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Interview: Author Arun Kundnani on Understanding Terrorism, the Surveillance State & How to Discuss Reform

Arun Kundnani

[*Editor’s Note: During his research for The Muslims Are Coming!, Arun Kundnani noted five books, which provide insightful understanding of the surveillance state along with the importance of public resistance.

In the third part of this interview, Kundnani discusses briefly how academics define terrorism and approach the issue of Islamophobia. He then delves into the issue of the surveillance state and how discussions about reform often forget the people most marginalized and affected by surveillance.

For part one of this interview, which was released on December 26, click here. For part two of this interview, which was released on January 8, click here. This is the final part of this series.] 

Part 3

JORDAN: I think scholar Ruth Blakeley provides a better understanding of terrorism than Hoffman in “State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South.” In the book, she argues on how we must focus more on the terrorist actions by the Global North to the Global South rather than small disorganized groups. She focuses more on neoliberalism compared to Hoffman. Moreover, Hoffman focuses more on the actor of terrorism, while Blakeley focuses more on the action of terrorists. Is that the main part of this debate where the mainstream focuses on the former and folks like you focus on the latter?

KUNDNANI: That’s a part of it. Firstly, the mainstream terrorism studies tend to avoid defining terrorism very precisely, which means you don’t look at state terrorism. Secondly, it often tries to identify something like a terrorism mindset. It’s not so much focused on the act of terrorism than the culture or psychology that produces it.

Particularly, if you focus on the culture that produces, you’ll then get into all of these arguments about some kind of culture of religious extremism that communities have problems with. I think the bigger kind of distinction in a way though is between non-state actors and state and structural violence. Mainstream terrorism studies focuses entirely on non-state actors and won’t use the word “terrorism” for anything else.

When you use the word violence, it is not easy to define. If you want to have a consistent and objective definition of violence, you have to include the structure violence of an economic system like capitalism, which puts millions of people in poverty, struggling with hunger or lack shelter. That is also a kind of violence.

JORDAN: Connecting accumulation by dispossession with the racial component of it. You want more resources and you’re going to get anything to get it.

KUNDNANI: Yeah, I would say capitalism is always going to be bound up with structural violence. What you’re doing with a capitalist system is putting profits over people; therefore, someone’s well-being and health can be dispensed with in the name of profit.

JORDAN: This discussion today reminds me of a quote by Martin Luther King Junior. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967, he said something worth repeating in this day and age:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

There seems to be a strong connection with the overall capitalist system and the Islamophobia seen in the West. Deepa Kumar, a Rutgers University professor, elaborated on the importance of a structure for mass surveillance on The Real News [last October]. I suppose my question is then, is this fully ingrained into our system?

KUNDNANI: Martin Luther King, by the time he gives his speech in 1967, comes to understand the issue of racism he’s been dealing with is connected to a wider system. It is the same system that caused the Vietnam War and causes poverty across the U.S.

We have to constantly go back and forth to thinking about the specific issues we’re immediately concerned with, whether it’s Islamophobia or surveillance, but also look at the bigger picture and how these’s issues connect together. So how does Islamophobia connect with the oppression of women? How does the policing issue in Ferguson connect with the U.S. bombing in Iraq and Syria again?

The only way we can deal with these issues is by linking them together, seeing the connections and having an understanding that we need a movement that brings different constituencies each affected by the system in specific ways. Some notion of capitalism or neoliberalism is the only way to unite all of these issues together and seeing them connected.

JORDAN: In a column on March 28 for The Guardian, you noted the tools of the state could not be dismantled even with National Security Agency reforms. What would be needed, therefore, to diminish the “American Islamophobic surveillance complex?”

KUNDNANI: I think it is back to what Martin Luther King said; we need a revolution of values. Right now in the NSA debate, you have a lot of people who are very concerned about government surveillance. But the actual advocacy work has two strands to it: One is the legal argument to introduce legal reforms, which in my opinion won’t make any difference. The other is a technical solution, where the tech community advocates for better encryption.

What neither of those two groups of advocates is addressing is the politics of this. Why is there government surveillance and who is under surveillance?

It’s actually not a situation where we’re all equally vulnerable to government surveillance. It is specific communities (Muslims, Arabs, political activists, leftists, journalists) being targeted. Sometimes it is a result of racial or religious profiling.

For Muslim communities, surveillance is not just about digital surveillance, but FBI informants in the mosques and the communities. But the debate about NSA surveillance does not really address that. It doesn’t really want to talk about those issues and how targeted surveillance can also be a violation of people’s rights.

We need to start having a much richer conversation about surveillance. When you start doing that, you will soon realize it is not just about one or two legal reforms here or there. It is about fundamentally questioning what the purpose of governmental surveillance is. It is not just to go after the so-called terrorists or criminals. It’s to go after political dissidents or communities having radical critiques of the government. Once you start looking it at the way, then you start to think about all kinds of aspects of the surveillance state.

It’s not just the NSA or FBI; it’s about all the governmental agencies that amass huge amounts of information on people. It’s not just about the government, it’s about corporations, like Google or Facebook or Apple, who have massive data about all of us and share that with the government. It’s much bigger issue that we haven’t really grappled with. How we do think about the politics of information sharing in this new world, where technology has made it possible to make new databases to be made about each of us?

JORDAN: [Two] years ago, a report by a coalition of community organizations highlighted the effects of surveillance in New York City by the New York Police Department. It definitely is chilling, but I could not help but think of young Muslims, who decided to change majors or act differently as a result of mass surveillance. What are these tools of surveillance creating for the next generation?

KUNDNANI: I think that’s an open question. One of the lessons when thinking about state surveillance is that when you have a system of total surveillance, and you think everything is being tightly controlled, sometimes it’s actually an illusion. The Stasi had an elaborate system of surveillance, but that didn’t stop the East German government from being overthrown.

It certainly is the case at the moment. We’ve created a culture of self-censorship, where young Muslims are wary about talking politics, particular foreign policy. We’ve created a situation where a section of our society, which actually has a better knowledge of the impact with that foreign policy in the regions where it’s most focused, is losing their knowledge on the effects of those policies. The broader conversation in the U.S. about our foreign policy is being diminished as a result.

The person going to a university is someone who’s grown up in the War on Terror. It’s a different experience compared to their parents, who maybe migrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. If you’ve grown up or were born here and you’ve only seen America as a country having this War on Terror, then you’re going to have a different attitude than your parents.

Your parents might take an attitude where it is a temporary state of affairs, while the children haven’t seen anything else. They’ll be much more ready to oppose and fight it. What you’re seeing is a generation of young Muslims in America who are doing very interesting work organizing around these issues and challenging them in a way where it hasn’t happened before. That’s hugely important and gives rise for some optimism.


Kundnani can be followed at his personal blog, which can be found here. For those interested in learning more about Kundnani’s take on the West’s policies tied to Islamophobia and dissent, Verso Books is currently still having a sale of his book “The Muslims are Coming!” Moreover, it was just released in paperback.

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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.