On Contact: Islamophobia, race & global politics
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the nature of Islamophobia with the author and professor, Nazia Kazi.
Islamophobia is not defined solely as anti-Muslim sentiment. It is not limited to hate speech and hate crimes, racial stereotypes, or discrimination against Muslim men and women. Islamophobia, in its most pernicious and deadly form, is embodied in the wars waged by the United States in the Muslim world, as well as the laws and internal security structures that turn Muslims in the United States into “the other.” These laws include the criminalization of migrants, allowing Americans to justify the violent and illegal treatment of the undocumented, and the wholesale surveillance of Muslim communities. It includes the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States on countries such as Iraq and Iran. It includes the numerous military bases and occupation forces in Muslim countries. It includes the drone attacks, missile strikes, and aerial assaults that have left in their wake tens of thousands of nameless Muslim dead. It includes the alliances and massive arms sales to brutal Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs who crush democratic movements, imprison and execute dissidents, impose draconian censorship, and treat women as property. And it includes the cartoon versions of Islam that feed negative stereotypes, a cartoon version that is part of both the right-wing and liberal Islamophobia, which while rhetorically gentler, also permits the targeting of Muslims at home and abroad.
Professor Nazia Kazi’s new book is ‘Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the nature of islamophobia with the author and professor, Nazia Kazi.
Nazia Kazi: Muslim-Americans are hypervisible. And by this, I mean they are--we are watched on multiple levels. I mean, most obviously, on a systemic level. The apparatus of surveillance and policing, that wasn’t created after September 11, it predates that. I mean, we can think about the Clinton Presidency and how forms of surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities existed then, existed, you know, during the Carter presidency, that there are these state-based mechanisms of surveillance that sort of pry into the lives of Muslims, regardless of their political affiliations, regardless of their levels of piety, and there are parallels to be made there. I mean, this is the story of race in America. We remember, for instance, thanks to the burglarly of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, that COINTELPRO by the FBI did the same with Black Americans, that all Black folks were, you know, targets of American surveillance. And so the same is true of this new security state that we live in, with Muslims as the sort of hypervisible subject, for instance, the NYPD itself had a demographics unit that mimicked and was helped--was formed in assistance by the CIA to sort of pry into not just Muslim political and religious life, but Muslim restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops, student groups, and that had a really chilling effect.
CH: Islamophobia is not defined solely by anti-Muslim sentiment. It is not limited to hate speech and hate crimes, racial stereotypes, or discrimination against Muslim men and women. Islamophobia, in its most pernicious and deadly form, is embodied in the wars waged by the United States in the Muslim world, as well as the laws and internal security structures that turn Muslims in the United States into “the other.” These laws include the criminalization of migrants, allowing Americans to justify the violent and illegal treatment of the undocumented, and the wholesale surveillance of Muslim communities. It includes the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States on countries such as Iraq and Iran. It includes the numerous military bases and occupation forces in Muslim countries. It includes the drone attacks, missile strikes, and aerial assaults that have left in their wake tens of thousands of nameless Muslim dead. It includes the alliances and massive arms sales to brutal Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs who crush democratic movements, imprison, and execute dissidents, impose draconian censorship, and treat women as property. And it includes the cartoon versions of Islam that feed negative stereotypes, a cartoon version that is part of the right-wing and a liberal Islamophobia, which while rhetorically gentler, also permits the targeting of Muslims at home and abroad. Joining me to discuss the nature of Islamophobia is Nazia Kazi, professor of anthropology in Stockton University and the author of “Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics.” You used this term from Pem Buck called “learned ignorance.” The theory of learned ignorance argues that the things we do not know aren’t simply accidentally left out of our education. Instead, it asks us to consider how we collectively develop intellectual blind spots. Well, these intellectual blind spots, which are the core of any US history course in any middle school or high school, are designed to legitimize and buttress the strength of a ruling elite. And again, this, of course, has affected the Muslim community in the United States, and been quite effective in blotting out, as you pointed out, our complicity in really creating these jihadists groups. I spent seven years in the Middle East for the New York Times. And not just going back to Afghanistan, but by this occupation, this indiscriminate killing essentially working as a kind of recruiting tool, and understandbly enraging groups of resistance that we, of course, define as terrorists.
