Breaking Consensus: The War on Terror, Islamophobia, and Social Justice Movements

Sunera Thobani

I

In 2001, less than a month after the September 11 attacks in the United States, I gave a talk opposing the nascent “War on Terror.” In this speech, which I presented at the National 
Conference on Violence Against Women in Ottawa, I argued that the US response of launching ‘America’s new war’ would increase violence against women.  I situated the response within the 
continuity of North/South relations, rooted in colonialism and imperialism. I criticized American foreign policy, as well as President Bush’s racialized construction of the American Nation. Finally, I spoke of the need for solidarity with Afghan women’s organizations as well as the urgent necessity for the women’s movement in Canada to oppose the war.

My speech provoked vehement responses from various sectors of Canadian society. I was vilified in sensationalized media accounts of my speech. I was accused of being an 
academic impostor, morally bankrupt, and engaging in hate-mongering. My comments regarding American foreign policy – a record well documented by numerous sources whose accuracy could not be faulted – were dubbed “hate-speech.” I was even 
made the subject of a “hate-crime” complaint to the RCMP.

At the same time, I received strong messages of support. As I noted in a response in which I re-elaborated my position, the opposition to the unconscionable attack on Afghanistan (and subsequently the war in Iraq) was growing in Canada and all over the world.1 

Now, a decade after the onset of the War on Terror, it is important for us to evaluate our position. What has changed and what hasn’t? In this article, I discuss the current global political terrain after ten years of imperialist war. I examine the ways social justice movements elaborated their opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and I reflect on the growth of what I call a “convergence” of Left and Right analyses of Islam as well as the challenge that this convergence poses for the elaboration of an effective anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist politics.

II

What struck me most about the many public commemorations of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was their complete lack of self-reflexivity. With respect to the media, this lack of self-reflexivity meant that there was absolutely no effort to examine how they covered the original events of 9/11 or how they covered – and did not cover – the global impact of the War on Terror. Political leaders and public commentators demonstrated a similar lack of self-reflexivity. To hear Prime Minister Harper declare that “Islamicism” is the biggest threat facing Canada was deeply disturbing. If there was any hope that the last ten years might have given rise to a transformed approach in Canada toward global politics, or changed the country’s relationships with the rest of the world and with the US, this hope was dashed by the commemorations.

Assessing what has changed in the last ten years requires that we begin by recognizing that it was not the 9/11 attacks themselves that brought about the changes in the geopolitical order that we now experience. It was not the attacks themselves that led to the increase in violence, terror, and torture around the world. After all, the Oklahoma City bombings did not elicit a similar response. In response to 9/11, the US and its allies, including Canada, launched a War on Terror. This so-called war was waged to erode the rights and entitlements of Muslims, undermine the rule of law at the international level, and destroy the sovereignty – such as it was – of states in the Middle East, Central Asia, and in other parts of the world. This response furthered US imperial ambitions, and would have been pursued with or without the attacks of 9/11. Nevertheless, 9/11 was identified in every public commemoration as the cause of the changes that have taken place – as if the US administration had simply responded to events in an inevitable and natural manner. It’s really important to recognize that these changes were brought about as a consequence of the US decision to launch a global war.

Among the most significant impacts of the war is the devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq. These societies have been shattered: hundreds of thousands have been killed; large-scale displacement of communities has taken place; there has been a massive destruction of infrastructure; internal divisions and civil wars have been exacerbated; and new governments, made up of compliant elites, are fronting for the occupation forces. We’ve also seen many profound transformations in the public attack on dissent; the erosion of civil rights and liberties; paranoia in public spaces; and a growing hatred toward and suspicion of Muslims, which has put a chill on their participation in public spaces and has eroded their citizenship rights. In addition, a stifling sentimentality, analyzed in the 1990s by Lauren Berlant in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, has become all pervasive.2 In Canada, one sentence stops any serious political discussion about the War on Terror: “Canadians are in Afghanistan to send little Afghan girls to schools.” End of discussion. If we are going to confront the changes that have taken place over the past ten years, we must transform this sentimentalized political discourse and revitalize our collective capacity to talk politically about politics.

