The events of September 11
laid the basis for the emergence of a vicious form of Islamophobia that
facilitated the U.S. goals of empire building in the 21st century. This
form of Islamophobia focused on the enemy "out there" against
which the U.S. supposedly had to go to war to protect itself, from Afghanistan
As George Bush famously put
fighting them there, so we don't have to fight them here." Or as he stated in his West Point
speech in 2002, "We
must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the
In short, an endless "war on terror" on the enemy beyond U.S.
borders was now justified, according to Bush.
This initiative led to the
arrest and harassment of countless innocent Arabs and Muslims across
the U.S. as entire communities were put under suspicion, if not criminalized,
in the wake of 9/11.
But the backlash against Muslims
was even greater in various European nations. European conservatives
argued that Muslims were not properly "integrated" into society
and therefore susceptible to jihadist propaganda. Liberals and social
democrats often echoed these arguments.
This dimension of Islamophobia
has now come to the U.S. Over the last eight months, a string of high-profile
cases has led to a media furor around "homegrown terrorism."
By this, the media are referring not to the Michigan Militia or the
Tea Party lunatics, but to a series of cases involving Muslim U.S. citizens
or legal residents charged with planning or being involved in terrorist
Whether the media spotlight
was planned or accidental, the net result has been a new turn in Islamophobia
and the politics of fear that has striking parallels with the Red Scare
of the Cold War. Like the Red Scare, this new "Green Scare"
(green referring here to Islam, as opposed to environmental activists)
also attempts to promote fear and suspicion of our friends, neighbors,
The most virulent expression
of this "Green Scare" was articulated by NYU professor Tunku
Varadarajan. In a Forbes.com article titled "Going Muslim" published in November 2009, Varadarajan
argued that what precipitated the tragedy at Food Hood -- when Major
Nidal Hasan turned a gun against his co-workers and killed 13 -- was
not the racist harassment that Hasan faced in the Army or the emotionally
debilitating nature of being an overworked Army psychiatrist, but rather
a condition that he sees as inherent to all Muslims: the tendency towards
He argued that Hasan didn't
"go postal" -- that is, break down and become violent, as
postal workers have sometimes. Rather, Varadarajan argued, Hasan was
simply enacting in a cold and calculated manner the teachings of Islam.
Varadarajan put it this way:
"[T]his phrase ['going Muslim'] would describe the turn of events
where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American -- a friendly donut vendor
in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood -- discards
his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate
his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans."
In short, Varadarajan argues
that all Muslim Americans are "imminently violent," and while
they appear to be integrated into American society, they are in fact
ticking time bombs who will inevitable explode into a violent, murderous
rage. Vardarajan builds his case on the actions of Hasan and Najibullah
Zazi (the "friendly donut vendor"), who are made to stand
in for all American Muslims.
The case of Zazi, an Afghan
citizen and U.S. legal resident, who was arrested in September 2009
on charges of conspiracy to use "weapons of mass destruction,"
received significant media attention.
This was followed by the arrest
of David Coleman Headley, a U.S. citizen arrested a month later for
planning an attack on the Danish newspaper that had published racist
cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Headley is also believed to have been
involved with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group that carried out the
2008 Mumbai attacks. In December 2009, five young men living in Virginia,
all U.S. citizens and many born in the U.S., were arrested in Pakistan
for having traveled there to work with the Taliban.
The quick succession of these
cases and the attention in the news media inaugurated a new lexicon
around "homegrown terrorism." The Washington
Post was typical:
"[T]he arrests came at a time of growing concern about homegrown
terrorism after the recent shootings at the Fort Hood, Tex., military
base [Hasan] and charges filed this week against a Chicago man [Headley]
accused of playing a role in last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai."
The groundwork was being laid for the new "Green Scare."
For the Obama administration,
these high-profile cases presented the perfect context in which to unveil
the escalation of war in Afghanistan. Obama himself led the charge in
December 2009, in a
speech at West Point:
"I am convinced that
our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter
of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we
were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being
plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat.
In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within
our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan
and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror."
Obama's speech doesn't directly
refer to "homegrown terrorism." However, it plays on the fear
of 9/11 and the threat of terror "coming home" akin to Bush's
speeches cited above.
