To better unpack the legacy of Bush/Obama’s counter-terrorism, I had the great pleasure of speaking to author Arun Kundnani, author of one of my favorite books in recent memory: The Muslims are Coming!
We discuss abolition, islamophobia and building intersectional solidarity to defeat elite oppression. Please read our conversation below!
Asia Art Tours: In your book, “The Muslims are Coming!” you cite the scholar Eqbal Ahmad, as one (of many) voices on how nation-states attempt to monopolize the right to commit violence by using the specter of the ‘terrorist’:
“As scholars such as Eqbal Ahmad pointed out even before the war on terror, to designate an act of violence as terrorism is to arbitrarily isolate it from other acts of violence considered normal, rational, or necessary… Each use of the term “terrorism” is an inherently political act. The definition of terrorism is never applied consistently, because to do so would mean the condemnatory power of the term would have to be applied to our violence as much as theirs, thereby defeating the word’s usefulness.”
To start with a personal question, could you discuss how the global Black Lives Matter protests and the abolitionist scholarship bolstering many of its more radical demands has affected your own analysis and vision since writing The Muslims are Coming!?
Arun Kundnani: Much of the abolitionist scholarship that has informed recent protests already existed when I wrote The Muslims are Coming! from 2011 to 2013, and I was broadly familiar with it. For example, in her 2005 book Abolition Democracy: Beyond empire, prisons, and torture, Angela Davis talked about the connections between the Global War on Terror and domestic regimes of policing and incarceration. My thinking was influenced by figures like Stuart Hall who was also a key reference for US abolitionist scholarship. So there were overlaps and points of connection between The Muslims are Coming! and the US tradition of abolitionism. The book’s argument is that the infrastructure of the War on Terror needs to be abolished. It tries to convey this less through theoretical analysis and more through storytelling and engaging with the War on Terror’s conservative and liberal ideologues.
When I was writing The Muslims are Coming!, the mass mobilizations around the early War on Terror, especially the 2003 war on Iraq, had dissipated. So I couldn’t assume my readers would necessarily have a critical sense of the counter-terrorism system and its impacts on Muslim populations. The first task of the book was to explain why the issues of counter-terrorism were politically salient and to show how the seemingly narrow question of “terrorism” throws up a set of general issues to do with state power, racism, and empire.
But the recent upsurge in Black-led multi-racial mass organizing and protest confronting police racist violence, especially in the US, has altered the landscape within which these themes can be discussed. Revolutionary ideas about state power have been brought to the mainstream by the movement. The book I am writing now can take a lot more for granted in terms of the politics of its readers. Today, our task is is no longer to persuade anyone that racist state violence exists but to imagine a world without it. The intellectual challenge is less to describe racist state violence than to explain why it continues to exist.
The recent upsurge in Black-led multi-racial mass organizing and protest confronting police racist violence, especially in the US, has altered the landscape within which these themes can be discussed. Revolutionary ideas about state power have been brought to the mainstream by the movement . . . Today, our task is is no longer to persuade anyone that racist state violence exists but to imagine a world without it.
(“The Muslims are Coming“, opened my eyes to how Islamophobia is generated by the state to expand carceral violence. I highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys this interview. Photo Credit: ARUN KUNDNANI)
Asia Art Tours: Then, to apply Mr. Ahmad’s analysis to our present, if the specter of the ‘terrorist’ has been used to justify ‘counter-terrorism’, what relation does the ‘terrorist’ have to the specter of the ‘looter’ or ‘criminal’? And how have all these figures been used to justify unlimited violence & domination by the nation-state?
Arun Kundnani: The figures of the “terrorist,” the “looter,” and the criminal “thug” all have roots in the history of European colonialism in Asia and Africa. However, in the US, they acquired a particular potency in the neoliberal era that began in the 1970s. Under neoliberalism, racism had to be reorganized to survive. A scavenging around in the grim histories of colonialism and white supremacy took place, as it were, to find the raw materials to be worked on and transformed into building blocks of new racisms suited to the neoliberal era. The role of racism in this era is not to straightforwardly exclude but to organize, sift, and code the complex, dispersed boundaries between populations that are “exploitable” and “unexploitable,” “free” and “unfree,” “deserving” and “undeserving.” Racisms of the border, of law and order, and of counter-terrorism are the arenas within which the complex fears, tensions, and anxieties generated by neoliberalism and its discontents are projected and worked through.