  III

What, then, are the political questions we need to confront? Certainly in Canada we’ve experienced the Americanization of foreign policy. It’s important to recognize that we’re also facing what we might think of as an Israelization of security measures. In Vancouver, for example, Transport Canada has initiated a pilot project at the airport, designed to monitor the behaviour of passengers in the airport area. Operating under the name “Passenger Behaviour Observation,” the project involves getting officers to look for indicators to identify specific passengers as security threats. This pilot project is modelled on Israeli security measures. During the week commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11, CBC radio in Vancouver ran a series of programs on the new measures in place to address new security “threats.” The series included a number of interviews with Israeli intelligence officials who commented on the pilot project at Vancouver Airport and provided assessments about the efficacy of such measures. Not once was it pointed out that Canada is not Israel or that Israel’s security apparatus is based on its self-identification as a Jewish state that treats non-Jewish populations as less-than-citizens and, hence, as security threats. Israel’s security apparatus is inseparable from the Israeli state’s priorities and commitments, particularly the need to contain the Palestinian struggles against the ongoing occupation and for their self-determination. For Canadian security agencies to import the Israeli measures is a very dangerous sign of where they think Canada is headed. Of course, Israel and Canada do have certain things in common: they are both settler colonial societies, shaped by racial hierarchies and the definition of Indigenous peoples and peoples of colour as less than full citizens. But the manner in which Indigenous peoples are currently struggling for self-determination in Canada is very different from Palestinian struggles against the Israeli state. Despite these significant differences, the Israelization of Canadian security measures is being implemented with very little public opposition.

IV

The last ten years have seen the development of a new multi-pronged model for US-led imperialist interventions. It’s important that we distinguish the different ways in which imperialist wars are now being fought. The first model is that of Afghanistan and Iraq: sending in troops to engage directly in ground-level invasion and occupation. The ideological basis for these interventions is that these countries harbour terrorists and provide a staging ground for their campaigns against the West. This model has included the privatization of war, and we’ve seen mercenaries hired to take on combat actions that would have previously been within the purview of the military.

We’re likely, I think, to see less of this type of intervention 
now that the resistance to US-led occupation has proven to be stronger than anticipated in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The insurgents have also been getting stronger – inflicting more casualties on US troops and allied forces. Consequently, the US 
and its allies are now expressing their unwillingness to carry the burden of having troops on the ground in large numbers, open to the attacks that have led to many deaths and injuries. In the end, the costs of the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be very heavy, and US military resources are 
currently stretched to the limit.

For these reasons, this model will not likely be repeated again very soon. Therefore, we must consider the second model, which is currently playing out in Libya. In this model, the US identifies and arms rebel groups within countries of strategic importance. The US then uses its immense air power in bombing campaigns to help these rebel groups to come to power. The ideological justification for these actions is that the targeted state is preparing to wage mass violence against its own populations. Thus, a humanitarian rationale is provided for imperialist aggression and intervention.

The third model involves US support for national states to clamp down on popular movements. We have seen this in action in countries like Bahrain and Yemen. If that fails, and if the state is unable to hold onto power and crush popular movements (as was the case in Egypt), support and aid is provided to the new factions coming to power. This “support” helps shape their agendas and derails the possibility for revolutionary change. We need to recognize the different aspects of this multi-pronged strategy and pay attention to their interrelation.

  V

When considering the larger War on Terror, there are three major aspects that need to be urgently considered by social justice movements. These are vital, because some of the ideological constructs that appear in the media and in the discourses of ruling elites also appear in the analyses of many of social justice movements. Specifically, I am struck by the number of ultra-Right strategies and perspectives that end up being reiterated, whether wittingly or otherwise, by social justice movements.

