Legal scholar Khaled Beydoun isn’t surprised that his Twitter account has been banned in India, nor that India’s government has issued a warrant for his arrest. But he will admit to some surprise that Indian activists have tried to get The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims, his book released in March, banned.
“The sad reality is Muslims there who want to speak up can’t,” says Beydoun, a scholar-in-residence at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and associate director of Detroit’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. He knows activists in India who have been jailed or seen their families attacked for speaking up against the country’s human rights abuses against Muslims, from Kashmir to Karnataka. “They rely on people like us.”
Beydoun’s first book, American Islamophobia, zoomed in on the long history of structural Islamophobia in the U.S., a legal project he shows was being enacted well before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While touring globally to promote the 2018 book, he encountered readers who were highlighting the Islamophobic currents taking place in their own countries — currents that he ties back to America’s response to 9/11.
“I was really compelled to talk about dimensions of the global war on terror that are seldom discussed in the mainstream media,” he tells Analyst News. “With what was happening in India with Hindu supremacy rising, the genocide of the Uyghur Muslim population in China, the Christchurch murders that took place five years ago this month — I realized I wanted to write something of a global scope.”
Beydoun spoke to Analyst News about his study of how the U.S.-led war on terror helped birth the various faces of Islamophobia we see globally. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the throughline between your first book, American Islamophobia, and your new book, The New Crusades?
The common thread between these books is that the American war on terror was by no means a domestic project. The Bush administration and the subsequent presidential administrations were spearheading it, not only envisioning but very much advancing the war on terror as a “global crusade.” The strongest government in the world was exporting law and lexicon. It was exporting this new counterterrorism framework that was conflating terrorism with Muslim identity.
In the first book, I make that case within the confines of the American experience. Expanding that to what was happening globally was eye opening, because you see how Islamophobia metastasizes and mutates as it travels into different contexts.
The American war on terror was by no means a domestic project. The Bush administration and the subsequent presidential administrations were advancing the war on terror as a “global crusade.”
It’s important to not think of Islamophobia as a sort of linear, uniform model that’s experienced similarly across the world. It’s sort of reshaped and disfigured on account of national contexts: the history in a specific country, the form of government that is in place, what sort of populous currents exist there. There are distinct algorithms and variables in every country that give rise to distinct forms of Islamophobia.
What do people misunderstand about the global war on terror that you’re working to correct and clarify, especially through your comparison to the original Crusades?
It’s a series of things. The fact that it’s not pointedly a religious war in the same way that the original Crusades were. That title is provocative, but it’s also a play on many people’s ignorance in thinking about the modern war on terrorism as being driven by a religious vengeance that the West is unleashing against Muslims and Muslim-majority societies.
Another misconception is that people think about Islamophobia as being an irrational form of bigotry. That might be true for individuals, for hatemongers — “private” Islamophobes, as I define them. But that isn’t the case for governments like the United States. It’s a rational tool. Islamophobia is a rational weapon which the state uses to construct Muslims as being a civilizational rival — with the principal objective of accessing coveted resources like oil, expanding American influence in the region, or more broadly, expanding American empire.
Islamophobia is a rational weapon which the state uses to construct Muslims as a civilizational rival.
That is what the modern crusade is. Other governments are emulating the United States, advancing their various political interests by using Islamophobia as a rational political expedient.
Walk us through some of the different faces that the war on terror has taken on around the globe.
One case study where you see emulation is India. When the Modi regime rises to power in 2014, we see a full-fledged adoption of this terrorism framework. Muslim elements in the world’s second or the third-biggest Muslim population were being talked about by the [ruling party] BJP within this American counterterror prism, where specific expressions of Muslim identity are tied to terrorism. After the regime makes that political case, it passes a series of acts like the Citizenship Amendment Act, where Muslim identity precludes individuals from Muslim-majority countries from becoming naturalized citizens. We can think about it somewhat like we think about the Muslim ban stateside, which was a more brazen war on terror policy adopted by the Trump administration.
An even more nefarious case study is China. The communist regime in Beijing makes a marked shift after the 9/11 terror attacks. They had previously used to characterize the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province with language like “thugs,” “subversives” and “non-loyalists.” After Bush visits the country in October 2001, the state begins to adopt that very same language of terrorism and counterterrorism, making direct connections between the Uyghurs and groups like al-Qaida and later ISIS. It’s the same connections the U.S. was making to vilify or crackdown on Muslim populations here stateside, under the banner of counter-radicalization that came on during the Obama administration. The Chinese framing of Uyghur Muslims’ separatism and struggle for self-determination is legitimized through adopting the war on terror framework.
