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Podcast: Donald Trump, ISIS, and How ‘Militarized Identity Politics’ Fuels Hatred and War

Multiple supporters of GOP candidate Donald Trump were given airtime in the media to argue in support of his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Fortunately, CNN invited someone on to their cable news network to explain how supporters of Trump have been scared into thinking “crazy Muslims” are going to kill us all.

“The statistics tell a very different story since 9/11. Around 40 people have been killed by Muslim terrorists in the United States. Around 400,000 have been killed in gun crime as a whole,” Arun Kundnani, author of “The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror,” explained.

Kundnani had conservative commentator Kurt Schlichter foaming at the mouth after he suggested Trump is not brave for speaking out against Muslims but rather it is average American Muslims, who ride the subway or drive cabs, that are brave. A CNN anchor requested he provide facts when accusing a “large number of Muslims” of believing in violent extremism. He was livid and said, “You want me to Google it right now?”

On this week’s episode of the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, Kundnani joins the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast to expand on many of the comments he made about Trump’s call to ban Muslims. Kundnani describes how the American “War on Terrorism” reinforces hatred toward Muslims and Arabs. He offers an analysis of the Islamic State and how they are drawn to a fight they believe is between the West and Islam. He also assesses failures to counter certain narratives around the Islamic State as well as nationalist perspectives, which are now promoted by Trump.

During the discussion, the show’s hosts, Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola, talk about the infamous Warden Burl Cain resigning from the Angola penitentiary and Rahm Emanuel and police brutality in Chicago.

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Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Arun Kundnani.

GOSZTOLA: To begin, what’s been dominating the news cycle this past week is this call from Donald Trump to ban Muslims, to come up with some kind of test that even he hasn’t fully conceived that could prevent Muslims from coming into the United States. And then, somehow, the ones that are already here are acceptable to his fringe philosophy. But it’s gained some weight. There are people in this country who believe this is a good policy. In the beginning of this episode, I’d like you to contextualize this call to ban Muslims.

KUNDNANI: We’ve seen over the last few days everyone jumping in with some enthusiasm to denounce Trump, from other Republican presidential candidates to Hillary Clinton to people in the Democratic Party, but most of the people who are condemning him have their own history of flirting with the same ideas. So, it’s been a really interesting spectacle. It’s almost like a relief that there’s someone more extremely Islamophobic out there so that they have someone more extreme to condemn to make themselves look more moderate.

The point I was trying to make [during] the CNN appearance earlier in the week is Trump is a symptom of a wider political culture of Islamophobia. He’s not a outlier. He’s saying things that are just a little bit more explicit than things that are being said across the political spectrum, and I think for someone like Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s real sin is not his Islamophobia but the overt way in which he’s being Islamophobic. The way that you’re supposed to do this more politely is to say, yes, there is of course a Muslim problem but we want to be less explicit about defining it. We want to do it a little bit more behind the scenes. We want to have our surveillance policies and our control of immigration to be less overt and obvious.

KHALEK: That’s a really great point that’s you’ve been making, that you made on CNN, and that you’re making now, which is that this rhetoric obviously didn’t happen in a vacuum. One thing I found really interesting is the fact that the institutionally and structurally—The things that Donald Trump is calling for, aside from an outright ban on Muslims, beyond that are things we’ve actually been doing in this country, like spying on mosques.

KUNDNANI: Yes, we already know that mosques in New York City are all being spied on by New York Police Department just because they’re mosques. We already had in the years after 9/11 the mass deportation of thousands and thousands of people simply because their Muslim or they were perceived to be Muslim because of their country of origin. We already have over 1 million people on the terrorism watch list. So, the rhetoric that Trump is deploying in a way has already been translated into policy.

Which is not to say that Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t have effects. We’ve already seen some of those effects in the acts of violence that have happened in various parts of the U.S. against Muslims. But it’s wrong to think that he is somehow an exceptional outlier in the kind of general way that the American political system thinks about Muslims.

GOSZTOLA: On that point, let me ask you to address how you see the interplay between what’s coming from the government and how it has this synergy with Donald Trump. You’ve already gone in this direction, but we’re coming off this heightened period of people reacting to the attacks in Paris, of people reacting to what happened in San Bernardino. There’s all these reports of people experiencing personal hate crimes and attacks on them for their skin color and what they appear to be to other Americans.

KUNDNANI: Over the last few years, really since around 2010, we’ve seen a kind of increase in Islamophobia in the kind of political discourse, in the rhetoric, in well-funded propaganda campaigns that are being run by neoconservative think tanks and so forth. That is gradually being ratcheted up, and in the last couple months especially, it’s become very much more intense, culminating in this situation where Trump’s popularity is not decreasing as a result of him making these statements but maybe increasing amongst Republicans at least.

That is the end result that has been engineered through a propaganda campaign over the last few years, and that campaign has been successful in part because the message obviously resonates with a longer history of racism in the United States. We shouldn’t separate Islamophobia out from that longer history.

I remember a few years ago when I was in a suburb of Houston, Texas, and I was researching my last book, a story about a mosque that had been attacked locally. I was in a restaurant, and in that restaurant you could see hanging on the wall a poster, which had been made by the owner of the restaurant which showed one of those old photographs of a lynching from the early 20th Century.

