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#NeverForget: Sixteen Years into the “War on Terror” and Institutionalized Islamophobia Lives on

[Image from Maha Hilal.] [Image from Maha Hilal.]

September 2017 marked the sixteenth anniversary of the start of the “war on terror.” While hashtags such as #NeverForget and #September11th were trending on Twitter, there was little mention of the victims of post-9/11 counter-terrorism laws and policies – namely, Muslims or those racialized as Muslims. This is because the term “post-9/11 world” is meant to center on the devastation and destruction faced by the United States on 11 September 2001. It does not acknowledge how the United States adopted a hegemonic posture of victimhood that allowed it (and still allows it) to legitimize the most brutal of policies, under the guise of “fighting terrorism.”

President Donald Trump’s speech on the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11 made this point clear when he stated, “on that day, not only did the world change, but we all changed. Our eyes were opened to the depths of the evil we face.” The evil that Trump referred to, however, is not about the unique ways that Muslims have been maligned, targeted, and dehumanized, domestically and around the world. These experiences of US state violence have been made possible and driven by the fact that Muslims’ lives are meaningless in the “war on terror.”

Muslim communities have suffered consequences ranging from surveillance to detention and even death. Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated that 1.3 million people have died in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in the course of the “war on terror.” Meanwhile, so-called communication management units—where federal prison inmates are barred from virtually all contact with the outside world and other inmates—were built and used to warehouse Muslim prisoners. At one point, over sixty percent of inmates housed in them were Muslim, despite that Muslims make up just six percent of the prison system. In the even more extreme Guantánamo Bay prison, that number rises to one hundred percent.

Guantánamo Bay prison is a particularly cruel site of violence. At present, forty-one prisoners remained detained. Several of these prisoners have been subjected to the farcical semblance of justice that the military commissions have been designed to uphold; this includes an institutionalized lack of due process rights, admission of hearsay evidence, and surveillance of attorney-client discussions. A fair trial for those being prosecuted in this system is impossible.

However, this is not even the worst of Guantánamo, where at least nine Muslim men have died in US custody, seven by suicide. One of these men, Adnan Latif, was a 32-year-old Yemeni citizen who had spent eleven years behind bars at Guantánamo, even though he was cleared for release three times. Though questions remain about the government’s claim that he committed suicide, Latif suffered from serious mental health conditions. “Anybody who is able to die will be able to achieve happiness for himself,” he wrote in a parting letter to his attorney. “He has no other hope except that.”

But those who are released often fare no better than those still detained. Take the case of Lutfi Bin Ali, a Tunisian citizen who spent thirteen years in Guantánamo only to be released to Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that Bin Ali was subjected to egregious torture at the hands of the US government, he has expressed an eagerness to return to Guantánamo rather than face the isolation in his host country, where he knows no one. “At least in Guantánamo there were people to talk to,” he told the Guardian last September. “Here I have nobody.” For this former prisoner, the hell that he knew was better than the hell that he didn’t.

In 2014, the Senate Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary of its six-thousand-plus page report on the CIA’s Rendition, Interrogation and Detention program. This report presented, in great detail, the abuse that prisoners had suffered in CIA custody. The torture included rectal feeding, prolonged sleep deprivation, and waterboarding, among other tactics. Despite these horrific acts of torture, shortly after the report was released, the Washington Post/ABC News conducted a poll with a random sample of one thousand people which included the following questions:

Q: Which of these statements comes closer to your own opinion: It was wrong to release this report because it may raise the risk of terrorism by increasing anti-American sentiment OR It was right to release this report in order to expose what happened and prevent it in the future?

Over half the population sampled responded that it was wrong to release the report because it may raise the risk of terrorism by increasing anti-American sentiment. Thus, those responding were not concerned about the fact that the government had committed torture, but only that revealing these facts would spark anger from the Muslim community. In other words, accountability for abuses is conditional on our safety and security, even though it is the United States that perpetrated violence in the first place. 

Going back further, in 2004, when the Abu Ghraib torture scandal emerged–which served as many people’s first introduction to the violent infrastructure of torture in the “war on terror,” conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh stated, in response to the horrific photos of abuse, that, “They are the ones who are perverted. They are the ones who are dangerous. They are the ones who are subhuman. They are the ones who are human debris, not the United States of America and not our soldiers and not our prison guards.”

Limbaugh’s words might seem extreme, but their sentiments epitomize the logic of the “war on terror” which involves a cyclical process through which Muslims are dehumanized and their dehumanization subsequently turned into justification for abuse.

Torture and imprisonment have come to define the Muslim experience in the “war on terror.” So too have the endless wars in the Middle East, of which Muslims remain the primary targets. In June 2017, the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve Monthly Civilian Casualty Report stated that it was likely that there had been 484 “unintentional” civilian deaths from coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Never mind the fact that this number was likely grossly understated when compared to sources such as AirWars or the fact that missile strikes can never really only target alleged terrorists. The word “unintentional” is used to specifically evade accountability–albeit through a complex process that positions faux transparency. Regardless of the language used, accountability for crimes perpetrated against Muslims in the current political sphere seems as unlikely as ever before. 

