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Arun Kundnani on the Propaganda War Against Muslims

British writer Arun Kundnani was invited to debate with two very angry commentators on CNN last week, and it was tough to watch.

Arun Kundnani

"Muslims have to cure this disease, this cancer in their communities."

"Muslims need to open up their mosques so we can see what's going on inside."

"This is why we don't trust Muslims. Because they lie."

These statements don't need to be placed in context to be understood as racist. Nonetheless, some context is instructive: they weren't discovered scrawled in shit on the cubicle walls of an English Defence League-friendly pub; they were broadcast on CNN last week, when the British writer Arun Kundnani was invited to debate with two very angry American commentators, Scottie Hughes and Kurt Schlicter. The seven-minute segment below is difficult to watch.


The conversation was supposed to be about Donald Trump's presidential campaign. However, after Kundnani made the simple observation that Trump's rhetoric about Muslims—he's said that all Muslims should be surveyed and called for a halt on all Muslims entering the US—isn't an aberration from the norm but an articulation of already-existing domestic policy since 9/11, Hughes and Schlicter start foaming at the mouth.

The content of the racist diatribes that follow is unremarkable and historically well-worn—they metaphorize Muslims as sub-human, animalistic, pathological etc.—but what's terrifying is the violence of the delivery and the perceived impunity with which they speak.

The whole episode could have been a footnote from Kundnani's excellent book The Muslims Are Coming! (Verso)—a radical critique of the west's willful misinterpretations of jihadist motivations and violence, and the different forms of anti-Muslim hysteria generated as a result.

Since the book was released in 2014 there's been an intensification of Islamophobic attacks in Britain and the United States, complicated and encouraged by changes in foreign and domestic policy and the attacks in Paris. Kundnani writes that this kind of Islamophobia is "sustained through a relationship with official thinking and the War on Terror," so now seemed like the perfect time to discuss that relationship, Britain's infamous "Prevent" anti-extremism program, and the real meaning of multiculturalism as he sees it.


VICE: Firstly what did you make of that CNN interview?
Arun Kundnani: I thought it was quite unusual for CNN. You expect that stuff on Fox News. I received racial abuse on social media over the following 24 hours.
It shows the nature of the conservative subculture that Trump is tapping into. They react very aggressively to facts that they don't want to hear: 45 people have been killed by Muslim terrorists in the US since 9/11 but 48 have been killed by right wing terrorists. These are basic facts that put the shootings at San Bernardino in perspective and undermine how the Republican Party's trying to frame things at the moment.

Since the Paris attacks there's been an increase in Islamophobic reprisals in the UK. Was this to be expected?
I think we've come to expect that in the aftermath of incidents such as Paris the ways in which we mediate those events create the climate in which racist violence is likely to follow. When these events happen the way we make sense of them is through media frameworks that aren't reflective of the nature of the event but reflect a pre-set framework that assumes certain kinds of violence are more significant than others. Paris became a symbolic event in a way other terrorist incidents around the world did not.

The perpetrators of these far-right attacks are often presented as "lone wolves." Is that fair?
We're not consistent in how we think about far right violence compared to jihadist violence.


Before [the murder of] Lee Rigby occurred, EDL leaders were saying that if there is another terrorist attack in the UK then they will hold the Muslim community collectively responsible and take out revenge attacks against them. And in the aftermath, you had a huge number of incidents of mosques being attacked around the country but there wasn't one formal organization engineering those attacks. But was it organized? Yes: informally through social media networks and the circulation of a particular view of the world in the same way that jihadists coordinate what they do.

Since the Paris attacks the UK government's Prevent strategy has received renewed attention. Prevent has been in place for almost ten years—is it an effective policy?
It's been counter-productive. If you go back to the opening claims of what this policy was meant to achieve when it was first introduced in 2006 it talks about "building trust" and "partnership" with communities. And that's as good a measure as anything of its achievements. And what's the record? There's no policy in Britain more generally distrusted by Muslims.

There is little that feels like partnership: it's the government imposing, in a top-down way, a policy that's been designed by civil servants and influenced by neoconservative ideas. Communities are not partners but simply given the opportunity to receive funding if they sign up to a policy that is against their interests.


Specific incidences of this are described in The Muslims Are Coming! It's like the British colonial policy of indirect rule: you let seemingly autonomous community structures exist but use them to manage populations.
It's correct to see the colonial analogues here. The idea is that, when you have a population that is rejecting your political authority and is insurgent, there's a set of techniques to use to prevent it from achieving its objectives. The Muslim population in Britain has been seen as an insurgent population within policy-making circles for a decade.

There is a propaganda war but it's no good having government ministers articulate that propaganda, so people within communities have to be found who will do that instead. And that's really what the government was up to when it was paying £1 million [$1.5 million] to the Quilliam Foundation [a controversial counter-extremism think tank] to promote the Prevent policy.

What did you make of the recent allegations that the Quilliam Foundation paid the EDL's former leader Tommy Robinson to leave the group?
It wasn't really surprising. The idea that Quilliam might be able to de-radicalize anyone, let alone Tommy Robinson, is preposterous. As an organization they are a creation of the government—they were made in Whitehall. They have no grassroots history. The idea that they are somehow opposed to extremism in all its forms is contradicted by the people on their board of management. They've had militarist neoconservatives on there.


Like Michael Gove?
Absolutely. Michael Gove, whose cranky and strange book Celsius 7/7 advocates a new cold war and a denial of civil liberties. In it, he advocates that we assassinate people we consider to be extremists to "send them a signal"; this is extra-judicial killing for symbolic purposes. This is called terrorism in the objective definition of the word.

One of the underlying subjects of your book, the cultural ideology that made programs like Prevent possible, is multiculturalism. It was posed by liberals in the early 2000s as a meaningful answer to the question, "What is Britishness?" but is now discredited: what do you understand by it?
To the liberal elite, multiculturalism always meant: "We will try and enable communities of color in Britain to enter into the mainstream as long as it's done on our terms."

So it was never really about distributing power more evenly—it was about having selected community leaders coming to represent ethnic identities in a way that is, again, reminiscent of the old colonial arrangements.

The term becomes part of the discourse after the urban uprisings of the early 1980s. That's when you see an increase of black and Asian faces on TV, in parliament and so forth. The system wanted to absorb the acceptable face of Black and Asian Britain and exclude the faces that wanted to bring about a radical change, the people who understood that institutional racism in Britain was a symptom of a deeper set of problems to do with the way British society worked.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent visit to the UK was an example of multiculturalism being weaponized to protect a dangerous and Islamophobic politician. His rally at Wembley Stadium, attended by David Cameron, was full of performances of Indian culture.
Absolutely. Don't look at the 2000 people killed in Gujarat in 2002, just smell the samosas and enjoy the saris, right? That's the logic there. We should be honest that there is a constituency amongst Asian communities in Britain that totally signs up for this, and is very comfortable when Samantha Cameron attends an Asian millionaires' dinner wearing a sari. This is delightful for them.

So how are British Muslims supposed to organize and resist Islamophobia without being deemed "extremists"? You've written that British Muslims "need their Malcolm X's."
Part of the effect of Prevent is to discourage assertive, dissenting politics from emerging in Britain—not just amongst Muslims but more broadly. But that doesn't mean that we don't see that kind of thing happening.

In Britain there have been powerful, dissenting leaders come out of the Muslim community, someone like Salma Yaqoob. In the US we have people like Linda Sarsour who come out of that radical tradition as well. Of course, Malcolm X was constantly under surveillance by the FBI. The point of these policies is to make radical community politics less likely but, ultimately, you can't neutralize resistance.