You might not know it from watching the news these days, but the U.S. is engaged in multiple wars across the world, both declared and undeclared. The so-called targeted killing program continues unabated under Donald Trump, and the civilian death toll has been skyrocketing over the past year and a half in Syria and Iraq. Trump famously tore up the Iran nuclear deal, and he has conspired with Israel, the Saudis, and the United Arab Emirates to lay the groundwork for regime change in Iran. The scorched earth bombing of Yemen is nothing short of a genocidal massacre — one that is aided, funded, supported, and armed by the United States. The U.S. also continues to conduct drone strikes in Yemen, as the Saudis pummel the poorest country in the Arab world nonstop. The war in Afghanistan is still on and drone strikes are re-emerging in Pakistan.
In Iraq, recent parliamentary elections saw the fiery nationalist, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc win more seats than any other party. And there is talk of building a coalition with the once-banned and persecuted Iraqi Communist Party. Sadr and his Mahdi Army were one of the fiercest forces fighting the U.S. occupation and it represents a major rejection of the American project in Iraq.
In the midst of all of this, we also have Trump’s Muslim ban being challenged in courts; open anti-Muslim rhetoric emanating from the most prominent political offices in the land.
There is a great new collection of essays out that tackles a whole range of issues relating to Islam and Muslims, wars, the Palestinian struggle, women’s rights, state terror, drone strikes, 9/11, civil liberties, white supremacy, and on and on. The book is called “With Stones in Our Hands: Writings on Muslims, Racism and Empire” and it is edited by Sohail Daulatzai and Junaid Rana.
Daulatzai teaches in Film and Media Studies, African American Studies, and Global Middle East Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of several other books, including “Fifty Years of ‘The Battle of Algiers': Past as Prologue.” He is the curator of the celebrated exhibit Return of the Mecca. On the last episode of Intercepted, we aired an excerpt of our conversation with Daulatzai. Below is the full transcript of that discussion.
The interview begins at 32:00.
JS: Sohail Daulatzai, welcome to Intercepted.
Sohail Daulatzai: Thanks for having me.
JS: Let’s start with your most recent work. I’m holding it here, and it’s called, “With Stones in Our Hands: Writings on Muslims, Racism, and Empire.” You and a friend co-edited this volume — it’s a series of essays that take on questions about Islam, both in the current context, but also tracing some of the history of Islamaphobia and radicalization.
One of your theses in that opening essay that you wrote I found really interesting and provocative because you’re arguing that all the discussion about radicalization, self-radicalization, post-9/11, is rooted in a much longer history and wasn’t just born of 9/11, Guantanamo torture.
So, lay out your argument that you’re making about where radicalization comes from.
SD: Right. And first off, I want to give a shout-out to my partner in crime, collaborator, Junaid Rana, and all the other contributors to the anthology that made it what it was.
JS: Yeah. You guys have some pretty heavy-hitting thinkers.
SD: Thank you. And thanks to them for their patience and diligence.
So, for us, writing this book was important for several reasons, to try and get at what we felt were some really frustrating turns of events, particularly post-9/11. It felt like we were just constantly, and still are, chasing a moving target. There’s really never any way to capture what’s happening, other than in large or broad brush strokes.
And there’s something unsettling about that, but at the same time, for us, it was really important to try and capture, as best we could, what we thought was happening, or maybe different ways of thinking about what was happening.
And, obviously 2018, it’s the 40th anniversary of Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” when that gets published. And Said’s “Orientalism,” in many ways, it’s a magisterial book. It really shaped a whole set of disciplines on thinking about the West’s relationship to the quote-unquote Muslim world.
And tragically, and which Said wrote about subsequently as well, many of these similar ideas persisted. One of the things that I think we tried to do was to not necessarily directly be in conversation with Said, but one of the things that Said’s book doesn’t do —it doesn’t frame the terms of the debate in the ways that we felt was necessary. Said doesn’t really use questions of race and white supremacy as central to thinking about Orientalism. He talks about difference and things like that, and colonial difference. But we wanted to really center — because of the kind of presence of the United States and the way in which it came to form itself through native genocide and black enslavement, but also how it expanded and kind of supplanted Europe as a world hegemon in the global leviathan — we wanted to really think about: How is white supremacy operating in the current moment?
