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“Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire”: Deepa Kumar on How Racism Fueled U.S. Wars Post-9/11

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According to the Costs of War Project, the wars launched by the United States following 9/11 have killed an estimated 929,000 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. The true death toll may never be known, but the vast majority of the victims have been Muslim. “Racism is baked into the security logic of the national security state in the U.S., as well as in terms of how it operates abroad,” says Islamophobia scholar Deepa Kumar, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University. “The war on terror was sold to the American public using Orientalist and racist ideas that these societies are backward.” Kumar is the author of “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: 20 Years After 9/11,” an updated version of her 2012 book that examined how the war on terror ushered in a new era of anti-Muslim racism.

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StorySep 06, 2011“Fear, Inc.” Exposes the So-Called Experts and Donors Behind Islamophobia in the United States
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AMY GOODMAN: Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush visited the National Cathedral in Washington to remember the victims of the September 11th attacks. He vowed to, quote, “answer these attacks and rid the world of evil,” unquote. The U.S. bombining and occupation of Afghanistan would begin less than a month later, beginning 20 years of endless war.

According to the Costs of War Project, the wars launched by the United States following 9/11 have killed an estimated 929,000 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. The true death toll may never be known, but the vast majority of the victims have been Muslim.

Today we’re going to look at Islamophobia, how it has driven U.S. foreign policy and its impact at home. We’re joined by Rutgers University professor Deepa Kumar. She’s the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: 20 Years After 9/11. It’s an updated version of her book which examined how George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror ushered in a new era of anti-Muslim racism.

Professor Kumar, welcome back to Democracy Now! I’m so sorry you have to come back to deal with this issue 20 years after the 9/11 attacks. Now, you do a deep dive into centuries of history, going back to Spain. But if you could start off now, on this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, by talking about what drives the Islamophobia? You say this is about racism, it’s not about religious bigotry.

DEEPA KUMAR: Absolutely right, Amy. And before I get started, I just want to say a huge thank you to you, Juan and the team at Democracy Now! for doing such important and ethical journalism, especially in troubling times like this.

So, my argument basically is that it’s not enough to understand Islamophobia simply as hate crimes, although hate crimes do exist; it’s not enough to understand it as religious intolerance or microaggressions or hate speech and so on, although we do know that all this exists; but to look at the roots of where it comes from, because what happens when you don’t do that is that people accept the rhetoric coming from people at the top of society.

So, Bush argued, for instance, this is not a war on Islam, it’s about the extremists. Obama, who was an extremely sophisticated orator, talked about how Muslims are such a deep part of American society, that Muslim civilizations have contributed to world history, and so on. And people accept that rhetoric and don’t see how post-9/11, and even before that, there has been a systematic targeting of people who are Muslim.

So, let me give some examples of how the security establishment works and why deep-seated racism is what drives these policies. So, if you look at the FBI’s entrapment policy — right? — the FBI sends agents provocateurs into Muslim communities to entrap vulnerable people with things like, you know, giving them cash to set up these plots. And, of course, immediately after they set it up, they nab them. What’s the logic here? The logic is that all Muslims are “potential terrorists,” and therefore we should nab them before they do anything. Right?

You look at Obama’s counterradicalization program, the CVE program, and it’s about trying to recruit people from the Muslim community — imams, school teachers, coaches and so on — to spy on their own community. Again, the idea is that there are people in the Muslim community that we should nab before they do anything. Same with the ubiquitous surveillance program, right?

Now, there are some people who would say, “Oh, that’s just smart security policy.” But if the shoe were on the other foot, I think there’d be howls of anger. Take, for instance, you know, Michael Wade Page, Dylann Roof. These are people who’ve committed hate crimes. But there’s no corresponding program with the FBI or local police departments to go into white communities and spy on them because they can produce people like this, right? There is no program to entrap them before they do anything. If anything, the Second Amendment rights of far-right-wing groups, of militias and neo-Nazis are respected.

So, that’s why it’s important to see that racism is baked into the security logic of the national security state in the U.S., as well as in terms of how it operates abroad, because if we don’t understand where something is coming from, we can’t target the roots, and therefore dismantle it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Deepa, I wanted to ask you — you go into some of the historical roots of Islamophobia. Most people think it’s just a modern phenomena. But if you could talk a little bit about going back to the earliest days of the construction of the Western empires and going all the way back to Spain during the first contact, let’s say, with the New World and the wars then between the Muslim world and the Western world?

