Making Muslim Terrorists

How the police state creates enemies.


The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, by Arun Kundnani, Verso, 256 pages, $26.95.

The term "identity politics" is typically used less as a designation than as a sneer: disapproving shorthand for Balkanized multiculturalism. Arun Kundnani's new book The Muslims Are Coming! sees the subject through a different lens. For Kundnani, an adjunct professor of media, culture, and communicationat New York University, identity politics isn't something the left does to get goodies from the government. It's something the government does to justify and expand the power of the national security state.

This isn't necessarily a new argument. Its roots go back at least to Foucault, and it has been elaborated in numerous venues—Melissa Gira Grant's forthcoming book Playing the Whore, for example, talks about the way that "prostitute" as an identity was created by the state as a way to codify, regulate, and criminalize a range of acts. But Kundnani's account of the creation of the category "Muslim" is riveting, thanks to its detail and its relevance. Before 9/11, as many a Muslim commenter has pointed out, Arab and other Muslim immigrants in the U.S. were well on their way to whiteness; they were even being courted assiduously by the Republican Party. Then the planes flew into the towers. All of a sudden, they were not white at all but Muslim: a despised and marginalized minority.

The word "Muslim" had existed for centuries, of course. But now it took on new connotations. Rather than a relatively innocuous religious marker of little interest to the authorities, the identity "Muslim" was a threat and a profile, something to be regulated, policed, feared, and controlled.

It wasn't just the events of 9/11 that created a marginalized Muslim identity. The U.S. and the U.K. both did a great deal of ideological and logistical work to create something that, in Kundnani's phrase, "could be an object of police inquiry." Conservatives' contribution was to create the now familiar fantasy of a war of cultures. In this narrative, Islam was not a complicated, multinational, centuries-long tradition comprised of millions of different individuals. It was a single, monolithic, repressive glob tainting irredeemably everything it touched. "Muslim" became one identity, and that identity was evil.

On the surface, liberals presented a more nuanced view. Rather than seeing Islam as innately evil, they have argued (and governments have echoed) that there is a good, "moderate" Islam, and that "radicalized" "extremists" are perverting this moderate core. The goal then becomes to shore up the good Muslim identity by identifying vectors of radicalization. In this view, Muslims as a group are not evil—just weak, vulnerable, and in danger of sliding into corruption. They are potential terrorists, and the goal of the liberal state is to prevent them from actualizing.

In practice, this has meant that Muslims are systematically and enthusiastically profiled, their communities swamped with informers and their communications monitored. Social services have been integrated with police, so that youth counselors, teachers, and imams become informants, pointing out adolescents (and even kindergartners) who need saving/watching so that they can be mentored and their data entered into the surveillance network. Kundnani doesn't have exact figures, but he estimates that the various police/FBI/security staff devoted to America's Muslim communities is roughly equivalent to the ratio of police to population in Eastern European nations. Not surprisingly, the aura of fear and repression—the sense of being constantly watched, the knowledge that some of your friends are spies—is similar to accounts of life behind the Iron Curtain.

This narrative of evil-or-weak Muslims does not prevent terrorist activity. It creates it, often literally. Based on the idea that all Muslims are potential terrorists, the FBI has taken to using agents provocateurs to foment plots. If the FBI provides logistical support, weapons, and know-how, and then pays impoverished and often mentally ill people large sums of money, can it convince Muslims to commit terrorist acts? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. Farooque Ahmed, for example, was convinced in 2010 to participate in an FBI-conceived plan to try to bomb the D.C. Metro. His arrest actually increased the danger of terrorism; broadcasting his (that is, the FBI's) plan raised the possibility of a copycat plot. And while the FBI spends its time manufacturing terror plots, it has little time to follow through on real threats, even though the agents provocateurs' stings give, in Kundnani's words, "the superficial appearance of an efficient counterterrorism program."

The police-state manufacture of Muslim identity can promote terrorism in other, less direct ways as well. Kundnani points out that the American imam Anwar al-Awaki had for years been decisively opposed to terrorist violence against civilians. The U.S. government had even reached out to him on occasion as a "moderate" voice; in 2002 he gave a sermon at Capital Hill. But as part of its post-9/11 targeting of Muslims, the FBI began a series of raids on educational and charitable Islamic organizations in Virginia, where al-Awlaki lived. This convinced him that Muslims were not treated like American citizens, and it eventually led him to relocate to Yemen—where he was arrested and, according to his own account, tortured with the knowledge of the American government. It was only after these experiences that he began to preach that violence against America was legitimate.

Al-Awlaki had certainly been radicalized, but not by some sort of creeping "extremist" doctrine. He was radicalized by U.S. national security policy. 

Kundnani mentions at various points in his book that it is not just Islam that has been radicalized, but the West as well. If U.S. policy has played a central role in creating a radical Muslim identity, as Kundnani argues, it seems reasonable to go further and conclude that militant terrorists have created a radical American identity. Osama bin Laden wanted to start a great cultural war, and to do that he needed to make an enemy. In large part he succeeded. Before 9/11, America (at least publicly) repudiated torture and was increasingly open to Muslim immigration. After 9/11, the U.S. jettisoned human rights and engaged in multiple wars against Islamic nations. It also curtailed Muslims' political liberties at home: Pro-Palestinian sentiment, for example, became one way that authorities identified supposedly suspicious individuals for policing. If al-Awlaki became the Muslim radical we wanted, we—with our torture and drone strikes and military occupations—became the radical anti-Muslim state bin Laden had prayed for.

The process of creating identity doesn't go just one way. When our national security apparatus creates Muslims to police, it in turn allows itself to be shaped by those terrorists to which it claims to be opposed. Violence is matched with violence, terror with terror. They make us and we make them. The product of all that making is not freedom.