And for us, when it came to thinking about like, the figure of the Muslim — and I say the figure of the Muslim, and I’ll probably refer to it throughout the conversation — we’re not only talking about Muslims per se, and we’re not even talking about believers per se, we’re talking about those who might be deemed Muslim or who look Muslim. In fact, as we know, the first person who was killed after 9/11 in Arizona was a Sikh convenience store owner who was confused or thought to be Muslim, right?
JS: And you also had the case of the Sikh temple being shot up in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we understand that shooter also thought he was attacking a mosque and killing Muslims.
SD: Right. Absolutely.
So, this idea of the Muslim or the figure of the Muslim is about a particular look. It’s not phenotype in terms of skin, but there is skin and a certain kind of appearance that goes along with how race is operating.
And so for us, it was important to put our finger on that and try to think about how the figure of the Muslim is shaping post-9/11 security discourse and the war on terror, in particular.
One of the ways, as you mentioned in your question, is the idea of radicalism or radicalization. And obviously, this is the starting point for many people when they want to think about Islam or Muslims. Obviously, the right has a response to this question, which is: Ban Muslims, don’t allow them in the country. For liberals and maybe even some on the left, the argument is: Well, not all Muslims are terrorists. It’s that argument, and maybe we can unpack that a little bit. But they use this bad apples theory to talk about, well, they’re willing to accept certain kinds of Muslims. You know, witness Hillary Clinton and the Khizr Khan family, where their son is willing to pick up a gun and go kill for America. That’s an acceptable kind of Muslim to the United States, in some ways. Or one that, in some ways, assumes or doesn’t question American patriotism, its role in the world, and the benevolence of the United States historically or today. Those are the kinds of Muslims that are deemed acceptable to kind of fulfill this multicultural project, right?
JS:Well and every time you see someone plow a vehicle into a crowd of others or a shooting takes place and the shooter turns out to be a Muslim, as in San Bernardino, California, what you’ll see on social media, and I see this with a lot of Muslim friends of mine, there’s this expectation that A. they have to have a comment on it, and that B. that comment needs to clarify these people don’t represent the real Islam or these people don’t speak for true American Muslims.
SD: Right. Absolutely. And this is part of what, in some of my current work, like looking at how the language of terrorism or antiterrorism is really racially coded language, right? In many ways, the language of terrorism or the terrorist really is a 21st century way of marking the savage, the civilization/savagery binary. It’s about excommunicating particular individuals, groups of people or even ideas outside of the community of the human, the human family. And therefore they’re seen as a threat to the human community and need to be obliterated or dealt with.
And so, what we have when it comes to post-9/11 conversations and discourse is you have the bad apples theory when something like that happens. You have Muslims or their allies come to the rescue and say, “Well, hey, not all Muslims are bad. There are only a few bad apples.”
The other argument you get commonly is, especially when a white person shoots up a school or a concert or any number of things that take place, on a mass level, it’s, we’ll see, “white people are terrorists, too.” Right? This is called terrorism.
And for me, those are both problematic, but they both play into the security apparatus or the security regime post-9/11. One, the bad apples theory doesn’t account for how racial profiling works. In order to grab the bad apples, you’ve got to racially profile the whole group. So, you’re reproducing the very thing you claim to be challenging, when you say, “Not all Muslims are bad.” In order to catch those bad ones, you gotta profile all Muslims.
The second one, where whites are terrorists too, it normalizes the idea that terrorism is a category that needs to be cracked down on. And that it gives sanction and legitimacy to the state to do so.
JS: Well, it’s borne of the same mentality of the phrase “white trash,” in a sense, because what does that mean that everyone else is if these people have now become trash? What you’re essentially saying —
JS: — is poor, people of color are trash.
SD: Are trash. Right.
JS: And these ones just happen to be white, but they need to have a separate category.
SD: And even if we accepted the idea that white people can be terrorists, too, just like on the war on crime, white people committed crimes in bigger numbers than black or brown communities, but when it came to the war on crime, who was policed heavier? Who was surveilled more? Right? How did an urban police state come to be created?
JS: Well, I’m talking to you in New York right now, our stop and frisk thing was like 90 percent people of color getting stopped and frisked.
SD: Absolutely. So even if you accept that white people are terrorists, too, it’s going to still fall on black and brown communities to be heavily policed, right, because of that. And so I think the language of anti-terrorism is really problematic for those reasons, and more importantly, I think it also fractures solidarities, because then when you can label those fighting for Palestinian self-determination as terrorists, but then you can say, well, the Ku Klux Klan are terrorists, too.