It also relies on the context
set by media coverage of the Zazi, Headley, and the Virginia cases,
all of which are related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's reference
to "extremists within our borders" thus adds to the hype about
the grave danger that terrorism and "violent extremism" allegedly
pose to U.S. citizens. Conveniently, this threat also served to justify
sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
The reality, however, flies
in the face of this rhetoric. The "threat" to Americans from
"global terrorism" is minute, and even this negligible threat
has diminished as the number of "terror plots" have declined
over the last half a decade. As many experts have noted, there has been
a steady and dramatic decline since 2004, with only a slight increase
in this overall trend in 2009. Public opinion as well has turned against
such activities in Muslim majority countries.
Even Gregory Treverton of the Rand Corporation, a right-wing
institution, admitted that the danger posed to Americans by "terrorism"
is limited. In a
piece that was published in the
LA Times he
noted that in "the five years after 2001, the number of Americans
killed per year in terrorist attacks worldwide was never more than 100,
and the toll some years was barely in double figures. Compare that with
an average of 63 by tornadoes, 692 in bicycle accidents and 41,616 in
motor-vehicle-related accidents." Indeed.
What's more, the State Department's
terrorism report released April 2009
states, "Al-Qaeda (AQ) and associated networks continued to lose
ground, both structurally and in the court of world public opinion."
Nevertheless the report asserts that these organizations "remained
the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners
What all this reveals is not
only the disjuncture between rhetoric and reality, but also the mechanics
involved in mobilizing a politics of fear. The end result is a "Green
Scare" that serves at least two goals: to justify the existence
of draconian measures like those unleashed by the Patriot Act, and to
win public support for wars abroad -- not only in Iraq and Afghanistan,
but potentially Yemen and beyond.
In short, the new Islamophobia
or "Green Scare" functions very similarly to the "Red
Scare" of the Cold War, when fear of communism was sufficient to
justify the McCarthy witch hunts and the policing of domestic dissent,
while winning consent for wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The most sensational media
treatment of "homegrown terrorism" was the recent case of
"Jihad Jane." If the North Virginia case prompted speculation
in the press about why five "normal" young men might be moved
to fight with the Taliban, the case of Colleen LaRose -- a white, petite,
blond, green-eyed woman -- set off a media frenzy. LaRose, a convert
to Islam, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorist
acts in Europe.
Capturing the flavor of various
news media reports, a
concluded that "the indictment of Jihad Jane shatters any thought
that we can spot a terrorist just by appearance." Like the reds
lurking in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, the "greens"
like LaRose -- who, we are informed, used to live on Main Street and
"blended into" American life -- are the new threat. In covering
this story, the mainstream media came close to the kind of arguments
advanced by Vardarajan and other right-wing ideologues.
This string of cases also prompted
reports like the
one from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released in March 2010. Focusing
on Zazi, Headley, and Hasan, as well as the North Virginia cases and
others in Minnesota, the report suggests that the U.S. needs to clamp
down on "internet radicalization" and continue to "puncture"
the "clash of civilizations" narrative which is used by al-Qaeda
in its recruitment efforts.
The report approvingly notes
that "White House officials already have discarded phrases like
'war on radical Islam.'" Yet, the authors add that such rhetorical
gestures are insufficient given the reality of war. The key challenge,
the report states, is "how to balance the need to combat global
terrorism with the drawbacks of large-scale,
direct military intervention ."
Indeed, this is the challenge
that the Obama administration inherited. While Obama may have dropped
the use of phrases like the "war on terror" and mitigated
some of the worst Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush administration,
he has continued the project of imperial domination.
Islamophobia is the ideological
handmaiden of this project and Obama will wield it when necessary. Lest
we forget, when "accused" of being a Muslim during the election
campaign he "defended" himself rather than take a principled
stance in support of Islam and religious freedom. This moment only strengthened
the right's cultural racism and seems to have contributed to the new
The Red Scare destroyed the
lives of many people and created a climate of intimidation and fear.
Today, the emerging "Green Scare" has a similar potential.
It can, however, be successfully resisted by a left that is able to
see beyond the dazzle of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, and expose the project
of U.S. imperialism for what it is.
Ultimately, the Red Scare and
McCarthyism was ended by the social movements of the 1960s. We need
to meet a similar challenge today.