NK: Yeah. You know, I think this is really important. I mean, we can take, for instance, some of the justifications that were given for the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Of course, “liberating women” at the top of this list of, you know, “humanitarian” justifications for US militarism. Now, that justification relies on a really forgetful American public. Because if America were not forgetful, and by that, I mean, sort of systemically forgetful, this learned ignorance that you talk about. If America remembered, for instance, that, you know, during the Cold War, the US-funded Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan, a man who threw acid in the faces of women who did not wear a full face veil. That, in fact, the repression of Afghan women was US-funded. And it’s precisely this kind of forgetfulness that US empire needs in order to operate. I really don’t think the US war on terror would have been possible without a sort of regime of forgetfulness, you know. I was in the classroom just last week and I was talking to my students, one of them, in a sort of large class, had heard the name Julian Assange. But all of them reported having had lessons in their high school classes about China’s sort of authoritarian mistreatment of minority populations. And so this kind of cynical propagandizing in the American classroom itself is, you know, is an age-old project. We know that this happened during the Cold War and that it intensidfied, you know, sort of in the war on terror years that continues to this day. K through 12 classes and the university setting are suffused with American, you know, state department ideology.
CH: You talk about these thinktank reports where you say Islamophobia splashed all over the cover. And then you say these reports invariably never mention warfare. And again, that’s the kind of production of facts or, you know--I mean--and that’s, of course, the--if you are--if you are Muslim, both in the United States, and certainly in the Middle East, this is a huge component of how the United States expresses itself through violence towards the Muslim world. And yet it’s never discussed, which is kind of amazing. Maybe you can address that issue.
NK: Sure. You know, I think this speaks to a larger issue of how we in the US understand American racism. I mean, if you were tp ask, you know, average Americans how they define racism, they would often resort to sort of “attitudenal” definitions of racism, you know, matters of prejudice, matters of intolerance, matters of bigotry, and rarely do our definitions focus on the more systemic realities of American racism, you know. If you were to ask Americans what racism is, their response would rarely talk about, you know, the likelihood that there’s lead in your drinking water. The likelihood that you’re incarcerated for a low-level drug offense. And we can expand this to how our sort of dominant understanding of anti-Muslim racism, or islamophobia, has taken shape quite often. And you’ll see this even in the sort of response to islamphobia from earnest Muslim-Americans. The idea that if we simply explain islam and Muslims better, that islamophobia will crumble. That if we can simply understand, you know, why Muslims, observant Muslims fast in the month of Ramadan, or why some Muslim women wear hijab, then we can sort of chip away at anti-Muslim racism. And that ignores what sort of the bedrock of anti-Muslim racism is. Primarily, the policies of sort of state violence, the bourgeois state around the world, particularly the actions of powerful states like the US, of course, in Muslim majority countries, but also within its own borders. And until we can understand racism in those terms, we will keep offering these sort of weak need solutions to racism, you know. Cultural competency trainings, workplace sensitivity workshops that have been shown time and again to fail, instead of really addressing, you know, militarism and the economics of global racism.
CH: So--I mean, this gets into the point you make in the book. It’s good and bad Muslims, just as you had, you know, in the old [00:09:21] [INDISTINCT] good and bad negroes. And that, in and of itself, is a kind of boxing in of the Muslim community. Perhaps you can talk about--you talked about Khan, the father of the Muslim soldier who was killed, who spoke at a democratic convention, as an example of this.
NK: You know, I noticed after September 11, 2001, this remarkable upsurge in representations of Muslims, positive representations of Muslim-Americans, you know. In mainstream media, in news reports, sort of these Muslims, they’re just like us, nothing to be scared of here. And time and again, those representations rested on a few key features. One, as Muslim-Americans, as eager supporters of and participants in American capitalism. And two, Muslims as eager supporters of and participants in the US-led war on terror. So, Khizr Khan, you know, who spoke at the DNC in 2016, and sort of an affront to Donald Trump, has, in other settings, been very critical of US militarism. And that does not get the standing ovations from the Democratic Party establishment than his speech at the 2016 DNC. I mean, we’ll recall that Khizr Khan’s son, you know, died in the US war in Iraq, which we all now know was based upon lies, that was illegal, and that led to untold devastation and suffering. So we must ask ourselves, you know, what does it mean for Muslim-Americans to legitimize themselves, to make themselves sort of legible to the US, by reminding the public that they too participate in these wars of attrition, that they too participate in American empire-building. I mean, this is a really sinister project that sort of falls out of the conversation when we focus on this trope of, you know, Muslims are patriotic, Muslims love this country as much as you do, et cetera, et cetera.
CH: Can you talk about this--you write about it, that the mechanisms that render Muslims hypervisible, watched and investigated by curious readers, students, neighbors, and subway passengers, that this is not enough, we must also consider how each of these is related to the long-standing realities of white supremacy. Can you address that issue?