And then for those people who don’t necessarily understand Palestine, but have a relationship or understanding of what the KKK is, and then they see that those fighting for Palestinian self-determination and the Klan are both terrorists, it kind of prevents them from creating a certain kind of solidarity. So, I think it’s important for us to be critical of that language of terrorism because I think it’s racially coded.
JS: Let me share with people an observation that I really found interesting from the latest book, and this is from the essay that you and Junaid write at the beginning: “Considering the current historical moment, in which the War on Terror has expanded and intensified, this project seeks to center the United States as the dominant site of racialization around the figure of the Muslim in its current logic of empire and the ongoing War on Terror, and, in doing so, we seek to interrogate and challenge the master narrative of exceptionalism that imagines the United States in what Thomas Jefferson named an empire of liberty, a legitimizing discourse used to construct colorblind multiculturalism.”
SD: Yeah, I mean I think what we were trying to suggest there is that the United States doesn’t see itself, this is what American exceptionalism, part of what it does, it says: We’re different than Europe, we’re not like the old royal monarchs and we’re not like those old colonial empires. We’re something different. America’s always thought about itself, even from that Jeffersonian ideal as something different: We’re an empire of liberty, we spread liberty around the world. Right?
And so, it sought to fracture itself from the history of European colonization and said that we don’t colonize, we don’t have an imperial footprint, we are not an empire. Right? It was very difficult for America to contend with that question of European Empire because it itself was birthed out of it.
And so, in making that claim that we are an empire of liberty, what Jefferson and what has been birth by that idea is this notion that multiculturalism and diversity are what America should celebrate and what it shares that is distinct from the rest of the world. In fact, America argues that in many ways the implicit assumption is that people from all over the world come to America; the United States, therefore is a microcosm of the world and therefore it stands in for the world. And so that idea of multiculturalism has been central to the United States in terms of thinking about itself globally. It markets itself as this diverse multicultural landscape. And in the post-9/11 context, I think we give language to a term called imperial multiculturalism. Right, how is multiculturalism being weaponized in a particular way?
And there’s a lot of faults with multiculturalism, right?
JS: Nikhil Pal Singh, who we had on this show, also, I think he put it that it’s sort of the multiculturalization of imperialism that you can have Obama as one of the best modern examples, was an imperial president who operated a global kill list, and used his legitimacy as the first black president and a constitutional law scholar to sell the idea of borderless war. And his bottom line on some of these questions that you’re discussing was: Yes, we kill civilians, but we regret when we kill civilians and we don’t intend to kill civilians and that’s what differentiates us from our enemies in the Middle East.
SD: Right. Absolutely.
JS: So, respond to that logic, and the Obama moment.
SD: And I think Obama in many ways, and this is part of what we wanted to respond to, and that’s why chasing this moving target becomes difficult: It’s almost too easy to point to Trump as an exemplar of this anti-Muslim racism.
In fact, and you know this well through your own work, Obama dropped more drone bombs than Bush before him. And the question of even deportations: Obama deported more people than all other presidents before him. Right? So, Obama came to symbolize a particular kind of multicultural ideal. And I think Nikhil’s correct, as many others have also pointed out, that Obama’s blackness —
And let’s not forget that there was all this question of Barack Hussein Obama being Muslim.
JS: Oh, yeah. Yeah! And he’s still viewed as the first Muslim president on Fox News.
SD: Exactly. And so, there’s even that specter of the Muslim was even haunting Obama’s presidency as well. And, I don’t remember a time where he actually came out and said, “Well, so what if I was?” All he said was, “No, I’m not.”
JS: And remember when John McCain was running against Obama, it was in, again — somehow Wisconsin comes up — but it was in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which is a pretty right-wing part of the state of Wisconsin, John McCain was confronted at an event by a woman who was stating that Obama was a Muslim. And McCain’s response to that was: “No, no, no, no, no. He’s a good American.” As though — I mean, to me, it was one of the best examples of what you’re saying. That it’s like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. He’s a good guy. He’s a real American. He’s not a Muslim American.”
SD: And I think is part of what we were trying to get at with the book, is like: How has the Muslim become kind of the limit of what’s politically possible? It’s almost like the Muslim is the limit or the test case.
