Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire
In 2009, several U.S. citizens or legal residents were arrested for alleged connections to "terrorist" activity. In the latter part of the year these became high-profile cases that drew sustained media attention. Following hard upon this media frenzy, in December 2009 the Obama administration announced plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending in more troops and by stepping up drone attacks on Pakistan, in what came to be known as the "Af-Pak strategy." Almost a full year into his presidency, the "peace" president had failed to fulfill his campaign promises to shut down Guantanamo Bay and undo the violations of civil liberties unleashed by Bush. The "homegrown terrorist" threat being whipped up by the media served well to continue the status quo.
The first prominent case was that of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan citizen and legal US resident who was arrested in September 2009 on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. This was followed by David Coleman Headley, a U.S. citizen arrested in October for planning to attack a Danish newspaper. In December, revelations surfaced that Headley may have conspired with operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group, in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In March 2010 he pled guilty to all charges in an Indian court.
On November 5, Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed thirteen people and wounded thirty at Fort Hood outside Killeen, Texas. The ensuing media circus focused on Hasan's religion and continued the trend of conflating Islam and violence. Later that month, the federal government indicted eight people in Minnesota for allegedly recruiting approximately two dozen Somali Americans (citizens and legal residents) to fight with an insurgent group in Somalia. That December, five young men from northern Virginia were arrested in Sargodha, Pakistan, accused of traveling there to fight alongside Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
Though none of the "homegrown terrorism" cases mentioned above lacked for sensational media treatment, the case of "Jihad Jane" caused the biggest uproar. While the Virginia case prompted speculation in the press about why five "normal" young men might be moved to fight with the Taliban, it was accepted that this was a possibility for young Muslim men. LaRose's gender, ethnicity, and "Main Street" Pennsylvania background meant that anyone could be a terrorist. Like the McCarthy-era "red scare" that imagined Communist spies lurking in every neighborhood, school, and workplace, the "green scare" encouraged Americans to view not only Muslims but anyone who converted to Islam as a threat.
Coming as they did in quick succession, these cases spurred the rapid development of a new media lexicon around "homegrown terrorism." The Washington Post was typical: "The arrests came at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorism after the recent shootings at the Fort Hood, Tex., military base [by Hasan] and charges filed this week against a Chicago man [Headley] accused of playing a role in last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai." Even though scores of Muslim Americans had been arrested in the past, often with little or no basis, this consistent attention cast Muslim citizens and legal residents as enemies of the state, marking a new turn in the rhetoric of the War on Terror. The groundwork was being laid for the new green scare.
The most virulent expression of this green scare was articulated by NYU professor Tunku Varadarajan. In a November 2009 Forbes article titled "Going Muslim," Varadarajan argued that what precipitated the tragedy at Food Hood was not the racist harassment that Hasan faced in the Army or the emotionally debilitating pressure of his job as an overworked Army psychiatrist, but rather a condition that he suggests is inherent to all Muslims: the tendency toward violence. He argued that Hasan didn't "go postal" -- that is, break down and become violent (the term became popular after a 1986 shooting by a postal worker). Rather, Varadarajan argued, Hasan was simply enacting, in a cold and calculated manner, the teachings of Islam. He was "going Muslim." As Varadarajan put it, "This phrase ['going Muslim'] would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American—a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood—discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans."
In short, for Varadarajan, all Muslim Americans are "imminently violent," and while they appear to be integrated into American society, they are in fact ticking time bombs who will inevitably explode into violent, murderous rage. The logic of biological racism is intertwined here with the logic of cultural racism. The homegrown terrorist, identified as brown, male and Muslim, is inherently violent despite all semblances to the contrary. What makes "those people" threats, including the occasional white person like LaRose, is their religion; they are culturally programmed by Islam to carry out murder and mayhem, like jihadist Manchurian candidates. In making this argument, Varadarajan was simply echoing the logic of "preemptive prosecution" and theories of radicalization long employed by the law enforcement apparatus. The Hasan and Zazi cases (the "friendly donut vendor"), and the overall hysteria around "homegrown" terrorism, created a space for the articulation of such arguments in the mainstream.
Rather than push back against this racism, President Obama -- who has several Muslim relatives, has spent time living in Indonesia (the country with the largest Muslim population in the world), and presumably should know better -- used these high-profile cases in a speech unveiling his strategy to escalate the war in Afghanistan. One might speculate that a White House eager to prime public opinion for a troop surge of thirty thousand may even have encouraged a pliant media to devote attention to "homegrown terrorism." Obama said in a speech at West Point: "I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror." Obama's speech capitalizes on the climate of fear whipped up by the continuous and sustained coverage of the Zazi, Headley, and Virginia cases, all of which were related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's reference to "extremists within our borders" thus added to the hype about the grave danger that terrorism and "violent extremism" allegedly pose to U.S. citizens, a threat dire enough to justify sending thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan.
The reality, however, flies in the face of this rhetoric, as the last chapter showed. Interestingly, even the Rand Corporation, a right-wing institution, admitted that the danger posed to Americans by "terrorism" is limited. In the Los Angeles Times, Gregory Treverton noted that in "the five years after 2001, the number of Americans killed per year in terrorist attacks worldwide was never more than 100, and the toll some years was barely in double figures. Compare that with an average of 63 by tornadoes, 692 in bicycle accidents and 41,616 in motor-vehicle-related accidents." Indeed.
In 2009, the State Department reported that the number of Americans killed that year around the world due to terrorism was a grand total of nine. Fourteen people were injured, and four were kidnapped. To put those numbers in perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 4,340 deaths due to workplace events or exposure in 2009. Deaths from car accidents numbered 30,797. Yet no one declared war on corporations or auto manufacturers. What's more, a State Department terrorism report released in April 2009 states that "al-Qaeda . . . and associated networks continued to lose ground, both structurally and in the court of world public opinion." Nevertheless, the report asserted that these organizations "remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners." All this reveals not only the disconnect between rhetoric and reality but also the mechanics involved in mobilizing a politics of fear. It is worth emphasizing that the threat from terrorism is a manufactured crisis, one that is useful to justify war and continued violations of civil liberties domestically. The green scare is just as useful today as the red scare was during the Cold War.
This excerpt from Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire was made available by Haymarket Books. For more information and to purchase this book, visit the publisher's website here.
Deepa Kumar is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. She will be holding a series of book launch events in Vancouver and Surrey, B.C. this weekend.