In order to identify this convergence, it is necessary to examine the current historical juncture, a juncture in which a social consensus has emerged that works to subsume the divisions of 
class, gender, sexuality, and (to a certain extent) even race. Islamophobia, a key ideological aspect of the War on Terror, has become pervasive in society and is the ground on which this consensus is built. The response by social justice movements to this Islamophobia has been wholly inadequate, and our capacity to build truly anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance movements 
is subsequently thwarted.

To clarify, then, the War on Terror has facilitated the emergence of a new political consensus that gets sustained not only by the ultra-Right but also by the Left, by social justice activists, by feminists and women’s rights movements, and sometimes by anti-racist movements as well. As a distinct watershed in the processes of capitalist globalization, the war has given rise to an emergent socio-political consensus that – though clearly shaped by neo-conservative ambitions and agendas – is utterly reliant on the convergence of these agendas with those of political forces that define themselves as oppositional. These forces include social democratic, Left, and feminist constituencies. What is the consequence of this convergence?

VI

Prior to the War on Terror, as the twentieth century came to a close, the destructive impact of globalization was becoming more and more visible. This led to strong resistance by social movements organizing against the implementation of neoliberal restructuring. Feminists, labour activists, anti-poverty activists, anti-racist activists, anti-globalization activists, and Indigenous activists were among the most critical and vocal opponents of neoliberalism, which had detrimental impact both globally and at the level of 
their own communities. International alliances were getting stronger and this was reflected in the politics of the movements, which prioritized international solidarity. Organizations and activists protested nearly every major international meeting of heads of state and financial institutions like the World Trade Organization. During these conferences and meetings, activists organized peoples’ summits and demonstrations and managed 
to disrupt many of the official gatherings.

Of course, the perspectives and priorities of the movement’s constituent elements were very different; there were divisions and conflicting interests among them, and I don’t want to minimize these conflicts. Nevertheless, there was a broadly shared consensus that privatization and economic restructuring were eroding the gains marginalized groups had made since the 1960s. Neoliberalism was decimating social programs and the restructuring of immigration policy, the welfare state, and the labour market had negative impacts on large sectors of these movements’ constituencies.

While these movements were vocal, so too was the backlash against them. Reaction came in the form of ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and anti-Indigenous rights politics expressed by emergent right-wing political parties. The Reform Party in Canada and, more recently, the premiership of Stephen Harper are direct consequences of that backlash. But the backlash did more than give steam to neoliberal and 
neo-conservative constituencies; it also impacted on social democractic and other left groups, which were prodded to move further and further to the right. In some instances this made them effectively indistinguishable from neoliberals.

  VII

With the advent of the War on Terror, we began to see a new consensus emerge around the threat of “terror” as specifically embodied by Islamist movements and, potentially, by all Muslims as a result of their religious affiliation. Social movements were divided in their responses to the War on Terror – some supported certain aspects of the war while opposing others, and some were ambivalent about the Afghan war but eventually considered it necessary and gave their support. Here, I would include feminist movements in the West as well as many other Left factions who opposed US imperialism but considered the attack on Afghanistan to be the only viable way to depose the Taliban regime. Even in South Asia, many viewed the attack on Afghanistan as the lesser of two evils. Support for the US was less forthcoming in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, a war that many activists and organizations defined as unnecessary. In comparison to the Iraq invasion, which elicited massive public demonstrations and marches around the world, opposition to the Afghan war was very subdued.

Given their political responses to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were these social justice movements likewise divided in their equation of the problem of “terror” with Islamic fundamentalism? Yes and no. They were divided in the sense that many activists attempted to deconstruct the threat of terror by pointing out that state violence was also inflicting terror on populations, that US foreign policy was provoking “terrorist” responses and increasing the terrorist threat, that states used the label “terrorist” to destroy any opposition to their policies, and that the label “terrorist” was being applied to all Muslims in a racialized manner that effectively made an entire population suspect by their religious affiliation.