You hear this all the time, like a reference point for the Republican Party gone wrong, if you want to put it in those terms, that’s the American Taliban, right? That’s the ISIS of the Republican Party, right? The kind of draconian, right-wing evangelical crowd — the language of Taliban and ISIS are used to describe them. As if being Muslim, or a particular kind of Muslim, is the lowest form of humanity one can be. This is how far the Republican Party has gone that they’re like the Taliban now.
And so, I think the Muslim stands in many ways as the limit of the political. When it comes to the question of women’s rights, it’s like: We do feminism, but we don’t want to be like those Muslims. When it comes to queer and minority rights, same idea. Even the question of armed struggle or political violence, the question is, the figure of the Muslim where Muslims seem to embody the excess of political violence so that Muslims become the limit of what’s politically possible, right? That’s where politics stops and something else begins.
JS: With all of this focus, you know, Americans after 9/11 learned the word burka and then you continue to use it over, and over, and over, and there’s this big focus on the niqab, the hijab, the burka — right here, in New York, in Brooklyn, you have huge communities of Orthodox Jews, some of which require that their women shave their heads bald and then wear a wig. And you don’t hear anything about that on the news — in part because — I’d probably be called an anti-Semite for raising this. But we’re going to talk about: “Oh, look at those Muslim women, they’re wearing beekeeper outfits,” these guys are making women shave their heads and walk around with wigs, and you don’t hear anything about it, ever, in the media.
SD: Right. Absolutely. And I think that’s part of what we’re getting at with this question of anti-Muslim racism. Like, how does this shape our way of thinking, and even policy? It’s that, somehow, when Muslims do what other people do, it’s somehow qualitatively different and more of a danger.
This why Bill Maher and Sam Harris can say: Hey, OK, we’re atheists. And that’s fine! You can be an atheist. But why is it somehow that Islam is the worst kind of religion? Right?
JS: Well, because they do not criticize all religions equally. Islam holds this spot, and then it’s like miles below, you find number two in their crosshairs, but they’re obsessed with Islam.
SD: Right. And people have talked about this: we can sit here and critique the way in which religions have become politicized and have been used in different moments in history, and many people, post-9/11, they talk about the dangers of political Islam, political Islam.
But we don’t ask: What about political secularism? Like, what did that create with native genocide, enslavement, and mass plunder across the globe, in the name of secularism? We don’t ask those kinds of questions.
Somehow the idea of religion is separate from the running of state and its policies, and then even when it is separated, the religion of Islam is somehow deemed the worst or the most excessive or the most violent, right? And so that when it comes to the question of women and questions of feminism — and many scholars have done this, and shout out to a couple of them from the books, Su‘ad Abdul Khabeer and Sylvia Chan-Malik who write kind of really powerful pieces about like the question of Muslim women and gender and how it affects their lives in different ways. But I think this is a question that many other Muslim feminist scholars talked about, is how has the discourse of the veil come to stand in for repression or oppression and excess, right? And that somehow the veil needs to be taken off, and they need to be modernized. And that’s the mood.
And that’s an old colonial fantasy. I mean, the French in Algeria used to have public unveiling spectacles for people, right? Showing Muslim women taking off their veil, because now they’re modernized, right? And there’s this really interesting meme that goes out every once in awhile, where they’ll show a Muslim woman completely covered, and they’ll show a woman in their bathing suit, and they’ll both be saying, something similar, that, “I’m a product of male patriarchy.” And the woman in the bathing suit is saying the same thing, “I do this because of male patriarchy.”
So not to make a complete equivalent to that, but just to suggest that ultimately, we’re talking about patriarchy as a global phenomenon. It’s not exclusive or endemic to one group of people or one part of the world, but often when it comes to talking about Islam, somehow it’s those people that carry on the worst kinds of patriarchy and whether it takes place in Brooklyn, in other religious communities or other forms of oppression around women, whether it be sexual violence, rape, and what the #MeToo movement is revealing is how permanent this is as a fixture in American life, right? That forms of patriarchy exist everywhere and they need to be challenged everywhere as a result.
JS: There are two phrases that I’d like for you to unpack, and they appear very early on in this volume. You say, in this volume, “In this volume’s multiplicity, we offer an opening of a political position that we call the Muslim Left. In tandem with this perspective, we elaborate on a social and cultural movement that serves as a destabilizing force that we have referred to as the Muslim International.”
Unpack those terms.
