The US policy on Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ is in tatters. For over a decade the most advanced, sophisticated and lethal military machine the world has ever known wreaked death and destruction on the people of Iraq. The dictator Saddam Hussein was gone, the Islamist leader Osama Bin-Laden had been caught and killed, Al-Qaeda soldiers routed and Iraq was undergoing a transition to Western democracy where all citizens would be respected. Western intervention had made the world safe. And suddenly out of nowhere, a new generation of jihadists have emerged – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – on the ashes and debris of a failed Syrian revolt to overthrow Assad and a US occupation and imposed political elite in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now public enemy number one as were Al-Qaeda and the Taliban before it. Barack Obama has vowed ‘to degrade and destroy’ ISIS, a group described as ‘monsters’ by David Cameron who later went on to say that destroying the extremist ideology they represent was the struggle of our generation.
In this climate, the publication of Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims Are Coming is particularly welcome. It challenges the widespread notion amongst policy makers and government agencies that there is a causal link between Islamist ideology and committing violent terrorist acts. As well as reminding the reader how impressionistic, lazy and superficial such commentary is, Kundnani charts how the discourse of ‘radicalisation’ has come to dominate Western thinking about Islamism and Islam, a discourse shared by heads of states, government officials, policy makers, academics and journalists.
The book takes apart the radicalisation models that dominate the ‘thinking’ of the authorities in Western states. Radicalisation theorists provide what policy makers demand – an easy and digestible set of simple explanations for what are complex problems. A plethora of think tanks and university departments devoted to ‘Terrorism Studies’ and ‘War Studies’ had been set up in the wake of 9/11 to attract government funding for national security research. The task was simple: to identify those indicators that ‘made’ a terrorist. The approach is predicated on the belief that certain factors can be isolated which can lead some individuals towards Islamism. These factors include: the growing of a beard, wearing certain clothing and so on.
Kundnani provides a detailed survey of the scholarship that has provided intellectual credibility to discourses on ‘terrorism’ studies in the US. One such academic is Walter Laqueur, a ‘seasoned Washington insider’ whose pedigree includes being Israel’s representative in the 1950s to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. Kundnani notes how Laqueur’s explanation for the attack on the twin towers lies in ‘a religious commandment – jihad and the establishment of sharia’ and this is due to ‘a cultural-psychological predisposition’. His ilk view Europe as the ‘most vulnerable battlefield’; as the ‘main base of terrorist support groups’. American political think tanks and academics based in Defence/War Studies and Terrorist Studies departments work in tangent with officials from the White House, Pentagon and the spooks in the CIA and US corporations such as the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD).
The FDD published a ‘study’ in 2009 based on data obtained from statements from detained and imprisoned individuals, trial transcripts and newspaper reports. On the basis of this information they proceed to identify clusters of indicators with the most occurrence to suggest a shared trajectory of radicalisation. These indicators include behavioural changes such as the adoption of a legalistic interpretation of Islam; trusting an ideologically rigid religious authority; believing Islam and the West to be irreconcilable; perceiving other religious attitudes as deviant; attempting to impose religious beliefs on others and expressing radical political views. The first five are seen to derive from ‘religious’ ideology and so Kundnani states that there are glaring problems with this type of study. In purporting to be a study about psychological and theological factors it is curious how it does not include a control group of ‘non-terrorists’ to assess and compare whether religious manifestation is in any way associated with terror acts, while relying upon trial transcripts and newspaper reports is highly problematic.
The last indicator of political radicalisation scores the highest but rather than examine the factors that might lead to this radicalisation, the authors read religious zealotry into every attribute. The FDD is one of several neoconservative pressure groups established in the wake of 9/11. This particular study was funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, who donated more than $1.2 million to the Project for the New American Century. Other theories locate radicalisation in friendship and kinship ties and so Marc Sageman argues that the most striking feature of a jihadist profile is that ‘joining the global Islamist terrorism social movement was based to a great degree on friendship and kinship’. So a group of friends, family members either decide to collectively join a terrorist outfit or they join a childhood friend who is already a terrorist. Either way, social bonds come before ideological commitment. In this scholarship dangerous religious ideas and identities are activated by group dynamics that transform individuals into terrorists.
