On Friday, October 13, some people across the United States prepared themselves for a “Global Day of Jihad.” State and federal law enforcement officials promised to increase police presence and patrols to mitigate security concerns. Several schools across the U.S. canceled classes for safety. The SAG-AFTRA labor union even canceled planned pickets in Los Angeles and New York due to “potential safety concerns.”
As fear swelled, “alt-right” message boards and popular accounts on X (formerly known as Twitter), including those of prominent U.S. politicians, made thinly veiled threats against Muslims. At a White House press briefing, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby was asked if the U.S. would fortify itself in response to the threat and said, “We are constantly in touch with … state and federal officials across the country to make sure that we are as vigilant as we can be to … identify and disrupt any threats to the American people.”
His response failed to mention there was no call for a “Global Day of Jihad.” In an interview with Reuters, former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for protests in support of Palestinians but never used the phrase “jihad” in relation to these protests. The West’s characterization of jihad as a holy war has no theological basis; it is a racialized mistranslation. October 13 came and went. Aside from the war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza and financed by the U.S., none of the acts of terror predicted to take place on U.S. soil transpired. There was no fire, not even smoke.
Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has revealed that the colonial terrain extends past land and into language. The breach between what is said and what is meant is also the space between fact and fiction, between life and death. Less than a day after the White House repeated rumors of a global day of jihad, hundreds of miles away, 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea al-Fayoume and his mother Hanan Shaheen were brutally attacked in their Illinois home. Joseph Czuba, their 71-year-old landlord, allegedly yelled, “You Muslims must die!” before stabbing Wadea 26 times and killing him, leaving his mother critically injured.
The attack on Wadea and his mother is not a singular event. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the weeks following October 7 have seen an “unprecedented increase” of Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias: A mosque in Minnesota was set on fire on November 2. Other mosques across the country have received death threats. Pro-Palestinian protesters have been targeted by cars. A Somali woman in Minneapolis was attacked by a woman brandishing a knife. CAIR Research and Advocacy Director Corey Saylor said this is the largest documented wave of Islamophobia since the Donald Trump era.
The rise in violence against Muslims is reminiscent of the post-9/11 landscape, when Muslims and Arabs were the target of U.S. anxieties. The state and media weaponized public safety rhetoric to garner support for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and to justify whatever crimes took place there.
Twenty-two years later, a different iteration of the story repeats itself. The specter of terrorism is enough to provoke grotesque violence against its mythological perpetrators. It is a specter that is absurd in both size and scale — we are asked to believe that an entire civilian population is composed of enemy combatants, and that those who gather and march in cities across the world against their massacre are part of a global sleeper cell. It is the fantasy of racism that predisposes the Western world to believe what would otherwise be beyond belief. In this fantastical world, terrorism is always foreign, never home-grown; always Black or Brown, Muslim or Arab, certainly never white; always an imported ideology, never as “American as apple pie.”
The “war on terror” transformed our political, cultural and linguistic domains, creating a global language and unified narrative of 9/11. The word “terrorism” entered the public lexicon with stunning ferocity, a nebulous container that we have seen shift to hold the shape of whoever the enemy du jour is. Because its parameters are difficult to define, it is an allegation that is impossible to defend against.
Islamophobia, if understood through the lens of the late scholar Edward Said, is the child of orientalism, an ideological and political framework that underpins empire, creating an unbridgeable divide between the Orient and the Western world. It is this divide that provides the justification for imperialist war and expansion. All of human history, we are told, can be reduced to the battle between the “savage” and the “savior”: Those who are the purveyors of democracy and light and those upon whom democracy must be violently imposed. We are living in a political project where this dichotomy has successfully been set in stone.
In a now deleted post on X, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the world was witnessing a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” Similarly, when George W. Bush announced the start of the global “war on terror” in 2001, he said it was not just the U.S.’s fight but a global project, “a civilization’s fight.” The Israeli siege on Gaza has revealed that the dark underbelly of U.S. Islamophobia was never eradicated just because Trump lost an election: It was only waiting for the political climate in which it would be acceptable to, once again, rear its head.
Both Israel and the U.S. rely on a foundational myth of the Western world — a “clash of civilizations.” Every accusation leveled against the “savage” is mere projection — the barbarism necessary to maintain the U.S. imperial project and its outposts is justified. In Orientalism, his seminal text, Said writes, “In newsreels or news-photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences…. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.”
Here in the U.S., it is clear how this fear is an effective tactic for manufacturing consent. It is perpetuated by the highest officials in the U.S. Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of an increased terrorist threat following October 7. “The ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level,” he said, despite a lack of evidence of any imminent threats. “It is a time to be concerned. We are in a dangerous period.” On one hand, the state fearmongers. On the other, it offers condolences to the victims of a political climate it stoked with law and language.
Following the murder of Wadea al-Fayoume, the Biden-Harris administration revealed plans for the first National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia to be developed by the Domestic Policy and National Security Councils. In a White House video appearance, Vice President Kamala Harris says, “President Joe Biden and I have a duty not only to keep the people of our nation safe but to condemn unequivocally and forcefully all forms of hate.” After incessantly berating Palestinians and Muslims alike to condemn Hamas in the days and weeks following October 7, it is an interesting rhetorical offering to use the tool of condemnation to obscure their administration’s role in proliferating Islamophobia.
While no specifics on the National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia have been released so far, it’s worth noting that the administration created a National Strategy to End Antisemitism last year that relied heavily on increased surveillance and increased collaboration between state and federal law enforcement.
Over the last 23 years, Muslims have seen the erosion of civil liberties under the guise of national security through legislation proposed and passed by multiple administrations. It may have been Trump who passed the Muslim ban, but it was George W. Bush who signed the Patriot Act into law, and Barack Obama who significantly expanded its surveillance powers. Islamophobia is a baton passed from one political party to the next.
Following a rise in violence against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden-Harris administration swiftly passed a federal hate crime bill that effectively increased the power and reach of law enforcement. On the heels of national protests in defense of Black lives, many Asian American activists were alarmed that an increasingly militarized policing apparatus was tasked with adjudicating social and political ills. Muslim activists share similar concerns about the development of a national strategy to combat Islamophobia. Reducing racism and Islamophobia to hate relegates it to the domain of individual choice and culpability, obscuring the ways in which it is both a structural and world-making force. Increased policing would only exacerbate existing issues of mass surveillance and spying against the Muslim community.
What the Biden-Harris administration fails to realize is that the current wave of Islamophobia cannot be separated from the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people. In response to the announcement of a national strategy, CAIR said, “The first and most important step President Biden must take to combat surging Islamophobia is the step that American Muslim leaders and organizations have repeatedly called on him to take: demand a ceasefire in Gaza.”
The Biden-Harris administration’s unequivocal support for Israel has caused many Muslim-Americans to question their loyalty to the Democratic Party — polls show support for Biden has plummeted amongst Muslim and Arab voters. The unveiling of a national strategy is simply a bait and switch from an administration that fears for its political future.
The dehumanizing rhetoric used against Palestinians by the highest officials in the Israeli and U.S. governments has shown how language engenders violence. Arab and Muslim life is reduced to the collateral of war. There is no price too great for maintaining the empire and its need for expansion. The Biden-Harris administration has no vested interest in addressing Islamophobia beyond condemnations. A diagnostic would only point the finger back at them. For too long, Islamophobia has remained one of the most expedient weapons in the U.S. political arsenal, powerful enough to win both elections and wars. The only way to end Islamophobia is to end the U.S.’s imperial policies — anything short of that is an olive branch extended from a rotting tree.
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