SD: OK. So, the Muslim Left and the Muslim International. So, the Muslim Left, for us, was a way of thinking about particular forms of politics that often go invisible. People don’t conceive of the idea of Muslims and the left going together. In fact, in many ways are seen as antagonistic to each other. The left sees itself primarily through the lens of Marxism and its real deep skepticism of religion. And that therefore Muslims, because they’re reactionary and whatnot, can’t somehow articulate or be on the left.
And so we want to say is: Look, there are political projects in the past and now that we see as part of the Muslim Left. And we can talk about specifics, I mean there’s a way in which we should be we should be thinking of Malcolm X as part of the Muslim Left. We understand Dr. King as part of the Christian left, but we won’t understand Malcolm X as part of the Muslim Left? Why is that impossible for us to think about, right?
And also then this question of the Muslim International for us was like thinking about how do ideas amongst and between Muslims and their allies circulate throughout the world, right? So I talk about in my first book, The Black Panther Party, its first international office was opened in Algiers in the late 60s. And, you know, Frantz Fanon’s work, that comes out of Algeria, this is part of the Muslim International to me. It’s about this kind of circulation of anti-colonial writings and struggles that non-Muslim black radicals were a part of. And so the Muslim International became this kind of non-national space or way that ideas were circulating through art, through aesthetics, through social movements. And so we wanted to say that look, there is a different way of conceiving of Muslim politics: There’s a space that they circulate in, the Muslim International, but there’s actually a left kind of politics that exist amongst Muslims that you see throughout the country, even today.
JS: I mean, this is sort of a broad historical question, but it’s one that I think about often. When you look at the liberation movements that kicked off let’s say roughly in the early 60s and beyond, what you saw in many Muslim countries, whether you’re talking about Indonesia or you’re talking about countries on the African continent, there was an anti-colonialist resistance mentality that was not linked, in the view of many Western historians, to the religion of Islam, even though many of the protagonists were practicing Muslims or motivated by their faiths. And some of those countries eventually descended into military dictatorships that were backed by the United States.
Now, with the two-prong of these U.S. wars throughout the Middle East, but also the broader Arab world, and then the Arab Spring uprisings for, just to use the term that people are using, you now have this incredible destabilization. There’s no longer a sense of Arab nationalism on the part or sort of pan-Islamic resistance; it is either terror states run by U.S. clients or terror states where many actors are fighting for control of territory or for the future of that land. And I’m wondering how you see those historical developments in the way that some nations started off — like, Gaddafi is controversial character, a lot of African leaders thought the world of Muammar Gaddafi for economic reasons, but also because he was perceived to be standing up to Western imperialism, whereas Hosni Mubarak was very clearly a sort of secular-ish, total U.S. client.
SD: Right. Right.
JS: Do you disagree at all with the way that I characterize that? If you do, I’d like to hear it.
SD: No, I mean I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I think this became the tragedy of that Third-World movement, right, the Third-World project, and that anti-colonial moment that in many ways began in the 50s.
JS: We had Non-Aligned Movement, also.
JS: In Bandung, and Malcolm X cites that often, whether it was Tito of Yugoslavia, but it was Kwame Nkrumah, it was Sukarno in Indonesia.
SD: Right, then you have the Tricontinental in ’66 in Havana, where it takes a more kind of, militant approach to kind of anti-imperialism. So there’s this Third World project that was in many ways emerging that, by the time the NIEO, the new international economic order in the United States, in the United Nations gets unseated or destabilized, for many ways signals the death of the Third World project. And something new has to try to take shape.
And so I think what happened in different Muslim majority states was a broad range of things, many of which you talked about. I mean I think this is part of what I talk about in another project, that in many ways the Cold War was a coded race war, right? It was about subverting full decolonization of the nonwhite world. And it was using anti-communism as a proxy to do so, and it was supporting and backing and buttressing really revanchist, kind of reactionary dictators to do the bidding of Western interests and Western capital.
But then, at the same time, you found challenges to that. I think in the context of what you’re talking about in what might be called the Middle East, right, a range of things are happening. I think it’s interesting what’s happening in Iraq with the recent elections, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s reemergence and his alignment with the Communist Party in Iraq, right?
