The Muslim Presence in the Racist Mind

In one of her last essays published in the United Kingdom, the late Susan Sontag compared the pictures of tortured Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq with the photographs “of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show smalltown Americans, no doubt most of them church-going, respectable citizens, grinning, beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree.”  Sontag was amongst the few voices who opposed the collective transmutation of the transitory mood of anger after 11 September into hatred channeled primarily towards the Islamic worlds.  She sensed the dangers of mobilising collective passions for political ends and the dichotomisation of the world into good and evil.  It was that period, one remembers, that produced Anne Coulter’s demand that “[w]e should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity” and suggestion that, since “[t]here’s nothing like horrendous physical pain to quell angry fanatics,” “a couple of well-aimed nuclear weapons” can transform “Islamic fanatics” into “gentle little lambs.”  Coulter was not the only one infusing public discourse with tightly packaged hate messages: Fred Ikle, for instance, alluded to a nuclear war that “might end up displacing Mecca and Medina with two large radioactive craters”; John Cooksey suggested that any airline passenger wearing a “diaper on his head” should be “pulled over”; and Jerry Falwell asserted on 60 Minutes that “Muhammad was a terrorist” and that he was “a violent man, a man of war,” a statement for which he later apologised.  It was that period, in short, which made the Muslim Vogelfrei culturally and, to a certain extent, legally as well.

I think that Sontag and others understood at quite an early stage that the period after 11 September may cause the dehumanisation of the objects of obsession: Arabs, Iranians, people of color, or everybody assumed to be an unyielding “Mohammedan.”  She understood, that the tragic events on 11 September would be used to produce new wars; that the neo-conservative cabal would seize the moment in order to fuel the post-Cold War momentum towards the new American century; and that we will be made complicit in the torture at Abu Ghraib, the destruction of Falluja, and the massacre of Haditha.

And yet, despite Sontag and others’ warnings to us, to speak freely against anti-Muslim sentiments — or even to admit their pernicious existence — is so alien to a historical narrative that has erased the abominations of racism from its archives, and so extraneous to the mainstream of academia which treats racism as a peripheral area of enquiry, that it is bound to make little headway for a long time.  As a result, there is a vast space populated by caricatures of the monolithic Muslim, which we have yet to conquer.  The only difference between “moderate Islam” and “radical Islam,” writes bestselling Italian author Oriana Fallaci symptomatically, “is the length of their beards.”  It is difficult to assume that a similar overtly racist remark could be written (without massive political and intellectual retribution) about other religious minorities in the “West.”  Yet, anti-Islamic books such as Fallaci’s Rage and the Pride, from which the passage above is taken, are not only presented as work of serious authors; they are also aggressively disseminated by ideological institutions, such as the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC which presented Fallaci’s book in the aftermath of 11 September with great fanfare.

One would have expected many analysts and critics to have understood that hostility to the Islamic worlds stems from the same source that had nourished anti-Semitic ideas; that racism is a grammar with interchangeable referents (Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, the Vietnamese, Arabs, etc.) and interchangeable signifiers (kike, nigger, caffer, greaser, Jap, gook, hadji, etc.).  Instead, alas, indiscriminate violence is normalised: in Kabul and Kunduz, Baghdad and Falluja,  by organised armies;  in Haditha and Abu Ghraib by sadistic individuals; and in New York, Bali, Madrid, and London by nihilistic terrorists.  “War you wanted, war you want?” Fallaci writes.  “Good.  As far as I am concerned, war it is and war it will be.  Until the last breath.”

As a result of this massive upsurge of anti-Islamic sentiments, Muslims are simply not judged as individuals anymore.  Their very presence calls for management strategies — Islam in itself has been turned into a police matter.  In other words, the state and its apologists put Islam under permanent surveillance, and we are placed in a state of perpetual alert, because of its alleged potencies to disrupt our everyday life.  This obsession with everything Islamic, in turn, has also created a perverse desire for it — the desire to control it, to liberate it, and, finally, to conquer it as the ultimate imperial prize.  Why is this simplistic notion of the Muslim presence amongst us, abstracting as it does from the intrinsic plurality of Islam, so pervasive?  In a networked society such as ours, where the “other” can be downloaded with a mouse-click, what explains the re-emergence of latent racism?  How can we not differentiate between such disparate objects of analysis as the very real threat of a transnational terrorist sect, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and the Muslim next door?  Why this tendency to subsume everything under one mnemonic?

Rather than seeking the permanence of the Islamic threat through time, rather than accommodating latent racism against Muslims, rather than reifying the myth of a clash of civilisations, rather than combating a belief system in its ontological totality, it would be more rewarding to focus on the terrorist threat in its specificity.  It appears to me that if terrorism is treated as a political phenomenon rather than a religious ordinance, if it is detached from phenomena with which it is confused, the causes of terrorism will be more visible and accessible analytically.  Thus, in order to reveal the laws governing terrorism, in order to comprehend its inner mechanisms and networks, in order to cut down its discursive formations into observable statements that can be effectively countered, it needs to be divorced from the contested place called Islam, from its gnomic character, from its transcendental claim, from its immense complexity.  It is neither by reference to Islam, nor by reference to the Qur’an, that the grammar of terrorism can be deciphered.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (London: Routledge, 2006).  He teaches international relations at Oxford University.  MRZine has published his “The Muslim in the Mirror” (23 Feb. 2006); “Persian Atoms: Enriching Facts, Diverting Fiction” (26 April 2006); and “Iraq, Iran, and the New World Order” (25 May 2006).