The global dispossessed, who are a “surplus” humanity of no value to racial capitalism, come to be represented through a series of racist figures – “welfare queens,” “Muslim extremists,” “illegals,” “narcos,” “looters,” “super-predators,” and so on – as part of the process of securing neoliberalism in the realm of ideology. What these figures of economic dependency, violations of property, and threats to Western culture have in common is their representing limits to market logic. They serve as displaced signifiers of neoliberalism’s failure to universalize its legitimacy. Behind the phantasms of the “welfare queen,” the “Muslim extremist,” and the “illegal immigrant” lie fears of actual Black radicalism, of the actual Palestinian national movement, and of the actual politicization of the working class induced by migrant workers. By associating poverty, deviancy, and radicalism with Blackness, for example, the poverty, deviancy, and radicalism of all surplus populations, including whites, is more easily managed ideologically. Thus racism enables forms of state violence in general.
The global dispossessed, who are a “surplus” humanity of no value to racial capitalism, come to be represented through a series of racist figures – “welfare queens,” “Muslim extremists,” “illegals,” “narcos,” “looters,” “super-predators,” and so on – as part of the process of securing neoliberalism in the realm of ideology. What these figures of economic dependency, violations of property, and threats to Western culture have in common is their representing limits to market logic. They serve as displaced signifiers of neoliberalism’s failure to universalize its legitimacy.
(Joy James is one of the last truly revolutionary academics. For a radical vision of abolition, you can watch her life-changing lecture, “The Architects of Abolitonism”. Video Credit: BROWN UNIVERSITY)
Asia Art Tours: Black Abolitionist writers like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Joy James have been instrumental in building the case that modern policing (and the criminal justice system) is based on white supremacy and slavery. More recently, technology writers like Edward Ongweso, Ruha Benjamin or ‘Lucy Parsons Lab’ have stated that the very algorithms and technologies used in policing are ‘encoded’ with this same white supremacy.
Similar to these scholars, in researching The Muslims are Coming! did you see white supremacy (in both the US/UK) as integral or foundational to these States’ counterterrorism strategies?
Arun Kundnani: Through its War on Terror military actions over the last twenty years, the US has caused the deaths of at least a million men, women, and children. That is a scale of mass violence that ranks alongside the major genocides of the last hundred years. Yet there has been a complete moral failure across the official public culture of the US to grapple with the violence we have carried out, and continue to carry out, even as the people affected in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa continue to struggle with the consequences of our actions. Elite liberals have been little better than conservatives. The planners and cheerleaders for the violence have not been held to account. Neither the torturers nor the technicians of remote-control death from the sky have been forced to answer for their actions in any kind of process of justice.
If we ask the question, how was this possible, the answer has to be that the War on Terror involved a systematic racist dehumanization of its victims in their Muslimness. Anti-Muslim racism has enabled the industrial slaughter of the poor in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. This is what is missed by most of the analysis of Islamophobia by academics and journalists, who see it as individually held prejudices against Muslims, founded on ignorance or hateful attitudes. Of course, it’s easier and more comfortable to look at it that way. Work on anti-Muslim racism as only a problem of “extremist” individuals wins funding and institutional support more easily than research on the structural violence of US empire. You can build a career by talking about how individual Black and Brown people should be represented in the leadership of the US national security system; it’s much harder to do so if you talk about how masses of Black and Brown people should not be killed by the US national security system.
However, when we talk about white supremacy and racism as central to the War on Terror, we have to also confront how that racism has specific characteristics, not because of who that racism is directed at but because of the neoliberal conjuncture within which it has emerged. I understand what people mean when they say white supremacy is “foundational to” US institutions but the problem with this way of putting things is that it can lead us to think about racism as something that never fundamentally changes over time and that always expresses itself as one and the same thing. But, as A. Sivanandan wrote, “Racism does not stay still; it changes shape, size, contours, purpose, function – with changes in the economy, the social structure, the system and, above all, the challenges, the resistances to that system.”
To me, the real challenge is not to identify the foundations of racism in some historical moment – whether that is seventeenth century Virginia, 1492, the crusades, or earlier – on the assumption that thereafter those foundations are fixed in place and exist continuously through to the present day. Whatever conclusion we reach about the origins of racism, it does not settle the question of how and why racism reproduces itself through to the present day. We cannot understand, say, mass incarceration as the expression of an anti-Blackness that was enshrined at the birth of modernity and, since then, has acted as a transhistorical force, as if its reproduction from one conjuncture to the next can be assumed a priori. The past cannot serve as an alibi for the present. And without an explanation of racial capitalism’s reproduction today, our political strategies to abolish it will be ineffective.
