The extremely violent empire

February 25, 2015

The U.S. government is at war with an enemy it helped to conjure.

THE SELF-serving and cynical nature of the Obama administration's three-day Countering Violent Extremism summit held in mid-February in Washington, D.C., was so glaring that the conference provoked outrage from the very quarters where White House officials had hoped to find support.

Anxious to deflect charges that the conference was mainly about bashing Muslims, the administration used the neutral language of "violent extremism" to define the focus of the meeting. Predictably, this inflamed conservative Obama haters. They condemned Obama's supposed "softness" toward the "Muslim enemy" and delivered a torrent of one-liners mocking the conference as, for example, "an ISIS jobs fair", while calling for stepped-up deployment of the U.S. military's "hard power."

But the neutral language didn't fool anyone--the Confronting Violent Extremism summit focused almost exclusively on "Islamic fundamentalism" as the chief threat to the safety and security of U.S. citizens. In response, Muslim Advocates, a national legal rights organization, issued a statement criticizing the Obama administration:

U.S. soldiers raid a home in Iraq

Muslim Advocates is deeply troubled by the message that the [Obama] administration is sending by primarily focusing on American Muslims, particularly young American Muslims, at this week's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) summit. While the facts show that perpetrators who are Muslim comprise a very tiny fraction of extremist violence in the U.S., a summit and CVE programs that focus on Muslims send the false and dangerous message to the American people that their Muslim neighbors are a threat to their safety.

The statistics vindicate this point. Between 1980 and 2005, according to the FBI, non-Muslims accounted for 94 percent of all terror attacks on U.S. soil. In Europe, less than 2 percent of terrorist acts in the last five years have been "religiously motivated," according to the European law enforcement agency Europol.

A 2014 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that since 9/11, Muslim-linked terrorism took the lives of 37 Americans--while more than 190,000 Americans were murdered during the same time span.

Moreover, the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a week before the conference put the stakes of this debate in sharp relief. In the words of Muslim Advocates:

As the brutal murders in Chapel Hill tragically remind us, extremist violence cannot be predicted by any religious, ideological, ethnic or racial profile. Furthermore, the few perpetrators of extremist violence who are Muslim generally do not have deep ties to the American Muslim community that could be addressed by CVE programs. The Tsarnaev brothers [who carried out the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013], for example, were virtually unknown in the Boston Muslim community and were already known by the FBI and Russian intelligence.

These points are indisputable. Yet politicians across the political spectrum--from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans--repeatedly portray the "threat" of Islamist political violence out of all proportion to reality.

There is an obvious reason why: The focus on Muslim "violent extremism" has served as the chief ideological justification for the extreme violence of American empire for more than a decade now--from years of U.S. occupation in Iraq to the escalating drone war in many more countries that has killed many times more civilians than terrorists.

AS IF on cue, while the CVE conference was underway in Washington, journalist Graeme Wood published a lengthy article in The Atlantic about the chief enemy of the U.S. "war on terror" today: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

While the article contained a wealth of details about ISIS's conception of itself, Wood simultaneously refracted the dominant strands of Islamophobia fundamental to the ideological justifications for U.S. imperialism since 9/11--and so often repeated in the mainstream media.

"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic," writes Wood. "Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."

This central contention--that ISIS's public beheadings and amputations, its book burnings and persecution of religious minorities, not to mention Sunni Muslims who dare to dissent, flow from the core of Islam itself--has prompted effective takedowns by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

One common theme of these articles challenging Wood is that the brutality of ISIS is a product of the brutality that the U.S. has inflicted on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East for decades. "Ought it be surprising that if we rain down a veritable apocalypse upon a people, they just might start adopting apocalyptic views?" ask Daniel Haqiqatjou and Dr. Yasir Qadhi in their article "What is 'Islamic'? A Muslim response to ISIS and The Atlantic" at

They continue:

A simple question: Why has a group like ISIS come to power in lands that have been subjected to continual political strife, civil war and bloodshed? All else being equal theologically, had the U.S. not pummeled that region for decades, would ISIS have ever arisen? Normally, there would be nothing inherently objectionable about Wood focusing on ISIS's religious beliefs in lieu of these historical and sociological considerations. But in this case and given the political climate, Wood's omission purely serves the interests of power and effectively exonerates U.S. warmongering at the expense of its victims, namely Muslims at home and abroad.

THE TRUTH is that political Islamist currents that employ terrorism don't represent the resurrection of medieval Islamic practices, as Wood claims. On the contrary, these currents are contemporary in origin, even if they seek out scriptural justifications to give their enterprise greater legitimacy.

What's more, there is a particular twist to these contemporary origins: The U.S. government was itself a key mover in connecting political Islam with terrorist methods.

The battleground was Afghanistan during the final years of the Cold War. After the USSR invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. military establishment--led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, then national security adviser to Democratic President Jimmy Carter--hoped that Islamist mujahedeen fighters opposed to the Soviet occupation would give the USSR its version of Vietnam.

As Mahmoud Mamdani explains in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror:

The CIA was key to the forging of the link between Islam and terror in central Asia and to giving radical Islamists international reach and ambition. The groups it trained and sponsored shared a triple embrace: of terror tactics, of holy war as a political strategy, and of a transnational recruitment of fighters, who acquired hyphenated identities. Tens of thousands of jihadi fighters, trained in the Afghan War, scattered with the end of the war.

These Islamist fighters--"freedom fighters," according to Ronald Reagan--were the basis for the rise of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and now ISIS.

But it is the U.S.--with its overwhelming military power and billions spent supporting whatever dictators or Islamist forces it deems friendly to U.S. interests--that has killed far more people, that has cynically promoted sectarian violence, and that continues to celebrate its alliances with key sponsors of reactionary Islamists today.

No religion is inherently more progressive or more reactionary than another. To understand religion, as Karl Marx explained, it is essential to go beyond the dogmas and doctrines, and place religious ideas in their social circumstances.

If there is anything inherent about religious ideas, it is that they have been interpreted and reinterpreted by living human beings in order to serve particular aims and needs at particular moments in history. Marx's most famous statement about religion is that it is "the opium of the people." But this phrase comes at the end of a longer passage that also includes this:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

This helps explain the contradictory role of religious ideas at various points in history. Thus, Catholicism has served as a justification for politicians to restrict women's reproductive rights and deny equality for LGBT people--and in an earlier epoch, the Catholic Church was a central component of the ruling order in feudal Europe. Yet priests from the Catholic tradition of "liberation theology" waged heroic struggles against oppression--just as Black churches in the U.S. played a central role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

The leaders of the U.S. government may claim to be irreconcilable opponents of "Islamist extremism," but in reality, Washington has been flexible historically--variously promoting and condemning such groups as it sees fit.

That's a fact of history that political leaders can't be allowed to evade--that and another truth, taught to us by Martin Luther King in the final months of his life: "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government."

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