Dawid KRAWCZYK: Do you remember your initial reaction to the news about the Paris attacks on November 13?
Arun KUNDNANI: Sadness. And fear. The usual sadness that you feel for the victims. And the fear of ratcheting up islamophobia, militarization, and far-right politics in Europe once again. And the other thing is how the attacks have been mobilized on social media. Suddenly you see the tricolor flag on everyone’s profiles and you see Amazon doing that on their homepage. What was distressing to me about that was that it dirties or corrupts what should be an organic emotional reaction to this event. Suddenly, it became a spectacle of Western victimhood. I wanted to straightforwardly learn the story of what people went through, but instead I had to also think about this spectacle.
And what kind of reactions prevailed in the US?
We took it and owned it as if it were an attack on America.
What do you mean?
Arun KUNDNANIis an Adjunct Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Leiden University, Netherlands, an Open Society Fellow, and editor of the journal Race and Class. He is the author of The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain and The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror. He lives in New York.
Conservatives have a narrative in the United States that what happens in Europe are warning signs for the future of the US in relation to Islam. That was significant in the way the Paris attacks were interpreted here. The same thing happened with Charlie Hebdo. It was the biggest news story in January here in the United States. All that my students wanted to talk about was the attack on Charlie Hebdo. We don’t pay so much attention to other places in the world as victims of terrorism. It’s only Europe, or France in particular.
Why is it France?
Here in the US, France especially – but England as well – are seen as the countries that “allowed too many Muslims in.” After the attacks you could hear that this is what is going to happen to us if we don’t introduce tough measures to prevent immigration. After Charlie Hebdo, you would see reporting that said – and I’m talking about the New York Times – that attacks took place in France where the Muslim population is twelve percent. As if there were a cause and effect between the number of Muslims in a country and the likelihood of terrorism.
And who is trying to gain politically from all of this?
We have two leading Republican candidates, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, who have made islamophobia central to their campaigns. Two or three years ago, you wouldn’t have heard leading Republican primary candidates saying the kinds of things they are saying. A few months ago, Carson started talking about how he wouldn’t have a Muslim serving in his government, unless they underwent a special check. The main theme was sharia conspiracy theories, which claim that the American government has been secretly infiltrated by Muslims who want to establish sharia law in the US. Trump did a little bit of the same thing, just adding that there are lots of things we need to look at, including mosques that are radicalizing Muslims. What was important before the Paris attacks was that their language was always bureaucratic in the way they phrased it. None of them said “All Muslims are dangerous” or “Islam is a dangerous religion.” After November 13, it began to change. What you see from Carson now is the idea of special ID cards for Muslims. Trump supported it as well, and now he wants to ban Muslims from coming to the US.
What about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton? What are the Democrats doing about this?
Bernie Sanders has gone out of his way to take an explicit stand against islamophobia and that is to be commended. And Hillary? She represents the more mainstream Democratic Party response, which is the logic of “Guys, we got this under control. You don’t need to rock the boat by giving extremists ammunition.” It’s a very specific, pragmatic argument that says the problem is not racism in America but the risk of helping the enemy. What you don’t see from Hillary Clinton obviously is any understanding of the fact that what Trump and Carson are doing is reflecting back trends that have existed in mainstream American society for a long time. And it has been enabled by the Democrats as much as the Republicans. I mean, what is the underlying narrative of Trump and Carson? Basically that there is such a thing as Islamic extremism and it is in America, and it is a threat, and we are not being tough enough tackling it. Actually, that’s what everyone in the American government and in mainstream American society has been saying continuously. So, there is not as much clear ground on this issue between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as you might expect.
Presidential candidates are apparently not the only ones who want to get something out of the Paris attacks. The director of the FBI, James Comey, announced a few days after the attacks that the person responsible for them is… Edward Snowden.
Yes, you are talking about the debate on encryption that is now going on in the US. There is this argument that the Paris attacks proved that the NSA and FBI need to be able to read encrypted messages. But we don’t actually know if the Paris attackers used encryption. I think that, in general with the surveillance debate, what is really important is what we are not talking about.
And what is that?
Do you know how Muslim students and Muslim communities are being surveilled? It is not only through electronic surveillance, but also through having undercover informants in those communities. That’s actually the most frightening surveillance you can do, because it gets inside the relationships within the community. Then you start to question whom you can trust and you start to notice that people have stopped talking about political topics within the community.
