September 18, 2013 By K Ashraf

Tracing the Roots of Islamophobia


Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire emerges from the author’s engagement with and experience of the social and political climate after 11 September 2001. Deepa Kumar, a professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, began taking a closer look at the contemporary Muslim life and racism against Muslims in the United States which surfaced after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the USA. As an activist, she realised the need to speak and write about injustice and this book is the product of ten years of engagement with activists in the anti-war movement as well as with students and colleagues at universities across the United States. The essential thesis of the book is about the “image” of Islam as a mythical monster and the construction of the Muslim “enemy” that fulfills the vested interests of empire.

According to Kumar, the formation of a particular image of Islam in Europe can be traced back to the middle ages from where the image altered given the varied historical and political changes in the continent. For instance, between the 8-11th centuries, Islam was seen as merely a variety of a pagan religion and from the eleventh century the Church expressed a polemical discourse by considering the Muslim as the “other” in order to unite various destabilising forces within Europe. The 14-15th centuries saw a shift from polemics to indifference towards Islam and during the Romantic era, the image of an exotic orient came about. As such, the image of Islam is not static in the imagination of Europe and also there is the absence of a single European response to Islam. In short, this analysis proposes an analytical shift from the logic of the clash of civilizations put forward by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis to a debate on the impact of liberal politics and capitalism on the farming of Islam.
The book has three sections. In the first two sections Kumar analyses the rise of Islamophobia using a particular image of Islam and its various shifts according to the changing interests of the empire. The third section focuses on Islamophobia and the US domestic politics.

Kumar closely looks at the emergence of ideas like mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) and the “White man’s burden” during the colonial period in North Africa and the Middle East. During this period a body of literature known as “Orientalism” came into existence which assisted in the justification of colonial conquest and continues to be influential today. After the World War II, the balance of power shifted from Europe to the United States. This period also witnessed the formation of the postcolonial nation states throughout Asia and Africa. In the postcolonial Muslim states, secular nationalists and Islamists became allies or enemies based on external interests, including that of the United States, and the global political hegemony. During the Cold War debates existed among the ‘ٍِAmerican policy experts regarding the consolidation of the US power using political Islam against anti-imperialist secular nationalist forces that supported the Communist bloc. The image of Islam changed in the American political agenda soon after the Iranian revolution in 1979. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world witnessed the evolution of the language of “Islamic terrorism” through the collaborative engagement between neoconservatives globally and Orientalists. Kumar also shows that the differences between the neoconservative and the liberal camps in the United States regarding Islam and Muslims quickly closed after 11 September 2011.

Global powers uses the agenda of subjugation and destruction of the internal “other” in order to create public opinion in favour of their international policies and in the US, policies and views that link the external Muslim enemy to the internal homegrown terrorist abound. Kumar was working on this book in 2011 during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement. Her experience as an activist in the United States shows that those important political events are changing the image of ordinary Muslims throughout the world.
The book offers a good critique of contemporary power and empire and has a broad Marxist orientation which uses the traditional framework of political economy that is based on economic and political analysis. The advantage of this framework is that it provides a good critique of contemporary capitalist order and the book largely succeeded in this. The problem is that it inevitably views the non-European world as a supplement of European capitalism. In this sense, it ignores the language of resistance from the non- European world. Kumar, for example, describes Islamist movements as either allies or enemies of the US from the fifties to the present day. She is more interested in the power of the US capitalism and liberal politics than the complexities of language of resistance generated by Islamists movements. Thus, one can ask why we are always compelled to consider the subjugating power of capitalism in the non- European world as a central political reality rather than the resistance to it?

Book Details

Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: Haymarket Books (August 7, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1608462110
ISBN-13: 978-1608462117
Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 5.3 x 8.2 inches

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Posted in: Books