I would like to address the ways in which paid advertisements recently mounted on the New York City public transportation system are connected to the release and circulation of the “Innocence of Muslims” video. Both are made legible through the now-hegemonic grammar of the War on Terror and an archive of Orientalist tropes and themes. It is that same grammar that scripts the protests and violence that erupted across Muslim majority states in reaction to the video (a reaction which was clearly hoped for and incited by the producers) as exercises in rage, a heightened emotional state that precludes rationality. Hatred and rage, we have been told by both the American government and mainstream media since 2001, fuel the fire of Muslim terrorism and of that terrifying thing, jihad. In this discourse, Muslim terrorists/savages do not have politics or history. Instead, they are ruled by an uncontrollable and often combustible hatred for “our way” of life. Their hatred is stronger than their love for their own lives and those of their children. They are too trapped in their emotional states to recognize or respect the very rational and deliberative right to the freedom of speech.
The truths within these statements are so potent they can be distilled into eleven characters for the purposes of both propaganda and parody: #muslimrage.
The same civilizational discourse and invitation to historical amnesia animates the MTA subway ads that state: “In Any Struggle Between the Civilized and the Savage support Civilization. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Here, who exactly we are supposed to support Israel from is left purposely vague, but the words “civilized” and “jihad” invite passersby to identify in that same great war for civilization – a war that residents and citizens of the United States have been primed for since September 11, 2001. The ad, paid for by radical anti-Muslim groups and individuals, is made intelligible in a War on Terror-era United States. If the ad were inverted to imply that in order to stand with civilization we had to stand with Palestinians against the unnamed savages the statement would no longer be intelligible. Its un-intelligibility would stem from the fact that it does not emerge from the dense grammar and vocabulary of War on Terror and civilizational discourses that have long tied Israel to the United States, which are both, it bears repeating, settler colonies that were purportedly “empty” before European settlement. In both cases, the land had been indigenously populated. In both cases, those people who were there were made absent through the mutually constitutive practices of lawfare, warfare, and nationalism.
Of course, it is important here to note that notions of civilization and barbarism have often been constructed through the use of gender tropes. To put it simply, civilized men treat their women (and now gays) well. Uncivilized men do not. Muslim men are perhaps the most obviously gendered subject position in the War on Terror. They are sexually both repressed and obsessed. They are violent. They are patriarchal. They view women as inferior and have complicated relationships with their mothers. They are intolerant of difference. In fact, it is the allegedly barbarous treatment of women and sex by the Prophet Mohammad that we are asked to comment on in “The Innocence of Muslims.” In the video the prophet stands as a cipher for Islam and Islamic (un)civilization. In the same vein, the MTA ads can only make sense if we are already know that 1) jihad is our enemy and 2) we (members of this nation) are civilized.
[Subway ad, WWI Propaganda]
Both the ads and the video have been defended on the grounds of freedom of speech and disparaged as racist, Islamophobic, and as exercises in hate speech. There is a difference, however, between the freedom of speech, hate speech, and wartime propaganda, of which I consider both the ads and video to be examples. In fact, the invisibility of empire is what frames both as either “racist” that must be denounced by progressive citizens or as acts of free speech that must be defended in a democracy.
The freedom of speech is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is not simply there. Instead, it is a highly constructed and regulated category of practice. There are many things that it is illegal to “say” in the United States today. For example, it is illegal to display a noose on say, an MTA billboard. It is also illegal to show images of American soldiers who have died in combat, or to show the wooden boxes that house their corpses on the long journey home. For almost ten years now, it has been illegal to reveal the enormity of the horrors practiced by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Of course, it has not always been illegal to display a noose or show images of dead US soldiers -- both practices that were at some point defended under the tenets of the freedom of speech. The historicity of these sanctions teaches us that the “freedom of speech” is above all else a legal regulation of what can and cannot be said in the United States at any given historical moment.
