“The Muslims are Coming!” is the title of New York University academic Arun Kundnani’s new book that tackles the growing Islamophobia in Britain and the United States. “What I was hoping to do with the title is, by using this phrase ‘The Muslims are Coming!’, indicate the kind of history going back to the Cold War,” Kundnani tells Weekend Review. “And the phrase ‘The Muslims are Coming!’ was also the title of an Islamophobic article written by an American Islamophobic writer called Daniel Pipes in the 1990s. So I am trying to take that kind of Islamophobic slogan and be sarcastic with it and turn it around.”
There is another interesting story behind the title. In 1966 there was a comedy film “The Russians are Coming” depicting the Russian crew of a submarine that accidentally runs aground in a small American town — and the locals are worried about an invasion. “It shows the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War,” Kundnani says. “But even within that film which has that kind of liberal take on the Cold War, one of the consequences is that it becomes impossible for the Russians, the Communists, to actually be able to articulate their own ideology. The condition for them to be accepted by American liberals in the film is to depoliticise themselves. So that becomes a kind of allegory for what is happening now to Muslims, and part of the argument of the book is that for Muslims to be accepted in Western societies, they have to abandon any kind of political identity.”
I met Kundnani at the London offices of his publisher, Verso, over a cup of tea to discuss his latest offering. Kundnani is a former editor of the journal Race & Class. In the 1990s he worked on campaigns against racism affecting South Asian, African and Caribbean communities. Post 9/11 he became interested in how policies and ideas coming out of the war on terror affected Muslims in Britain, before turning his attention to the same issue in the US. For his book, which he started researching in 2010, he reckons he must have interviewed hundreds of people.
In “The Muslims are Coming!”, Kundnani sheds light on mass surveillance of Muslims in America and Britain, the infiltration of the community by agent provocateurs and the sense of fear preventing many Muslims from voicing their political views openly. Importantly Kundnani’s work challenges some of the widely held thinking in counter-radicalisation circles in Britain and the US by highlighting how difficult it is to know for sure if someone is a terrorist.
An interesting aspect of Kundnani’s work is his critique of the liberal strategy of dealing with terrorism. “We have become quite familiar with the neo-conservatives and their idea of a Clash of Civilisations which basically says the world is divided into different civilisations defined by their culture. West is one civilisation, Islamic is another civilisation, and the two are inevitably going to come to conflict because of their fundamentally different cultural values. That agenda formed the Bush years. And I think we have understood the kind of intellectual flaws within that model and also we have in a way challenged it politically and delegitimised it to some extent.”
On the other hand Kundnani feels we haven’t spent much time thinking about liberal arguments in this area. “The liberal argument is that there is no problem with Islam itself,” he says, “but there is a problem with particular interpretations of Islam that are labelled ‘extremist’ and those are a rejection of liberal values. And so we need to define ourselves by our liberal values and oppose this form of extremism and try and win over the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims to accept the liberal values and unite ‘moderate’ Muslims and the rest of us against the people who fit our definition of ‘extremists’. That model is actually the dominant model of how counter-terrorism is carried out and how the wider political debate is framed.” Kundnani feels this is not a very compelling account of what causes terrorism. It assumes there is some kind of radical religious ideology that is the root cause of terrorism. “If you look at the past few years millions of pounds and dollars have been spent by the US and UK government to try and find some sort of academic evidence for a link between radical religious ideology and violence. And actually there is very little compelling evidence that could substantiate that link.”
To understand the causes of terrorism you need to look at the wider political context, he says. “But that then gets us into the uncomfortable position of having to think about the implications of our own political choices of our government, foreign policies and so forth. And so instead of getting into that debate people prefer just to speak about religious ideology as the only problem here.”
In the media, the word ‘terrorist’ has become closely associated with Muslims. Is there a better way of using the word? “The way the word ‘terrorism’ is always used is to identify particular kinds of non-state actor, and to morally condemn their violence while turning a blind eye to the violence of states or other kinds of non-state violence.
“That is why when you label someone a terrorist there is always a kind of political subtext to that, and also often a racial subtext,” Kundnani says. “Now can the word be rescued in some way and used objectively? I am open to that possibility. You could define terrorism as the unlawful killing of civilians. And that is fine. If you do that then most of what we would want to label terrorism is violence carried out by states. Because if we think about civilians killed, the numbers of civilians killed by states is far greater than the number of civilians killed by non-state actors.”
Much of the state violence that we see in the world would be considered war crimes under international law because it does target civilians, notes Kundnani. “So, for example, the so-called shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad in 2003 was not about taking out military targets. It was about intimidating the civilian population. That is why it was called shock and awe, it was trying to create some kind of emotional effect. It was trying to create fear, which is exactly what terrorism is about.” Similarly Kundnani cites the drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, where the US is not officially involved.
If the word “terrorism” is to be used, argues Kundnani, it should also be used for violence that is race- and gender-based. “Every week in Britain two women are killed in an incident of domestic violence — similar numbers in America. That domestic violence effectively has a political meaning. It is about physical control. It is about trying to maintain gender inequality and punish women who challenge that. It clearly sends a message of fear to women that ultimately they may face this violence from men. So again that looks like terrorism, it is violence aimed to communicate some sort of message.”
Kundnani feels there is a preference to speak about religious ideology as the only problem instead of a debate on politics or foreign policy. But if political grievances were acknowledged as a key driver towards creating terrorists, won’t that encourage more terrorism or be seen to be pandering to them?
“I think terrorism is the product of closing down political space, political engagement and political participation,” he says “So, think about the end of 19th century when you had anarchist bombers. All of them were veterans of Paris communes. A moment of political defeat gives rise to terrorism, such as the IRA in Northern Ireland. They start to get involved in violence when the civil rights movement, non-violent movement are suppressed, right? Similarly, the African National Congress turned to campaign of bombing and sabotage once the peaceful attempt to fight apartheid was suppressed. So this is the pattern you see. If that is right then creating opportunities for people to advance their political agendas through non-violent means is actually the best way of reducing the risk of terrorism.”
Working on this book was there anything which surprised Kundnani? “Travelling to America from Britain, one of the interesting things for me was the question of the First Amendment to the American Constitution which defines freedom of religion and freedom of expression as a fundamental value,” he says. “And looking at America from Britain you always think that is something potentially quite helpful because you don’t have a written constitution in Britain that defines those rights. And I guess one of the surprising things was really seeing how in terms of practice on the ground how little difference that First Amendment to Constitution made in terms of the rights that people actually enjoy. That was something I wasn’t expecting.”
Is he saying they don’t have those rights? “I am saying the First Amendment to the Constitution is actually a surprisingly limited barrier to the erosion of those rights when you have this wider climate of the war on terror and where you racialise groups and say that for some reason they can be an exception to the normal liberal principles that you want to apply.”
- Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.