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One of “them” or one of “us”?—Arun Kundnani on Islamophobia, racism and terrorism

Arun Kundnani17 November 2015

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"The political act of labeling certain forms of violence as terrorism is also usually a racialized act."

We present an edited extract from Arun Kundnani's The Muslims Are Coming!, an investigation into the "homegrown enemy" as the new front in the war on terror. Kundnani's examination of Islamophobia as a form of structural racism sustained by the war on terror, and the racialized labelling of certain acts of violence as 'terrorism', offers important lessons about political violence and racism to combat reactionary responses to the Paris attacks.

The Muslims Are Coming!
argues that radicalization became the lens through which Western societies viewed Muslim populations by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Theories of radicalization that purport to describe why young Muslims become terrorists are central to counterterrorism policies on both sides of the Atlantic. But these models make an unfounded assumption that “Islamist” ideology is the root cause of terrorism. To do so enables a displacement of the war on terror’s political antagonisms onto the plane of Muslim culture. Muslims became what Samuel Huntington described as the “ideal enemy,” a group that is racially and culturally distinct and ideologically hostile. The political scientist Mahmood Mamdani had earlier identified such “culture talk” as the default explanation for violence when proper political analysis is neglected.

Two main modes of thinking pervade the war on terror, one predominantly among conservatives, the other among liberals. The first mode locates the origins of terrorism in what is regarded as Islamic culture’s failure to adapt to modernity. The second identifies the roots of terrorism not in Islam itself but in a series of twentieth-century ideologues who distorted the religion to produce a totalitarian ideology—Islamism—on the models of communism and fascism. The problem with both of these approaches is that they eschew the role of social and political circumstances in shaping how people make sense of the world and then act upon it. Moreover, these modes of thinking are not free-floating. They are institutionalized in the war on terror’s practices, actively promoted by well-resourced groups, and ultimately reflect an imperialist political culture. Together they give rise to the belief that the root cause of terrorism is Islamic culture or Islamist ideology; they thus constitute an Islamophobic idea of a Muslim problem that is shared across the political spectrum. As a result, a key aspect of national security policy has been the desire to engineer a broad cultural shift among Western Muslims while ignoring the ways in which Western states themselves have radicalized—have become more willing to use violence in a wider range of contexts.

Islamophobia is sometimes seen as a virus of hatred recurring in Western culture since the Crusades. Others view it as a spontaneous reaction to terrorism that will pass away as the effects of 9/11 recede into history. Many believe it does not exist. My emphasis is on Islamophobia as a form of structural racism directed at Muslims and the ways in which it is sustained through a symbiotic relationship with the official thinking and practices of the war on terror. Its significance does not lie primarily in the individual prejudices it generates but in its wider political consequences—its enabling of systematic violations of the rights of Muslims and its demonization of actions taken to remedy those violations. The war on terror—with its vast death tolls in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere—could not be sustained without the racialized dehumanization of its Muslim victims. A social body dependent on imperialist violence to sustain its way of life must discover an ideology that can disavow that dependency if it is to maintain legitimacy. Various kinds of racism have performed that role in the modern era; Islamophobia is currently the preferred form. The usual objection to defining it in this way is that Muslims are not a race. But since all racisms are socially and politically constructed rather than reliant on the reality of any biological race, it is perfectly possible for cultural markers associated with Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, languages, etc.) to be turned into racial signifiers. This racialization of Muslimness is analogous in important ways to anti-Semitism and inseparable from the longer history of racisms in the US and the UK. To recognize this obviously does not imply that critiques of Islamic belief are automatically to be condemned as racially motivated; it does mean opposing the social and political processes by which antipathy to Islam is acted out in violent attacks on the street or institutionalized in state structures such as profiling, violations of civil rights, and so on.


Everyone who rejects the game of fake patriotism falls under suspicion, as opposition to extremism becomes the only legitimate discourse. Finally, the spectacle of the Muslim extremist renders invisible the violence of the US empire. Opposition to such violence from within the imperium has fallen silent, as the universal duty of countering extremism precludes any wider discussion of foreign policy.

