Hsiao-Hung Pai reviews Arun Kundnani’s latest book The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso, 2014)
In a period when racism is on the rise and the far right is growing across Europe, ethnic minority and migrant communities are feeling increasingly under attack. This timely and important new book by Arun Kundnani, an Adjunct Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, serves as one of the most honest and well-researched works on the topic of Islamophobia, and documents in great detail the ways in which the state controls the Muslim population in the name of its war on terror.
During my research on the far right in the past year, I have come across the worst form of racism and discrimination experienced by British Muslims. I’ve often wondered how such deep-seated prejudices can be shaped and become socially accepted and how society has reproduced and reinforced those ideologies. In The Muslims Are Coming, many of my questions are answered.
The culturalist approach has always been at the centre of the way in which British Muslims are “dealt with” by the authorities. In general, this approach has been adopted by the state in managing ethnic minorities and “ethnic relations”.
In the past three decades, cultural racism (or racism in the form of culture) has become prevalent. While biological racism continues in the background, racial prejudices have adopted the rhetoric of cultural differences (e.g. religious differences) and cultural incompatibility. We see the Islamophobic ideologies of the far right (such as the EDL) incorporated into, and interacting with, Islamophobia in mainstream society and media.
Kundnani details the way in which Muslims have been created as an ideal enemy for the West, and examines the dominant culturalist conceptualisation of Islam and Muslims as a homogenised people. This culturalism is very much rooted in European colonialism in its demonisation of the colonised subjects. Kundnani writes “Culturalists introduced an ontological chasm between us and them – their violence is the natural product of their inner culture while ours is the necessary response to their fanaticism… Thus, the imperial violence of the US state and its allies is disavowed and projected onto the enemy other…” The useful conclusion for the ruling classes of the West is that “the problem is their culture not our politics,” during which “Islam becomes the ideal enemy against which an America fractured by multiplied antagonisms can be bound together, a phantomlike image of external danger to mask the cracks within the social body.”
Understanding the West’s culturalist approach is crucial in understanding how Muslims are monitored and controlled, to which process the dissemination of the myth of “radicalisation” is central. In The Muslims Are Coming, a wide range of perspectives on radicalisation are examined; it points out that radicalisation as a theological process – highlighting the “power of the religion” (radical religious ideology described as something like a virus) or a theological-psychological process (i.e. dangerous beliefs transform individuals into terrorists) – is the dominant thinking and mainstream approach among the national security establishments. The significance of political factors has been downplayed or ignored. This approach results in “intensive surveillance of the spiritual and mental lives of Muslims”. In reality, as evidence shows, “religious ideology plays at most an enabling role in cohering a group rather than being the underlying driver of terrorism.”
This new, dominant thinking on radicalisation became the basis for Britain’s elaborate programmes of surveillance and social control of Muslims. The Preventing Violent Extremism programme, known as Prevent, was launched by Blair’s government in 2006 and acted as the surveillance apparatus. The book documents how the government has incorporated Muslim organisations and created a layer of community leaders to back the official approach to extremism and surveillance and “to win over the hearts and minds and secure allegiance to Western liberal democracy.” The approach does exactly the opposite of “winning over hearts and minds”; the scrutiny and control of Muslims – young children included – has victimised the Muslim communities and only strengthened the feeling of alienation and isolation.
This book is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand modern British racism and how domestic “war on terror” works in reality.