If we ask the question, how was this possible, the answer has to be that the War on Terror involved a systematic racist dehumanization of its victims in their Muslimness. Anti-Muslim racism has enabled the industrial slaughter of the poor in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. This is what is missed by most of the analysis of Islamophobia by academics and journalists, who see it as individually held prejudices against Muslims, founded on ignorance or hateful attitudes. Of course, it’s easier and more comfortable to look at it that way.
(The ‘Five Eyes’ Surveillance Alliance between the US/UK/NZ/AUS/CAN. Photo Credit: PIXABAY)
Asia Art Tours: And if white supremacy is foundational to counter-terrorism, should we also see the algorithms, software, technologies and ultimately the institutions of the NSA, GCHQ or ‘FIVE EYES’ as white supremacist?
Arun Kundnani: The “Five Eyes” are the electronic surveillance agencies of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Four of these five nations were established as settler colonial projects in which eliminating the “savage native” was a key element in national mythology. In a sense, these nations have never stopped fighting “savages” at their frontiers, even as the frontier expanded to the global battlefields of the Cold War, War on Terror, and War on Drugs. The fifth of these nations, the UK, was the main location from where these settler colonial projects were launched.
Today, these surveillance agencies serve to uphold an imperialist project of dominating the masses of the world’s population on behalf of the the global capitalist system and, in particular, certain “Western” states that have historically led it. Their work is organized around identifying threats that are couched in the language of “terrorists,” “rogue states,” “Islamic extremists,” “drug cartels,” and “illegal immigrants.” This is the vocabulary of imperial dominance that cannot be completely disassociated from the racist and colonialist histories through which that dominance was established. In each case, the threat is characterized as an enemy that is ascribed an inherent failure to follow “civilized” rules of conflict. To conservatives, the enemy is of necessity alien to the values of Western civilization; to liberals, he fails to uphold democracy and human rights. But these political differences conceal an implicit solidarity: with few exceptions, conservatives and liberals agree that national security means absolute domination over less civilized enemies. In this way, the US national security system proclaims its own innocence and virtue while it is, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
With digital surveillance, the way that knowledge is institutionally organized in national security has shifted. European colonialism depended on the Orientalist experts based in academia that Edward Said famously analyzed. Their familiarity with the languages, cultures, and histories of the peoples being colonized was seen as an essential element in the colonizing process. The Area Studies departments in US universities replicated this approach during the Cold War. Today, the assumption is that there is less need for this kind of knowledge of colonized populations because digital surveillance is able to track each individual person and monitor their behavior to such an extent that you do not need to be able to use the tools of cultural interpretation and translation to dominate populations. But this reliance on “big data” does not mean that racism is less involved in national security surveillance. The terms through which this surveillance is organized remain racial categories. Thus digital national security surveillance is inseparable from the West’s racist bordering regimes, with their huge death tolls in the seas and deserts to the south of Europe and the United States, and their warehousing of millions of refugees in camps conveniently far from the West; racist policing and mass incarceration, which as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has shown, is another form of warehousing of surplus populations; and global infrastructures of counter-insurgency, such as the racist Wars on Terror and on Drugs, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
It is becoming increasingly clear to large numbers of people that these security agencies do not provide anything like security to ordinary people and instead serve the interests of private corporations and global elites. In the US, more and more people are attempting to come to terms with the US’s history of racial violence. At least fifteen million people participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the US in 2020. The generation derided as “woke” has begun to understand that war, prisons, and borders do not advance the well-being of the majority of people in the US, that turning the US into an “armed lifeboat” is no solution to climate crisis and zoonotic pandemics, and that there is no trickle down of wealth under racial capitalism, even for most white people. Those who have come of age in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008/9 are moving on from the false image of an exceptionally virtuous US.
The generation derided as “woke” has begun to understand that war, prisons, and borders do not advance the well-being of the majority of people in the US, that turning the US into an “armed lifeboat” is no solution to climate crisis and zoonotic pandemics, and that there is no trickle down of wealth under racial capitalism, even for most white people. Those who have come of age in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008/9 are moving on from the false image of an exceptionally virtuous US.
(Photo of the Author. Photo Credit: ARUN KUNDNANI)
For more w. Arun Kundnani, please follow him on Twitter: @arunkundnani
And for more of his writing, please visit his website: Kundnani.org