"Don't know much about History, Don't know much Biology …"
Sam Cooke's lyrics to 'Wonderful World' should really have been used as the epigraph for Arun Kundnani's overview of the 'war on terror'. Instead he's given us Walter Benjamin - 'The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "emergency situation" in which we live is the rule.' True, no doubt, but a rather stiff and formal way of describing what's happening.
'The Muslims Are Coming!' is written in an academic and formal style, almost as if it started life as a thesis, and this makes the book quite heavy going. Which is a great pity, as it's the most relevant and insightful analysis of Islamophobia that I've seen - a tiny island of sanity in an ocean of blinkered prejudice.
"Don't know much about History". There are two main strands to Kundnani's book; the first being European and American people's almost total ignorance of the history of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and of Islam, and of the West's dealings with these regions, first as imperialists and later as neocolonialists.
It suits the American government that their citizens don't know any of this history, just as it is in the interest of the British government to downplay memories of the Suez invasion and their imperial role in Egypt, as well as the colonial rule in Kenya, Aden, India and Pakistan and all the rest. Contemporary history is treated this way too - Britain and America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are branded as 'foreign', 'overseas' - nothing to do with our lives 'here'.
So terrorist attacks have to be portrayed as taking place in some kind of political vacuum. Kundnani tells us that, after the killing of a soldier in Woolwich in 2013, 'it remained taboo to suggest any connection between the killing of a British soldier on the streets of London and the killings by British soldiers in the villages of Helmland.' Even though one of the killers himself stated clearly - "The only reason we killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. … It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
"Don't know much Biology" is the second strand of the book. 'An eye for an eye' acknowledges the biology - the primate emotions and the very human need for revenge or justice against those who hurt our family or our tribe. But once politics are taken out of the equation, and it's no longer admissible to examine connections between military oppression in one part of the world, and resistance and solidarity in another, then it becomes necessary to seek obscure 'religious', 'ideological' or 'psychological' reasons to explain terrorism.
Kundnani divides the Western response to Islam into 'Culturalists', for whom the problem is Islam itself and the Qur'an, a 'Clash of Civilisations' existing since the Crusades; and 'Reformists', who identify a late twentieth century 'political perversion' of traditional Islam. Both responses see Islam as a social and a security problem, though, and have constructed models of how individual Muslims become 'radicalised' into violent terror activities.
But all of this involves treating the indigenous Muslim community as a separate entity to the population as a whole. The community is seen simply through the lens of ‘Terror’ - as a pool in which potential jihadists are swimming, terrorists who must be identified as early in the radicalisation process as possible. In the eyes of security agencies this justifies mass surveillance and the use of informers, sting operations, wiretapping and government access to Internet traffic. The book compares the methods and the scale of intelligence gathering to the East German Stazi.
As I said at the start, 'The Muslims Are Coming!' is rather formal and academic in its presentation, but it gives in-depth coverage to the whole Islamist debate. Most importantly, the treatment steps outside the absurdity of the 'Clash of Civilisations' paradigm, and gives some much-needed historical background to the root causes of terrorism.