NK: Sure. The Muslim-Americans are hypervisible. And by this, I mean, they are--we are watched on multiple levels. I mean, most obviously, on a systemic level. The apparatus of surveillance and policing, that wasn’t created after September 11, it predates that. I mean, we can think about the Clinton presidency and how forms of surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities existed then, existed, you know, during the Carter presidency, that there are these state-based mechanisms of surveillance that sort of pry into the lives of Muslims, regardless of their political affiliations, regardless of their levels of piety, and there are parallels to be made there. I mean, this is the story of race in America. We remember, for instance, thanks to the burglarly of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, that COINTELPRO by the FBI did the same with Black Americans, that all Black folks were, you know, targets of American surveillance. And so the same is true of this new security state that we live in, with Muslims as the sort of hypervisible subject, for instance, the NYPD itself had a demographics unit that mimicked and was helped--was formed in assistance by the CIA to sort of pry into, not just Muslim political and religious life, but Muslim restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops, student groups, and that had a really chilling effect. And so that kind of hypervisibility that is ushered in by the state, is mirrored in sort of civil society, right? This kind of, if you see something, say something, which is now a ubiquitous phrase. You see it at Amtrak stations, you see it at airports and subway platforms, which asks ordinary American citizens to be vigilant, and to look out for things that are suspicious, which is a racial dogwhistle. I mean, we know for instance that the TSA had this top-secret program that we came to learn about called Operation Quiet Skies, in which plainclothed TSA officers would patrol airport gates, looking for suspicious activity, and that suspicious activity could include looking at a gate a lot for flight information, which is something I do when my flight is delayed. Getting up and walking around a lot, which is something I do at the airport, and all of us do. So just simple, you know, everyday practices rendered suspicious, which translates to a racial dogwhistle, which translates to, you know, a profiling and surveillance of those who are marked as Muslim or possibly Muslim.
CH: Great. When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the nature of islamophobia with professor and author, Nazia Kazi. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the nature of islamophobia with the professor and author Nazia Kazi. So let’s talk about the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which is known as special registration.
NK: Yeah. So I’m sure many of your viewers remember shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the huge, I mean, just remarkable airport protests that happened in response to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” The Muslim ban was--did not come out of thin air. In fact, there were institutional precursors to the so-called Muslim ban that we can see in the Bush administration’s response to September 11th. So after September 11th, NSEERS, the special registration program that you name was this program of registering Muslim migrants, Muslim men across the US. One thing we ought to be clear about is that NSEERS special registration really disproportionately targeted working class Muslim migrants, you know, American citizens who came over as a result of American immigration policy during the Cold War. You know, people who sort of climbed in America’s socioeconomic ladder were largely unaffected by this. Special registration really devastated the lives of working class migrants, undocumented migrants in the US. And as such, because it was sort of the margins of Muslim America socioeconomically that was impacted by special registration, NSEERS barely surfaces in sort of the mainstream or national level conversation on Islamophobia following September 11th. So at this time, this was at the very moment when a lot of, you know, well-funded national level organizations were talking about how we ought to understand our Muslim population in the US better, and include them more with very little said about special registration at the time.
CH: You go after academics who study “the terrorism question” for the way they investigate the motives of those who join radical jihadist groups, or are attracted to radical jihadist groups. Can you explain that?
NK: Yeah. So in terrorism studies, which is kind of the mainstream, sort of discipline that’s responded to the security state, into September 11, and terrorist attacks, there’s often this kind of preponderant focus on individual motivations. So there’s this almost psychological approach that’s taken to understanding the motivations of religious extremists, terrorists, world leaders for that matter, you know, there have been very serious terrorism studies experts who have talked about, you know, Saddam Hussein’s relationship to his stepfather as a potential way to understand why he wanted, you know, certain types of weapons. So there’s this--there’s this attempt to individualize things that are systemic. I mean, let’s take the question of Iraq for instance, if we were to trace the decades of US intervention in Iraq, intervention that really toppled the progressive and democratic ambitions of a nation, we will see that there are systemic issues at work here that often--and often explicitly guide those who were labeled terrorists. You know, it’s very unpopular to do this but I think it’s very important for students of the war on terror to look at the communications that were sent by, for instance, Osama bin Laden, who spoke very vocally against the US project of building military bases around the world, for instance, or who spoke very vocally about the upsetting alliance between, you know, the United States and Israel. And we have to take these concerns very seriously. This attempt to individualize things really forces us to look beyond these larger, you know, global political issues.
