Ashish Ghadiali: You’ve said you don’t want to just go back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic. What has got to change?
Sohail Daulatzai: Well, first off, you and I both know that ‘normal’ – whatever that means – was in fact the problem. Something that we can’t go back to. But I’ve been trying to understand the pandemic in the context of what came before. Obviously, with the ‘war on terror’, 9/11 wasn’t necessarily a breaking point. There was a pre-9/11 and we need to understand that history, to see how the past continues to inform the present. Because there are clearly ways that the pandemic picked up what the ‘war on terror’ normalised.
For instance, the idea that there’s an invisible enemy out there. This virus that infects the body politic – this is the language that was used to describe the Muslim or ‘terrorist’ during 9/11: ‘don’t allow Muslims into your borders’, ‘Islam is like an infection that can spread’ and so on. Then there’s the idea of security as surveillance, which is very much part of the discourse in the pandemic. We had all these metaphors, like inoculation and protecting yourself from the virus, when we were protecting ourselves from the Muslim or what is labelled as extremism.
And we’ve seen all this before. If you go way back to the 1857 Mutiny, the British referred to it as an infection. They saw rebellion as an epidemic. So there’s been a long history of racist fear that goes back centuries that’s ultimately been used to consolidate imperial power.
AG: What really occurred to me in the first moments of the lockdown was how the libertarian left was, to a large degree, really unconscious of the extent of the crisis. If you look back to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, there was a real moral opposition that stood up for liberty and civil rights. And that seems to have been really ground down over the past 10-15 years. So by 2015-ish, there had been a significant shift in what had been considered popular, political common sense.
SD: That fundamental shift is exactly it, the way the ‘war on terror’ normalised policies on the domestic front, like surveillance and even deeper police power. The idea that once someone had been arrested by the police or another state power, they could seek any kind of remedy has been completely eroded. Globally, how, for instance, US imperial power – and when I say that I mean a network of relationships, so the British, the French – sought to rethink the global order.
One of the most important points is how 9/11 extended the colonial logic of previous eras. Look at vaccine nationalism, for instance – that’s a colonial relationship and one of the things that gives this traction is the kind of anti-Muslim racism that is essentially the glue that holds it all together.
Really 9/11 was an acceleration of a more explicit, right-wing emergence throughout the US and Europe, where suspicion, xenophobia and white supremacist racism become very overt in their manifestations. So it’s not a surprise that we would see Donald Trump as president. And it’s the figure of the Muslim that has animated many of these kinds of constituencies.
There’s been a long history of racist fear going back centuries that’s ultimately been used to consolidate imperial power
AG: One of the things I’m thinking about is CAGE. The story they were trying to weave with regard to ISIS was that what is being done to Muslims is a laboratory for what is going to be possible for everyone going forwards. So are we already in that era now? Was it that straightforward?
SD: We can talk about where does this anti-Muslim racism emerge from? And scholars have written about it with many pointing to Spain and 1492, to the origins of the modern conception of race, where what is white, Christian and European is in opposition to the Moor – blackness and Islam. So when we see how the ‘war on terror’ unfolded, people think this is a new phenomenon. It is not. This anti-Muslim structure that has organised so much of the global order is something that is at the very foundation of our understanding of what modernity is.
When you read about the ‘discovery’ of the New World, the way that Columbus, Hernán Cortés and others could make legible the indigenous peoples they were encountering was by referring to them in relationship to Moors. Because the Muslim came to stand in as the Other, as the ‘savage’.
This history shapes much of our contemporary world. For example, the discussions about ‘extremism’, which we tend to think about in relationship to a supposed neutral centre. But extremism is relational, so we have to ask ‘it is extreme in relation to what?’ What that framework conveniently erases is that what is considered ‘normal’ is in fact extreme: racial capitalism, global expropriation and accumulation, dispossession and extermination of populations. This is extremism. So we don’t think about deeply entrenched inequality, war for profit, massive extraction of resources and labour across the globe as extremism, because we’re told that’s how the world functions – and instead we have the Muslim to point to as the extremist.
AG: What we call the empire is the underlying extremism and that’s why we project extremism onto the other. What I want to understand really within this arc, from the ‘war on terror’ to the pandemic, is the resurgence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a global protest movement. BLM really reached new heights of penetration of the public discourse, which has been a stunning aspect of this pandemic era.
SD: Clearly, this has been something in a US context that has a profoundly long history, in terms of black insurgency and black freedom. But the way that BLM caught fire during the pandemic after the murder of George Floyd took a lot us by surprise in terms of the scale and scope of its reach.
But it’s also become very performative for individuals, corporations and governments. I think what’s important about BLM is that it continues to force the conversation on how anti-black racism and white supremacy are functioning in the world. And I’m very heartened to see, for example, in the BLM handbook how US empire is very much within their understanding of how white supremacy functions. They make nods to Palestine and to US militarism, which is the black radical tradition at its best – of Du Bois, Robeson, Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, Claudia Jones and the Black Panther Party. Returning to black radical internationalism, not in a nostalgic way, but thinking about how it’s operating in today’s world, is really important.
