This article was published in The Financial Times
Review by Tanjil Rashid
A critique of the west’s counterterrorism policies overlooks the roots of homegrown radicalism
The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani, Verso RRP£14.99 / $26.95
In Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman turned British secret agent. His incompetence results in the absurdity of diagrams for cleaner parts being mistaken on high as a blueprint for a Soviet plot, while official money is ploughed into inventing threats to the UK’s own interests.
In The Muslims are Coming!, a critique of counterterrorism policy by Arun Kundnani, the west’s “domestic war on terror” at times resembles a Greene novel populated by a cast of counterterrorism warriors even unlikelier than a hawker of Hoovers in Havana.
Take, for example, Shahed Hussain, an American petrol pump attendant with a trade in fake drivers’ licences, whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation roped into ensnaring Muslims into terror plots against US targets – planned and financed by the US government itself.
As Judge Colleen McMahon stated in 2011 when sentencing one of Mr Hussain’s catches: “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of [James] Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” It is a pity the judgment is not quoted in full, for it succinctly exemplifies Kundnani’s argument. “[The government] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry,” she said, “and then made those fantasies come true.”
Kundnani, a fellow of the Soros Foundation, believes the wider war on terror at home to be founded on a fantasy. The west, he says, “is dedicating tens of billions of dollars a year to fighting a domestic threat of terror violence that is largely imagined”.
Based on years of research from Dallas to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, this book is the most rigorous account yet of this familiar argument, which British film-maker Adam Curtis called the “power of nightmares”. Kundnani shares Curtis’s view, too, that Muslims have replaced communists as the “phantasm” of policy makers and conspiracy theorists, “a conceptual scaffolding inherited from the cold war”. But to imply vast chunks of government policy are built on fables itself rings of conspiracy theory.
In truth, counterterrorism policies targeting Muslims are a legitimate response to homegrown extremism, from the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby to the 366 (by one count) British citizens waging jihad in Syria. Furthermore, the victims of the 2005 London bombings bear witness to the reality of radicalism bred at home.
At best, Kundnani’s argument is compelling in its dissection of governments’ disproportional responses. He estimates the FBI has one counterterrorism agent per 94 Muslims in the US, which approaches a Stasi-esque ratio of spies to citizens. He shows that authorities keep drawing spurious lists of suspected radicals; one in the UK included almost 300 children under 15.
A commonplace at the core of Kundnani’s critique is that radicalism is mainly the byproduct of western foreign policy. “Religion had nothing to do with this,” according to Kundnani, citing a conspirator in the London bombings. This view is undermined by the existence of two generations of British Muslims predating the war on terror – men who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Bosnia in the 1990s. The diminution of religion’s role in stoking radicalism is as inaccurate as UK Labour politicians’ denial that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acted even as recruiting sergeants.
Kundnani scrutinises responses to terrorism better than outlining its causes. He probes the mutations of liberalism in the face of Islam, resulting in “war on terror liberals” for whom liberalism “became an ideology of total war”, from the UK Labour party’s interventionist foreign policy to Martin Amis’s innumerate paranoia about Muslim birth rates.
Liberals hold up the Enlightenment, conservatives “campaign to defend Judeo-Christian identity” – both banners explicitly excluding Muslims; both groups inclined, Kundnani writes, to see “terrorists motivated by fanaticism inherent to Islam”.
History offers correctives to these narratives, demonstrating varieties of Islam being as rooted in rationalism as the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment being as tied to terror as Islam (the word “terrorism” itself was first used during The Terror of the Enlightenment-inspired French revolution). The Muslims are Coming! lacks optimism but there is every reason to believe “Muslim” might one day be suffixed to “Judeo-Christian” when describing the west’s culture and values.
Note how one prominent French intellectual writes about Europe’s growing population of a certain religious minority: “All of them are born with raging fanaticism in their hearts.” The author of these unenlightened remarks? Voltaire. His subject? The Jews.
The writer is a freelance journalist