Do you think that the Paris attacks have begun a new era of the war on terror in the US and in Europe? President Hollande’s first words after the attacks sounded remarkably strong: war, military response, state of emergency – which is still in effect, by the way.
I wasn’t really surprised by what he said. That’s a standard script right now.
Okay, but the heads of state do not always proclaim war after a terrorist attack.
Maybe they don’t say it explicitly every time, but the logic of what Hollande said is in perfect agreement with this post-9/11 logic, which is: the rules of the game have changed, and that’s why we need a state of emergency and a military response. That is exactly what you had from Tony Blair after 7/7.
And the reaction of the public – this hysteria that I have seen after my arrival in the U.S. – is standard as well? Standing in line at the airport, I was watching Anderson Cooper reporting from Brussels for CNN. It looked like the coverage of a civil war. And at some point breaking news showed up on the screen reading that some of the attackers from Paris most probably entered the US. I saw really terrified people in this line.
When I say that I feel that it is a standard response from the government, I don’t mean that there is no panic which translates into an upsurge in islamophobia. Of course there is. And it has been reported that in the US and in England as well, there are more attacks on mosques and women wearing the hijab. But I think it’s mistaken to believe that after Paris we are in a new era. The war on terror has lasted more than fourteen years. And the underlying assumptions of this war have failed. There are more people dying in this violence than there were fourteen years ago. A clear, objective policy failure. You know, what’s striking to me is that no one is saying: “Let’s take a step back and work out what went wrong.” Everyone is just saying that we didn’t apply the policies hard enough. It’s like the people who defended the Soviet Union in the 70’s and 80’s saying: “Yeah, they are having problems but because they haven’t pushed their communism hard enough. It’s just a matter of time before it will work out.” It’s the same logic: magical thinking. I do wish there were new rules set after the Paris attacks. But there are none.
You said that the underlying assumptions of the war on terror have failed. What are these assumptions?
We have these radicalization models that have been developed by think tanks and academic departments that are linked to the national security apparatus and intelligence agencies. Those radicalization models are supposed to explain what causes someone to become a terrorist. They tend to make two assumptions. One is that we now live in the era of a religiously motivated terrorism and it’s completely different in the way it works from earlier forms of political violence. So, none of the lessons of the 20th century about political violence can apply anymore. And then the second assumption is that what causes someone to become a terrorist is a particular kind of religious ideology coming from Islam.
And what about terrorists that bomb abortion clinics or neo-Nazi militants?
In my research, I came across one or two exceptions where people compare the far-right to Islamists. But overwhelmingly, these studies always look at Islamic terrorism and they do not even do a control group where you could compare Islamists who are not terrorists and these Islamists who are terrorists. The methodology is totally flawed, but these models have become the official way of thinking. They are used in surveillance systems to tell you what to look for. And it is easier to look for a religious ideology than it is to look for actual terrorists.
How do you become a terrorist, according to these models?
The most interesting theories of radicalization talk about the interaction between ideology and psychology. They would say that there is a psychological process that opens you up to being radicalized by ideology. And they say that you can see certain signs of radicalization, such as following Islam with high religiosity, so if you suddenly grow a beard, if you start wearing “Islamic clothing,” you have probably been radicalized.
You say that it’s not so simple.
In Britain and the United States, for many young people there is no other language to talk about imperialism except the one that jihadists are offering.
It’s not. If you look at the people who are involved in acts of mass violence, like the Paris attacks or Charlie Hebdo, it’s going to be a range of stories. In some of those cases you may have some individuals who have a fairly worked out ideology, but more likely, you have people who have no ideology, really, if by ideology we mean a fairly systematic world-view that we can call Islamic in some sense. More often it is a simple narrative rather than ideology. This narrative says: the West is at war with Islam and the world is divided into these two camps, and I have to choose which side I’m on, so I’m choosing to be a combatant on the side of Islam rather than on the side of the West. In my book, I made an argument based on solid research on the ground in Britain and the United States, that for many young people there is no other language to talk about imperialism except the one that jihadists are offering. The left has been suburbanized, academicized, and has abandoned huge constituencies of working class people of color in the US and the UK. And one of the consequences is it creates a political vacuum that has been filled in a political way by the jihadists.
Theories of radicalization all assume that worldviews or ideas of extremism flow like a virus from person to person. Whereas my argument would be that the appeal of this narrative is linked to the political and social context, linked ultimately to things like racism and poverty. And when you aim to analyze what the process is that someone has gone through to make them willing to carry out acts of violence, first you need to understand that this violence is relational. We are also carrying out acts of violence and also our government is radicalized.