CH: Well, it withdraws the entire factor of state violence, which drives--would drive anyone many people to acts of extremity. And you make a very important point in the book. You’re quoting Timothy Mitchell, “The most secular regimes in the Middle East have been those most independent of the United States. The more closely a government is allied with the United States, the more Islamic its policies. The United States depends on the support of conservative political regimes, it is often pointed out. And those have tended to rely on religion to justify their power.” I know that was a really important point.
NK: You know, one thing that stuns my students or audiences at talks I do is the sort of schoolbooks for Afghanistan program that was sort of the CIA sponsored program in which, you know, during the US’s conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the US created these jihadi schoolbooks for Afghans, you know, for school children that had, you know, alphabet lessons, the J is for Jihad, that had math problems, you know, to calculate how many godless communists could be taken out by a weapon. So, when we think about what we might call religious extremism, we can’t think about it without understanding overt and covert projects by the US states specifically by, you know, the CIA. Timothy Mitchell, who you mentioned, has written really brilliantly about the US’s, I mean, some people call it the alliance with Saudi Arabia, but I think that’s understating the point. You know, a lot of people sort of American liberals will often get a little frustrated by America’s support for Saudi Arabia. And I think that is a misframing. I mean, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created and crafted through US state ambitions. You know, I joked that you can’t spell Saudi without USA, that actually, you know, Saudi politics and the practice of Islam that we associate with Saudi Arabia were wholesale creations of the US and the CIA to preserve America’s economic interests in the region.
CH: I want to go back to this issue of how we write about “Muslim terrorism,” and it’s really kind of defaming of not just Islam, but Muslim culture, and in attempt, Bernard Lewis, all sorts of very well-known academics, have fed this lie, that the causes of terrorism are not from anything we do, but from these distorted cultural and political and religious practices.
NK: Yeah, this is what Mahmood Mamdani has written about as culture talk. This kind of obsession with Islam with a capital I as this static, fixed religious entity that we can understand in a sort of neutral way, and it ignores how, you know, contextual, any religion is. I mean, we can say the same for instance of Catholicism. I think a lot of folks, you know, forget that there was a robust kind of movement around Catholic liberation theology that was anti-imperialist, that was anti-capitalist, and that was squashed again by US foreign policy ambitions. And in its place, a sort of right-wing, conservative Catholicism was sponsored. So, you know, we can’t speak of Catholicism with a capital C, separate from these contexts. And we similarly cannot do the same, you know, for Islam. This support for the Saudi version of Islam has led to a sort of global shift in the sensibilities of Muslims around the world. I mean, as US intelligence dollars, and Petro dollars sort of poured into Saudi Arabia, and funded that sort of brand of Saudi Islam, that money also flowed out of Saudi Arabia and set up mosques and Islamic learning institutions around the world that then reflected this one very narrow interpretation of Islam. And that’s an important piece of history we ought to remember.
CH: Well, it was also funneled in the hands of some of the hijackers of 911. You talked about countering violent extremism, so this is CVE. It’s a program the US has invested millions of dollars in this. And it’s the idea of essentially trying to counter belief systems of people who they think are likely to be radicalized. And it supports the belief you right that the Muslim world is--CVE supporters argue that the belief that the Muslim world is under attack by the West is simply that, a belief. Forget the drones that have killed countless children in Yemen and Somalia, forget the unwarranted US invasion of Iraq, nothing to see here, page after page of CVE literature, document how to use the internet to fight radicalization, or introduce positive pathways to young people deter them from terrorism.
NK: Yeah, countering violent extremism is a product of the Obama administration. And let’s remember that, you know, even though Bush’s approval rating sort of soared after September 11 than people seem to really love this previously unpopular president, that at the end of his presidency, there was the sort of national exhaustion with the US war on terror. And so what Obama was able to do, perhaps sort of brilliantly, was to repackage and rebrand the war on terror. And in doing so he was able to expand it in ways that the American population is generally unaware of. So the CVE programs, these countering violent extremism programs created and proliferated under the Obama administration, but now existing sort of around the world to this day, are--is this idea that we can sort of prevent violent extremism by looking for suspicious activity, suspicious beliefs. And of course, we return to this question of who gets to decide what constitutes suspicious behaviors, activities or beliefs. So under CVE programs, whether it’s social workers, imams, or school teachers, all of them are sort of deputized to detect these sort of threatening practices and behaviors and preempt them. So in creating these CVE programs, what the Obama administration was able to do was to say we’re taking this preventive approach to terrorism that is so different from our predecessor, but actually what it did was it remarkably expanded the American security state and CVE money has poured out of the US around the world for countries to take up sort of similar approaches.
CH: Great. That was professor and author, Nazia Kazi on her new book, Islamophobia, Race and Global Politics.