The events of September 11 laid the basis for the emergence of a vicious form of Islamophobia that facilitated the U.S. goals of empire building in the 21st century. This form of Islamophobia focused on the enemy “out there” against which the U.S. supposedly had to go to war to protect itself, from Afghanistan to Iraq.
As George Bush famously put it, “We’re fighting them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” Or as he stated in his West Point speech in 2002, “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats.” In short, an endless “war on terror” on the enemy beyond U.S. borders was now justified, according to Bush.
This initiative led to the arrest and harassment of countless innocent Arabs and Muslims across the U.S. as entire communities were put under suspicion, if not criminalized, in the wake of 9/11.
But the backlash against Muslims was even greater in various European nations. European conservatives argued that Muslims were not properly “integrated” into society and therefore susceptible to jihadist propaganda. Liberals and social democrats often echoed these arguments.
This dimension of Islamophobia has now come to the U.S. Over the last eight months, a string of high-profile cases has led to a media furor around “homegrown terrorism.” By this, the media are referring not to the Michigan Militia or the Tea Party lunatics, but to a series of cases involving Muslim U.S. citizens or legal residents charged with planning or being involved in terrorist activity.
Whether the media spotlight was planned or accidental, the net result has been a new turn in Islamophobia and the politics of fear that has striking parallels with the Red Scare of the Cold War. Like the Red Scare, this new “Green Scare” (green referring here to Islam, as opposed to environmental activists) also attempts to promote fear and suspicion of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
The most virulent expression of this “Green Scare” was articulated by NYU professor Tunku Varadarajan. In a Forbes.com article titled “Going Muslim” published in November 2009, Varadarajan argued that what precipitated the tragedy at Food Hood — when Major Nidal Hasan turned a gun against his co-workers and killed 13 — was not the racist harassment that Hasan faced in the Army or the emotionally debilitating nature of being an overworked Army psychiatrist, but rather a condition that he sees as inherent to all Muslims: the tendency towards violence.
He argued that Hasan didn’t “go postal” — that is, break down and become violent, as postal workers have sometimes. Rather, Varadarajan argued, Hasan was simply enacting in a cold and calculated manner the teachings of Islam.
Varadarajan put it this way: “[T]his phrase [‘going Muslim’] would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American — a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood — discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans.”
In short, Varadarajan argues that all Muslim Americans are “imminently violent,” and while they appear to be integrated into American society, they are in fact ticking time bombs who will inevitable explode into a violent, murderous rage. Vardarajan builds his case on the actions of Hasan and Najibullah Zazi (the “friendly donut vendor”), who are made to stand in for all American Muslims.
The case of Zazi, an Afghan citizen and U.S. legal resident, who was arrested in September 2009 on charges of conspiracy to use “weapons of mass destruction,” received significant media attention.
This was followed by the arrest of David Coleman Headley, a U.S. citizen arrested a month later for planning an attack on the Danish newspaper that had published racist cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Headley is also believed to have been involved with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In December 2009, five young men living in Virginia, all U.S. citizens and many born in the U.S., were arrested in Pakistan for having traveled there to work with the Taliban.
The quick succession of these cases and the attention in the news media inaugurated a new lexicon around “homegrown terrorism.” The Washington Post was typical: “[T]he arrests came at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorism after the recent shootings at the Fort Hood, Tex., military base [Hasan] and charges filed this week against a Chicago man [Headley] accused of playing a role in last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai.” The groundwork was being laid for the new “Green Scare.”
For the Obama administration, these high-profile cases presented the perfect context in which to unveil the escalation of war in Afghanistan. Obama himself led the charge in December 2009, in a speech at West Point:
I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror.
Obama’s speech doesn’t directly refer to “homegrown terrorism.” However, it plays on the fear of 9/11 and the threat of terror “coming home” akin to Bush’s speeches cited above.
