When the New York Times ran its story on Obama’s “kill list,” showing the president poring over names of people to potentially assassinate in drone strikes, it sparked a controversy. The content of that controversy was not over this extraordinary revelation about Obama’s use of power but rather over the leaking of state secrets, which Republicans accused him of doing to bolster his re-election campaign. Some liberal commentators (at Salon, The Nation etc.) were rightfully horrified and condemned such activity. But the Democrats—and much of the liberal establishment—remained silent.
Deep in the Times article, another shocking revelation that hasn’t received as much attention as the “kill list” is the Obama administration’s effort to erase the deaths of some innocent victims by categorizing “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” This excludes them from the civilian casualties count, allowing the administration to claim that civilian casualties have been minimal. All Muslim men in “combat zones” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have been presumed to be terrorists, and therefore worthy of death, simply for being of “military age.”
How did we get to a place where innocent Muslim men can be killed with impunity around the world with little public outcry? The short answer is that Muslims have been long been constructed as “terrorists” upon whom righteous terror can be rained. The image of the Muslim enemy in the US is not new. While Hollywood and television play a key role in conveying that image to the public, they did not create it. The “Muslim enemy” is inextricably tied to a long history of US imperialism.
The US and the Middle East
After World War II, the United States began take control of the Middle East from France and Britain. In so doing, all forces that stood in the way of US hegemony were cast as enemies, using the language of Orientalism developed in Europe. (I discuss this in greater detail in my book, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.)
Through much of the 1950s and ’60s, secular Arab nationalists and leftists who failed to cooperate with this US agenda were seen as stooges of the USSR or as “terrorists.” The latter image intensified with the birth of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its use of armed struggle. The PLO was coded as “terrorist” because of the close relationship between the United States and Israel.
Following the infamous incident at the 1972 Munich Olympics in which a group of Palestinians took Israeli athletes hostage and murdered them, the Nixon administration launched “Operation Boulder,” giving law enforcement agencies carte blanche to investigate Arab immigrants and Arab American citizens in search of connections to “terrorist” activities related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, a violent act committed in Munich by a handful of Palestinians became the basis on which all Arabs were designated as “suspicious”; the process of racial profiling had begun in earnest.
The “Arab terrorist” morphed into the “Islamic terrorist” after the 1979 Iranian revolution. When US embassy personnel were taken hostage in Iran for 444 days, the crisis generated daily front-page and headline news that effectively associated Islam with terror. Ayatollah Khomeini became the personification of all things evil, and all things Muslim. The Middle East henceforth would be seen through the lens of “Islam,” a distorted construction of the religion and the people who practiced it.