JS: Now, just for people that don’t know this history, Muqtada al-Sadr’s family, his father, and his grandfather were both very important Shia spiritual leaders and Muqtada al-Sadr himself, his father was assassinated under Saddam Hussein, and Muqtada al-Sadr spent quite a bit of his life in exile in Iran. He returns back to Iraq and spoke the language of the Iraqi street. What do I mean? He spoke in a much more nationalistic, nonsectarian way. He organized blood drives for the entirely Sunni community of Fallujah when it was under siege and the U.S. faced this potential because of Sadr’s sort of — I guess, Arab or Iraqi nationalism of sorts, mixed in with also the language of his religion, that appealed beyond just his followers, and the United States had to crush that. That’s part of why we saw the U.S. fanning the flames of sectarianism in what was one of the most pluralistic societies in the Middle East at the time.
SD: Right. Absolutely. And so you have that emergence with Sadr, and I think you laid out that history well, but you also have then in Egypt post-Mubarak, right? Like, what happens? The Brotherhood comes to power and the Brotherhood have become like a specter here in the kind of Trump era where now they’re seen as like a nascent almost fifth column in terms of U.S. political culture.
JS: Right. Susan Rice is a member of it, Obama was a member of it. They invited them, the Muslim Brotherhood —
SD: Right. Right. So, the Brotherhood comes to power and then within a year they’re taken out of power. And so, you know, and —
JS: And Morsi, Mohamed Morsi is still in prison.
SD: In prison. Right.
JS: Who won that election and was president of Egypt for a few minutes.
JS: As you say, they removed him real quick.
SD: Absolutely, and then, you know you have what’s happening in, for example, Gaza, where then you have you know some folks who are critical of what Hamas is doing and has done. But at the same time, you see the way in which Palestinian resistance is, it’s thought that by smearing them, quote-unquote, with the brush of Hamas, that somehow delegitimizes their struggle — whether it’s that nurse who was killed and they claimed that she was like, a proxy for Hamas —
JS: They edited out also, she used the term either human shield or human barrier, and they took that phrase out of context and what she was talking about was that they were there to rapid respond —
JS: — and protect people in a medical sense, but they made it sound like she was a foot soldier for Hamas, admitting that they use civilians and medics as human shields.
SD: Absolutely. And so part of, and I lay this out, I mean you know Judith Butler asked a really provocative question, I think it was in 2006 or 2007: Can we understand Hezbollah as part of the global left? Is that a fair question to ask? And people got — feathers got wrinkled for a lot of different reasons, but I think she was getting at something that I think is — it’s not really about the answer to that question, but it’s about why can’t the question be asked, which is: How do we think about Muslim political struggles or political struggles done by Muslims? How do they have to be framed or refrained to be seen as amenable to the secular logic of a world dominated by nation-states?
I mean, some would argue that even the nation-state itself is profoundly anti-Muslim. It doesn’t allow for this question of transcendence, or the Ummah to take shape, and there’s this, the Muslims, we have a non-national way, a form of believing or belonging. And so what many have argued is that when it comes to nation-state politics and governance and how political movements take shape, that for Muslim political struggles to take shape in a particular way, it can’t be deemed too Muslim, right?
Now historically, that has meant a lot of things. In many of the places you mentioned and even others that you didn’t, we saw a global crackdown during the Cold War of the left, many of which included Muslim believers who saw themselves in the left. You know? Family members who came from Iran, not that I’m from there, but I have, from my wife and her family, some identified as Muslim, and their colleagues, and they were persecuted because they were seen as more of a threat to the post-Shah revolutionary state than the Marxist leftists were, because they had the religion to kind of root themselves in and ground themselves to generate and garner traction amongst the population. So, there was a whole host of different kinds of political formations that include Muslims who saw themselves as leftists and they were part of that larger global project that was crushed. A country like Indonesia, in particular, is a specific example of that, where the U.S. backs the government there, overthrows the kind of patron saint of anti-colonial struggle, and then installs a government that then wreaks havoc on the communists. But many of those weren’t actually communist. They were actually Muslims who believed in the ideas of socialism and welfare and redistribution of wealth and access.
JS: For as much time as I’ve spent in Iraq, I was not aware of the history that began in the late 1950s, early 60s, in Iraq. Iran, you just mentioned, ’53 you have the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh by the CIA and in ’63 you then had the United States supporting the British and other members of the so-called Baghdad Pact, which basically was an attempt to seize Middle East oil and keep the Soviet sphere of influence away. You had this general rise to power, Abd al-Karim Qasim, and very similar to what you just described as part of the overthrow of Qasim’s government — he nationalized oil, of course, he actually opened up a whole new front for women’s rights, he himself was a Muslim. And when they began hunting the allies of Qasim, there’s all this old newsreel showing that they’re calling them, “Oh, they’ve done a raid on the Reds, they executed some communists.” It’s all put in the language of the Cold War and this notion that you have a Soviet menace lingering that’s the puppet master of all of these backward Middle Easterners.