But if we ask whether their responses differed from those of neoconservatives and neoliberals when the question turned to Islam, “Islamists,” and to the threat of so-called Islamic fundamentalism, it becomes clear that most social movements accepted the premise that these were an “irrational” enemy that had to be defeated – albeit by means other than war and torture.

It is here that we see most clearly a convergence between Right and Left perspectives: both approach Islam/ists as a global threat that must to be eliminated. The important political differences between apparently disparate constituencies are subsumed in this consensus. No matter how reluctantly it gets granted, both the Left and the Right are committed to combating Islam, “Islamists,” and their “terrorism” in order to protect existing national and transnational securities and alliances. For the Right, the maintenance of allied or subservient states and populations are a priority; for the Left, resistance and secular social movements are of primary importance. On whatever else they may disagree – and they do disagree vehemently on most issues – these newly allied constituencies share a fear and hatred of Islam and of “Islamists,” and an anxiety that borders on paranoia over the threat that “fundamentalists” (and potentially all believing Muslims) are thought to pose. Social activists share these anxieties with their ruling elites; they also view Islam through an Orientalist frame, and thus help to strengthen an ossifed and essentialist construct of Islam. In my view, this consensus on Islam has been strong enough to override many of the political and ideological disagreements among otherwise oppositional sectors.

VIII

I have discussed elsewhere the key role that feminists have played 
in facilitating the emergence of this consensus.3 I’ve also talked about the emergence of a vigilante form of masculinity that has moved into the center of US political life and remains dominant even today.4 
The idea of “Islamist fundamentalists” and “Islamist terror” holds together the ideological edifice of the War on Terror and enables otherwise oppositional forces to come together. It is here that the conceptual elaboration of a strange new convergence of interests becomes evident, and this is going 
to have profound consequences long after US troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, as they surely must.

Many activists, of course, have worked hard to name and challenge the Islamophobia that has become pervasive since 9/11. Having said that, we need to consider what the popularization and institutionalization of Islamophobia has actually accomplished, not only in terms of furthering the agendas of neo-conservatives and neoliberals, but also in the politics of social justice movements.

Most simply defined, Islamophobia is the fear and hatred of Islam. Islamophobia defines Islam as an inherently violent and misogynist religion that promotes terrorism and the hatred of women. As such, Islamophobia promotes the notion that Muslims, as a result of their religion, are hate-filled fanatics who are 
irrational in their beliefs and practices and willing to do anything for their repressive and violent religion. Inevitably, this means that they will destroy liberal democratic societies based on pluralism, religious co-existence, and egalitarian social, gender, and sexual norms. It’s important to recognize that Islamophobia not only obscures the heterogeneity among Muslim communities, but also shuts down any kind of serious political, theological, or theoretical engagement with Islamists and the perspectives and political demands they are currently advancing. In other words, Islamophobia replaces politics with a crude demonization that de-contextualizes and de-historicizes what Islam means to its adherents, and what it has meant historically and politically for both Muslims and for those who fit comfortably within the concept of the “West.”

Instead of responding to the consequences of US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, the architects of the War on Terror propagated Islamophobia to obscure reasons behind the growing resistance to the US-led domination of the post-colonial global order. Many scholars and activists have tracked the rise of Islamophobia around the world in the last decade and have noted that it is pervasive today in most societies, but especially in North America and Europe. Nevertheless, little attempt has been made to deal with Islamophobia in a substantive manner. The Center 
for American Progress recently published a report called “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” In it, the authors identify five key persons involved in four US-based organizations who, in their estimation, are responsible for producing the reports, books, blogs, and media talking points that underlie the current cultural context based on suspicion of Muslims and hatred against Islam.

The authors argue that this small handful of activists and ideologues are promoting ideas meant to inspire fear of Islam. Among those ideas are the propositions that there is a creeping global “Sharia” threat and that mosques are radicalizing Muslims to become terrorists. Some of these ideologues are actively involved in the campaign against the proposed mosque and community 
center that is to be built near Ground Zero in New York. The report also tracked $43 million paid to these five individuals by seven highly influential US foundations. What are the full implications of this study? How extensive is this Islamophobic network?

