In many ways the United States appears to be in its most inclusive moment. The Black Lives Matter movement is drawing crucial attention to police violence against African-Americans. The Supreme Court has recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. Caitlyn Jenner’s public gender transition has brought the struggles of transgender Americans to the national spotlight.
However, even in the midst of these crumbling barriers, prejudice against American Muslims remains robust. Many Americans across the political spectrum appear to view discrimination against Muslims as an acceptable form of profiling. On July 16, after 24-year-old Kuwaiti-American Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot and killed four U.S Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the incident was immediately labeled an act of terrorism. A Muslim shooter was all that was needed to apply the tag. It did not matter that the shooter, like many other troubled Americans, had issues with depression, substance abuse and came from a broken home.
A week earlier, Ali Muhammad Brown, who allegedly killed a college student in New Jersey last year, became the first person to be charged under that state’s terrorism statute. The only basis for the indictment was Brown’s alleged confession in which he said the murder was an act of “vengeance” for lives lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.
By contrast, another deadly shooting on June 17 in Charleston, South Carolina, where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people, was simply treated as a hate crime. This has been true in other cases of mass shooting. For example, James Holmes who killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater in Colorado was never charged with terrorism. The implicit assumption is clear: Only Muslim mass murderers are treated as terrorists.
As the 14th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the endurance of Islamophobia can no longer be pinned to ignorance or isolated instances of religious bias. Instead, the construction of the one-dimensional Muslim — a homegrown assassin that poses a consistent and covert threat to American liberties and freedoms — has become a conceptual necessity to justify a pervasive surveillance state.
The Muslim enemy
In his 1964 book, “One Dimensional Man,” philosopher Herbert Marcuse lamented the declining revolutionary potential of a Western society whose individuals were sucked into cycles of conformity. Advanced industrial society, Marcuse argued, tricked its members into a state of obeisance by creating “needs” and then proposing consumption to satisfy it.
In order for the one-dimensional man to sustain himself, an enemy — whose perceived lack of reason and freedom would substantiate the rationality and liberty of Western society — is needed. And fear of the deadly enemy stimulates growth and transforms countries into a state of “defense,” where in Marcuse’s words the permanent foe “is built into the system as a cohesive power.”
More than 50 years later, Marcuse’s critique remains relevant. In contemporary American society, the role of the “enemy” has been transferred from the Soviet menace to the Muslim assassin — an irrational and sinister figure who is singularly driven by hatred for our freedoms.
The prevailing counterterrorism strategy assumes that the one-dimensional Muslim can easily morph into an assassin at any time.
The construction of one-dimensional Muslim enemy produced by American institutions is neither incidental nor temporary. Brown was a transient who had a long criminal record. He attempted to rob his victim before shooting him. This would have been a typical case of robbery gone wrong, but it’s treated as act of terrorism in large part because of his Muslim identity. Similarly, the Chattanooga shooter had far more in common with white mass murderers such as Holmes and Adam Lanza, who in 2012 killed 20 children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. But because they are not Muslim, these perpetrators don’t pass the test of enemy status and are therefore held to different standards.
The decline of liberty that Marcuse mourned five decades ago continues as the National Security Agency gathers data on U.S. citizens without warrants and whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA’s mass surveillance program, are labeled traitors and charged with espionage. And Americans dutifully submit to pat-downs and body searches nearly everywhere they go.
The scrutiny and stereotyping of ordinary American Muslims is on the rise. And the line between the shooter and the ordinary Muslim is deliberately blurred so that Muslim can be copied and pasted into the slot created by fear. For example, last month residents in North Carolina complained against the construction of a mosque and in Texas and South Carolina residents opposed the establishment of Muslim cemeteries. In Chattanooga, the Muslim prayer service, which marks the end of Ramadan, was cancelled because it happened a day after the shooting that left four marines dead. In Florida and Arkansas gun storeowners have banned Muslims, claiming they will “not supply and arm those who threaten … fellow patriots.”
To perpetuate the fear of Muslim others, the FBI’s actively manufactures and prosecutes one-dimensional Muslim assassins. When Brown was apprehended in July 2014, the FBI tried desperately to link him to transnational militant groups, alleging that one of Brown’s co-defendants had fled to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab. A subsequent yearlong investigation did not turn up any evidence. Unable to charge Brown of terrorism under any federal statute, the prosecutors have now turned to an ambiguous state terrorism law, which requires no proof of international or other organizational connections. His two non-Muslim co-defendants have been freed for lack of evidence.
In December 2008, a court in New Jersey found three brothers and two of their friends guilty of a conspiracy to murder members of the U.S military at Fort Dix near Trenton. The brothers received life sentences plus thirty years under the enhanced terrorism sentencing guidelines outlined in the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act. To facilitate this conviction, the FBI paid one informant $238,000 and canceled an impending deportation for another, in addition to paying him $1,500 a week.
The FBI was tipped-off after the brothers submitted a paintballing video to a Circuit City for duplication where an employee found the bearded men with guns suspicious. The FBI then hired the group’s acquaintance to covertly record their conversations and tried to get one of them to agree to a plot to attack Fort Dix. The brothers were convicted despite the absence of direct evidence showing that they had agreed to the scheme devised by the FBI and communicated to them by the two informants.
These are only a few of the FBI’s one-dimensional Muslim assassins. More than 1 million people are reported to be on the terrorist watch list and no one appears bothered by the fact that most have no connection with any group deemed terrorist organization. About 900 new names are added to the terrorism database every day. This ensures continued supply of assassins and dictates that the Muslim murderer cannot be an ordinary criminal thereby requiring preemptive strikes, based on vacuous theories of radicalization that purport to predict the risk of Muslim men’s lethal violence.
In other words, regardless of past criminal record or history of mental illness, the prevailing counterterrorism strategy assumes that the one-dimensional Muslim can easily morph into an assassin at any time. This in turn enables the rise of Islamophobia as the most permissible prejudice in the United States.