In Quebec, the government has adopted very strident Islamophobic policies under the banner of secularism, where secularism has become an instrument to crack down on religious liberty for Muslims. Bill 21, the adoption of a headscarf ban, in 2019 represents a policy that I don’t think would be possible if not for the entrenchment of Islamophobia that was advanced by the war on terror.
Were there other manifestations of imperial Islamophobia that you would have liked to include?
I would have loved to study how Islamophobia is experienced in South American countries, especially in Brazil under Bolsonaro. I wish I would have sat on the manuscript for another two months so I could have snuck in something about all this crazy stuff that’s happening in Sweden — the government is shutting down mosques and Islamic schools, stripping Syrian and African refugees of their children in some really frightening cases. What’s nefarious about Islamophobia is that, virtually overnight, it can remake the identity of a nation that was for a long time perceived as being inclusive and multicultural.
What has the role of Muslim-majority states been in these ‘new crusades’?
To be silent. Silence is a form of complicity, but in the Uyghur case, beyond silence a lot of these governments have close alliances with China. As an economic and political superpower, China has been able to impose these handcuffs and muzzles on Muslim-majority countries’ governments to be complicit in genocide.
The fact that you had a full-fledged ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Myanmar taking place for a long time with Muslim-majority governments staying silent is an indictment on those governments. There are still millions of displaced Rohingya who can’t find permanent homes and safe havens now. You have Muslim-majority governments across Asia and in the Arab world refusing to absorb or resettle these refugees, so they’re floating in statelessness without a permanent place to call home.
What’s nefarious about Islamophobia is that, virtually overnight, it can remake the identity of a nation that was for a long time perceived as being inclusive and multicultural.
We’re naive to think that Muslim-majority governments are automatically going to stand up for Muslims. Let’s be honest, right? History always disputes that. On the ground in Muslim countries generally speaking, I think people stand in alliance and are horrified by what they see with Uyghurs. But these are generally authoritarian governments, and we shouldn’t think they’re going to care just because there’s some sort of religious affinity.
Critical race theory is a scholarly concept that’s become a flashpoint for reactionary politics. How does it play into your understanding of global Islamophobia?
Critical race theory, to me, is perhaps the most potent intellectual tool to understand Islamophobia. When you step back and think about what Islamophobia is, it aligns fully with the central tenet of critical race theory: Power will racially construct specific segments of society, whether domestic or global, in a way that advances specific state, economic or private objectives.
That’s exactly what’s happened with the war on terror and the construction of Muslim identity in line with terrorism. If you racially construct Muslims as terroristic, that enables you to stage and launch baseless wars like the war in Iraq. It enables you to infringe upon the civil liberties of Muslims, through surveillance programs under the banner of national security. It enables you to, whether in the case of China and India, say that these individuals are not part of the polity, because Muslims have been originally constructed to be non-Indian, or non-Han Chinese. So that foundational tenet of critical race theory, that race is social construction, plays directly to the marrow of Islamophobia.
March 20, 2023, marked 20 years since the U.S.-led invasion into Iraq began. What has been forgotten since then about the legacy of the Iraq war?
I’m from Detroit, a really working class, racially segregated city. While writing the book, I was able to interview a middle-aged white man who I became friends with. When he was a younger man, when the United States launched its war on Iraq, he decided to enlist because he had no other options. He couldn’t afford to go to college. The city he came from, Lincoln Park, was economically depressed. And like thousands of poor working class men — black, brown but also white — he went to the war and he essentially surrendered and gave us his health and sanity. He came back a really broken man, depressed, struggling with demons as a consequence of seeing ungodly things while he was in Iraq.
What’s really sort of glossed over is how the war on terror really destroyed significant segments of the American public, specifically men and women who enlisted in an entirely baseless illegal war to kill other poor people, poor brown Muslim people in the name of American power, American patriotism, American vengeance. When you see men like him, you can’t help but see how they also know that they were fed a lie. The war on terror was not only destructive to Muslims, it was also destructive for the soul of America.