The Ideology of Anti-Muslim Racism

Anti-Muslim racism has become a central theme for right-wing demagogues in Europe and the US. Islamophobia isn’t just a bad set of ideas: it’s a product of imperialism and the destructive wars waged by the US and its allies in the Middle East.

ver the last twenty years, hostility to Muslims has become one of the central themes in political discourse throughout Europe and North America. From Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, far-right politicians have made Islamophobia into a central plank of their campaigning platforms.

At the same time, the United States and its allies have engaged in a series of wars throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The catastrophic fallout from those wars has further strengthened anti-Muslim racism.

Deepa Kumar is a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, a book that explores the relationship between imperial militarism abroad and Islamophobic bigotry on the home front. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the two-part episode here and here.

The Ideology of Anti-Muslim Racism


You argue in your book that we should understand Islamophobia as a form of racism rather than as a form of religious bigotry or discrimination. Why is that distinction important, in your view?


I think that distinction is important because if you want to end Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, you have to understand where it comes from. I try to push back against the liberal understanding of Islamophobia, which sees it as a set of bad ideas in one’s head or a misunderstanding of Islam. Of course, it’s true that people do have bad ideas. But the central argument in my book is that empire is what produces, sustains, and is in turn fed by anti-Muslim racism.Empire is what produces, sustains, and is in turn fed by anti-Muslim racism.

That can seem a little bit abstract, so let me concretize this a little more. Since 9/11, Muslims have been targeted by the US national security apparatus. They are seen as a “suspect population.” That is why we have the mass, intrusive surveillance that has been developed. It has a longer history: surveillance and racial profiling of Muslims goes back, in the United States at least, to the late ’60s and the early ’70s. But it was very much bolstered after 9/11.

The logic here is that Muslim communities produce terrorists and therefore the New York City Police Department (NYPD) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have to go in and watch these people. These organizations go into schools, kindergartens, mosques, bookstores, and other spaces. To some people, this is just smart security policy. But you have to think about the logic of it.

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are also responsible for political violence, just like the political violence of the perpetrators of 9/11. However, you don’t have the same corresponding systems of surveillance whereby white communities are infiltrated to gather information because those communities produce white supremacists.

Whether it’s the FBI’s model of radicalization or that of the NYPD, it’s all based on the racialization of the Muslim population and the assumption that Muslims are prone to violence. This logic is racist at the structural level. It doesn’t come from a few “bad apples.”

Races are produced at certain moments for certain goals tied to the political economy of empire. Barbara and Karen Fields describe the process of producing races as “racecraft.” Races have to be produced — they don’t simply exist in an ethereal fashion or in any objective way.


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