[On August 10, 2022 the International Institute of Islamic Thought presented a book forum featuring Dr. Maha Hilal on her book Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11. The panel was Moderated by Mohammed Abu-Nimer (American University). Here follows our summary of highlights from that presentation. It is not intended as a transcript of the event.]
It is imperative to address the role of Islamophobia in “the war on terror.” The phrase was first used by George W. Bush in a speech given Sept. 20, 2001. Twenty years later, Joseph Biden continues to use the same theme, of the United States as victim, in a process that has had bipartisan support throughout that time. This U.S. victimhood justifies and legitimizes the tactics used throughout. The extra-judicial assassinations of Bin Laden by Obama, Baghdadi by Trump, and now Zawahiri by Biden reflect that justice is whatever the U.S. says it is.
Dr. Hilal defines institutional Islamophobia as “a phenomenon whereby officially constructed hate and fear of Muslims are built into structures of the state and society for the pursuit of power and for the justification of war and repression.” Positioning Muslims outside of moral boundaries “results in consequences ranging from prejudice and discrimination to detention and death.”
The war on terror is a weaponized and violent narrative that dehumanizes Muslims and legitimates violence against them. It positions the United States as responsible for bring civilization and freedom to the Muslims world while exempting the American government from any responsibility for the immorality of their tactics. The state defines terrorism and excludes its own behavior from the definition.
An essential element of the narrative is that Muslims are inherently angry. This both means that no grievances lie behind their anger and that their anger cannot be dealt with in any rational manner, but only by brute force. The line that separates the violence of Muslim groups from that of the U.S. is not that innocent civilians are victims (which is true in both cases) but that violence by Muslim non-state actors cannot be rationally explained and violence by the state against them need not be. In other words, violence by Muslims cannot be defended and the violence by the U.S. government need not be. Muslims are irredeemable, and the U.S. state is exceptional. When the war crimes at Abu Ghuraib were revealed, the U.S. reaction ignored the injustice to the victims, and focused only the redemption of the image of the American state. When the suicides at Abu Ghuraib were revealed, it was depicted not as an act of desperation but as an act of asymmetrical warfare, minimizing the unbearable conditions imposed upon them.
Dr. Hilal has identified five dimensions to the war on terror: militarism and warfare; draconian immigration policies; surveillance; federal terrorism prosecutions; and detention and torture. Corresponding to these dimensions are five modes of violence: corporeal (physical harm and death); border (control of physical borders leveraged against targeted groups); panoptic (using surveillance as a tool of oppression, such as the arrest of a boy who designed a clock for a science project on the grounds that clocks can be used in bombs); juridical (in which targeted groups are denied the use of the judicial system in there defense and/or wielding the system as a means of their persecution); and carceral (in which the state’s physical control over the bodies of victims to inflict various forms of harm from indefinite detention without cause to physical harm).
When Muslims internalize Islamophobia, they absorb the dominant narrative about Islam and Muslims. For example, those Muslims who overcompensate in condemning acts of violence by Muslims while minimizing violence against them. Even in contradicting the narrative, Muslims will sometimes inadvertently legitimize it as when they say “I’m Muslim, but I’m not (angry/violent/intolerant/misogynistic, etc.).” Even worse are Muslim organizations that participate in the state’s apparatus (e.g., inviting the FBI into the mosques).
Dr. Hilal concluded, “Whoever has the power to construct the terms in which the war is fought has the power to legitimize the violence that is inflicted. In the case of the war on terror that squarely fallen on the United States.”
In response to the question whether Islamophobia a form of racism or a tool that promotes racism, Dr. Hilal says it is not either or. Islamophobia is rooted in black suppression (we must remember the history of enslaved black Muslims brought to the United States) but it is also a tool for promoting racism against black and brown people. Muslim and Arab are often conflated. A comprehensive understanding of Islamophobia requires recognizing the differences of impact of Islamophobia on different groups. The fear that calling Islamophobia racism constitutes a racialization of Muslim is valid, but we cannot and must not avoid addressing the racial dimension.
The most powerful form of resistance is when different communities come together to confront state violence. Muslims are a very diverse community and bringing together the multiple constituencies is important because the same weapons are being used against all our communities. We must understand how immigration policy affects both Muslim and non-Muslim Latinx communities. Before it was used to detain and oppress Muslims, Guantanamo was used to detain and oppress other communities.
In response to a question about the Albuquerque murders, Dr. Hilal said we must address head-on the context of anti-Shia bigotry and how such problems are used to divide the Muslim community. We must address the marginalization and demonization of Shia in many Muslim spaces. It is an example of the internalization of Islamophobia, as is the use of the anti-terrorism narrative by Muslim states to repress their own populations.
Prof. Abu Nimer asked whether there is a link between Islamophobia and the pro-Israel lobby. Dr. Hilal said Israel will use any tool, including Islamophobia and the war on terror, to advance its anti-Palestinian agenda, but the focus in her book is on United States.
In conclusion Dr. Hilal said she finds it hard to be hopeful, but she does see hope in the fact that many more Muslims are becoming politically educated and active in combating all systems of oppression.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute