“The Muslims are Coming” Review

New Humanist have published my review of Arun Kundnani’s latest book. I would definitely recommend it. (Wrote this review before the present surge in Islamic State activity in Iraq and the involvement of many Britons in the brutality, but I don’t think I would change anything.):

The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso) by Arun Kundnani

Islamophobia is a word with a bad reputation among many humanists: it has been used too often as an accusation to smear and silence reasonable critics of illiberal Islamic beliefs and ideologies. This is unfortunate because the phenomena that the word was intended to describe – prejudices about individual Muslims based on stereotypes, anti-Muslim bigotry, and unjustified discrimination against people purely because they are Muslims – are all too prevalent in the UK. We will not find ways to live together in the shared and diverse society that we are unless we deal with that prejudice and find ways to empower everyone to engage in a common citizenship. Any work of social or political analysis that aims to diagnose the causes of current social divisions and prescribe a solution has to be welcomed and that is at least one purpose of Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming!

Kundnani sets out to document the negative consequences of US and UK domestic counter-terrorism policies, expose anti-Muslim prejudice and hysteria as indicating a form of structural racism, and attribute the disaffection of Muslims who commit violent acts to a combination of that racism with socio-economic and political disadvantage.

All liberal-minded people know that the “war on terror” of the last decade – still ongoing – has led to a serious dilution of justice and freedom in both the UK and US. We also know that a plethora of media make it their business to spread stories about Muslims in ways calculated to inflame fear and prejudice. Kundnani gives a good account of these phenomena. In particular, he gives human faces to the victims of hatred and persecution. If you want a guide to the repressive measures our governments have engaged in, and a series of cast-iron case studies to expose the extent to which they have eroded civil rights, you will find a good compendium here.

The book is at its most persuasive when exposing the way in which governments on both sides of the Atlantic have got it wrong as they have tried to prevent violence, and gives an sharp account of how their efforts have exacerbated existing alienation. Its condemnation of many of these policies is precise and well justified. What is supposed to link the specific case studies together, however, is less clear and this problematic lack of a convincing framework is a recurring weakness in the book. Other weak points come when it moves too easily from the US to UK and treats the two situations as if they were essentially the same – unjustified in many respects – and in the way it fails to engage intelligently with alternative ideological and psychological explanations for both alienation and violence.

In particular, Kundnani does not rate religion as a factor; his preference as a secular analyst on the left is to identify socio-economic and political factors in their place. For him, the problem of acts of violence committed by individual Muslims is caused by a sense of political impotence and is to be solved by personal and civic empowerment. Many may have a justified degree of sympathy with this approach in general: religious motivation is rarely a sufficient explanation for this or that individual action or political trend – whether good deed or crime.

Clearly there are other factors at play and on one level, then, Kundnani is correct. If every child were to grow up confident and loved in an equal and fair society without prejudice, comfortable and secure economically and socially, no doubt all would be able to live confident and fulfilling lives and never feel the need to harm another in any way. Such a world is a world to fight for and to hope for. But I think he is wrong to imply that alienation alone is the cause of violence and that the foreign policies of Western democracies are responsible.

There is a confidence imparted to a person by religious ideology that can motivate excessive violence, and the intellectual and ideological content of religion needs to be considered in any full analysis.

Readers of Kundnani’s past work will know that his prose is vigorous and precise, that his tone is consistently thoughtful, and that his polemic is never hectoring. This book is no exception: a pleasure to read and be challenged by, even the parts that fail to convince.

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