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Interview: Author Arun Kundnani on How Media Promote Radicalization Myths & Fuels Islamophobia

Arun Kundnani

[Editorial note: In late July, the Arab American Institute released a survey where 27 and 32 percent of Americans viewed Muslims and Arabs favorably, respectively. As the authors of the report note, the number of Americans favoring both communities declined since 2010 compared to other ethnic groups.

Consequently, 42 percent of Americans agreed with profiling of American Muslims or Arab Americans in contrast to 40 percent who disagreed.

Islamophobia is a cause of the shift in attitudes, and it is fueled the plethora of myths on Islam not only in the media, but by government officials as well.

For example, the rise of the Islamic State was used by individuals such as Pamela Geller, who notably influenced terrorist Andres Brevik, to pay more than $100,000 in advertisements for display on buses and trains of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is the transportation agency in New York City. This occurred as the New York Police Department reported a growth in hate crimes against Muslims in the past year.

In the United Kingdom, Islamophobia also poses as a problem with the British press blamed for adding to it. Indeed, it was found, according to a BBC poll last year, 27 percent of British youth did not trust Muslims.

On November 7, I spoke with Arun Kundnani, a journalist and a professor at New York University who writes extensively on issues like Islamophobia and the War on Terror, to talk about the origins of these attitudes against Muslims. Earlier this year, Verso Books published his book titled “The Muslims Are Coming!,” which provides insight into the state’s level of thinking and the rise of Islamophobia in the West. It is one of the best books of 2014.

Kundnani, along with Emily Keppler and Muki Najaer, wrote an article for The Nation in October on Ayyub Abdul-Alim, a Muslim man who was entrapped by the FBI after he refused to be an informant. He also authored “The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain,” which was released in 2007.

Below is the transcript for first part of our interview in which we discuss a segment on 60 Minutes as well as the myth of radicalization. It has been edited for clarity.]


Part 1

BRANDON JORDAN: I feel I should begin with 60 Minutes report [on November 2] as I was reminded of your book as a result of watching the segment. To summarize, correspondent Clarissa Ward linked the foreign fighters going to join the Islamic State with militant Islam in the U.K. Furthermore, she interviewed Anjem Choudary, who journalist Mehdi Hasan said “no one should listen to” in 2010, and framed him as a radical and extremist of Islam. Is this an accurate representation of extremism not only in England, but in the U.S. as well?

ARUN KUNDNANI: It’s worth getting into the history of the organization he’s a part of to get more context on this particular guy. He is a radical and has views I certainly would disagree with on a range of issues. He comes out of a movement in the U.K. called Al-Muhajiroun. This is an organization around in Britain from the mid 1990s that believes in creating an Islamic State, including within the U.K. They are homophobic, anti-Semitic; they have views on all different kinds of people, including women that are reactionary.

What is interesting, though, is how they relate to the question of terrorism and violence. In the 1990s, they actually had an arrangement with British security services where they called it a covenant of security. Basically, the British government allowed them to promote their message, but they also agreed not to involve themselves in any acts of violence in the U.K. Then, in early 2005, the leader of the organization at the time, Omar Bakri, basically said this covenant of security no longer holds because the British government had broken that agreement by its involvement in the war in Iraq. He tells his members he is disbanding the organization and members should join al-Qaeda.

At that point, you start to get some people involved in this group, who then involve themselves in some plots in the U.K.
The question, if you want to understand this organization, is it driven by religious extremism, which is the normal way it is understood and the way presented in this 60 Minutes program. These are crazy fanatics driven by religious extremism.

What you leave out, if you focus on that part of it, is how they respond to foreign policy decision. What switches them to advocating violence in 2005 is not that they changed their ideology but the changed political context they see themselves in. It is always those political stories that are downplayed here because we just like to think it is always religion that could explain everything in this context.

The other thing is here, as an account of the phenomenon of people traveling from Britain to Syria in the last year or so. It is not really about Anjem Choudary and his organization leading people to do that. Mehdi Hasan is right; this guy constantly appears in British and U.S. media as this kind of cartoon religious guy. He is a bit of a distraction from what’s going on.