Drone warfare raises key questions about accountability. During the Obama administration, drone strikes became the strategic cornerstone of the ongoing “war on terror.” Anwar Al-Awlaki, a US citizen, was assassinated without due process of any kind. Perhaps more strikingly is the death of Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, who was killed in a drone strike two weeks after his father. When asked to justify Abdurrahman Al-Awlaki’s death, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”  In other words, the rationale of collective responsibility extends to minors if they are Muslim–and can literally justify their death. 

The use of drones, critical to Obama’s counterterrorism strategy, has only increased under President Trump. Whereas the Obama administration engaged in drone strikes every 5.4 days, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trump administration has escalated their use to once every 1.25 days. Furthermore, government estimates of civilian deaths are often consistently and significantly lower than NGO monitoring organizations. For example, while the US government estimated that there had been between 64 and 116 deaths by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya between January 2009 and December 2015, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s estimate was exponentially higher—between 380 and 801 civilian deaths. These deaths, regardless of the exact number, are merely seen as collateral damage—a term used to whitewash war crimes by positioning deaths as “unintended.”

The system of oppression that underlies the treatment of Muslims in the “war on terror” is that of Islamophobia.  I define Islamophobia as a phenomenon meant to articulate contrived hate of Muslims that is built into structures of the state and society for the pursuit of power and the justification of war and repression. Islamophobia securitizes Muslims based on the social construction of Islam as violent, barbaric, uncivilized, and opposed to normative democratic values. It positions Muslims as existing outside of the moral boundaries extended to other communities such that they are allowed to be dehumanized, with their dehumanization resulting in consequences ranging from prejudice and discrimination to detention, torture, and even death.   Intersectional identities of Muslims along various racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines make the source of Islamophobia difficult to distinctly isolate. However, Islamophobia represents a particular type of oppression as it operates at the nexus of anti-Muslim religious animus and racism, cultural racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. Islamophobia is maintained and perpetuated by white supremacy which upholds notions of dichotomous ideological values between the “West” and Islam.

This definition anchors several key concepts that I want to highlight in order to articulate a cumulative summary of how Muslims have been targeted in the “war on terror” through institutionalized Islamophobia.  The first is dehumanization.

Dehumanization is at the core of the treatment towards Muslims and performs a particular function in sanctioning abuse. To illustrate this point, Aldous Huxley, a prominent English writer, delivered a speech around the time of rising fascism in  Europe in 1936 in which he said, “Most people would hesitate to torture or kill a human being like themselves. But when that human being is spoken of as though he were not a human being, but as the representative of some wicked principle, we lose our scruples….All political and nationalist propaganda aims at only one thing; to persuade one set of people that another set of people are not really human and that it is therefore legitimate to rob, swindle, bully and even murder them.” This is a particularly relevant statement in understanding the fate of Muslims in the “war on terror.” Muslim humanity is positioned as subjective, allowing not only for justified abuse, but also a lack of accountability.

Two other and related concepts are moral boundaries and moral exclusion. Susan Opotow, who developed the theory of moral exclusion, says that it occurs “when individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply. Those who are excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving.  Consequently, harming or exploiting them appears to be appropriate, acceptable, or just.” This is why the horrible abuses at Abu Ghraib happened, why Guantánamo Bay is still in existence, and why there is massive support from both the state and society at large to discriminate against and harm Muslims. Muslims are not regarded as being within “our” moral communities; they exist only as dangerous adjuncts.   

Finally, the concept of securitization is essential to the functioning of institutional Islamophobia. Muslim lives become pawns of the state, only seen in security terms. Their lives and liberty depend exclusively on how the state mediates their importance to our national security. Muslim bodies, therefore, are simply a means to an end.

In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, Judith Butler writes: “One way of posing the question of who ‘we’ are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all. We can see the division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war in order to defend the lives of certain communities, and to defend them against the lives of others—even if it means taking those latter lives.”

The question that emerges clearly and forcefully is one of justice. What does justice for Muslims mean in the face of US state violence?  The answer, as you can imagine, is complex, but it is certain that endless wars, militarism, and intervention will not bring justice. Justice for Muslims would require the dismantling of institutionalized Islamophobia in all its facets. This dismantlement is necessary for Muslims to realize religious freedom, and to entitle them to equal protections of the law. Justice for Muslims means that they are incorporated within the bounds of law, not outside of it. Justice for Muslims means liberation from the global system of Islamophobia that allowed the “war on terror” to target Muslims around the world. Justice for Muslims also means swift accountability– after all, justice delayed is justice denied. 

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