by Zainab Cheema (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1433)
Islamophobia in the post-9/11 age seems to be such a deeply integral part of the US cultural landscape that one would have to be an archaeologist in order to unearth prior states of mind.
However, it is a useful exercise to examine how the configurations of public sentiment toward Muslims shift and change, like some sort of psychedelic panorama, in response to the breakneck militarization of US society. To fully understand contemporary Islamophobia, one must look at one of the paradigmatic spaces defining the United States’ War on Terror — the prison.
Just as Hollywood movies like Shawshank Redemption et al have floodlighted the drastic split between the outside world and life behind bars, the idea of the prison itself opens up an illusion. The prison as a correctional facility poses as an instrument of social justice. However, a close look at the brutality, sexual violence, and gang-style anarchy encouraged by the institutions indicates that it is more a tool of revenge — an instrument of war. I have previously written about how prison rape gives the US as a country the highest statistics worldwide for sexual violence on men. In addition, minorities are over-represented in prisons compared to whites, irrespective of their demographic percentage in the general population. Prisons are blueprints for the criminalization (and hence exploitation) of ethnic male bodies held under suspicion by an anxious white power culture.
Muslims are of course, the fastest growing ethnic/religious demographic in prison — they intersect with the ethnic concentrations. In New York State prisons alone, there are an estimated 9,768 Muslim prisoners — 85% of them happen to be African Americans. Even as Obama and other liberal champions of the US military industrial complex rhetorically declare that mass incarcerations leave no stain on the nation’s liberal principles, the show trials through which Muslim men are publicly pilloried as terrorists helps tarnish them as evil bodies bearing visible markers of race and religion. The courts for these show trials are like the executioner’s block. According to a study by the University of San Fransisco School of Law, the US sentencing system is significantly less humanitarian. The report finds that “America utilizes mandatory minimums, habitual offender statutes, life without parole and consecutive sentencing in more severe ways than most of the developed world.”
What many American Muslims get wrong is that Islamophobia is not a symptom of a problem with the Muslims — guilt is a many-hued thing — but a political project. As long as Pentagon Inc. must justify a one trillion dollar defense budget in the face of a crumbling economy — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently protested against a suggested $55 billion trim for 2013, declaring that it would be “disastrous” — there is an iron-clad need for a shadowy, spooky “other” threatening the social order from the shadows like the big bad wolf of the fairy tales. Recent news reports reveal that another underwear bomber was about to walk the US airline plank to media notoriety, but that a timely tip unraveled the plot in time. The Guardian of London has revealed Underwear Bomber No. 2 to be a Saudi-CIA double agent who was given a highly sophisticated, non-metallic bomb designed to go through security checkpoints without setting off alarms.
“It is important to note that we can no longer assume that the FBI and the CIA and the NSA work, first of all, for the safety of the American people,” writes Naomi Wolf eloquently in a recent article. “They also now represent a revolving door of government officials who become security industry lobbyists and manufacturers, which, in turn, get the multimillion-dollar contracts for tackling the very problems these stories appear to highlight.” It is good that she got the memo.
The significance of Underwear Bombers 1 and 2 should be duly noted — it is not merely a stunt to make Muslims look like gauche, barbarous, violent murderers, as Wolf notes. Underwear Bomber No. 1 ushered in the full-body scanners at airports — incidentally manufactured by a corporation for whom former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff serves as consultant. As one Huffpost writer snarked, “Fear pays.” It is safe to say that Underwear Bomber No. 2, had he successfully made it on a plane, would have inaugurated some other horrific contraption manufactured by some other Pentagon Inc. czar to probe passengers’ genitalia and generate major corporate bucks in turn.
In short, the underwear bombers reveal how the US prison is mutating across the confines of jails and Supermax prisons, spreading across domestic space as a whole. All of us living in the continental United States are living in a super-tech medieval fortress, a military garrison. As some political commentators have noted, Islamophobia seamlessly meshes with the War on Terror to break down all sorts of borders — “here” and “there,” “domestic” and “foreign,” “us” and “them.” Thinking about terrorists crossing borders is simply a way to incarcerate everything that seems suspicious, forever. The only way to be safe is to transform the world into a prison.
As many have noted, passing through a TSA checkpoint is indeed like entering jail. Besides the gleaming, high tech equipment designed to make the passenger feel like a criminalized object, the TSA officials are becoming notorious for their abuses of power. This includes excessive patting downs for Muslim women and other women of faith wearing “suspicious” clothing (nuns included); making a woman walk multiple times through a metal detector for the benefit of officers enjoying digital scans of her “cute figure,” and dubbing a six year-old girl as a “security threat” after she became hysterical and refused to collaborate with the officials. (This last is a Facebook clip posted by the outraged mother that has gone viral). Many intellectuals have drawn comparisons between the US prison system and slavery, for reducing individuals down to units of labor and pleasure — to this list can be added the globalization of Islamophobia.
In the alchemy of Islamophobia (as with all cultural algorithms developed by Pentagon Inc.), marked bodies should be rendered into cash. Bodies are a form of exchange and accumulation, as much as a Ben Franklin-stamped $100 bill. Just as TSA security checkpoints at airports serve to make Michael Chertoff et al richer still, prisons themselves are a lucrative business. According to the Information Clearing House, the nation’s largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, is buying up state prisons across the country. The CCA has sent a letter to prisons informing them that in order to qualify as eligible, they must keep their prisons at least 90% full. In the words of Glen Ford, “the corporate jailers demand a 20-year management contract, on top of the profits they expect to extract by spending less money per prisoner.” Even if prisons are designed as a form of institutional revenge against suspicious minorities, so much the better if you can make a buck off them while you are at it.
If prisons are about containing and repressing bodies, it somehow also makes them all pervasive — the elaborate pantomimes through which Muslim bodies are tarred and feathered as terrorists has broken down the civil liberties guaranteeing institutional protection for the bodies seen as “safe.” If Muslims are the target of institutional violence — a special category of fear and anxiety — then everyone falls into fields of surveillance and objectification (for how to tell who is Muslim, to what degree, or how many paces away from becoming so?). Oddly enough, it is the global garrison of Pentagon Inc. that has truly made Muslim a universal category, a description of the zeitgeist.