Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

Pondering the problem of Orientalism in Washington.

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. By Deepa Kumar. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012. 238 pp.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, various analytical frameworks have been proposed to understand the American relationship with the Middle East. In Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, scholar Deepa Kumar offers a look at the role of Islamophobia in the West and argues that it continues to inform U.S. foreign policy for both conservatives and liberals. By echoing and updating Edward Said’s critique, which holds that Orientalism continues to dominate much of Western academic study of the region, Kumar argues that, just as the creation of an exotic, irrational Muslim “other” facilitated European empires’ colonial subjugation of the Middle East, so too has a reductive, essentialist view of Islam been deployed to justify America’s military interventions since 9/11.

Kumar makes the case well—it’s not hard to find evidence for this. After all, following 9/11 Americans were fed a steady diet of images featuring Muslim violence, interspersed with claims regarding the centrality of such violence to the faith. In addition, half-baked treatises like Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East—in which the vaunted historian pointed to Middle Easterners’ failure to embrace European classical music as evidence of… well, I’m still not sure—were hailed as very serious arguments by very serious people. And the idea that American intervention was required to vault Muslims into the future did eventually help put American troops in Iraq.

Somewhat more provocative, and problematic, is the second half of Kumar’s argument: that Islamophobia in the U.S. continues to be a joint project between American conservatives and liberals. While the contours of conservative Islamophobia are familiar (Islam is intrinsically hostile to modernity, freedom, and the American way, etc.), its liberal variant is, in Kumar’s view, equally pernicious.

“The key characteristics of liberal Islamophobia,” Kumar writes, “are the rejection of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged and a concomitant willingness to work with moderate Islamists.” While Kumar grants that “liberal Islamophobia may be rhetorically gentler” than the conservative version, she insists that it nonetheless “reserves the right of the U.S. to wage war against ‘Islamic terrorism’ around the world, with no respect for the right of self-determination by people in the countries it targets.” It is, Kumar concludes, “the ‘white man’s burden’ in sheep’s clothing.”

To be fair, there is some evidence of liberals’ collaboration, or at least pandering to, Islamophobia when it suits their political needs. The spectacle of Democrats attacking the Bush administration over the 2006 Dubai Ports World deal is one unfortunate example. To advance this argument further, however, Kumar resorts to stealing a few bases. Claiming that liberals went along with conservative efforts to spread fear about the Muslim background of candidate Barack Obama, Kumar cites a May 2008 New York TimesOp-Ed by Edward Luttwak (identified as “a fellow at the realist/liberal imperialist think tank” Center for Strategic and International Studies) in which he wrote that, as Obama was born to a Muslim father, his conversion to Christianity is a crime “under Muslim law.” But citing Luttwak and CSIS as “liberals” is problematic. Luttwak is a conservative-realist, and CSIS is a firmly centrist organization (full disclosure: I was a CSIS research intern some years ago.) Kumar also neglects to mention that the piece was savaged by many in the media, including within the New York Times itself—Public Editor Clark Hoyt essentially apologized for the piece’s irresponsible assertions.

Viewing the Obama administration’s surge strategy in Afghanistan through the darkest possible lens, Kumar writes, “One might speculate that a White House eager to prime public opinion for a troop surge of thirty thousand may have even encouraged a pliant media to devote attention to ‘homegrown terrorism.’” Indeed Kumar is left merely to speculate, in the absence of any proof of such a scheme. The idea that the Obama administration so trafficked in Islamophobia is somewhat outlandish given the criticism administration officials faced for refusing to specifically cite the Islamic faith as a cause of terrorism (memorably illustrated by Rep. Lamar Smith’s badgering of Attorney General Eric Holder in May 2010).

The problem with defining Islamophobia as broadly as Kumar does is that it threatens to divest the term of meaning. It is possible to condemn terrorism committed by Muslims in the name of religion, or to have serious concerns over the development of pluralistic democracy under Islamist-controlled governments, without being anti-Islam. What defines Islamophobia is the belief that terrorist violence is somehow inherent to Islam, or that democracy is incompatible with correct Islamic practice. In uncovering Islamophobia here, there, and everywhere, Kumar unfortunately gives form to the straw man arguments of actual Islamophobes, who often cry that they are being silenced for voicing any criticism of Muslims.

It’s quite true that American political discourse continues to be shot through with ignorance of and hostility toward Islam, but it isn’t the full picture. Take, for example, the recent controversy overNewsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover story. The cover line and accompanying essay by controversial Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali generated more discussion about the magazine’s Muslim baiting than about “Muslim rage” itself.

While her promulgation of “liberal Islamophobia” is overwrought, Kumar valuably catalogues many of the ways in which American Muslims have been negatively affected by the “war on terror” discourse. She also takes aim at an important problem, if only in glancing: the failure of progressives to press the Obama administration on its civil liberties violations. Rather than locating the cause in deep-seated Islamophobia, however, we’d be just as likely to find it in political expediency.

Even with its flaws though, this remains a valuable book. While Kumar’s framework doesn’t adequately capture the various levels and angles of U.S. engagement with the Middle East as a region, or with Islam as a faith, it does offer an important survey of the mistaken assumptions that continue to power some seriously flawed policies. As the U.S. develops better policies to engage with a transforming Middle East, and hopefully confronts the ongoing degradation of rights at home, the issues Kumar raises deserve to be taken seriously.

Matthew Duss is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on the Middle East and U.S. national security. He is co-author of
Fear, Inc: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America published by the center in 2011. On Twitter: @mattduss.

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