It is notable that this report does not highlight the role of the Muslim Islamophobes who are regularly featured in the mainstream media and lauded by many social justice activists. These include, for example, Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Azar Nafisi. I would also include figures like Tareq Fatah who speak as Muslims and, as such, are seen as credible, even by social justice movement activists. Then we have the “soft” Islamophobes – Fareed Zakaria, Nilufer Pazira are among them – who operate more subtly and claim to support the “good Muslim” and the “good Islam.” For them, definitions of the “good Muslim” and the “good Islam” are those bolstered by President Obama’s administration and ‘reasonable’ others, who, while arguing that Islam is a religion of peace also argue that it has been hijacked by its believers. In this discourse, the only “good Muslim” is the one who furthers American imperialism and who leads the charge against those Muslims who oppose Western imperialism (the “bad Muslims”) and who articulate their opposition in the language of Islam (the “bad Islam”). Many of these “good Muslims” identify themselves as feminists and committed social justice activists.

IX

Although prior to 9/11 many social justice activists defined globalization as a process of re-colonizing the Third World, they have not applied this analysis the rise of Islamist movements in the Muslim world. While these activists criticized US foreign policy, they did not contest the Islamophobia propagated by neoconservatives in the Bush administration, by neoliberals in Canada, and by social democrats in the UK’s governing Labour Party. Instead, they largely adopted the Islamophobia propagated by the state and by right-wing ideologues.

To be sure, these social justice movements spoke out against racial profiling and the targeting of all Muslims; but when it came to Islam and – most importantly – the Islamist movement, they adopted the demonization nearly wholesale and have help make it more pervasive. This is most obvious in the case of Palestine. Increasingly, activists are giving the issue of Palestinian self-determination the attention and support it clearly deserves. Nevertheless, while they extend support to Palestinians, they simultaneously adopt the position that Hamas and Hezbollah are nothing but terrorist organizations. Because these activists often have very little familiarity or engagement with the actual politics of Hamas or Hezbollah, their role within the larger Palestinian struggle to end the occupation goes unaddressed and remains opaque.

In their wholesale adoption of Islamophobia, these activists have helped it to become more widespread. To use another example, the question of sovereignty occupies a significant place in Islamist challenges to US-led Western domination of the Middle East and Central Asia. Despite the popular presentation in which the War 
on Terror was provoked by Islamic fundamentalists and their supposedly irrational hatred of the West, the question of sovereignty was central to the charges that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda brought against the US. Similarly, Saddam Hussein emphasized sovereignty in his support for the Palestinian struggle against 
Israeli occupation and in his defence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. When he founded Al Qaeda, bin Laden announced the commitment of this network to three major causes: ousting US bases from 
Saudi Arabia, ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and lifting the US sanctions on Iraq. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons coincided with the Israeli state’s own aquisition of such weapons with the sanction of the “international community” – the US, the UK, and other major Western nuclear powers that possessed these weapons. Sovereignty and the right to self-determination were thus at the heart of a number of Al Qaeda’s and Saddam Hussein’s respective challenges to the US, Israel, and other Western powers. Sovereignty and self-determination are also at the heart of Hamas and Hezbollah’s politics. Nevertheless, what this means for the global politics of anti-imperialism and social justice is not a debate that we see taking place in social justice movements at all; on the contrary, Orientalist tropes continue to 
be invoked in these spaces whenever discussion turns to Islam.