Where you would normally see the face of a black man hanging from the tree, superimposed was a kind of stereotypical image of an Arab and the caption was, “Let’s play cowboys and Iranians.” So, that was shocking that you could have this shocking glorification of violence in a restaurant but also it was kind of relieving because it shows how Islamophobia builds on and reworks these longer histories of racism in the United States—whether it’s the genocide against the indigenous population or the history of Jim Crow racism and plantation slavery. I think that’s the way in which we need to understand Islamophobia.

KHALEK: That’s a really great point. One point that people always come back with is that there is a problem. Look at ISIS. So, I want to shift the conversation for a moment. This is something you have a lot of insight about, that right now there is this cartoonish death cult that exists that is a result of the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq. It’s cause of ISIS’ existence it’s able to fuel this anti-Muslim hate.

In a recent interview, you mentioned that recruits aren’t drawn so much because of religious ideology but because of an image of a war between the West and Islam. You talk about the recruits are not corrupted by ideology but the end of ideology. They’ve grown up in an era of no alternative to capitalist globalization. And so, I’d love for you to expand because this is the why of ISIS that gets left out a lot. It’s not just that it is created because of U.S. policies in the Middle East but also people turn to it because of conspiracy theories and there is no other ideology to explain what’s going on around them.

KUNDNANI: Precisely. Especially for us on the left, this is the area where we’ve not been focused enough. We have tended to reach for this slightly mechanical idea that terrorism exists because of a simple kind of angry reaction to bombing and violence that we have inflicted through our own foreign policy. It’s a kind of reflex, a kind of revenge or retaliation in a very kind of simple way. And I think that on one level captures some things that are true, but it’s just inadequate as an analysis of what’s going on with ISIS. We need to enrich our thinking here a bit.

In my book, I go into this into more detail based on doing a fair bit of research, interviewing people, and studying the discourse of groups like ISIS. The argument that we need to be making here is when you look at people who are leaving Europe to go join ISIS—Of course, ISIS is the product of the geopoliticla situation in the Middle East. It’s the product of the wars. It’s the product of the drone strikes. It’s the product of our alliance with Saudi Arabia. It’s the product of Turkey. All of those geopolitical factors are true.

But what’s going on in the head of the person who’s wanting to join ISIS? On the left, we tend to have shied a little bit away from asking that question of what is the belief because we don’t want to feed the idea coming from conservatives that the belief is Islam in some pure form so therefore we just say ignore the belief. Look at the foreign policy. But let’s look at the belief in fact because I don’t think we have to be so cautious about going there.

The belief system is a very simple binary militarized identity politics in which there are two identities—the West and Islam. And Islam here does not mean any Islam that would be familiar to anyone who has been brought up as a Muslim in the usual way people are in Europe or the United States; or for that matter, in the Middle East. It’s an identity above all. It’s not so much an ideology. It’s like a camp, an affiliation to a people rather than an actual worked out ideology.

That’s why you see these recruits turning up with copies of “Islam for Dummies” that they found and bought off Amazon. It’s something they have not even begun to think about that and have no theological knowledge. Which is why it seems completely believable to me the report that came out from Paris after the attacks there that the lead perpetrator, a few days before the attack, was drinking whiskey in a bar and smoking cannabis. That seems paradoxical. In fact, I would say it’s not at all paradoxical. It’s exactly what I would expect.

It is an image of war between the West and Islam. It’s a very simple narrative. So, then you have to ask why the simple narrative would become compelling in terms of making sense of the world. Then you have to look at the story of young Muslims in Europe of this current generation. What has been there social and political experience? Well, it’s been an experience of racism, very intense racism. It’s been an experience of poverty. And it’s been an experience of seeing their very own governments in Europe and the United States inflict huge amounts of violence on all Muslims around the world.

The next question to ask is how do they make sense of that? And there is no ideology that’s really addressing that. The left in Europe has been suburbanized the last generation and no longer really engages with young communities of color. Visions of social progress that might win over people who have that experience and are angry about it are no longer there. There’s a vacuum, and so in that vacuum this very simple message that comes from ISIS can be plausible for a tiny minority of small Muslims in Europe.

While I think it’s important to analyze what’s going on for that thousand, two thousand people that it is, we should also, of course, no this is a thousand of the population of Europe at the most. But, for those people, they find this message compelling because it resonates with the social and political experience. It seems to make sense to them that the world is divided into these very black and white terms—the West and Islam—and there is this war going on. And the question is, which side are you on? Are you on the side of the West or the side of Islam? And there’s nothing in between. You’re a combatant in this war. That’s the belief system.

For the left, we have kind of failed to give these young people a different vision of how we might deal with imperialism and racism and capitalism that is compelling to them. That’s why in response to people who say the danger here is radicalization by religious ideology my point is no. The real radicalization in the genuine sense of the word is the solution, not the problem. Because we need more people to come together for a kind of radical politics that can really make a difference to these young people, not through this kind of vanguardist terrorist violence but through building real movements for social change.

For the rest of the interview, listen to the conversation here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."