On Victim-Blaming in the War on Terror: Targeting Muslims 17 Years After 9/11

Each year on September 11, the United States mourns the victims of the 9/11 attacks. With the mourning, however, comes attempted justification for the range of tactics that the United States has used to fight the global war on terror. In this way, the only victims mourned are those that died on 9/11. Opening the Guantánamo Bay prison to indefinitely house an exclusively Muslim male population, escalating drone strikes in Muslim-majority countries, facilitating and participating in proxy wars such as the Saudi offense against Yemen, and expanding the surveillance apparatus to target Muslim and other marginalized communities are among the counterterrorism tactics deemed “necessary” to curb the threat of “radical” Islam.

Denying Muslim victimhood in the context of the war on terror is based on the fundamental premise that Muslims cannot be victims of state violence, because they are actually the cause of their own suffering. The war on terror and its narrative constitute a classic case of victim blaming: Had Muslims not committed an act of terrorism, than the global war on terror would not have been launched. Victim-blaming in this sense is not only about erasing Muslim suffering, but also putting the onus of the suffering squarely back on them. None of this is a statement on the use of “victim” versus “survivor,” but instead the idea that the community has and is being targeted.

In a speech in 2005, George W. Bush, whose administration built the architecture of the war on terror, stated that “defeating a militant network is difficult because it thrives like a parasite on the suffering and frustration of others. The radicals exploit local conflicts to build a culture of victimization in which someone else is always to blame and violence is always the solution.” What this quote was designed to cement was the idea that Muslim victimization is fictional; whatever information the so-called “radicals” are using to stoke the flames is simply a figment of their imagination. Moreover, victimization as used by “radicals” is simply about being able to justify committing acts of violence, not recognizing the violence that exists and has proliferated impacting Muslims domestically and abroad.

Muslims claiming victimhood represent the rejection of silence and subservience to a global world power whose crimes are rarely (if ever) accounted for. Moreover, Muslims calling out the US’s atrocities and state violence also deny the US the ability to claim one-way accountability for the attacks of 9/11. Because if accountability matters for all injured parties, then it should for Muslims, because the harm inflicted on this community has risen to a level of vengeance that is not only incomprehensible, but colossal in its violence. Muslims claiming their victimhood is giving voice to this instead of waiting on the US to adjudicate whether it will consider its own violence a crime.

There are two additional elements that are also imposed onto Muslim victims — what Alyson M. Cole refers to in her book, The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror, as “true victimhood,” a concept constructed in the anti-victim discourse. A “true victim,” in the eyes of those castigate them, as Cole writes, “is a noble victim — he endures suffering with dignity, refraining from complaining or other public displays of weakness.” Extending this concept to Muslims, if they wanted to be “true victims,” then they would not only silence their own grievances, they might do so in order to show that they, too, are committed to eradicating the threat of terrorism, even if it means sacrificing their own lives.

Claiming victimhood through the anti-victim lens, according to Cole, also means that a victim should be someone whose “innocence must be complete and incontrovertible. True victims have not contributed to their injury in any way.” This threshold of victimhood means that Muslims — often wrongfully accused of terrorism — can never and will never be seen as “true victims.” Further, an individual such as Anwar al-Aulaqi — an US citizen who was extra-judicially assassinated — could never, under these terms, be seen as a victim in any sense of the word, even when denied his due process and other rights guaranteed to him as a citizen that were completely eliminated the moment he was killed.

Constructing Muslim victimhood in a way that makes them to blame for the violence and/or which demands a purity threshold is also made possible because of the sanitized image the United States has largely created for itself in matters of state violence. Therefore, in order to qualify the idea of Muslim victimhood, what must necessarily exist at the same time is the idea that the United States is benevolent — a force of good seeking to eradicate the threat of terrorism, and that the US played no part in fostering terrorism.

This point was made clear in a piece written by Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives. In addition to asserting that “Terrorism anywhere is a threat to civilization everywhere,” McCaul writes that “on battlefields all across the world, America has shown the way. For the sake of international security and peace we have sacrificed greatly.” Not only does this quote serve to highlight the “benevolence” of the United States, it also positions its actions as motivated by the greater good and therefore makes its violence inconsequential. Following this logic, inconsequential violence means inconsequential victims.

But the notion of inconsequential victims runs deep in the war on terror, especially when coupled with the persistent and rampant dehumanization of Muslims. The concept of moral exclusion helps to illuminate why the victimization of Muslims has become so easily justifiable. Susan Opotow asserts that,

Moral exclusion occurs when individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply. Those who are morally excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving. Consequently, harming or exploiting them appears to be appropriate, acceptable, or just.

Thus, there are two stages in the victimization of Muslims: moral exclusion, which makes violence possible in the first place, and victim-blaming/silencing that erases the violence after the injury. Operating together, both ensure that justice continues to evade Muslims even after 17 years of the war on terror that has demonized and criminalized this community.

As insidious as state violence impacting Muslims is, the corollary to it has been to convince Muslims themselves that claiming victimhood is a weakness. But the only constructions attached to victimhood are the ones we assign to it — the term encompasses an acknowledgment of harm, not a judgment on it.

Moreover, after 17 years of the war on terror, Muslims should reclaim victimhood as a powerful exercise in uprooting the status quo, disrupting the narrative of benevolent state violence, and giving voice and witness to the daily indignities and violence that has befallen the community. Ending targeted state violence against Muslims doesn’t mean silencing our pain and suffering, it means resisting the systems that seek to invisibilize our community. After 17 years of the war on terror, at least this much is owed to us.