  X

Inspired by the writings of Bernard Lewis and Samuel 
Huntington, the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration worked with their liberal and social democratic allies to contain 
public discussion after 9/11 within a culturalist logic that 
presupposed an epic “clash of civilizations.” Meanwhile, on the Left, anti-war and feminist activists were no less myopic in presenting their otherwise sophisticated critiques of US foreign policy, imperialism, and patriarchy. Here we need only to think of the idea of a “clash of fundamentalisms,” which continues to be a very popular framework in the Left. For feminists, the concepts of the “clash of patriarchies” or the “clash of masculinities” have become very central to analyzing the War. Yet despite their popularity, these are completely nonsensical ideas that lack any analysis of power beyond the most simplistic one. To equate the power, reach, and range of the US administration and its allied states with that 
of Islamist organizations is clearly absurd. Nevertheless, social justice activists frequently reproduce these types of formulations.

Over the course of the “War on Terror,” Muslims have been constituted not only as a global threat but as the most pre-eminent global threat. Since 9/11, most nation-states have begun to wage their own Wars on Terror (albeit in locally specific ways) on Muslim populations in their midst. Meanwhile, these Muslim populations are struggling against imperialist domination and dictatorships installed and supported by the West. This Islamophobia targets Muslims – but it also targets all those who look like Muslims: Sikhs, Hindus, even Brazilians. In other words, it’s brown and black bodies who have been the targets of the War on Terror. In Islamophobic discourse, we see an intersection of religion and race in which “Muslim” becomes a racial category and not just a religious one. Consequently, we define Islamophobia as a form of racial hatred; however, as a result, we have neglected to pay attention to religion. This neglect has come at a huge political price.

Social movement activists and intellectuals have also argued that Islamophobia is not only a racialized phenomenon but a gendered one as well. Specifically, Islamophobia propagates the notion that Islam imprisons women in the burqa and sanctions patriarchy, misogyny, and violence against women. Although there are a few exceptions, feminists have largely accepted this view. The consequence is that we often recognize the violence done by Muslim men against Muslim women as the only violence that shapes Muslim women’s lives. In the process, we neglect to consider the violence of poverty, racism, war, and occupation. We are thus unable to engage in a politics of solidarity with Muslim women who speak in the name of Islam – and the rights they believe are theirs under Islam – to fight against the power wielded not only by individual men and their families but also by the state. We are failing to develop a politics that enables alliance-building with Muslim feminists who speak their feminism in the language of Islam and who fight to strengthen a practice of Islam that speaks to their interests. Failing to do the hard work of thinking through what these politics mean will have consequences in the long run. Many of us may know the Hudood Ordinances 
that were enacted by the Zia-ul-Haq government in Pakistan. However, few are aware of work like that of Shahnaz Khan, which shows how working class and impoverished women imprisoned under the Ordinances are fighting the families and husbands who indicted them – and also fighting the state – by mobilizing the rights that Islam gives them as women.5 Where does our feminist analysis even begin to engage with this on-the-ground experience?

I am concerned about the manner in which social justice movements in the “West” have articulated their anti-imperialist politics and developed anti-imperialist agendas by making a distinction between the “good Muslim” and the “bad Muslim.” This distinction is a key strategy of Islamophobia itself. Because we have internalized it, we fail to see what it enables and what it prevents in developing a truly anti-imperialist politics – one that can speak to the political ideologies, languages, and idioms in which resistance is being articulated around the world.

Notes

1 This response can be found online at http://www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/s11/warfrenz.html

2 Berlant, L. (1997) The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Durham: Duke University Press.

3 See Thobani, S. ‘White Innocence, Western Supremacy: The Role of Western Feminism in the “War on Terror”’, Razack, S., M. Smith and S. Thobani (eds.) States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century. Toronto: Between the Lines (2010) 127-146; and also Thobani, S. Imperialist Missions: Representing Muslims in the War on Terror’ , Thappan, Meenakshi (ed.) The Politics of Nationhood and Belonging. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan (2010) 230-25.

4 See Thobani, S. ‘Vigilante Masculinity and the War on Terror’, Tareq Y. Ismael and Andre Rippon (eds.) Islam in the Eyes of the West. London: Routledge (2010) 54-75.

5 See Khan, S. (2006) Zina: Transnational Feminism and the Moral Regulation of Pakistani Women. Vancouver: UBC Press.