Two main modes of thinking pervade the war on terror, one predominantly among conservatives, the other among liberals. The first mode locates the origins of terrorism in what is regarded as Islamic culture’s failure to adapt to modernity. The second identifies the roots of terrorism not in Islam itself but in a series of twentieth-century ideologues who distorted the religion to produce a totalitarian ideology—Islamism—on the models of communism and fascism. The problem with both of these approaches is that they eschew the role of social and political circumstances in shaping how people make sense of the world and then act upon it. Moreover, these modes of thinking are not free-floating. They are institutionalized in the war on terror’s practices, actively promoted by well-resourced groups, and ultimately reflect an imperialist political culture. Together they give rise to the belief that the root cause of terrorism is Islamic culture or Islamist ideology; they thus constitute an Islamophobic idea of a Muslim problem that is shared across the political spectrum. As a result, a key aspect of national security policy has been the desire to engineer a broad cultural shift among Western Muslims while ignoring the ways in which Western states themselves have radicalized—have become more willing to use violence in a wider range of contexts.
My emphasis is on Islamophobia as a form of structural racism directed at Muslims and the ways in which it is sustained through a symbiotic relationship with the racial thinking and practices of the war on terror. Its significance does not lie primarily in the individual prejudices it generates but in its wider political consequences—its enabling of systematic violations of the rights of Muslims and its demonization of actions taken to remedy those violations. The war on terror—with its vast death tolls in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere—could not be sustained without the racialized dehumanization of its Muslim victims. A social body dependent on imperialist violence to sustain its way of life must discover an ideology that can disavow that dependency if it is to maintain legitimacy. Various kinds of racism have performed that role in the modern era; Islamophobia is currently the preferred form. The usual objection to de'ning it in this way is that Muslims are not a race. But since all racisms are socially and politically constructed rather than reliant on the reality of any biological race, it is perfectly possible for cultural markers associated with Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, languages, etc.) to be turned into racial signifiers. This racialization of Muslimness is analogous in important ways to anti-Semitism and inseparable from the longer history of racisms in the US and the UK.
A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that the Iraq war had led to 655,000 deaths as of July 2006, before the worst period of violence. One of the key arguments of this book is that to comprehend the causes of so-called jihadist terrorism we need to pay as much attention to Western state violence, and the identity politics that sustains it, as we do to Islamist ideology. What governments call extremism is to a large degree a product of their own wars.
As the French scholar Olivier Roy has argued, this notion of a globalized Islam is not the product of any specic “Islamist” organization but a broad sociological trend that has developed across Europe as a result of racism, migration, and globalization. Young Muslims felt alienated not only from the racism of the wider society, but also from the inward-looking mosque life of their parents, which was centered upon specific ethnic identities (for example, Sylheti, Gujarati, or Mirpuri) and mingled Islam with South Asian folk traditions. The idea of identifying with the global ummah proved an attractive third alternative to either assimilating into a racist society or following the inherited religio-cultural traditions of their parents.
The claim that the cultural origins of homegrown terrorism could be found in the general trend of young Muslims rethinking their identities was a convenient alternative to recognizing more political factors, such as Britain’s foreign policies.
What is most disconcerting to the reformists is Western Muslims who identify with the victims of Western state violence in other parts of the world. To be classed as moderate Muslims must forget what they know about Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan and instead align themselves with he fantasies of the war on terror; they are expected to constrain their religion to the private sphere but also to speak out publicly against extremists’ misinterpretations of Islam; they are supposed to see themselves as liberal individuals but also declare an allegiance to the national collective; they are meant to put their capacity for reason above blind faith but not let it lead to criticisms of the West; and they have to publicly condemn using violence to achieve political ends—except when their own governments do so. No wonder moderate Muslims are said to be hard to find.
What is striking here is the way that some reformists—liberals and former leftists of the 1968 generation who were shaped by their earlier experiences of campaigning on issues of gender, sexuality, religious authority, and censorship—turned the values they once fought for into icons of Western identity. What was once a call to fight for freedom in Western societies degenerated into a call to defend a liberal way of life from foreign enemies.
The radicalization discourse was, from the beginning, circumscribed to the demands of counterterrorism policy makers rather than an attempt to objectively study how terrorism comes into being. Rather than provide a location for the scholarly understanding of the causes of terrorism—what Kant called the “public use of reason,” aimed at the general enlightenment of society—the radicalization discourse limited itself to the “private use of reason” (serving the needs of a “particular civil post or office”), constraining the intellectual process to the needs of government security establishments. As such, the concept of radicalization inherited at birth a number of built-in, limiting assumptions. Those perpetrating terrorist violence are drawn from a larger pool of extremists who share an ideology that inspires their actions; entry into this wider pool of extremists can be predicted by individual or group psychological or theological factors; and knowledge of these factors could enable governments to develop policies that reduce the risk of terrorism. The study of radicalization, ostensibly a rejection on the causes of terrorism, is thus in practice limited to a much narrower question: why do some individual Muslims support an extremist interpretation of Islam that leads to violence? This question, of course, takes terrorist violence to be a product of how Islam is interpreted and so renders irrelevant consideration of terrorism not carried out by Muslims. An a priori distinction is drawn between the new terrorism, seen as originating in Islamist theology, and the old terrorism of nationalist or Leftist political violence, for which the question of radicalization is rarely posed. Answers to the question of what drives this process are to exclude ascribing any causative role to the actions of Western governments or their allies in other parts of the world; instead, individual psychological or theological journeys, largely removed from social and political circumstances, are claimed to be the root cause of the radicalization process. While some accounts acknowledge politics as a component—using euphemistic phrases such as “grievances against real or perceived injustices”—this is only done in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence, before they quickly move on to the more comfortable ground of psychology or theology. While terrorist violence is not seen as having political causes, nonviolent political activity by Muslim groups that are thought to share an ideology with terrorists is seen as another manifestation of the same radicalization process, with roots in individual theological and/or psychological journeys; it is thereby depoliticized and seen as complicit with religiously inspired terrorism.
An objective study would examine how state and nonstate actors mutually constitute themselves as combatants in a global conict between the West and radical Islam and address under what conditions each chooses to adopt tactics of violence, paying close attention to the relationships between their legitimizing frameworks. Such an approach has the advantage of being consistent with what is known about the biographies, actions, and self-descriptions of terrorists themselves and those who publicly support terrorist violence.
But to condemn terrorism without hypocrisy today requires also a questioning of the normalized violence of the war on terror. The question of terrorist violence carried out by Extremist or ideological nonstate actors is inseparable from the wider background of state violence that is denied as normal, necessary, and rational. They feed each other in a savage cycle of war and murder.