DEEPA KUMAR: Absolutely. Yeah, so, a lot of people think of Islamophobia as a post-9/11 phenomenon, but it has a much longer history, both in the U.S. as well as in Europe. Now, I cut against one argument that this goes back all the way to the Crusades. That’s not true. The modern notion of race and of racism actually begins in the 1500s and beyond. And the context, really, is this, which is that Spain emerges — Spain and Portugal emerge as one of the key leading empires in the era of mercantile imperialism.

Now, keep in mind, through the bulk of the Middle Ages — right? — it is Muslim empires, it is the Chinese, it is the Indians, who are prominent on the world stage, and, you know, Europe is relatively backward. So, the idea that you could have some sort of inferior Muslim race be even thought about at the time made no sense, when these people had such incredible cultural and political accomplishments. In the early modern era, the Ottomans were seen as the key enemy, but by no means were they racialized as inferior, because they were so powerful, right? So, in many quarters in Europe, they were seen as Europeans as a sort.

But, nevertheless, as these European nations emerged from what’s called the Dark Ages and turned to the oceans, they are battling this powerful, land-based empire. And that’s the context in which, domestically, as well as internationally, the idea of race comes into being. So, there are blood purity laws that start to get used, first against Jews and later against Muslims. This is the first sort of biological notion of race. It’s the idea that even if you convert from Islam or Judaism to Christianity, your blood was impure. This never used to exist. Earlier, in the Middle Ages, if you converted, even if you were considered an enemy, you were accepted as part of the Christian community. That changed quite decisively after 1492, when Jews were expelled and seen as less than, right? But at the same — and this happens to Muslims, as well. They are also expelled in the early 17th century.

But it’s a very nascent form of racism. It’s not the full-blown version that we see after the Enlightenment, the philosophical and intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th century. Why? Because it’s contradictory. On the one hand, there is this notion that these people are impure and so forth, but not a sense of inferiority, because Spain, Portugal, Britain, France have to deal with these powerful North African empires, as well as the Ottomans, and so it’s very contradictory in that sense. So, it’s the roots of this notion of, you know, a radical alterity, of this other, of Muslims as other, but it doesn’t get fully developed until the era of colonialism in the 19th century.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk, as well, about the roots of Islamophobia in the U.S. before 9/11, especially in the ’60s and ’70s?

DEEPA KUMAR: Yeah. So, quick history before that, which is that Edward Said talks about Orientalism, which is a body of knowledge which is used to enable European colonialism in North Africa, in the Middle East, in India, right? This composite Oriental is created as a figure to be dominated, to be understood and dominated.

Now, some of that language — you know, the U.S. is a settler colonial state, based on the movement of Anglo settlers into the U.S. Some of that seeps in to the U.S., as well. But, interestingly, the first major Muslim population to be brought to the U.S. are West African enslaved people who are Muslims. But they were not targeted for their religion. In fact, you know, scholarship shows that they were actually — they occupied a space between Black and white, because they were educated. And it’s not until the early 20th century that Black Muslims are targeted for being Muslims.

But to zoom ahead to the period you asked about, Juan, essentially, there are very contradictory notions about Muslims, about Arabs and so on, all the way up until the Second World War. That’s when the U.S. replaces France and Britain as one of the key imperial powers in North Africa, in the Middle East, in South Asia and elsewhere. And that’s when you start to see a process by which, first, Arab Americans are created as terrorist threats, and then Iranians after the Iranian Revolution, and then South Asians.

And the particular moment that scholars point to is the Munich incident of 1972, when a Palestinian group takes Israeli athletes hostage and, in the context of a rescue attempt, murders all of them. And this is, you know, a really grisly event that’s covered by the media worldwide. What happens in the U.S., Nixon actually now sees all Arab Americans as responsible for the Munich incident and begins programs of surveillance, such as Operation Boulder, which is modeled on the infamous COINTELPRO. And from then on, the idea that this is a suspect population, that these are “potential terrorists,” has been the way in which the security establishment has functioned.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now let’s take it to 9/11. And I wanted to use one story that sort of illustrates what happened right after: the remarkable story of Salman Hamdani. He was a Pakistani New York City police cadet who died on September 11, 2001, after he raced to ground zero to try to save lives at the World Trade Center. Even though Salman was singled out by former President Bush and mentioned by name in the PATRIOT Act as a hero, the New York Post and other right-wing media outlets falsely claimed he was a possible terrorist on the run. The Post ran an article headlined “Missing — or Hiding? — Mystery of NYPD Cadet from Pakistan.” His remains were later found at ground zero. On the eve of the second anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, on September 11, 2003, I interviewed his mom, Talat Hamdani.