SD: Absolutely, and, that’s a classic example. Qasim comes to power in ’58, overthrown five years later, and soon after the Ba’ath Party was installed and Saddam is one of the higher-ups in there that gets moved into becoming president in ’79.
JS: And the CIA gives the Ba’ath party lists of people compiled at U.S. embassies around the Middle East to take out.
SD: Completely. Some of whom were communists, but the Communist Party didn’t have too much traction in Iraq at that time, and Qasim kind of threw them a bone to a certain extent to kind of like keep them at bay. But many of them were nationalists, they were simply just nationalists who wanted sovereignty over their own oil, and so all of these histories, I think, are important to think through. Part of what me and Junaid were trying to get across in the book with many of the people that we brought in was to try and think about like what do radical Muslim histories look like, and what might they look like in the past? I mean, there’s all this fear about Muslim radicalization, Muslim radicalization. And one of the things that me and Junaid and many other folks are wanting to kind of put forth is this question of: What’s wrong with being radical? We need more radicalization when it comes to the world and the state of the world today, that radicalization needs to be something that we embrace instead of fear. But again, radicalization has become this kind of brush that smears and tarnishes Muslim communities, and so then you have those mainstream Muslim communities who are running away from that, because they just want, they want to be good citizens and in many ways it’s an attempt to appeal or seek kind of honorary whiteness in some ways.
So, I think that’s part of the resistance to embracing more radical or Muslim-left politics.
JS: Right, and they’ll often say, “Well, you know Sisi is modernizing Egypt.” But what they really mean is he’s going back to our very comfortable space with military dictators that we know we can trust. And the U.S. has made it so that Egypt absolutely has to have its treaty with Israel and will participate in the locking down of Gaza and blocking access, and it’s a client state basically. And what was the alternative?
Well, the alternative was a coalition that, at its heart, had the broad-based organizing of the Muslim Brotherhood, but a lot of revolutionary young people tactically were supporting the Brotherhood. And they weren’t doing it blindly. It’s not like they all were like: “Mohamed Morsi’s our savior!” It was a tactic that they were using to try to prevent the United States’, you know, sort of puppet regime from continuing on with a name other than Mubarak. And, in the end, the U.S. won in Egypt.
SD: Right, the military comes back into power and, in fact, that office is arguably more powerful than it was when Mubarak was in it.
JS: Well, and Sisi is basically criminalizing any serious run against him for president.
SD: Right. Absolutely.
JS: What do you make of the language that is used by, it’s not exclusive to this administration, but when you have someone like Jeff Sessions so overtly speaking in a Christian supremacist type of a manner — yes, Bush called this a crusade at the beginning. If you watch Bush on Islam, I mean it’s like night and day from even from now.
SD: Right. Right.
JS: But what do you make of — you know, Sessions talks about the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. He recently said that these forced separations of the family basically is divine intervention from God to bless the laws of this country, even if it means separating kids.
There’s a lot of, what I think you would call Islamo-fascist if you were on the right if it was a Muslim. But it’s a form of sort of a theocracy that is being articulated by these guys in defense of something that has very little to do with religion at all; it’s political-power grabbing and white supremacy.
SD: Absolutely. The fallacy of a secular logic was something that we wanted to point out. That never has secularism actually existed. That the West is in many ways founded upon the notion of Christian ethics — the individual and sacrifice. And those have been woven through how citizenship and those questions get expressed and many scholars have done that kind of work.
What we’ve had at different moments in time, and you’re pointing out what Sessions is saying, are particularly more visible versions of how then the religious undertones of government come to the fore and get articulated.
And clearly they’re playing to their base, right? Clearly, they’re playing to their base and they’re playing to this idea of a kind of civilizational war. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say is that what Sessions and them are appealing to is a particular idea of a kind of civilizational war of Judeo-Christianity against the rest of the world, right?