 A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that the Iraq war had led to 655,000 deaths as of July 2006, before the worst period of violence.  To comprehend the causes of so-called jihadist terrorism we need to pay as much attention to Western state violence, and the identity politics that sustains it, as we do to Islamist ideology. What governments call extremism is to a large degree a product of their own wars.


In Britain after the Woolwich murder, it remained taboo to suggest any connection between the killing of a British soldier on the streets of London and the killings by British soldiers in the villages of Helmand. The coverage of the event in the age of twenty-four-hour news channels and social media, with their supposed demand for diverse content, was actually strikingly one-dimensional: it was restricted to the official narrative of radicalization by a dangerous ideology. Yet again, the perpetrators offered a clear statement of what they thought they were doing, choosing to speak to the cellphone video cameras of gathered bystanders rather than flee the scene. Bloodied knife in hand, and with the body of a murdered solider by his feet, one of the attackers announced:

The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone . . . So leave our lands and we can all live in peace. That’s all I have to say.

Interestingly, the only religious quotation in these words was from the Bible. In the ten minutes or so before the police intervened, an even more striking illustration of the politics of this violence emerged, as women who happened to be passing by approached the attackers to protect the body of the victim and challenge the attackers about their actions. One of the women, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, asked the knife-wielding perpetrator why he had done it and was told that the victim was a British soldier who had “killed Muslim people” in other countries. They drop their bombs on women and children and no one cares, he told her. Loyau-Kennett responded by telling him that if he wanted to join a war, he should have gone to an actual battlefield and joined an army rather than acting as if the streets of London were such a setting. This simple, spontaneous riposte, barely mentioned in the media, was perhaps the most important comment made during the entire episode and subsequent public discussions, because it pointed to the dangers of the idea of a global battlefield. To the perpetrators there is a war taking place between Western governments and an Islamic resistance, a war that is essentially global in its reach. To them the streets of London are as much of a battlefield as the streets of Mogadishu or Baghdad, and if almost every other Muslim in London did not look at it that way, that was because they were intoxicated by the riches and comforts of a Western consumer society. But the attackers likely thought that a dramatic action like the one in Woolwich might shake the Muslims of London out of their slumber. “I want a war in London,” the attacker told Loyau-Kennett, by which he probably meant he wanted Londoners to stop acting as if they were not already at war, to choose sides, and take action.  In the event, it was only the far Right which took the Woolwich murder as a rallying cry and began a rampage of violent assaults on Muslims and bombings of mosques around England. But, more significantly, in thinking of the war on terror as having a global reach, the Woolwich attackers were taking at its word the US government, which had itself defined the whole world as a battlefield in its interpretation of the September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force—the basis for its use of drone strikes outside of recognizable areas of combat. If the US government believes itself to be involved in a war with no geographical limits, it is hardly surprising that its enemies might themselves adopt that view.

As scholars such as Eqbal Ahmad pointed out even before the war on terror, to designate an act of violence as terrorism is to arbitrarily isolate it from other acts of violence considered normal, rational, or necessary. The term ‘terrorism’ is never used to refer to the military violence of Western states, or to the daily reality of gender-based violence, for example, both of which ought also to be labeled terrorism according to the term’s usual definition: violence against innocent civilians designed to advance a political cause (the maintenance of patriarchy is eminently political). As such, each use of the term ‘‘terrorism’’ is an inherently political act. The definition of terrorism is never applied consistently, because to do so would mean the condemnatory power of the term would have to be applied to our violence as much as theirs, thereby defeating the word’s usefulness. Ahmad’s point finds no better illustration than Congressman Peter King, who today rails against the radicalization of Muslim Americans but in the 1980s gave what would now be called material support to the Irish Republican Army by encouraging fund-raising among Irish Americans and telling a 1982 rally in Nassau County, New York: “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry.” If the British army’s presence in Northern Ireland in the 1980s was imperialism, then presumably its more recent presence in Afghanistan must also be so described.

