- The problems of Islamophobia
In basketball, an ‘alley-oop’ is a play that occurs when one teammate hoists the ball in the air near the basket and another leaps up, catches it, and slams it in. It is a difficult move, and one that requires talent and precision on the part of both players. Deepa Kumar (an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University) and Arun Kundani (an adjunct professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University) have pulled off the book equivalent in these two volumes. Kumar sets up a perfect pass for Kundnani, who dunks the ball squarely in the basket. [End Page 145]
Many discussions on Islamophobia today situate the phenomenon as an organic social reaction to difference: a response among non-Muslims to the increasing visibility of Muslims in the West; a psychological reaction to new waves of immigrants; or an expected consequence of Muslim-led violence. While this approach may have been valuable in the past, it is fast becoming staid and archaic. It presumes that there are only two actors: Muslims, who, either through their simple presence or malicious intent, inspire reactions from non-Muslims, some of whom respond with prejudice. But as Kumar and Kundnani illustrate, Islamophobia is far more complex. It is not only an end, but a means-one through which American and European governments justify and advance an array of policies that form a noxious circular narrative of foreign enemy/domestic threat.
This project of imperial Islamophobia is not a new one, nor does any one political party monopolise it. Kumar traces its ebb and flow much further back than most other authors on the subject. She notes the pulsations in negative depictions of Saracens in the Middle Ages, followed by a retreat of stereotypical imagery when Europe entered the Dark Ages (and Al-Andalus flourished with intellectual output), only to chart its rise again with the Reconquista and the Ottoman Empire’s emergence as an evil enemy other. This historical treatment, though not detailed, is valuable in revealing the dark underbelly of European (and later American) discourses on Islam and Muslims. It configures contemporary policies within a long arch of self-serving initiatives, all of which were aimed at advancing Western influence and securing Western interests. Kumar’s seamless weave of past and present also characterises her discussion of ‘allies and enemies’, which draws careful attention to the ways in which Western powers have teetered and tottered between the two groups, depending on the particular benefit they offered at the time. Here again, where most narratives depart from 1979-the year of the Iranian revolution and the visible emergence of a Middle Eastern foe-Kumar jumps back three more decades, convincingly arguing that policies such as Harry Truman’s Four Points Programme and the Eisenhower Doctrine evidence a postwar strategy that drew on essentialised narratives of Muslims and Arabs to exert economic and military dependence, thus countering the pull of Communism.
It is these valuable nuggets of information that make Kumar’s book so good. Her narrative is fair and even-handed. Her critique is brought to bear on Roosevelt’s heavy ‘white man’s burden’, the decade-long ‘War on Terror’ under George W. Bush and [End Page 146] the consequences of President Barack Obama’s ‘benevolent supremacy’ in the Middle East; she spares neither Washington neocons nor the likes of Jimmy Carter-a man whose policies are often untouched by progressives. Even in her discussion of Israel’s undeniable influence in the production of anti-Muslim views, she teases out the important fact that Zionism was not an explicitly anti-Muslim project until the 1970s; before then, animus towards Arabs and Muslims was ‘part and parcel of the Zionist program of creating an exclusive Jewish state in which all Gentiles were unwelcome’. To Kumar, Islamophobia of the political right may be more raucous, and thus more discernible, but the unwillingness of some on the centre left to depart from the dominance-by-free-market-capitalism...