One of the central themes in Arun Kundnani’s critique of what he describes as the domestic “war on terror” in the UK and the US is the apparent neglect of, or even taboo against, discussing the role played by the foreign policies of Western governments in bringing about the horrific acts of violence witnessed on the streets of London in July 2005 and May 2013. Kundnani, a US-based scholar of terrorism, is adamant that “what governments call extremism is to a large degree a product of their own wars”. However, there are a number of theoretical and methodological problems with his account.
Kundnani is right to highlight methodological concerns about existing studies of Islamist radicalisation, many of which rely on a small number of cases and fail to include control groups of people who share radical ideologies but nevertheless choose not to engage in political violence. But this is not a new insight. Indeed, researchers across Europe have already published plenty of insightful critiques of the theoretical assumptions and methodological approaches of the radicalisation literature. Worse, Kundnani commits the same mistakes when he presents no theoretical justification for his choice of case studies, and fails to explain why the vast majority of Muslims who disagree with the Western foreign policies he sees as potential root causes have not become engaged in political violence. If we look at public opinion polls from across the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in the West, support for violence against Western civilians stands, on average, at between 5 and 10 per cent. But if Kundnani’s assertions are correct, this number should be much higher, given that in some Muslim countries, overwhelming majorities of up to 90 per cent criticise the policies of the US and the West.
There is a danger that Western governments can end up telling Muslims what the ‘correct’ interpretation of Islam is
In fact, it is not perceptions of US foreign policies with respect to Israel or Middle Eastern petroleum resources that shape approval of terrorist violence against US civilians, but the rejection of US culture and some of its most prominent manifestations, such as freedom of expression. This finding may go against the conventional wisdom that Kundnani seems to wish to repackage here as his own insights, but it is quite comprehensible in light of the groundbreaking analysis of anti-Americanisms by scholars Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane, in which they differentiate between a view that assesses US foreign policies on their own terms and a view that regards those same policies as reflecting the fundamentally evil nature of US society.
When he criticises the Islamophobia peddled by right-wing US and UK media and politicians, Kundnani is more convincing, as is his argument that Western counterterrorism efforts, particularly in the US, should pay greater attention to the more widespread threat of right-wing violence. He is also right to highlight the inherently problematic nature of the attempts of various Western governments to meddle in the politics and discourses of Muslim communities in the name of fighting terrorism. It is important to not turn a blind eye towards radical discourses that can be used to justify political violence against civilians. But there is a danger that Western governments, in an attempt to address the cacophony of voices typical of the decentralised, pluralistic religious discourses in many (Sunni) Muslim communities around the world, can end up telling Muslims what the “correct” interpretation of Islam is. But once again, these are issues that have also already received considerable academic attention, with plenty of excellent analysis ranging from peer-reviewed publications to countless undergraduate essays.
In short, Kundnani’s critique of hostility towards Muslims by some Western media and politicians and of Western governments’ interaction with their Muslim communities is convincing, although not wholly original. His highly ideological insistence on the link between Western foreign policies and Islamist terrorism is neither.
The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror
By Arun Kundnani
Verso, 256pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781781681596 and 82128 (e-book)
Published 6 March 2014