If terrorism is defined as violence against innocent civilians designed to advance a political cause, the Woolwich attack in London is properly described as an act of terrorism. The victim was a combatant, but he was not present on a battlefield, so it is appropriate to describe him at that time as a civilian. However, by the same definition, all the racist murders that occur in Britain and the US are also acts of terrorism, because the perpetrators are trying to send a political message to minority communities (i.e., intimidate them into a subordinate status). Like the violent acts we normally think of as terrorism, racist violence not only takes the lives of its immediate victims, but also sends a larger message of fear to the wider population. Yet terrorism and racist violence are not considered to be equally significant threats by governments and the establishment media echo chamber. While the murder of Lee Rigby was a major national event, prompting a flurry of government actions, policy responses, and public discussion, racist murders are rarely reported beyond the local newspaper. This difference cannot be explained as a matter of the scale of harm each form of violence inflicts. In Europe, the violence carried out by far Right groups, which have racism as a central part of their ideology, is of a similar magnitude to that of jihadist violence: at least 249 people died in incidents of far Right violence between 1990 and 2012; 263 were killed by jihadists over the same period. In the US, between 1990 and 2010, there were 145 acts of political violence committed by the American far Right, resulting in 348 deaths.  In comparison, 20 people were killed over the same period in acts of political violence carried out by Muslim-American citizens or long-term residents of the US. Both categories of violence represent threats to democratic values from fellow citizens. Whereas the former uses violence to foment a change in the ethnic makeup of Western countries or to defend racial supremacy, the latter uses violence to try to intimidate Western governments into changing their foreign policies. Ultimately, to be more concerned about one domestic threat of violence rather than the other implies governments and mainstream journalists consider foreign policies more sacrosanct than the security of minority citizens.

The political act of labeling certain forms of violence as terrorism is also usually a racialized act. This was revealed clearly in the hours after the attacks in Boston and Woolwich, before the identities of the perpetrators were known. Speculation in the US media as to whether the attacks were domestic or international terrorism used those terms as codes to talk about whether the perpetrators were white (and therefore assumed to be either crazed “lone wolves” or far Right “patriots”) or Muslim (and therefore to be understood as driven by the same alien ideology that produced 9/11). When CNN’s John King commented that the person arrested for the Boston attack had been identified as a “dark-skinned man,” it was not just an individual gaffe but the making explicit of the racial subtext to the entire discourse of counterterrorism. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews asked his terrorism expert guests whether government analysts would be able to tell from the surveillance images of the suspects if they were “from Yemen or other parts like that.” The suspect’s face was being asked to reveal a racial identity that would, in turn, tell us whether he was one of “them” or one of “us,” and therefore what kind of emotional response to the bombing would be appropriate. As it turned out, the suspects were in every sense Caucasian.

In reporting the Woolwich murder, the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, made a strikingly similar slip, describing one of the assailants as being of “Muslim appearance.” The black man he was referring to was wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a wooly hat; nevertheless his “Muslimness” had somehow become visible, thereby justifying the use of the term ‘‘terrorist’’. A month earlier, another UK murder had taken place that was barely noticed, let alone named as a terrorist act. Mohammed Saleem, a seventy-five-year-old Muslim man from Birmingham, had been stabbed three times in the back as he left his local mosque. Only later in July, when the perpetrator was arrested and found to have also bombed two mosques in the weeks after the Woolwich attack, did pressure from community activists force the police to also describe his crimes as terrorism. The default assumption remains that the term ‘‘terrorist’’ is reserved for acts of political violence carried out by Muslims. 

- read more by Arun Kundnani: Arun Kundnani on rethinking radicalisation and extremism since 7/7

- read more about #ParisAttacks on the Verso blog

The Muslims Are Coming! is available to buy at 30% discount with free shipping and free bundled ebook directly from the Verso site. 

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