TALAT HAMDANI: Three days before going to Mecca. And then, the day we were leaving, these reporters came home. You know, first the New York Post guy came home, and then, shortly later, you know, the Daily News guy came, then, I think, the Newsday. So I asked them, you know, “Why are you all here again now? What happened?” It was a month later, October 11th. So I says, “What happened? What brings you back to our house?” So, they told us, “There’s a flyer circulating amongst the NYPD with your son’s cadet picture on it: If anyone has seen him, to come forward. We need some information about him.”

And then we left for Mecca. And when we were there, my sisters told us that, you know, this is what the newspaper — the Post printed a very horrible heading, you know, “Missing — or Hiding?” And amongst the news that — the way they presented it, it had, you know, insinuations that he was seen near the — at 11 a.m., he was seen near the Midtown Tunnel. And is he really hiding? Most probably. Is he really missing? He’s not missing, but he’s hiding, and he could be one of the terrorists. I have that article.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what came of this, “Missing — or Hiding?” suggesting that he was a terrorist? What did the authorities do then? And how did you feel?

TALAT HAMDANI: The authorities? What authorities? Who would take action? Who do you think should take action against the newspaper? You tell me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the mother of — Talat Hamdani, the mother of Salman Hamdani. So, let’s use that as a way to talk about what happened after 9/11, not only the attitude to Muslims in the United States, but the whole shaping of U.S. foreign policy, the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond.

DEEPA KUMAR: Well, thank you for, you know, bringing to light stories like this. It was mostly activists in New York City and around the area who were involved in defense campaigns around people who were just disappeared, thrown into jail, not allowed to talk to a lawyer even, not allowed to speak to their family. And it’s so important to talk about the thousands of people who have been detained, imprisoned or deported, to see the full force of what actually happened based on the presumption that you’re guilty. Just because you’re Muslim, you’re guilty, and then you have to be proven innocent. This logic is called preemptive prosecution.

But on the international stage, essentially, what the U.S. did is that the War in Afghanistan, which was the first sort of intervention in the war on terror, it was sold not simply as “We’ve got to go root out terrorism and get Osama bin Laden,” all the rest of it, but it was sold to the U.S. public as “rescuing” Afghan women. Now, there’s no doubt that women in Afghanistan, particularly in the cities, had suffered tremendously under the Taliban regime. But this was not newsworthy. A study I did with a colleague found that the broadcast news media — you know, television, radio and so on — barely dedicated a couple of dozen stories in the year before 9/11. But all of a sudden, when people like Laura Bush, when Colin Powell are all talking about how the war on terror is also a war to liberate women and for human rights and so forth, you start to see tremendous media coverage, right? Nine hundred-something stories in a matter of a few months.

And, unfortunately, feminist organizations also signed on to the war on terror. And colleagues of mine in women and gender studies departments also have noted how, you know, people gave their consent to what was going to be 20 years of a horrible situation for all people in Afghanistan, but also for women.

We know, of course, that women were not liberated in Afghanistan. And the resources you mentioned earlier in the program, Amy, the trillions that were spent, 90% of that went towards militarism, and 10 on infrastructure and nation-building. Sure, some things improved, such as education and healthcare in the city centers, but for the vast majority of people — 70% of Afghans live in the countryside — they were thrown from the frying pan into the fire, because the U.S. allied itself with mujahideen warlords. These were the people that the U.S. trained back in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union. Those were the people who then came to power.

So, the war on terror was sold to the American public using Orientalist and racist ideas that these societies are backward. They don’t value their women, so we must go in and liberate them. Or in the case of Iraq, when no weapons of mass destruction were found, it was “We should bring democracy.” Never mind, of course, that we don’t have a very good form of democracy right here in the U.S. and that women continue to fight even today to hold serial rapists and harassers accountable in our court system. And yet, this white man’s racist argument, white man’s burden argument, was the one that was mobilized for U.S. intervention around the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Deepa, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned it earlier, the role of Iran and its use — the use of the national security state of Iran as this Muslim extremist bogeyman, that — I mean, obviously, Iran is a very large country, over 80 million people, has for decades now resisted being controlled by the European powers. How is that used to continue to foment Islamophobia?

DEEPA KUMAR: Absolutely. So, I mentioned earlier, Juan, how it was the Arab terrorist that was the first in this process of germination, germinating this notion that Brown people from this area are threats. But after the Iranian Revolution, and particularly the hostage crisis, where personnel in the U.S. Embassy were taken hostage for 444 days, that became a key turning point in the vocabulary in the U.S. and in the development of the idea of an Islamic threat — right? — of an Islamic terrorist.