Kundnani is critical of these psychological theories that seek to pathologise Muslim behaviour. Even the more liberal wing of the US response to radicalisation is predicated on highly dubious thinking. They may talk in terms of the use of ‘soft power’ as opposed to the gung-ho lunacy of the ‘bomb and bomb until annihilation’ position, but this implies the managing of radicalisation in terms of ‘neutralising’ it. Sageman’s work and that of others on social networks has been most influential in guiding the policies of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The New York Police Department developed its strategy based on theoretical formulations of Sagemen and identified four stages to the radicalisation process: pre-radicalisation; self-identification; indoctrination and jihadisation. And each of these has a set of indicators that allow for predictions to be made about future terrorist risks. So stage two of self-identification includes giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes; wearing traditional Islamic clothing and growing a beard. Even though the study admits that this behaviour is ‘subtle and not criminal’ it nevertheless maintains that to identify individuals at risk requires intelligence gathering on such targets. Kundnani points out this entails the use of recruited informants referred to as ‘mosque crawlers’ and undercover officers known as ‘rakers’ to spy upon would-be terrorists. And what they are trying to detect is any ‘hostility to the United States’. A former informant has exposed how the NYPD use a strategy called ‘create and capture’ which entails initiating conversations about jihad and violence and then capturing the response and sending it to the police intelligence Unit. Informant activities include collection of names attending mosques or study groups on Islam but also sending undercover operatives to student protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza in January 2009. This student informant was rewarded with a thousand dollars a month for his efforts!
The British Government’s Prevent strategy has been deployed in a similar vein. Greater Manchester Police have set up an anti-extremist project called Channel, which is part of the Prevent Violent Extremism programme. This is predicated on profiling young people thought to be at risk of radicalisation. It entails high levels of surveillance that seeks to incorporate police officers, teachers, youth workers, health workers, and social workers. Under this strategy would-be radicals would be identified and then offered counselling, mentoring and religious instruction to counter the effects of radicalisation. In some cases individuals were moved and re-housed to prevent them from ‘bad’ influences. One individual, Jameel, identified as at risk, was visited by police at his aunt’s house and asked about his political activity, which included attending anti-war meetings, Love Music Hate Racism and Unite Against Fascism events. Kundnani notes how between 2007-2010 this resulted in 1,120 individuals being identified as potential radicals. Out of this, 290 were under 16, fifty-five were under 12 and over 90 per cent were Muslim. And by 2012 almost 2,500 people were identified by the Channel project as possible risks. Jameel’s assessment of such intrusions are most revealing: he states the police officers, who albeit friendly, were operating with vague concepts that were ‘not an attempt to curb terrorism [but] an attempt at de-politicisation, spreading fear, and making people actually feel unsafe around their neighbours.’ Herein lays the real motive behind this approach: viewing dissent as extremism and therefore equal to terrorism. These initiatives are based on the same psychological and theological theories of their US counterparts. In other words, there is no attempt to consider what is happening at a deeper level of politics. To consider political motives such as anger at continuous wars and Western interference in the Middle East would be to entertain the possibility that what is at fault is Western state policy and corporate and military interests. And this cannot be permitted.
Initially the British (Labour) government welcomed the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 1997 as a moderate and non-political umbrella organisation. However, it began to lose state patronage after the 2003 invasion of Iraq as MCB voiced strong criticism of British policy. They were not alone. Kundnani provides an example from the Bolton Council of Mosques which has been generously endowed with Prevent money and works in tandem with police authorities. In March 2010, when the English Defence League (EDL) planned a demonstration in the town, representatives of the Mosque Council agreed with the police to issue a call to discourage Muslims from entering the city centre that day. As Kundnani concludes, the real enemy for the police that day was not the racism and extremism of the EDL, but the fear that their presence would provoke ‘radicalisation’ amongst Muslim youth, and the right of Muslims to protest ‘was dispensed with’.
In Britain, Kundnani tracks the growth of a ‘reformist’ approach to tackling ‘radicalisation’, one which prides itself on championing the supposed liberal values of ‘good, decent, law abiding’ Muslims as opposed to extremists who have distorted Islam. They also assume that by data collection, intelligence gathering and counter knowledge they can identify and neutralise those considered ‘at risk’, while demanding Muslims ‘integrate’ and demonstrate that they share ‘British’ values and stand against ‘extremism’. The Quilliam Foundation for example was set up in April 2008 by Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, both former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Along with Husain’s 2007 book, The Islamist, this Foundation quickly became pivotal to the state and official narrative of terrorism that rooted radicalisation in the politicisation of Islam as opposed to issues such as the Iraq war. A key activity of these think tanks and those that lead them has been to generate lists of Muslims at ‘risk’ of potential radicalisation and encourage the policy of persuading professionals in the state sector to report to the state. What emerges is a frightening picture of organisations operating in a completely unaccountable manner and individuals left with little redress or protection.
