By Arun Kundnani : –
The shooting of three American Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this month has focused attention on anti-Muslim hatred in the US.
There are strong reasons for thinking the suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, was motivated by anti-Muslim animosity to murder Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19. The FBI is now investigating the case as a possible hate crime, although initial reports stated the murder may have been about a dispute over parking.
In 2011, I spent a year travelling around the US investigating anti-Muslim prejudice. In a suburban restaurant in Houston, I saw a poster that perfectly captured the nature of the problem. The restaurant owner had used a photograph of a lynching in the early 20th century, featuring a tree, a dead body hanging from a branch and a crowd of white people in the foreground looking jubilant. In place of the black victim of the original image, the face of a stereotypical Arab was superimposed with the caption: “Let’s play cowboys and Iranians.”
It was a disturbing sight. In the same neighbourhood, I had heard stories of teenagers beaten up at school simply for being Arab, of harassment of mosque congregations and of death threats against Muslims aired on local radio stations. It was also disturbing because racist imagery appeared to be a perfectly normal way to decorate a restaurant. But the image was also revealing because it shows anti-Muslim sentiment in the US is part of a longer racial history.
The poster’s caption played on the phrase “cowboys and Indians” and was an implicit celebration of the genocide of America’s indigenous peoples by European settlers, the first act in the racial history of the US and one that continues to haunt an American culture obsessed with enemies at its frontiers.
Likewise, the use of a photo of a lynching ties its meaning to the history of racial segregation after the abolition of slavery, and the ways that violence was used to maintain white supremacy.
Anti-Muslim prejudice is the most recent layer in this history, a reworking and recycling of older logics of oppression. From this perspective, Islamophobia, like other forms of prejudice, should not be seen only as a problem of hate crimes committed by lone extremists. The acts of individual perpetrators can only be made sense of if they are seen as the product of a wider culture, in which glorifying racial violence is acceptable.
All empires require violence to sustain themselves, and the violence perpetrated overseas by imperial powers always flows back, in one form or another, to the “homeland.” In modern times, that violence also always takes on a racial character.
The British Empire relied upon racist ideology to maintain its authority, both domestically and in colonial settings, and particularly in the face of resistance to its rule. Blacks and Asians from the colonies who settled in Britain after the Second World War encountered the racism imperialism had fostered there, persisting long after the British Empire itself no longer existed.
Since the end of the Cold War, US foreign policy planners have regarded the Middle East as their most troublesome territory, where resistance seems to be especially strong against the US’s key regional ally, Israel. Large sections of the US political and cultural elite have turned to racial ways of explaining resistance to its authority. Rather than see the Palestinian movement, for example, as rooted in a struggle against military occupation and for human rights, it has been more convenient to think that Arabs are inherently fanatical. In other words, the problem is their culture, not our politics.
With the War on Terror, that rhetoric was generalised to Muslims as a whole: the religion somehow especially prone to terrorist violence. The US government’s own violence – torture, drone strikes, and military occupations, which result in many times more deaths than “jihadist” terrorism – can then be more easily defended.
Take, for example, the popular US writer Sam Harris, one of the so-called new atheists who seem to have influenced Craig Hicks in Chapel Hill. Harris has said that “Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas” and that “we are misled to think the fundamentalists are the fringe”. He claims human rights problems in what he reductively calls “the Muslim world” are caused by Islam, as if it is a monolith that mechanically drives followers to acts of barbarism.