Islamophobia in the US is rooted in its unconditional support for Israel
Anti-Muslim racism rests on a simple truth: to justify US foreign policy in the Middle East – in particular, support for Israel’s system of apartheid and military occupation – requires a dehumanisation of its victims.
Rather than see the Palestinian movement as rooted in a struggle for freedom from oppression, it has been convenient to think that Arabs or Muslims are by nature fanatical and violent. All modern colonialisms imply racism; Zionist colonialism is no different.
To see this more clearly, think back to 2016, when anti-Muslim sentiment in the US was strong enough to propel Donald Trump all the way to the White House.
His call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” lifted his campaign out of the margins and won him his party’s nomination, at a time when almost half of Republicans believed most of the world’s Muslims were Islamic State supporters.
Scholars and commentators who have tried to explain the power of this Islamophobia in US culture fall into three camps.
"I do not think that racism, a distinctively modern form of organised domination, can be explained as a natural psychological reaction to political violence. Nor do I think the historical record shows a continuous Islamophobia in US history"
The first camp says anti-Muslim racism is a spontaneous reaction to 9/11 and the other violent acts carried out in this century by groups claiming to act in the name of Islam. In this view, human beings are hardwired to fear other tribes whose members are belligerent – and Trump exploited that simple psychological process.
The second camp argues, on the contrary, that anti-Muslim racism has a much longer history in the US. These scholars claim that a notion of Muslims as menacing figures was inserted into the US’s cultural DNA at its founding.
The fear of the Muslim extremist that has been so profuse in this century is, they say, just the current form of this ancient American prejudice.
Along with some other scholars, I have taken a different view. I do not think that racism, a distinctively modern form of organised domination, can be explained as a natural psychological reaction to political violence. Nor do I think the historical record shows a continuous Islamophobia in US history.
To me, two facts seem crucial: the dependence of the world economy on Arab oil and the fear that Arab nationalism or Islamic radicalism might gain control of that oil and leverage it as a political weapon.
After 1967, the Palestinian struggle became one of the most widely supported liberation movements. Then, in 1973, six Arab oil-producing states announced an embargo on shipping oil to the US until Israel evacuated the Palestinian territories it had occupied in 1967.
The Gulf Arab elites were not acting out of deep solidarity: they suspended their embargo after a few months with no gains for the Palestinians. But even a gesture in this direction sent shockwaves through the capitalist system, as the price of oil lurched upward.
In the house journal of the US foreign policy elite, Foreign Affairs, articles proclaimed Islam’s cultural incompatibility with modernity. Matters of Islamic jurisprudence were suddenly considered relevant to the stability of the international economy. The “Muslim problem” that is so familiar to us today had taken shape.
Then, in the early 1990s, with the Cold War over, intellectuals like Samuel P. Huntington and Bernard Lewis helped promote the view in Washington that the West now faced a “clash of civilizations” with Islam.
Huntington wrote that, with communism defeated, Islam was the “ideal enemy” for the US as it was “ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security.”
During the War on Terror, this dynamic was turbocharged. The US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – resulting in the slaughter of millions – intensified the need to portray Muslims as barbaric and dangerous.
The seeds of Trump’s 2016 victory were sown in Kandahar and Fallujah.
But four years later, the War on Terror was ostensibly over and stories of dangerous Muslims no longer dominated the headlines. Anti-Muslim rhetoric was almost entirely absent from Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
The American way of life was still under threat, he announced, but from the danger of “mob rule” by the “radical left.” Meanwhile China and Russia dominated the threat assessments churned out by Washington think tanks.
"But in the last few weeks, with an Israeli bombardment of Gaza unprecedented in scale, anti-Muslim propaganda and attacks have suddenly and forcefully returned to the US"
That did not mean that the infrastructures of US anti-Muslim racism were dismantled.
Guantánamo still operated, its prisoners destined to spend the rest of their lives caged as walking memorials to the War on Terror.
The statute books retained authoritarian counter-terrorism legislation – for example, enabling overreaching “material support” charges that criminalise Islamic speech and association. And the US military conducted counterterrorism operations in eighty-five countries between 2018 and 2020.
But in the last few weeks, with an Israeli bombardment of Gaza unprecedented in scale, anti-Muslim propaganda and attacks have suddenly and forcefully returned to the US.
In Plainfield, Illinois, 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume was murdered by a knife-wielding attacker who stabbed him and his mother dozens of times, yelling “you Muslims must die.”
In Cleveland, Ohio, a 20-year-old Palestinian American man was hospitalised after being rammed by a car whose driver reportedly shouted “Kill all Palestinians” and “Long live Israel.”
Meanwhile, FBI agents have been visiting mosques to ask leaders about any “troublemakers” in the community and there are calls to have the non-violent activist group Students for Justice for Palestine classified as a Hamas front, which would make its activities illegal.
Incidents such as these confirm, in the most awful way, the relationship between anti-Muslim racism and US foreign policy.
When the near-universal message proclaimed by the US establishment – from political representatives, to major news organisations, to leaders in Hollywood and Silicon Valley – is that Israel’s mass slaughter of Gazan civilians is simply an act of self-defence against terrorists, it is inevitable that anti-Muslim racism will intensify.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly described Hamas’s 7 October attacks as “our 9/11.” In fact, the comparison is implausible because Hamas’s goal is the end of Israeli occupation, whereas al-Qaeda advocated a global struggle for Islamic rule.
There is one way that the analogy to 9/11 does make sense. 9/11 was described as coming “out of the blue” as if there were no US foreign policy actions that created the conditions for the attack. Those who, in the days after 9/11, tried to speak of those conditions and context were denounced as apologists for terrorism.
Likewise, discussion of the broader structure of colonial oppression in Palestine has been censored in recent weeks. Those who have pointed out the decades-long history of Israeli violence were also denounced as terrorist supporters.
This means that much of the US public is given only one way to make sense of Hamas’ acts of violence: by laying the blame on Islamic culture.
Fortunately, history is not exactly repeating itself. Unlike the weeks after 9/11, when dissent barely existed, since 7 October protests have quickly erupted across the US, demanding a ceasefire and an end to US backing of Israel.
While the establishment media privileges the Israeli narrative, a growing number of people in the US are questioning the official story and embracing the Palestinian cause. And that should give us hope that anti-Muslim racism can be defeated.
Arun Kundnani is a writer based in Philadelphia. His most recent book is What is Antiracism? And Why it Means Anticapitalism (Verso, 2023).
Follow him on Twitter: @ArunKundnani
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.