Kundnani makes the point forcefully that the bar for Muslims to be accepted into the mainstream is raised so high that it makes a mockery of so called Western values of tolerance, equality and democratic rights. Muslims are effectively told they can only be accepted so long as they give up the right to behave as other citizens and remain aloof from political participation, do not express opinions contrary to government policy and above all surrender their right to express and practice their faith like any other citizen.
One key merit of this book is how Kundnani demonstrates that counter-intelligence, the use of informants, surveillance, entrapment, character assassination are part and parcel of a long established strategy by the state. He makes several comparisons with the McCarthyism of the late 1940s and 1950s, and the title of the book The Muslims are Coming is deliberately reminiscent of the great 1966 film ‘The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming’, satirising the McCarthyite paranoia that swept the US in the 1950s. This was a period in which former radicals became turncoats and were more than willing to testify against former comrades and friends, or become informants. Kundnani notes that by 1970 the NYPD had collected dossiers on 1.2 million New Yorkers, which it shared with private investigators, academics and prospective employers.
The term ‘Cold War liberalism’ was coined to characterise liberals who shared a broad social democratic world view but believed that American security lay in strident and militarised anti-communism abroad and suppression of ‘communist’ tendencies at home. Just as communism was public enemy number one for the post-war era, Islam and Islamism has come to replace communism in the post 1992 period with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The goal now was the suppression of radical tendencies at home.
The book also focuses on the ‘culturalist’ right, who reject and are suspicious of community partnerships, and of working with groups like the Quilliam Foundation. For them there is no such entity as a ‘moderate Muslim’ and they view every Muslim as a suspicious ‘enemy within’. Any rapport with moderate community leaders is seen as pandering to the enemies of the West. For these neo-conservatives, Islam itself is the problem and is held as incompatible with Western values and culture. The fear of Europe in particular becoming the transmission belt for ‘Eurabia’ is the fantastical nightmare of hard-line conservatives and based on old fashioned racism and xenophobia. Kundnani defines culturalists as those who believe ‘jihadist violence is rooted in Islamic texts, teachings and interpretations that constitute sharia’. They see Islam as a theocratic, totalitarian political ideology; as a fifth column infiltrating American schools, universities financial institutions, the armed forces and the political establishment. They tend to gloss over the fact that if anyone preaches literal interpretations of texts it is the fundamentalist Christian right. The irrationality of a position that on the one hand Muslims refuse to integrate but on the other they are burrowing their way deep into the fabric of American society is breath-taking. This is the hallmark of previous racist and Nazi organisations who blame immigrants for taking jobs whilst simultaneously living on welfare and being work shy. The chief purpose of this for Kundnani is that it applies pressure on liberals to abandon any defence of civil liberties. The framing of Muslims as the chief problem for Western society has developed in layers as older stereotypes have been utilised and built upon to crystallise narratives of terrorism as Islamic. Politicians have accepted the narrative of multiculturalism being the problem as making too many concessions to minorities.
In the culturalist view Islam is completely incompatible with Western values and all Muslims are the problem. The publication of Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan demonstrates what the right perceives to be the critical issue confronting Europe – the dangers of a Muslim presence that is viewed as pernicious and perilous for civilisation. According to public figures, once positioned on the left and progressive camps such as Salman Rushdie, Melanie Phillips, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, Britain is full of ghettoised Muslim communities that are insular and fundamentalist in their outlook. Their high fertility rates threaten to change the very fabric of British society and turn it into ‘Londonistan’. Kundnani notes how American perceptions of Europe generally and Britain specifically, are shaped by such distorted stereotypes.
Where all this leads can be seen when Kundnani describes the state violence of Guantanamo Bay and the torture chambers of extra-rendition – the horrific recent detainment, abuse and constant surveillance of Moazzam Begg is but one very public example of this. The counter-productive nature of these strategies is clear – it breeds suspicion and resentment as communities begin to see each other as suspects and traitors. All manner of things become justified in the name of defending Western civilisation, and the baying of the right is all too visible in the US itself. In 2010 plans were leaked for the building of a Muslim community centre in Manhattan. The right went berserk with a right wing talk show host declaring on national TV ‘I hope the mosque isn’t built, and if it is, I hope it’s blown up and I mean that’. This had repercussions in other areas. In Houston, the wealthy, upper middle class enclave of Katy is home to the oil and gas corporations. A large number of highly skilled, corporate professionals have been recruited from overseas as residents and many of these are Muslims from South Asia, the Middle East and even the UK. Planning permission had been given for a Mosque and community centre in Katy. But it led to animosity and outbursts. Pig racing competitions were organised near the mosque site, beer bottles were left in the mosque driveway and ‘Islam is evil’ was daubed on walls near the site. These words remained there for two years! An Arab-American primary school child needed surgery after his jaw was broken in a racist attack where he was taunted with the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslims go home’.
