In the fall of 2022, the authors of this article published an edited book exploring the rise of global Islamophobia in the War on Terror. It was the first work of its kind to explore the complexities and depths of Islamophobic trends as an outgrowth of the War on Terror across six continents, covering fourteen country contexts from the Global North and South, and connecting this to the coloniality of power. This article briefly touches on some of the key themes developed from this work to better understand the global nature of Islamophobia in the current climate and its relationship to colonialism and present-day imperial projects.
The manifestations of Islamophobia are many and have had tragic consequences for Muslims globally. From the victims of senseless hate crimes in North America to the securitization and criminalization of outspoken scholars and political activists in Europe, to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in China, to the genocide of Muslims in Myanmar, we see the dire realities wrought by Islamophobia in the War on Terror. Much of the work and literature that aims to challenge Islamophobia has focused on specific country contexts. The focus has overwhelmingly been on the Global North. However, in the context of the War on Terror, several nation-states and populations from the Global South are taking up Islamophobic rhetoric, conceptually mirroring the anti-Muslim racism manifesting in Western nations, while organizing their Islamophobic policies and campaigns through localized politics and relations of power. The growth of Hindutva nationalist policies in India, aiming to make segments of Indian Muslims stateless and annexing the disputed territories of Kashmir; the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims in China; and the Rohingya genocide in Rakhine State, Myanmar; all represent extreme manifestations of Islamophobia beyond Western contexts. The War on Terror, a conflict undefined by time and place, with a homogenized Muslim "other" framed as a perpetual enemy, has reinforced Islamophobia on a global scale, creating transnational sites of struggle, while drawing on a colonial legacy. Islamophobia is a global phenomenon. This simple, yet substantial claim forms the basis of how to understand Islamophobia in the War on Terror.
Interpersonal forms of Islamophobia such as racial violence, vandalism of religious structures, and satirical and racist portrayals in media have been well documented prior to and since 9/11. However, Islamophobia is also an institutional form of racism that has become endemic in political rhetoric, legislation, and state security apparatuses, as demonstrated in numerous scholarly works and case studies. Both forms of Islamophobia in the War on Terror are intimately connected and have contributed to the growth and emboldening of nativist and populist protest movements in the USA, Europe, Australia, India, China, Myanmar, and other spaces across the Global North and South.
The War on Terror has facilitated a broad meta-narrative of Islamophobia to emerge as a global phenomenon. This meta-narrative has been greatly influenced and structured around racialized Muslim subjects, who are framed as a security threat. Muslims are constructed as a security risk not only from the lens of a distant foreign "other" requiring military interventions. Rather, containing the Muslim threat extends beyond this to encompass localized state policies to police Muslims from within. The framing of Muslims as a globalized security threat has sanitized anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies aimed at policing former Muslim colonial subjects across Europe and has fueled imperial ambitions in some nations from the Global South.
Nation-states from Europe, including Austria, France, and Germany, have cracked down on Muslim civil society and socially engineered structures for loyalist Muslims to sustain and protect white privilege, while keeping independent Muslim agency outside the corridors of power. From the hijab ban that targets the well-educated daughters of the immigrant poor to the ban of Muslim civil society organizations and anti-racist organizations focusing on the fight against Islamophobia, Austria,and France have tried to silence independent Muslim voices by banning organizations, putting religious institutions under strict state control, and cutting as many transnational links of this global religious community as possible. As a playbook, they can draw on a historical encounter with Muslims during the times of colonialism, reproducing patterns of governance that Europeans had cultivated starting 150 years ago. With the War on Terror, Muslims were depicted as a threat to social cohesion and societal security. Using counter-extremism programs to target Muslim youth in the urban spaces of European metropoles, the War on Terror entered the invented Muslim ghetto as a neo-colonial specter.
In the Global South, Islamophobia in the War on Terror also has an intimate relationship with coloniality, as can be seen in the cases of China, India, and Myanmar. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the autonomous region of East Turkistan was annexed by the Chinese and given the name Xinjiang Province. Traditionally, in the PRC’s occupation of East Turkistan, the Muslim ethnic population indigenous to this region, the Uyghurs, have been framed as a cultural threat to the cohesiveness of the Chinese state. In the context of the War on Terror, where the world has accepted the archetypal portrayal of Muslims as terrorists, the Uyghur population was reformulated as a security threat. As alluded to when describing Europe in the Global North, the mere incitement of "security" concerns around the threat of "terrorism" is enough to suspend the basic rights and due process of Muslims in the War on Terror. In an authoritarian context, such as China, this has permitted and sanitized the deployment of internment camps, housing millions of Uyghurs. These "security measures" are facilitating the ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide of the Uyghurs, which in turn is aiding the PRC in its imperial ambitions of settling a land that is culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically in opposition to the Chinese state. Similarly, the Hindutva populist BJP government in India, under the leadership of Narendra Modi has legitimized the annexing of the disputed territory in Kashmir as a War on Terror justified imperial project. As was the case in China, the rhetoric being used to justify this settler colonial project, were claims around the region being a hotbed of Muslim terrorist activity. By simply making these claims in the context of the War on Terror, the world has acquiesced and given Modi carte blanche to occupy this land. Another example is that of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group indigenous to the area currently called Rakhine State in Myanmar. Since the military coup of 1962, which brought Ne Win’s military government to power, consistent efforts have been made to drive the Rohingya from this land, which included measures that made the Rohingya stateless, limited their access to healthcare and education, restricted their social mobility through the confinement to ghettos, as well as placed limitations on their ability to have children. In the context of the War on Terror, while Myanmar was a fragile democratic state, remnants of the military government in Myanmar still commanded significant control of civil society and in August 2017 engaged in a genocide of the Rohingya population killing over 20,000 Rohingya and driving out over 700,000 into refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. In the aftermath of the genocide, then-Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi defended the actions of the military claiming the genocide instead consisted of "clearance operations" aimed to root out terrorists. In November 2019, the Gambia took the case of the Rohingya to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague under charges of genocide. In Suu Kyi’s voluntary testimony to the court, she doubled down on her claims of Muslim terrorism being the cause of the violence, describing the genocide as an instance of "intercommunal violence" where the military was taking action against "insurgents or terrorists." In the case of Myanmar, treating Muslims as a security threat in the War on Terror sanitized and justified the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya.
Islamophobia in its institutional form draws on a historical legacy of colonialism, born as a projection surface of an imagined Christian white European continent that excluded the Jews and Muslims as belonging to the zone of non-being, as Frantz Fanon had called it. With the War on Terror, the era of the Cold War that included and domesticated Islam and Muslims as a tool to fight atheist communism, ended. A new era targeting Islam and Muslims as a potential opposition amongst the wretched of the earth evolved, bolstered by the War on Terror that globalized this image, and granted permission to local realities in fighting their respective problematized Muslim subjects extending beyond Global North and South barriers.
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