AG: I also find myself constantly now looking at that black radical tradition. And one of the legacies of the ‘war on terror’, from the perspectives of movements that were opposing it, was that I fear we got slightly pushed into silos that, in some ways, reflected identity politics. And that actually, now, it’s a question of how do we get out of that? We have anti-blackness and Muslim identity politics and it all effectively speaks to the kind of poverty of anti-imperial solidarity on a global scale, which is exactly where white supremacy needs us. It needs a whole load of fragmented, broadly communalist groups, without some sense of transcendent, planetary humanist identity, that can push back and reveal white supremacy to be the exception, not the rule.
Do you share that concern that, through the ‘war on terror’, the narratives that we began to inhabit, the opportunity was to not isolate what was happening to Muslim people from what was happening to African-American people? That mass incarceration and US foreign policy were allowed to become two different stories, told by two different groups of activists and intellectuals who barely shared a common platform?
SD: I totally agree with you, there’s nothing that power wants more than a discourse or any kind of theoretical frame that ultimately demobilises people.
In my book Black Star, Crescent Moon I explored the history of black Muslims in the US, particularly after World War II. For me, Malcolm X remains the quintessential figure that embodied internationalist impulses and was able to see how empire functions. He pushes back on the mainstream civil rights movement of early Dr King, the NAACP and says look, you all are arguing to be Americans, a very domesticated understanding of rights.
We have to understand the police and the military are not separate arms of the state but a single arm that works on multiple fronts to enforce domestic and global hierarchies rooted in racial capitalism
But in doing that Malcolm argued that they were embracing US expansion abroad, just at the moment where decolonisation in the third world is catching fire. By doing that, Malcolm argued, black people’s fates are tied to US empire, so that America’s enemies become black people’s enemies by buying into anti-communist logic and US intervention in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Malcolm gets assassinated and Dr King shifts his position and starts speaking about US militarism and that’s why he’s assassinated. The Black Panther Party emerges at that moment and is speaking a very similar language about the international question and solidarity. There’s a deep history of black Muslims and black radical politics in the US context that was about thinking internationally, and that is really important to keep alive.
One concern I have is that in that moment of global internationalism, there was a very clear enemy: white supremacy and white colonial power. In the US context, it was legal segregation, Jim crow violence, etc. In the third world, it was the French, British, Belgian, colonial powers. And so the challenge was to dismantle white authority globally: bring the British flag down and put the Ghanaian flag up. Or the French one down and the Algerian one up.
Today, what has happened to that visible enemy? Can we say that the condition of the third world is still structured by whiteness or white supremacy? I think it is. If we think capaciously about how it functions, in terms of the global order and the unequal relationships between the global north and south. But I don’t think it’s as apparent as it once was.
Here in the US, activists are clearly speaking against white supremacy domestically because it’s still alive, no doubt about it. But when they talk about the international question, whether it’s Afghanistan, Bolivia, Yemen, Nigeria or elsewhere, many of these activists are in solidarity with the people in those places – but what about the structures that impact those people? It’s almost like the idea of a common enemy is lost.
There’s a kind of solidarity emanating from the US but is it one that understands oppression in the global south due to corrupt rulers and authoritarian governments only? Clearly those are often the case, but is there an understanding that those corrupt or authoritarian states are either client states of the west or that they are operating within a global economic order structured by white supremacy and the legacies of colonialism?
AG: The problem goes deeper because we can’t just isolate the cases where white supremacy is US bombs being dropped on brown people because concurrent with the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen, for instance, huge financialization of the economies in these countries. Governments captured by finance and multinationals that allow the unhindered flow of capital and natural resources either to the global north or into tax havens. Which is what we essentially see in exposés like the Panama or Pandora papers.
SD: I think one of the biggest tragedies of the ‘war on terror’ is the war against oblivion, the battle over memory that has taken place. What is our understanding of the struggles over decolonisation and black freedom movements of the 1950s and 60s?
For example, in the US context, for many people on the left, it’s clear police are here to kill black people – it’s what they do, that’s white supremacy, crude, raw and unrelenting. But with the US military, it’s not understood as an institution that reinforces white supremacy globally, but instead as an arm of pure raw capitalism – ‘they’re in Iraq for the oil’.
I’m not here to have a debate about race versus class – that’s a false binary. Because it’s clear that it’s racial capitalism. But I go back to Malcolm X when he said, ‘What the police do locally, the military do globally.’ We have to understand the police and the military are not separate arms of the state but a single arm that works on multiple fronts to enforce domestic and global hierarchies rooted in racial capitalism. There’s a domestic front of the war, which is the police’s function and then there’s a global front of the war, which is militarism. And they’ll often actually train each other, sharing technology and intelligence.
I think it’s important for us as activists, as people on the left in the west, to recognise that white supremacy is still structuring and organising these relationships. I think that then becomes the basis for a different kind of solidarity.
Sohail Daulatzai is the author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America. He explores the afterlives of empire through scholarship, essay, short film/video and the curatorial. Ashish Ghadiali is a film-maker and activist, who organises with the climate justice collective Wretched of the Earth
This article first appeared in issue #234, ‘Technocapitalism’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media