The War on Terror and “Dangerous” Muslim Men by Isobel Ingham-Barrow
The twentieth anniversary of the War on Terror coincided with poignant images of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, images of desperation and fear that triggered an international outcry, particularly on behalf of Afghan women who would undoubtedly bear the brunt of repression and mistreatment as the Taliban solidified its power over the country. In the UK and many Western countries, calls quickly emerged to secure the safety of women and children fleeing Afghanistan. These were unquestionably important calls and necessary conversations to have. However, there was something missing from many of these discussions; family units do not always consist of just women and children, nor are women the only target of Taliban oppression (despite being the most obviously vulnerable group). So, we must ask: where do vulnerable Afghan men fit within these humanitarian discussions, and why was their presence so notably absent?
The following discussion is an exploration of the ways in which Muslim men are presented in Western public and political discussions. These representations of Muslim men have cemented their status in the Western consciousness as uniquely and inescapably dangerous—a dangerous nature that not only poses a threat to Western values and freedoms, but which also activates the Western role of the ‘white saviour’ on behalf of Muslim women.
In a process that has been fuelled by the cultural project embedded within the War on Terror, I argue that this representation has led to Muslim men becoming ‘othered’ and dehumanised in such a way that they are presented as no longer entitled to, nor worthy of, the rights, freedoms, entitlements, and protections deemed to be central to Western value systems. At the same time, the focus on the perceived deficiencies and threats posed by Muslim men provides a vehicle through which Western hegemony is maintained over acceptable forms of masculinity whilst distracting attention from deep issues of misogyny that are pervasive throughout Western societies themselves.
The War on Terror: Imagining the Enemy
The weeks, months, and years following 9/11 witnessed a continuing interplay between racist foreign policies and structurally Islamophobic domestic policies that were shaped by global political discussions of race and otherness. These policies and the discourses surrounding them ultimately fuelled a cultural project destined to redefine what it means to ‘belong’ in Western societies.
Moving beyond the pre-existing and longstanding orientalised understandings of Muslims within the Western consciousness, at the heart of the War on Terror’s cultural project were justifications built upon progressive liberalist frameworks of individual rights and freedoms, particularly with regards to women’s rights, sexual freedom, and LGBTQI+ rights. In this way there is a particular sexualised racism underpinning the rhetoric of the War on Terror that places the Muslim man as the ultimate vehicle of aggressive otherness, with the broad racialised mythology being that sexual repression and anxieties combined with religious fervour and socio-cultural pressures have created endemic social dysfunction, inadequacy, and hostility to the freedoms that the West represents. It is thus this understanding of the Muslim man that shapes popular Western conceptions of Muslim communities.
As Louise Archer observed in the early 2000s,”balanced and positive images of ‘normal’ Muslim masculinity appear to be rather thin on the ground.”1 Nearly two decades later, this situation has made little (if any) progress. Indeed, the past two decades of Western media has been replete with representations of Muslim men as misogynistic, angry, and violent, with common themes emerging, including their status as a sexual threat, security threat, or criminal threat to Western societies. Following 9/11, scholars noted that there was a marked shift from an orientalised and exotic stereotyping of Islam to a focus on perceived Muslim fanaticism,2 presenting Muslims in terms of global terrorism, fundamentalism, and authoritarianism.3 By the early 2010s, European media in particular had expanded this representation of war-mongering Muslim men to draw upon latent racialised mythologies that have been applied to migrant groups for centuries, from Jewish and Black communities, to Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. Such depictions draw on themes of drug use, benefits claiming, fraud, criminality, and sexual violence4—particularly the sexual threat directed at ‘our’ women. Examples of criminality were held up within Western discourse as evidence of a failure of multiculturalism and a result of Western munificence to the undeserving.
Thus, the War on Terror swiftly became a fight to defend ‘our’ way of life from those who would seek to undermine and destroy it. Consequently, with revelations of torture at Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons across the world, as well as the implementation of the PATRIOT Act and anti-Shariah legislation in the US, and provisions such as the PREVENT strategy in the UK, standards such as international law, due process, civil liberties, and human rights gained the aura of indulgences of a benevolent civilisation that could no longer be afforded in light of the threat posed by the inherent evil that lived both within and across the world.
