful message from coming out. And we actually organized a demonstration that was way, you know, larger then their protests. And eventually the [incompr.] 51 did come up, because we were able to push them out of our city, New York, and to say that we will not, you know, tolerate their racism.

DESVARIEUX: Wow. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Deepa.

KUMAR: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Deepa Kumar is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University.

Her work is driven by an active engagement with the key issues that characterize our era--neoliberalism and imperialism. Her first book, Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike (University of Illinois Press, 2007), is about the power of collective struggle in effectively challenging the priorities of neoliberalism.

If neoliberal globalization characterizes the economic logic of our age, the "war on terror" has come to define its political logic. Kumar began her research into the politics of empire shortly after the tumultuous events of 9/11.

Her second book titled Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (Haymarket Books, 2012), looks at how the "Muslim enemy" has historically been mobilized to suit the goals of empire.