‘Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire’ reviewed by Luís Cordeiro Rodrigues

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012. 220pp., $17 pb
ISBN 9781608462117

About the reviewer

Luís Cordeiro Rodrigues is currently teaching at the Departments of Sociology and Politics …


Deepa Kumar’s book Islamophobia is about the creation of the image of the Muslim enemy in Western societies and, in particular, in the United States. Kumar argues that the image of Muslims as enemies held by many Westerners throughout history is the result of the manipulation carried out by elites in the West to strengthen their political ambitions of constructing and reinforcing empires. Kumar considers this vilification of Muslims a form of cultural racism that can be labelled as Islamophobia. Thus, the main arguments of this book are that Islamophobia has been caused by the manipulation of the masses carried out by Western elites, and that it is a potent ideology of an imperial project.

Islamophobia is divided into three sections. In the first section, Kumar tries to demonstrate that throughout history the image of Muslims as enemies only existed when it was convenient for furthering imperialist interests. When this image did not serve these interests, Muslims were seen either with indifference or as allies. Kumar affirms that the first use of Islamophobia, as a political ideology for constructing an empire, was in the 11th century, when the Papacy tried to mobilise the Crusades against Islam, with the purpose of extending the power of the Vatican.

Despite the fact that Islamophobia has its origins in the 11th century, Kumar maintains that the period in which Islamophobia flourished was in the 19th century, which was the peak of European colonisation of the Middle East and North Africa. Kumar states that a body of ideas called Orientalism emerged in this period, and it manufactured an image of Islam as intrinsically barbaric and uncivilised; in contrast, Orientalists characterised the West as dynamic, civilised and complex. According to Kumar, this doctrine conveniently furthered the projects of colonisation by implying that Islamic countries required the intervention of civilised Europeans so that Muslims could be saved from their own barbaric actions. Kumar affirms that the Orientalist literature that referred to Muslims is based on five myths about Islam. These myths are that Islam is a monolithic religion, a uniquely sexist religion, that Muslims are fanatics, incapable of reason and rationality, that Islam is inherently violent and that Muslims are incapable of democracy and self-rule.

In order to demonstrate that these myths are false, Kumar engages with postcolonial and feminist historical and philosophical literature. She proposes that Islam is not monolithic, and that it is quite heterogeneous. In response to the idea that Islam is sexist, Kumar cites Islamic feminists who affirm that a gender-free interpretation of the Quran is possible. Furthermore, Kumar argues that the existence of sexism is not an exclusive characteristic of Islam; hence, there is no reason for singling out Islam for being sexist.

Regarding the myth that Muslims are incapable of reason and rationality, Kumar replies that the rich contribution of Muslims to science and literature demonstrates that this is false. To the myth that Islam is inherently violent, Kumar responds that there is substantial evidence that Islam is nonviolent, not only in many passages of the Quran, but also in the way that Muslim societies behave. Furthermore, she affirms that it is unfair to consider all Muslims responsible for the violence that a minority of extremists commits. Finally, to reply to the idea that Muslims are incapable of democracy and self-rule, Kumar contends that there is strong evidence that Muslim countries are actively trying to implement progressive democratic reforms. However, the lack of success of these is, according to Kumar, the result of routine interventions by the United States, which do not have an interest in bringing democracy to these countries, because the lack of democracy legitimises American intervention.

Moving on to the second section of the book, the main argument of this section is that after the Second World War American elites used these myths about Islam to justify foreign policy that furthered imperialist goals in the Middle East. In contrast, the US maintained good relations with the Middle East, which helped to further American interests in expanding the empire. According to Kumar, American foreign policy since the Second World War has either been neoconservative or realist/liberal. In Kumar’s view, even though both these kinds of policies are Islamophobic and imperialist, they differ in their strategy and rhetoric of furthering Islamophobia and imperialism.

In Kumar’s perspective, the neoconservatives have based their policies on the myths that Islam is monolithic and inherently violent. Kumar suggests that neoconservatives affirm there is a clash of civilisations, and use a naked militarist rhetoric and strategy to address it. They clearly state that the US government should maintain a strong military capability, and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote American interests in the Middle East.

