Dr. Ermin Sinanović, Director of Research and Academic Programs, introduced the topic by talking about the distressing portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media, which is very different from our lived experience, and, “to put it mildly,” the mistrust it has generated. He cited the increase in anti-Muslim incidents as a result of these preconceived notions of Islam, leading to harassment at schools, workplaces and, more recently, violent acts such as the Chapel Hill murders.
Dr. Kundnani, who holds a PhD from London Metropolitan University and teaches at New York University, firstly spoke about the different ways of looking at Islamophobia: some people say that it is a recurring virus of hatred as old as the Crusades whereas others claim that it was born after 9/11 and yet others insist that the phenomenon does not exist at all.
He explained that he disagreed with all those perspectives and instead viewed Islamophobia as structural racism which is intrinsically tied with global politics. Beyond individual prejudices, he sees it in the context of wider political consequences. For example, he said that the mounting death toll in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc., cannot be sustained “without the dehumanization of victims.”
To those who claim that Muslims are not a race, he counters that Islamophobia is similar to anti-Semitism, which turns the Jewish people into a race. He further stated that just as the history of anti-Semitism is rooted in conspiracy theories which accuse the Jewish people of controlling events from behind the scenes, Islamophobia also thrives on conspiracy theories such as, ‘Obama is secretly a Muslim’ or the coinage of the term ‘Eurabia’ which asserts that the European Union is a way of Arabs to control Europe.
Radicalization and Surveillance
Dr. Kundnani mentioned that popular discourse oscillates between the conservative allegation that Islam by its very nature is violent and the liberal stance that Islam is essentially peaceful but extremists have perverted Islam, leading one to believe that Islamic theology is relevant to the current situation. However, he emphasized, Islamic theology is irrelevant. “Roots of jihadism are political, not religious; not Shariah, but empire,” he said.
And yet, radicalization models continue to scrutinize religious activity as the original source of terrorism even though there is no evidence for this correlation despite the millions of dollars spent in research. He recognized that religion provides vocabulary but the conflict itself is entirely political. He cited the examples of the anarchist bombers of the late 19th century, Northern Island, and South Africa to show that this is a repetitive historical pattern. It always “started not because of ideology but state violence.”
Unfortunately, this flawed notion of radicalization steers law enforcement to systematic surveillance of mosques and Muslims – and, this too, has not produced criminal leads in six years. At this point, Dr. Kundnani connected the American Muslim struggle to the longer history of African Amercians in the past and the surveillance they endured under COINTELPRO.
A Larger Struggle
He concluded his lecture by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King who, in preaching against violence, still wondered how to successfully do so “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
Dr. Kundnani’s lecture was followed by an animated Question and Answer session in which he reminded the audience that the current struggle of American Muslims must be seen as part of a larger fight, which includes black people, Latinos, Asians – the “New America.”
In his lecture, Dr. Arun Kundnani skillfully dissected popularly accepted notions about Islam and Muslims. For a more thorough treatment of this topic, read his book, “The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror” (Verso Books, 2014).