In considering the MTA billboards and the “Innocence of Muslims” video as free speech practices, we are invited to forget that both are only the latest examples of incitement against Islam and Muslims everywhere. After all, in recent years the Qur’an has been flushed down the toilet as a method of interrogation at Guantanamo, it has been publicly burned in Texas and in Afghanistan, proposals to ban “sharia” have been filed in over twenty states, and mosques and the Muslims within them have been targeted and surveilled in several cities and towns across these United States. Looking at this larger picture, it becomes clear that today`s MTA ads and videos are not (only) examples of Islamophobia or hate speech, they are examples of war time propaganda. Their counterparts are not anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues, hate speech aimed at gays and lesbians, or the hanging of the confederate flag in state buildings. Instead, the counterparts to the “Innocence of Muslims” or the MTA ads are Dr. Seuss’ caricatures of Japan and the Japanese during WWII, anti-Vietnamese/-Asian sentiment and practices during the Vietnam war, films that liken Russians to machines such as in Rocky IV, and contemporary Olympic commentary that also likens Chinese to machines. Then, as now, propaganda is meant to conscript people into its message, it speaks to an audience that is already imagined and reproduces it. In fact, the circulation of these videos and ads are perhaps the most public display of the fact that United States is a country at war. Other evidence of this war, such as images of dead US soldiers (but not, we should note, images of enemy soldiers or combatants), are simply illegal. The audience of propaganda is not only those that consciously agree with its message. Instead, the audience of propaganda is the nation itself, a nation that is reconstituted through that very call. A nation that is at war. The fact that the ads and videos and Qur’an burnings are not “signed” by the United States government does not mean they are not propaganda. The fact that these acts are government sanctioned through a selective and historicized deployment of “free speech” makes them so.
For this reason, labeling or responding to these deployments of propaganda as Islamophobic or examples of hate speech is perhaps too easy a critique to make. By calling them “Islamophobic” and reacting to them through that framework, we, as liberal and progressive citizens and residents of the United States, “prove that we are not Islamophobic." By naming an MTA ad racist, we reject our association with racism and hope to transcend it. We turn Islamophobia into a domestic issue, one that can be corrected through deployments of tolerance and exhortations to “love our neighbor.” But we, citizens and residents of today`s Rome, cannot be outside of propaganda, because we cannot be outside of wars fought in our name and for the protection of “our” way of life. We must reject the logic that as long as you are not Muslim, from a Muslim majority country, or lower income, or a member of the armed forces, this is not really a country at war. It is the very invisibility of war and of empire that allows its practices to continue. Yes, the War on Terror is global in its scope and shifting alliances. But does anyone actually think that it is not in fact a globalized American war, fought on multiple fronts and in various articulations (including overlapping regimes of domestic surveillance), legitimated in large part through (always gendered) civilizational discourse and grand narratives about good and evil? Only if we act as if we are living within a nation at war can we begin to understand how a diplomatic mission in a country bombed by the United States on several occasions would be considered an “illegitimate” target while all those who happen to be in the vicinity of a man put on a secret “kill list” are legitimate targets of US drone warfare. Only when it is “our embassy,” “our diplomats” and “our drones” and “our (potential) enemies” can we look at this circle and see a square. Only in a nation at war can the previous sentence seem unpatriotic and anti-American. But only if we act as if we are a nation at war can we hope to end that war.
We must shift the frame through which we conceptualize circulations of anti Islamic images, words, and video. Only then can we understand ourselves as an audience and a target of propaganda. Only then does our role, our complicity, and our responsibility as citizens and residents of today’s premiere imperial force come into focus. This is not a complicity we can simply acknowledge through the uses of tag-lines such as “not in my name,” or exhortations to “love,” which after all is the counterpoint to the hatred that purportedly is fueling anti-American action in Muslim majority countries today. It is not enough to stand against the racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic symptoms of this war when they enter the US public sphere. Ending this war, which has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, and tens of thousands of Americans, must continue to be our primary goal.