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Interview: Author Arun Kundnani on Islamophobia & the Myth of the Liberal Anti-Racist

Arun Kundnani

[Editor’s Note: With the recent terrorist attack in Paris against Charlie Hebdo, once again there is debate about whether Islam is a violent religion. There is little to no evidence that Islam alone radicalizes people and transforms them into terrorists or religious fanatics.

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 Terrorism, to talk about the origins of these attitudes against Muslims. Early last 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. He also recently released a report [PDF], “A Decade Lost: Rethinking Radicalization & Extremism.” 

Part one of the interview was published on December 26. The following is part two of the interview. It specifically deals with Islamophobia among liberals.]

*

BRANDON JORDAN: What strikes me is 60 Minutes is the establishment liberal side of journalism. This is something you also write where you wrote a post on how there is no such thing as a liberal anti-racist. You referred to comments made by Sam Harris and Bill Maher and how their version of tolerance operates with a contradiction of values. I’m sure folks are aware of conservative Islamophobia, but liberal Islamophobia is rarely discussed. What is it and why is it rarely discussed?

ARUN KUNDNANI: One of the things we’ve seen a lot in the past 10 years is the argument made by liberals that Islam is a uniquely violent religion and there is problem of religious fanaticism. The way we should oppose that is by advocating liberal values, like gender equality or gay rights or freedom of expression. Of course, those values are important and need to be advocated in every context.

But there is a way the liberal argument, when it is expressed in these ways, can become a justification for illiberal forms of coercion including war. You saw after Sept. 11 one of the arguments made for the Afghanistan War was gender equality.

What I find interesting is how liberalism gets into these contradictions, which is what you get with Bill Maher or Sam Harris.

Harris advocates going to war for no other basis but for having certain beliefs, which seems like an illiberal point of view.

Does that mean he’s being inconsistent? That would be too easy of an answer. A full account here would be to say this particular move from liberals has a long history in European colonialism. Specifically in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, it was always justified by bringing liberal values to those parts of the world. It is not likely these arguments are new. They are very old actually.

In order to understand it, we need to think of liberalism not just as these abstract principles but also as an ideology, the socio-economic system we have.

Because that system constantly marginalizes, oppresses and excludes certain people, you end up with a situation where offending liberal values can often end up demonizing those groups seen as outside the system.

Part of the reason why it is important is, in the US and UK, the political consensus across the liberal-conservative spectrum. They have some differences on how they understand these issues, but share the same starting point—there is a Muslim problem. Conservatives see that in terms of the clash of civilizations.

But liberals also come into this with some analysis and at the center of it is the notion of extremism. What you do when you use that word, you are avoiding the fundamental political issue. If you talk about religious extremism, you are externalizing the violence to the other guy and saying he is a fanatic. His violence comes out of extremism and does not have any wider political context. We ignore the violence of our own government, which is a part of this same cycle of violence.

We are constantly in this situation where there is state violence, and then non-state violence responds to that, then state violence responds and it goes round and round. Liberals and conservatives are wrapped in that loop of this circle of violence.

Liberals are typically bad on not acknowledging their part. Using these words like terrorism, extremism and radicalization is a way of defining the other guy’s violence as barbaric and fanatic. Thus, your own violence is rational, necessary and legitimate.

That is what you see with someone like Sam Harris, who argues for wars potentially kill millions of people and happened in the past decade. They justify it as reasonable, rationale, legitimate and defense of liberal values. Yet, what that looks like on the ground is complete barbarism.

What I’m trying to do through this issue is get liberals to reflect more on this structural violence they end up supporting ideologically.

JORDAN: This talk of liberal Islamophobia reminds me of an op-ed in The New York Times written on Nov. 4, 2004 by Gary Wills, a history professor, where he said, regarding the American electorate and the victory of the GOP in the 2004 elections:

Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein’s Sunni loyalists. Americans wonder that the rest of the world thinks us so dangerous, so single-minded, so impervious to international appeals. They fear jihad, no matter whose zeal is being expressed.

Despite writing on Americans at the time, this is presents the Muslim world as the “other” and how rational Americans are the “only.” There is an element of privilege to this, correct?

KUNDNANI: On the conservative right of the US, you can find as many people advocating opposition to secularism, advocating very reactionary views about woman and gay people. It is not as if any religion has a monopoly on it. You could find it in Hinduism or Judaism.

Then the question is, how come we’ve turned this idea there is a unique problem with Islam into a concept. It is something we assume to be true. It comes about to the constant reiteration of these messages through writings like [Wills].

Part of the difficulty here for me is not to respond to this by downplaying the problems in Muslim-majority countries in relation to sexism or freedom of expression.

The question is if we understand the oppression of women in, let’s say, Egypt simply as a product of Islam we actually are failing to really have a sophisticated analysis of how the oppression of women works in the country like in Egypt. The reality is the oppression of women in Egypt is not a mechanical process where Islam creates oppression of women. It’s about how society works as a whole.

I imagine you will find as much oppression of women in Christian communities for example. It is a very poor analysis and a disservice for women’s struggles to think of it that way. But also you are creating a blind spot to understand the oppression of women in the US. If you can say the world’s biggest problem in the world for women is Islam it absolves the sexism of our own society.