The emergence of the so-called Islamic State hasn’t changed anything? It seems a bit hard to pretend that what the US Army did in Iraq does not have anything to do with that.
It’s not as hard as you might think. For conservatives, ISIS is just the latest expression of the inherent nature of Islam.
And they do not connect the American invasion on Iraq with the emergence of ISIS?
Not really. In liberal foreign policy circles, there would be a kind of acknowledgment that one of the factors that made it possible for ISIS to emerge was the policy in Iraq. Even Tony Blair now agrees with that. But that’s not the same as saying as saying “ISIS is a monster that we’ve created.” I don’t think the mainstream in the United States understands the extent of devastation that was caused by the Iraq war in 2003. When you are looking at the hundreds of thousands of people killed, when you look at the complete destruction of Iraq and its effect on neighboring countries – there is little sense of what that means and what it feels like. That’s why the predominant explanation for the emergence of ISIS stays the same: that there is this inherent tendency in the Middle East for these extremist groups to emerge. Liberals add only that we can make their emergence more or less likely according to the wisdom of our policy choices. But the logic is that the extremist threat is there in the region anyway, irrespective of our policy.
When did this kind of thinking start? Since when is the Middle East perceived as the hotbed of Islamic terrorists? Was 9/11 the starting point?
No, I would look back to the 1970’s, particularly if your focus is the US. Then you would start to see some of the stereotypes emerging in the US media around the Gulf state oil embargo. It’s around this time when you start to see efforts by the pro-Israel lobby here to portray Arabs as inherently fanatical. When Binyamin Netanyahu was Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, he set up an infrastructure in the US to promote the idea that the greatest threat to the world is terrorism and Islam has a special relationship with terrorism. Conferences were organized one after another in the US by Netanyahu’s foundation that had been set up with that agenda. Already in the 1970s, when Arab Americans were organizing support for Palestine, the US national security agencies were in partnership with Israel and treating these activists as potential terrorists. The Anti-Defamation League, which is meant to be an organization that challenges antisemitism, took part in it as well. It started to collect information about Arab activists and share that with the FBI and similar organizations, trying to present them as anti-Semitic.
And then 9/11 happened and Islamophobia exploded in the US as never before.
I’m not sure it was such a game changer. If you look at the 1990s you already had a number of organizations out there actively promoting islamophobia, producing these videos trying to say there is an inherent connection between being a terrorist and being Muslim. Certainly, 9/11 changed the enforcement policies and the intensity of the discourse but it’s underlying structure had already been established. On the other hand you could clearly see the attempt to merge issues of border control and the terrorist threat. That started to have an effect on any group that was perceived to be connected to undocumented immigration – so, Latinos suddenly got wrapped up in this story.
Wait a minute, what do Latinos have to do with Islamic terrorism?
A fantasy keeps popping up in conservative discourse that Hezbollah is smuggling itself into the United States through the border with Mexico. The argument is that huge numbers of people are crossing this border in undocumented ways and we let Hezbollah in because our borders are not strong enough. Generally, Islamophobia is a perfect discourse to enable things that in other ways would be unacceptable.
What do you have in mind?
Racism for example. It is unacceptable in the mainstream to attack President Obama for being black, but instead one can say maybe he’s a secret Muslim who infiltrated the White House and Muslims are already running the US. This is still a racial argument but it works in a way that can escape the straightforward charge of racism. Like twentieth-century European antisemitism, islamophobia is always about conspiracy theories.
And why do you think Muslims have been cast in this role of the scapegoat?
I think it goes back to America’s relationship with Israel. Islamophobia is everywhere right now – in the United States, Poland, Britain, Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand. All these places had their way into that story through their local history and myths, but it is always being reworked through the global story of Islamophobia that came from Israeli influence in the United States. The United States has considered the Middle East the one region in the world over the last thirty or forty years that has appeared to be the most resistant to the American empire, with the Palestinian struggle being at the heart of that. So, within the United States, we needed some ideological explanation for why that is. Modern empires always choose a racial explanation. The claim made is that the Arabs are resisting our presence because they are just inherently fanatical and violent, and too primitive to understand the benefits of what we can give them. So we tell ourselves this racial story about the nature of Arabs and, at some point, that became a story about the nature of Muslims in general.