Menu ×

Arun Kundnani – The Empire Comes Home: Trump, Brexit, and Islamophobia

The history of colonialism teaches us that the violence practised abroad always comes home in some form. In the past, the violent conflicts associated with Western colonialism rarely travelled from the periphery to the center. But today they do, as a result of the transnational connections capitalist globalization has enabled. Our governments declare a “global battlefield” and abolish the separation of zones of conflict from zones of peace; terrorist violence on the streets of Western cities is one consequence.

Likewise, the global imposition, since the 1970s, of what Karl Polanyi called the “great transformation” – the subjection of society to the “self-regulating market” – has, since the 1970s, led to millions of people being forced to leave their homes as their existing livelihoods collapsed around them, or as a result of the warfare, ethnic conflict, and political repression that were symptoms of a state’s inability to manage a nation’s “integration” into the global market.

The anxieties attached to the figure of the terrorist, the migrant, the refugee are symptomatic, then, of a deeper shift in the political geography of the globe: the fact that the great wells of human despair, rooted in poverty and powerlessness, can no longer be contained within national boundaries. The failure of Western societies to come to terms with this fact, and recognise in it an unintended consequence of the very brand of capitalist globalization that their governments have promoted, is what lies behind the fear that surrounds those the West defines as “aliens,” whether migrants, asylum seekers or “Muslim extremists.”

The twin political crises of 2016 in Britain and the United States – the votes for Trump and Brexit – are the products of this pathology. They represent the destruction of the liberal pretences of the center by the returning home of imperial authoritarianism – the process that Hannah Arendt identified as a key condition of totalitarianism.

Imperialism is not what Lenin called the “highest stage of capitalism” but an inherent aspect of capitalism throughout its history, which has always involved a polarization between centers and peripheries, and associated racial taxonomies. As Cedric Robinson argued, capitalism has always been a racial capitalism: it does not homogenize but produces racial difference out of the raw material of culture and ethnicity. Racism is not just a ruling class conjuring trick to divide the working class but a material and ideological principle of the system.

Today, at the level of ideology, Islamophobia offers an everyday explanatory framework for making sense of the mediated crisis events that the boomeranging of empire produces: such as acts of terrorist violence and migration flows. It does so in ways that disavow those events’ political meanings (which are rooted in empire, racism, and resistance) and instead explain them as products of a reified alien culture. Islamophobia involves an ideological displacement of political antagonisms onto the plane of culture, where they can be explained in terms of the fixed nature of the “Other.”

This maneuver is also an act of projection in the psychoanalytic sense: the racist and imperialist violence upon which Western capitalist societies depend upon cannot be acknowledged in ostensibly liberal cultures so it is transferred onto the personality of the Brown and Black immigrant and seen as emanating from “outside” the social order. State violence is then only ever a proportionate response to the inherently aggressive and threatening nature of the fanatical Muslim enemy. From deportations to drone killings, violence is desired and disavowed; subsumed within the rationality of law while barely concealing the irrationality of the fantasies it invokes.

In these ways, a Western self-image of innocence and beneficence can be maintained by displacing resistance to the system of global capitalism, at a time when, as Wendy Brown notes, “rich and poor, colonizer and native, first world and third, live virtually and actually in ever greater proximity” in “a world of extreme and intimately lived inequality, deprived of strong legitimating discourses.” A class-divided society is naturalized and depoliticized with this fantasy of a culturally homogenous “us” at the very moment when global capitalism “threatens to loosen the hold of the nation-state over its subjects.”

Since today’s US-led global empire, like all empires, inevitably generates violence and chaotic movements of peoples, it is not hard to find the crisis events around which a projection can be organized, from acts of Palestinian resistance to Syrians seeking asylum. As Stuart Hall and his colleagues argued, such crises never appear in a “pure” form to the public but are made sense of through vocabularies determined by whoever has the power to offer the primary definition of the event. In the case of events involving political violence, the national security arm of the state and its associated “terrorism experts” have a particular authority to define those events because of their presumed role as defenders of society from unknown threats and their claim to hold classified information unavailable to others. These primary definers set the limit for all subsequent discussion by framing what the problem is.

The ideological process of defining and explaining crises is about giving meaning to disturbing and troubling events and restoring a sense of control over the world. The explanations that Islamophobia gives are not logical or coherent but are a way of giving shocking and random events “meaning” and thereby drawing them into the framework of the rational order of “things understood” – things we can work on, do something about, handle, manage, regulate, surveil. And yet this ideological structure cannot fully conquer the instabilities it generates and therefore produces a desire for absolute knowledge of everything that’s happening all the time, to preempt possible disruption and opposition.

The central organizing concept for the surveillance of Muslims is the notion of “radicalization,” which has become the primary lens through which Muslim populations are viewed. The concept of “radicalization” was first introduced by Western European national security agencies in 2004 and then imported to the United States. It is meant to refer to a process by which Muslims transform into ideological fanatics with the potential for violence, a process which can supposedly be observed through subtle but observable changes in appearance. According to the New York Police Department, for example, growing a beard, or wearing what it refers to as “traditional Islamic clothing” are indicators that one is in the second of four stages of radicalization. According to the FBI’s analysis of radicalization, “increased activity in a pro-Muslim social group or political cause” is a sign of being in stage three, one level away from becoming an active terrorist.

The knowledge claims made here are predictive: the indicators of radicalization are in themselves not criminal acts but taken as signs that violence will occur in the future. In this sense, radicalization theory is to counter-terrorism what broken windows theories are to the criminal justice system. Moreover, the observable markers of radicalization are taken to be signs of an inner pathological nature that is otherwise invisible. Hence a surveillance gaze that reads Muslim bodies for the signs of a phantasmic “radicalization” with facial hair and dress becoming racial signifiers of the “bad Muslim.” What it implies in practice is the systematic monitoring of all aspects of Muslim religious and political life to try to detect the assumed radicalization indicators.

Within this surveillance gaze, the question posed to every Muslim is their positioning in relationship to zones of resistance. The so-called “moderate Muslims” are those who detach themselves from their connections to zones of resistance. The “extremists” are those who channel that resistance in the society where they live. But this question is not posed directly; it is always displaced onto the plane of culture: do you accept Western values? This framework imposes itself relentlessly on Muslim public expression, rendering suspicious anyone who refuses to engage in rituals of loyalty to Western culture. In this way, Islamophobia is also a way of containing Muslim knowledge of imperialism: Muslim dissent against empire is never heard as dissent but only as extremism.

The question is not whether Muslims and migrants can be successfully integrated into Western societies but whether the West can integrate itself into the rest of the world. To do so, Europe and the US would need to transcend the histories of racism and imperialism that have, until now, shaped their relationships with others. So long as those histories remain unaddressed, the prospect of authoritarianism – powered by a fearful racism – will be a continuing pathological presence in the politics of the West.