By Jamil Khader
Toward the end of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims of the Charleston terrorist attack, President Obama burst into singing the old-time favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. The President’s spontaneous crooning brought tears into the eyes of many people, including some of Obama’s fierce liberal critics, earning him the label the “reverend president.” They considered this as one of the defining moments of his presidency (forget all that talk about the drone presidency, domestic surveillance and spying program, and institutionalized Islamophobia).
Obama’s baritone singing could merely channel people’s emotions into a perverted pleasure that lulls them into a new wave of complacency. Unfortunately, his singing did not stop other white supremacist terrorists from burning down another prominent Black Church a few days later in South Carolina, the seventh in a string of blazes after Charleston.
In another historic moment the following week, President Obama re-established official diplomatic relations with Cuba. With regards to the US policy of isolation towards Cuba, he correctly noted that “it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for 50 years.”
From Cuba to Charleston
These two events are interconnected: On the one hand, it is possible for President Obama to question US foreign policy in relation to Cuba, since the embargo ultimately undermines the global interests of the American empire. On the other, it is practically impossible for him to question the American government’s policy on white supremacist terrorism and admit that it, to paraphrase his words, does not work—that it has not worked for 239 years.
Why? Because the long history of white supremacist terrorism and militia violence, in both its domestic and transnational dimensions, is what sustains and supports the project of the American empire itself. Like Obama’s singing, corporate media coverage of white terrorism obscures the extent to which this terror is embedded in long standing state institutions and transnational histories of systematic violence that have reduced the meaning and value of life in indigenous communities and colonized minorities to subjugation, incarceration, and death.
Mental Illness in a Post-racial Age
Corporate media coverage of these white supremacist terrorist acts has centered around the debate about mental illness and terrorism. Framing these terrorist acts in terms of mental illness is meant to displace and deny that racism or white supremacy exists. According to this populist neo-conservative narrative, Americans live in a color-blind society, where race is not an issue at all. Indeed, the issue is always something else be it gun rights, Southern pride, or defiance, etc.
When racial politics is admitted, moreover, it is only to show the prevalence of reverse racism: Over forty percent of adult Americans of European descent today believe that they are the victims of widespread racial prejudice—that is, bias against whites is the real problem, not the other way around.
Needless to say, manifestations of personal prejudice on the part of ethnic and racial minorities can never be translated into institutional racist practices, since minorities do not have such power. In contrast, White personal bias is already embedded into wide-spread institutional attitudes and power structures.
Terrorism as a Universal (Human) Attribute
The competing liberal narrative insists on calling these acts by their name—terrorism. In this narrative, white supremacist and militia groups resort to terror and systematic violence against indigenous communities and colonized minorities in order to instigate a global racial war that can put an end to the alleged white genocide.
In particular, this argument is drummed up against popular perceptions and institutional practices that exclusively reserve the term terrorism for Muslims and strictly attribute it to religious motives—terrorism, they insist, can have motives beyond religious convictions. Terrorism is now seen as a pathology that is democratically distributed among all religions, cultures, races and nations, with no exception. However, this liberal discourse is merely the other side of the aforementioned neoconservative populist discourse.
In their fight against rising tides of Islamophobia in the West, these groups understandably seek to decouple terrorism form Islam and make it more (liberally) inclusive. It is not that terrorism affiliated with Islamic groups accounts only for a minor fraction of the global acts of terrorism, even in the United States, or that Islamic terrorism like all forms of terrorism does not emerge in vacuum but is a product of various historical, socio-political and economic factors. Rather, these groups maintain that terrorism is not genetically coded in a particular culture or religion, and that all human beings can be equally driven into terrorism contingent on the context.
Terrorism is Global
The universalization of terrorism is meant to dispense once and for all with the semantic squabble over terrorism. However, such a move can only embed the debate in cultural terms away from questions about the political economy that give rise to the global phenomenon of terrorism.
Terrorism in all its forms, whether Islamic, White supremacist or Ziofascist in Palestine, is a response to and a byproduct of the contradictions of the neo-liberal global capitalist system. These contradictions are played out in debates about modernization, multiculturalism (diversity), democratic governance, colonial occupation, labor migration, etc. Almost all ideologues advocating all these forms of terrorism, for example, equate diversity with racial genocide and they all appeal to the same discourses of racial or religious purity through the consolidation of apartheid power structures.
In his statement about the Charleston terrorist act, President Obama quoted Martin Luther King’s 1963 eulogy for the four Black girls who were murdered in the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King, as the President said, urged people not only to ask about the terrorists’ identity, but also “about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
It is the ultimate irony that President Obama, the man on top of the system that has claimed the lives of millions of indigenous peoples and colonized minorities, invokes the system itself only to render it completely invisible. On this 239th Independence Day, let us remember the proper name of this system.
– Dr. Jamil Khader is Professor of English and Dean of Research at Bethlehem University, Palestine. He is also the author of Cartographies of Transnationalism in Postcolonial Feminisms: Geography, Culture, Identity, Politics (Lexington Books 2012) and is the co-editor, with Molly Rothenberg, of a collection of essays on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, entitled, Žižek Now: Current Perspectives in Žižek Studies (Polity 2013). His political commentary has been featured on Aljazeera in English, Jadaliyya, The Palestine Chronicle, Center for the Secular Research and Studies in the Arab World (Al-Hewar Al-Mutamaden), PPSArabia, News with Conscience, and other venues. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.