Why are people traveling to Syria and Iraq? For some of those people it is because they have an ideological affinity to the Islamic State. But for the majority of those people, they are persuaded to join is through social media images of brutal violence committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

A lot of these young guys going over there has more to do with a sense of adventure, a sense of heroism and this macho idea of being a soldier in this heroic struggle. Religion is not the main factor. That part of the story is not covered in the 60 Minutes piece and all the other pieces like it.

JORDAN: Let’s explore a fundamental part of your book using Ward’s interview with one of the folks interviewed, Abu Rumaysah, who said on camera he wanted Sharia law instituted in Europe. What explains the rationales such youths have? While the segment points to militant Islam, I cannot help but feel there is a larger aspect ignored in this narrative.

KUNDNANI: You have a very small amount of people in Britain with this kind of politics believing that their idea of Sharia law can be a political program to make the world a better place. First, it is worth pointing out their understanding of Sharia is unconventional. It is not how most people understand Sharia; it is mostly understood to be a kind of moral framework, not a political program to be implemented by a centralized state.

Then the question is, why would a young guy growing up in Britain find it appealing to adopt this notion of an Islamic State? In order to understand that, you need to understand what are the kinds of issues, social and political, young people in Britain may be frustrated with that makes this kind of thinking argument appealing to them.

You need to tell a story of identity politics in the U.K. It’s a story about some people growing up in a context where they don’t identify with their parents’ version of Islam, very rooted in mainly in South Asia.

They also don’t identify with British, liberal society because it suffers from institutional racism that excludes them. In order to understand why these kind of very harden, militant politics is appealing; you have to understand it as an alternative to both of those options.

These people are not the product of something outside the West, but of Britain and the U.S. The U.S. government radicalized as much people as Anjem Choudary has. Yet, we prefer not to talk about since it is inconvenient to accept our society is complicit in producing this stuff. It means we end up coming up with solutions that don’t work. If you accept the 60 Minutes analysis, which is all about religious ideology and fanaticism, then the kind of policy would be reducing the circulation of the ideology. You introduce policies, directly or indirectly, to limit freedom of expression, which ends up being counter-productive.

What we need to do is find a way to give people a different kind of political framework to interpret the issues and grievances they have. At the moment, if you are angry about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, there are not many people addressing it in a radical, passionate way. You go to these violent fundamentalists since they are really speaking to that.

We need to create alternatives so there are other kinds of politics out there that can attract young people who feel angry about these issues and give them a different way to think about that is not bound up in this militarized, harden identity politics. Rather, it goes deeper into understanding what is behind a lot of this stuff, in which capitalism and imperialism works. But not doing that using the framework of identity politics.

JORDAN: To end with the segment, which I was fascinated by because the narrative is something you’ve covered extensively in the past, they highlighted the “Prevent” program. In fact, I would like to share a question Ward asked to Sir Peter Fahy, a British official involved with Prevent, to show how she framed this part of the segment as well as Fahy’s response:

WARD: If [the] parents of [Muslim extremists] can’t stop [radicalization], what can you do to stop it?

FAHY: Well, all we can do is raise awareness. But you’re absolutely right. And we constantly agonize about whether this is a job for the police or not.

Aside from the smirk on Ward’s face when she asked the question, “Prevent” is something you’ve extensively written about. Could you elaborate on the program and what Fahy’s comment means?

KUNDNANI: The “Prevent” program is what’s called a counter-radicalization program. It starts from the assumption there is a process of radicalization turning people into terrorists. It assumes some religious ideology drives that, which is not actually a compelling way of analyzing the problem. What the program does is two things:

One, it recruits community leaders to promote an anti-radicalization message. It is about getting them to say the right way to be a Muslim in Britain is to have a certain set of beliefs. It is a weird way the government is sponsoring a particular kind of Islam.

The other part of it is recruiting a lot of professionals, who work with young Muslims, and briefing them on the signs of radicalization. Then, they ask those professionals to identify young Muslims displaying signs of radicalization. Some kind of intervention is designed to engage with those young people and de-radicalize them.

It becomes a mechanism for effectively spying on young people who have not broken the law, for whom there is no reasonable suspicion they will be involve in terrorism. However, you gather huge amounts of information about these young people through “Prevent,” which is a part of the counter-terrorism databases.

In the second part of the interview, we will explore the myth of the liberal anti-racist as well as the role of academics as experts on terrorism.

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Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.