Kumar argues that liberals use a more subtle Islamophobic discourse to justify their policies in the Middle East. In Kumar’s view, liberal Islamophobia is characterised by the rejection of the idea that there is a clash of civilisations, and an endorsement of an apparently amicable communication that insists that there are non-extremist Muslims with which Americans wish to cooperate. However, Kumar is skeptical about this rhetoric, and draws a parallel with Orientalist justifications for intervention. Kumar contends that underlying this gentle rhetoric there is the malicious intention of having a justification to intervene in the Middle East to further the interests of the American empire. One of Kumar’s examples of this is the contradiction between Obama’s gentle rhetoric about Islam and his continuation of Bush’s anti-Islam policies in the Middle East, by extending war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The last section of the book is focused on Islamophobia in the domestic context. Kumar states that since 9/11, with the justification of fighting terrorism, American institutions have violated the civil and political liberties of their citizens, in particular of Muslim citizens. More precisely, Muslims in the US have been illegally detained, bullied by intelligence agencies, entrapped by agents provocateurs and spied upon by police forces. Kumar vies that American elites, in order to justify these violations, have engaged in a campaign of fear, claimingthat Muslims are a threat to national security. The campaign of fear, according to Kumar, has been carried out mainly by four groups, which she calls the New McCarthytes: neoconservatives, extremist Zionists, the Christian Right, and former Muslims and Christians who have been profiting from Islam-bashing.

The book concludes with some strategies and policy suggestions to tackle Islamophobia. Kumar affirms that it is important that progressives inform the masses that Islamophobia damages the interests of all whose civil liberties are violated. Moreover, the masses should be informed that the investment made by American elites in weaponry to fight Islam is disadvantageous for most Americans, because this money could be spent on health care, education, etc. Kumar also suggests that when there is someone engaging in Islamophobic discourse, progressives should stand up against it, and offer alternatives to the policies offered by Islamophobes. A prime example of this is, according to Kumar, the rallies that Occupy Wall Street carried out against Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is a timely book that offers an important contribution to the debate on Islamophobia worldwide and, in particular, in the United States. Part of this contribution lies in approaching Islamophobia from a historical materialist viewpoint. The book is easy to read, and it does not require an academic background in political science to be understood. The most well-argued and important part of the book is section 1. In this well-referenced and eclectic section, Kumar successfully demonstrates with well-supported evidence that Western myths about Islam are false. In fact, her arguments are so well supported with evidence that they can be convincing both for those who are sympathetic to anti-Islamophobia, but also for those who are skeptics about Islam.

Kumar provides overwhelming evidence that the domestic and foreign policies of neoconservatives are imperialist and Islamophobic. Her evidence with respect to the imperialism of liberals’ foreign policy is also convincing. Nevertheless, her case for claiming that liberals and, in particular, the Obama administration’s policies are Islamophobic is less plausible. Routinely, in Kumar’s book, there is a biased selection of Obama’s politics, in order to show that his administration has promoted Islamophobia. For example, she often mentions that Obama’s strategy of constantly denying he was a Muslim promoted Islamophobia. However, Kumar omits that Obama has also reaffirmed publicly on various occasions that there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. Obama reaffirmed this, for instance, when Larry King interviewed him after his first election.

Another problematic aspect of Kumar’s book is that her anxiousness to blame the elites for Islamophobia leads her to ignore important variables in this process. A clear example of this is her dismissal of the idea that extremists who have justified their actions in the name of Islam have a role in promoting Islamophobia. In fact, she criticises the magazine Time for simultaneously criticising Islamophobes, and suggesting that extremism contributed to Islamophobia. However, even if it is the case that elites are the main cause of Islamophobia, it seems implausible to argue that extremism had no or little relevance in this process. This anxiousness also leads her wrongly to describe the masses as victims without agency. She characterises them as individuals who simply get manipulated by elites, without being able to be self-critical. However, this characterisation of the masses is exaggerated, and given that Kumar engages with postcolonial literature that strongly criticises such views of agency, it is surprising that she makes such an argument.

Lastly, Kumar’s final chapter, where she addresses the ways that Islamophobia can be tackled, is too vague and does not take into account important leftist literature about the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention in foreign states. Kumar harshly criticises liberals for maliciously justifying their intervention in the Middle East for humanitarian reasons, but she does not offer an alternative view of humanitarian intervention. Given her emphasis on the importance of providing alternatives, the reader would expect her to address the question of what the international community should do when a nation is severely violating human rights. Hence, it is disappointing that Kumar does not respond to this question.

16 July 2014

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