And, yes, is religion being instrumentalized in this particular instance? Absolutely. We know that the United States has a deep history of separating children from their parents from natives, indigenous folks, to black people and slavery. Right? Like, that history is something that’s endemic to America. It’s not exceptional. And you hear that response, like, what the United States is doing at the border, that’s just not American. It’s like, “Well, you don’t know the history if that’s what you’re going to claim.”
And I think there’s something about the Trump administration that lays bare the truth of what the U.S. political state is really about. Right? It kind of lays bare those questions that many of us kind of seek to get at different kinds of ways.
And so there’s a certain kind of honesty that I guess I can respect, as much as I abhor the politics. But I think that there’s something about the honesty that I’m like, OK, it’s like Malcolm would say: You can’t trust a liberal, but you know exactly where a right-winger or a Klan member is coming from.
JS: So, you’ve written a book about the importance of the film “The Battle of Algiers,” which of course dealt with French imperialism and the uprising in Algeria against French colonialism, and I think it should be required viewing for everyone. And I said that a lot when I was reporting on drone strikes around the world.
For a new generation of young people who maybe haven’t seen it, what’s your case for why it matters to them now?
SD: That’s a good question. I open the book, because the book is really looking at the afterlife of the film. I do get at in terms of the film production, the moment it comes out, but it’s really looking at the afterlife of the film. And what I open up the book by saying is: The Battle of Algiers is still being waged, only now on a planetary scale. Right? That the hunt for Ali la Pointe is still on; the figure of the Muslim still structures global relationships today.
But when it comes to — a lot of young people are watching “The Battle of Algiers.” You’re right, they don’t necessarily know about it in the way that many did, right? This became the kind of touchstone for thinking about radical politics and cinema and that convergence. But as I talk about in the book, it was also a tool used by the right wing, and, in fact, it’s required viewing in the Pentagon now, in military training schools in the United States.
JS: Oh, Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command said when they were preparing to go to Iraq, he had his men watch “The Battle of Algiers.”
SD: So, I talk about how the film got re-appropriated in the post-9/11 context as a way to do counterinsurgency, as opposed to a film that was about a people fighting for dignity and resisting a colonial occupation, right? So, I talked about how history, through the Battle of Algiers in many ways, got recuperated or re-appropriated for the interest of imperialism, right?
And so, I think for young people thinking about the film, as I said: The film will remain relevant as long as the conditions that necessitated the making of it continue to persist. So as long as there’s Gaza, as long as there’s Iraq, as long as there’s Ferguson, as long as there’s Compton, the Battle of Algiers is going to remain a relevant film because it’s a film that does, in a very poetic way, it gives dignity to people’s resistance to these everyday structural forces.
JS: The latest book is separated into four categories, and the last is “Possible Futures: Dissent and the Protest Tradition.” Talk about, what do you see as the future and protest tradition carrying on?
SD: That’s a great question. And I think that’s partly why we wanted to end with that. And I think the pieces in there, and I mentioned Su‘ad and her work, but also Robin Kelley writes a piece in the kind of genre of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but he’s writing about “Letter from a West Bank Refugee Camp,” and he’s writing back to the black liberal class in the United States that seeks to erase Palestine, and aligns itself with Zionism.
And Sylvia and Hatem, and Maryam Kashani’s pieces as well, you know, we’re trying to think about like how have past protests traditions, different ways of thinking about politics, how can they be useful for us moving forward and creating radical futures that will help challenge the conditions that many of us find ourselves in. And, so, Maryam’s piece is on kind of the legacy of Malcolm X, and how he’s been kind of circulating in kind of Muslim communities and beyond. Hatem Bazian’s piece is on Sami Al-Arian’s case and the way in which he was mobilizing for Palestinian resistance. So for us, it was important to touch on what some of those protest traditions have been, but again, to think about how a radical political movement might look like today. Right? Because I think that’s really important.
And I think, what we’re finding, which is heartwarming in many ways, is a lot of people are hungry for this right now. I think that’s one thing that Trump did that’s maybe different than what Obama and Bush before him, and I think in many ways Obama was a calming salve with the dissent, one thing Trump did was really stoke the fires. And so people are really hungry, especially young people, for thinking about how do we move forward now? And what we tried to do was provide a way of looking back as a way to then chart a course forward.
JS: Well, it’s a really important collection, and I think also people will learn of new voices that they can also check out the other work of. So, Sohail Daulatzai, thank you so much for being with us on Intercepted.
SD: Thanks for having me.