Kundnani rightly suggests that the far-right and fascist parties have benefited from the ‘culturalist’ and ‘reformist’ discourse on radicalisation and the war on terror. Rather than creating greater understanding and tolerance, the political terrain has been further pushed to the right over questions on immigration. In the UK it is UKIP that has benefited, creating an even larger space for racist ideas to grow. The official narrative of Islamophobia is the oxygen that fascists breed in. Kundnani correctly identifies the BNP and EDL as Nazis. He points to the connections between Islamophobes, right wingers, fascists and right wing Zionists. He notes Vlaams Blok, a Belgium neo-fascist group, has formed links with the Israeli right. Their leader, Filip Dewinter, visits Israel regularly and believes that Europe’s 20-30 million Muslims are a Trojan horse. Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, had called for a ban on the Qur’an and when he visits Israel, demands the annexation of the entire West Bank and forcing Palestinians further off their land.
Kundnani points to interconnections between US right wing bloggers and commentators such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, founders of the Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America. These groups were labelled hate groups by UK government officials, who barred Geller’s entry into the UK in 2013. Their co-authored book The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America in 2010 is indicative of the hatred they hold for Obama’s ‘liberalism’. Another right-wing extremist is Bat Ye’or whose Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis makes the outlandish claim that European politicians want to facilitate Muslim immigration into Europe to subjugate Europe and turn the continent into an Arab colony – Eurabia! This theme unites the likes of Melanie Phillips and Niall Ferguson with the Vlaams Blok, the Freedom Party, the Front National in France and the EDL. The whole sharia conspiracy of the Islamicisation of Europe is akin to the Jewish conspiracy nonsense of the twentieth century.
The politics of demonising Muslims and viewing Islam as an alien ideology has been with us at least since 9/11, but its antecedents go back much further to narratives of foreigners with an apparently alien culture, and values apparently inimical to ‘Western’ ones. Whereas one hundred years ago we had the so-called ‘Jewish conspiracy’ of the Protocols of Zion so too we now have the lunacy of a Muslim conspiracy to take over Europe. Cultural markers associated with ‘Muslimness’ such as forms of dress, rituals and language are turned into racial signifiers. In this way Islamophobia is analogous to anti-Semitism and is inseparable from the wider and longer history of racism.
The book explores the differences between US and British experiences. The US system of multiculturalism as ethnic and national identity of Italian American or Arab American or Pakistani Americans leads to differences in terms of movements against racism and so such a movement of solidarity is lacking amongst Arab and Muslim Americans. This is chiefly due to differences in class and ethnic make-up. Most Arabs were seen as white in terms of ‘assimilation and social fluidity,’ but as one activist noted, ‘9/11 took away their social white card’. There are class and ethnic differences between the US and Britain in terms of Muslim communities. In Britain the composition of Muslims is largely working class of South Asian origin. This is in part due to the pattern of migration and settlement in the post war period with people coming from former colonies to settle in Britain and take up employment in mostly manual work in the NHS, London transport, the textile mills of north England and in factories. The US experience is one of a more heterogeneous presence and drawn from the Middle East and Africa, South East Asia as well as South Asia. Muslims have been predominantly professional and middle class. The different approaches taken to multi-culturalism also help to explain divergences – the history of anti-racism and struggles against racism in Britain are quite distinctive in comparison to the US.
This is an immensely valuable book that charts in detail the systematic ways in which the state has prosecuted its counter-terrorist strategy, identifying the shift in Islamophobia from an external threat to becoming an internal problem for a West focused on Muslims within America and Europe. It provides a strong theoretical critique of culturalist and reformist paradigms that have underpinned strategies of counter-terrorism. Kundnani makes a compelling case for how Obama’s liberalism has normalised the war on terror, and Obama’s presidency has rescued a discredited, counter-productive foreign policy and given a new lease of life to the war on terror. ‘Neoconservatives invented the terror war, but Obama liberalism normalised it’, he says.
I would highly recommend it to all those who wish to counter Islamophobia today.