And the reason it was portrayed in this fashion is because a U.S.-backed dictator, the shah, was overthrown, not by an Islamic movement, but by a people’s movement — right? — workers going on strike, women, college students, poets, intellectuals, religious minorities — all who rebelled against the shah’s iron rule, iron fist, if you will. And ultimately, Khomeini comes to power and takes over. But that’s the framework that’s used, is that this is a move back to the Middle Ages. These people are just so backward, they can’t deal with the modernizing reforms that the shah had forced on people, and therefore, you know, it’s a huge threat to modernization, modernity, and the U.S. must see Iran, from then on, as this enemy and as the fount of Islamic terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about what’s happening now, the kind of reflection, if there is any, over the last 20 years and what this means for Muslims in the United States and around the world. You had yesterday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defending President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. But the way they put it was — he put it was, basically, you know, we inherited a timeline from Trump — this is his fault — and we had to move forward with that. And there’s been a lot of criticism of the chaotic last few weeks as the U.S. pulled out, but that seems to be replacing a reflection on what took place over this 20 years. A call for an inquiry into these last few weeks, but what about the last 20 years and what this war has meant, not to mention, two years later, President Bush bombing Iraq? Can you talk about what this has meant and what a different kind of analysis would lead to?

DEEPA KUMAR: Yeah. So, let me start by saying that there are people within the foreign policy establishment who are drawing the conclusion that U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, of Iraq, has been a total disaster. Right? These have been defeats for the U.S., both in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. So, that model of establishing imperial hegemony is one that was already shelved — right? — by Obama, but that increasingly has become a bipartisan consensus, is that you can’t go in in the way the U.S. did in Japan or in Germany and remade societies in ways that fit in with the U.S.’s global geopolitical order.

So, that lesson has been drawn by, certainly, sections of the political elite. And what’s going on is a blame game, right? You know, it was Trump’s fault, there was no plan, and so forth. And the question that’s not being asked is “Why did the U.S. go in in the first place?” and questioning, you know, whether empire, whether colonialism — this was colonialism — whether colonialism is justifiable.

All that said, the war on terror is not over, and I don’t think that we should act like it’s over. At least since the mid-2000s, when Obama put out his posture of the pivot to Asia, there’s been a desire to have less resources targeted at so-called terrorists around the world, with a focus instead on China, that is seen as a key threat to U.S. interests on the global stage. And various administrations — right? — have tried to scale back, but that has not been possible. But the war on terror is going to continue nevertheless, but it’s going to take a different form.

There are now anywhere between 800 and 1,000 military bases, U.S. military bases, around the world. And it’s from these bases that drone strikes are possible, right? These drone strikes are not things that we know about. They just happen. And very often, as recently happened in Afghanistan, innocent people are killed. So, that’s going to be the muscle power, along with special operations forces, as Biden and others have already admitted. And so, unfortunately, that puts us in a situation where it’s no longer going to be dramatic and, therefore, covered by the media. And people will somehow think that all the persecution of Muslims, both domestically or internationally, has ended.

You mentioned the figure from the Costs of War Project. I just want to say — of the number of dead because of the war on terror. And I just wanted to say that that study says “direct war violence.” Right? It does not include deaths due to the destruction of infrastructure, deaths that are not counted in official statistics, as Anand Gopal points out in a really great piece in The New Yorker which is from the point of view of Afghan women, that the deaths in the ones and twos in Afghanistan are typically not counted in official statistics, which is why somebody like Malalai Joya, who you’ve had on this program, puts the deaths at over 1 million. So, all of that is going to be papered over, unfortunately, as the U.S. continues its counterterrorism policies.

And I’ll end with this, which is that we know also that between 2018 and 2020, the U.S. was conducting counterterrorism operations in 85 countries around the world. That’s practically half the world. And so, terrorism has become a very useful way to establish U.S. hegemony and control on the global stage. So, I do think that there’s going to be more attention on China, but, at the same time, the war on terror is far from over.

AMY GOODMAN: Deepa Kumar, we want to thank you so much for being with us, scholar and activist, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: 20 Years After 9/11, the first edition of the book published in 2012. Professor Kumar teaches media studies at Rutgers University.

Coming up, as the world faces a climate catastrophe, we look at the Fairy Creek blockade in British Columbia, where nearly a thousand people have been arrested. It’s being described as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Stay with us.

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