It also relies on the context set by media coverage of the Zazi, Headley, and the Virginia cases, all of which are related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama’s reference to “extremists within our borders” thus adds to the hype about the grave danger that terrorism and “violent extremism” allegedly pose to U.S. citizens. Conveniently, this threat also served to justify sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
The reality, however, flies in the face of this rhetoric. The “threat” to Americans from “global terrorism” is minute, and even this negligible threat has diminished as the number of “terror plots” have declined over the last half a decade. As many experts have noted, there has been a steady and dramatic decline since 2004, with only a slight increase in this overall trend in 2009. Public opinion as well has turned against such activities in Muslim majority countries.
Even Gregory Treverton of the Rand Corporation, a right-wing institution, admitted that the danger posed to Americans by “terrorism” is limited. In a piece that was published in the LA Times he noted that in “the five years after 2001, the number of Americans killed per year in terrorist attacks worldwide was never more than 100, and the toll some years was barely in double figures. Compare that with an average of 63 by tornadoes, 692 in bicycle accidents and 41,616 in motor-vehicle-related accidents.” Indeed.
What’s more, the State Department’s terrorism report released April 2009 states, “Al-Qaeda (AQ) and associated networks continued to lose ground, both structurally and in the court of world public opinion.” Nevertheless the report asserts that these organizations “remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2008.”
What all this reveals is not only the disjuncture between rhetoric and reality, but also the mechanics involved in mobilizing a politics of fear. The end result is a “Green Scare” that serves at least two goals: to justify the existence of draconian measures like those unleashed by the Patriot Act, and to win public support for wars abroad — not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but potentially Yemen and beyond.
In short, the new Islamophobia or “Green Scare” functions very similarly to the “Red Scare” of the Cold War, when fear of communism was sufficient to justify the McCarthy witch hunts and the policing of domestic dissent, while winning consent for wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The most sensational media treatment of “homegrown terrorism” was the recent case of “Jihad Jane.” If the North Virginia case prompted speculation in the press about why five “normal” young men might be moved to fight with the Taliban, the case of Colleen LaRose — a white, petite, blond, green-eyed woman — set off a media frenzy. LaRose, a convert to Islam, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in Europe.
Capturing the flavor of various news media reports, a CNN correspondent concluded that “the indictment of Jihad Jane shatters any thought that we can spot a terrorist just by appearance.” Like the reds lurking in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, the “greens” like LaRose — who, we are informed, used to live on Main Street and “blended into” American life — are the new threat. In covering this story, the mainstream media came close to the kind of arguments advanced by Vardarajan and other right-wing ideologues.
This string of cases also prompted reports like the one from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released in March 2010. Focusing on Zazi, Headley, and Hasan, as well as the North Virginia cases and others in Minnesota, the report suggests that the U.S. needs to clamp down on “internet radicalization” and continue to “puncture” the “clash of civilizations” narrative which is used by al-Qaeda in its recruitment efforts.
The report approvingly notes that “White House officials already have discarded phrases like ‘war on radical Islam.'” Yet, the authors add that such rhetorical gestures are insufficient given the reality of war. The key challenge, the report states, is “how to balance the need to combat global terrorism [read: expand the empire] with the drawbacks of large-scale, direct military intervention [read: large scale casualties and the problems of occupation].”
Indeed, this is the challenge that the Obama administration inherited. While Obama may have dropped the use of phrases like the “war on terror” and mitigated some of the worst Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush administration, he has continued the project of imperial domination.
Islamophobia is the ideological handmaiden of this project and Obama will wield it when necessary. Lest we forget, when “accused” of being a Muslim during the election campaign he “defended” himself rather than take a principled stance in support of Islam and religious freedom. This moment only strengthened the right’s cultural racism and seems to have contributed to the new Islamophobia.
The Red Scare destroyed the lives of many people and created a climate of intimidation and fear. Today, the emerging “Green Scare” has a similar potential. It can, however, be successfully resisted by a left that is able to see beyond the dazzle of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and expose the project of U.S. imperialism for what it is.
Ultimately, the Red Scare and McCarthyism was ended by the social movements of the 1960s. We need to meet a similar challenge today.
Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently working on a book on US foreign policy, political Islam, and the news. She can be reached at <email@example.com>.