We have a situation where about two women every week in the US are killed by their partners in domestic violence incidents. But we don’t really talk about that, but we love to talk about honor killings even though it’s the same thing. We’d much rather externalize these social issues and see them as problems other people have so we don’t have to address it.

There is a way Islamophobia reinforces sexism and make it harder to deal with. It is important politically because we don’t want to be in a situation to oppose Islamophobia and we soften our critique of sexism. We don’t want to trade one group’s rights against another.

JORDAN: You mention in the book how scholars, often times beloved scholars, promote the Islamophobic viewpoint Western governments follow. Bruce Hoffman, director of Center for Security Studies, comes to mind with his very fuzzy definition of terrorism, which neglects state terrorism. In fact, I feel this relates your argument when you wrote the war on terror template made in the 1980s was:

[A] fight against terrorism as ideological cover for state violence directed at those resisting US and Israeli power, whether they happened to be terrorists or not; a selective use of the term ‘terrorism’ to exclude all those state and non-state actors using violence to achieve our political ends; and a suturing of Israel and the US as defenders of ‘Western values’ against ‘Islamic fanaticism.’

What caused their influence in the first place?

KUNDNANI: I think these things emerged organically. You have in the late 1970s/early 1980s a set of initiatives coming from the Israeli government to promote a narrative that associates terrorism with Islam. The motivation for that is to provide cover for Israeli state violence. In other words, if you can convince the American public that violence in the Middle East at the time has nothing to do with the military occupation or human rights; that’s what Palestinians are like, that’s cultural what their nature is, they are inherently violence, then it gives cover for the occupation and the violence coming with it.

One of the things that is important to understand about Islamophobia is that it is part of this longer racial history in the U.S. When I was in Houston, Texas, doing research for the book, I went to a restaurant where there is a poster with a lynching image and it became an Islamophobia image with a caption of “Let’s play cowboys and Iranians.”

You see how Islamophobia is this layer on top of racism in the US going back through Jim Crow to the genocide of the indigenous people in the Americas. It’s partly why Islamophobia has been able to be a part of the story in America because it trades on these histories.

In the last part of our interview, we will discuss the systemic causes of Islamophobia and potential reforms.

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Interview: Author Arun Kundnani on Islamophobia & the Myth of the Liberal Anti-Racist

Arun Kundnani

[Editor’s Note: With the recent terrorist attack in Paris against Charlie Hebdo, once again there is debate about whether Islam is a violent religion. There is little to no evidence that Islam alone radicalizes people and transforms them into terrorists or religious fanatics.

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 Terrorism, 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. He also recently released a report [PDF], “A Decade Lost: Rethinking Radicalization & Extremism.”

Part one of the interview was published on December 26. The following is part two of the interview. It specifically deals with Islamophobia among liberals.]

*

BRANDON JORDAN: What strikes me is 60 Minutes is the establishment liberal side of journalism. This is something you also write where you wrote a post on how there is no such thing as a liberal anti-racist. You referred to comments made by Sam Harris and Bill Maher and how their version of tolerance operates with a contradiction of values. I’m sure folks are aware of conservative Islamophobia, but liberal Islamophobia is rarely discussed. What is it and why is it rarely discussed?

ARUN KUNDNANI: One of the things we’ve seen a lot in the past 10 years is the argument made by liberals that Islam is a uniquely violent religion and there is problem of religious fanaticism. The way we should oppose that is by advocating liberal values, like gender equality or gay rights or freedom of expression. Of course, those values are important and need to be advocated in every context.

But there is a way the liberal argument, when it is expressed in these ways, can become a justification for illiberal forms of coercion including war. You saw after Sept. 11 one of the arguments made for the Afghanistan War was gender equality.

What I find interesting is how liberalism gets into these contradictions, which is what you get with Bill Maher or Sam Harris.

Harris advocates going to war for no other basis but for having certain beliefs, which seems like an illiberal point of view.

Does that mean he’s being inconsistent? That would be too easy of an answer. A full account here would be to say this particular move from liberals has a long history in European colonialism. Specifically in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, it was always justified by bringing liberal values to those parts of the world. It is not likely these arguments are new. They are very old actually.

In order to understand it, we need to think of liberalism not just as these abstract principles but also as an ideology, the socio-economic system we have.

Because that system constantly marginalizes, oppresses and excludes certain people, you end up with a situation where offending liberal values can often end up demonizing those groups seen as outside the system.

Part of the reason why it is important is, in the US and UK, the political consensus across the liberal-conservative spectrum. They have some differences on how they understand these issues, but share the same starting point—there is a Muslim problem. Conservatives see that in terms of the clash of civilizations.

But liberals also come into this with some analysis and at the center of it is the notion of extremism. What you do when you use that word, you are avoiding the fundamental political issue. If you talk about religious extremism, you are externalizing the violence to the other guy and saying he is a fanatic. His violence comes out of extremism and does not have any wider political context. We ignore the violence of our own government, which is a part of this same cycle of violence.

We are constantly in this situation where there is state violence, and then non-state violence responds to that, then state violence responds and it goes round and round. Liberals and conservatives are wrapped in that loop of this circle of violence.

Liberals are typically bad on not acknowledging their part. Using these words like terrorism, extremism and radicalization is a way of defining the other guy’s violence as barbaric and fanatic. Thus, your own violence is rational, necessary and legitimate. (more…)

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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.

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