At the same time, the presentation of a threat so grave as to take the West to the seemingly unprecedented precipice of having to restrict such fundamental freedoms heightened the perception of the evil that this enemy must pose within the public understanding. In actuality, oppression and restrictions on the freedoms of undesirable groups is far from unprecedented in Western history. However, increasing technologies, including growing global media and internet communications throughout the early 2000s, resulted in a mass public knowledge of torture and other violations conducted in the name of the War in Terror that exposed the practices of state violence on a scale that had not previously been experienced.
This abandonment of rights‘ obligations in the face of an ‘inhuman’ enemy is exemplified by headlines in right-wing newspapers in the UK such as a 2005 article in The Daily Mail entitled Our lunatic laws just help Al-Qaeda, which noted that: “Nothing, no human rights convention, no fear of being ‘racist’, no determination to avoid ‘Islamophobia’ (or whatever politically correct garbage Sir Ian Blair can come up with)—can, in a time of attack like this, be allowed to stand in the way of protecting our people and standing up for our way of life against those who would destroy it… Home Secretary Charles Clarke, tiptoes through the nonsense of our human rights laws to try to work out whether he is allowed to deport anybody.” 5
In addition to the waiving of rights’ entitlements to the perceived enemy group, this short exert is demonstrative of a myriad of themes common to the War on Terror: the juxtaposition of ‘us’ vs ‘them’, the threat posed to ‘our’ way of life, and the xenophobia reasserting the ‘foreignness’ of the enemy combined with suggestions to physically deport those deemed not to belong. In this way we can see the intersection between security and immigration as a dominant preoccupation of War on Terror discourse that dehumanises Muslims and reinforces the notion that they are innately foreign (regardless of where they were born) and so far beyond the realms of acceptable humanity that they forfeit any claim to Western constructs of freedom and rights.
The ‘Acceptable Muslim Man’: The Co-opted Agent of the State
Muslim masculinities are accordingly regulated within Western social power structures such that they must be made ‘acceptable’ through excessive displays of loyalty and distancing from ‘suspect’ Muslim practices and identity demonstrations. In the US, an example is Humayun Khan, the first US soldier to be killed in Iraq and who rose to national attention during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as an example of a Muslim American who sacrificed his life for his country. Similarly, Captain Mohsin Naqvi enlisted four days after 9/11 and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with valour after being killed in Afghanistan. At Naqvi’s funeral, his father famously stated that: “…first [Naqvi] was American. Then he was Muslim.”6 The elevation of these examples of acceptable Muslim masculinity rely upon an exceptionally high threshold of loyalty to be demonstrated—the willingness to sacrifice life itself and the requirement for national identity to supersede one’s religious identity.
However, service to the Western collective and cultural project is still no guarantee of full recognition and acceptance into the collective as a matter of belonging. This is acutely demonstrated by Western governments’ failure (and in many cases pointed refusal) to evacuate Afghan staff and interpreters,7 not to mention the seemingly reckless disregard for their safety in the case of the British Embassy in Kabul where paperwork containing their personal details was left scattered on the floor for Taliban forces to find.8 It is almost exclusively in this context of co-opted agents of the state that any mention of the need to protect Afghan men can be found within recent discussions of Afghan refugees in the Western context. This is symbolic of the seemingly insurmountable barrier of otherness that has been fortified by the War on Terror’s cultural project and which perhaps permanently excludes Muslim identities from full membership, regardless of their adherence to Western prerogatives, particularly those of men heralding from non-Western countries.
On the other hand, there are Muslim men across the Western context who have managed to gain significant political power and capital based upon their presentation of an ‘acceptable’ model of Muslim masculinity; usually a model that deprioritises practice and adherence to religious precedents in favour of removing elements of Muslim identity deemed ‘uncomfortable’ or suspect to a secular-liberal Western audience. Examples include figures such as Ed Hussain, Majid Nawaaz, Raheem Kassam, Sajid Javid, and Tawfik Hamid, to name but a few. Such figures arguably owe their success to their compliance with the enforcement of the cultural project, particularly through their validation and active promotion of state and government policies that securitise and restrict Muslim communities. By adhering to the dominant socio-gendered power structure, such individuals maintain their own prestige and privilege whilst simultaneously serving the hegemony of Western models of masculinity through discrediting models of Muslim masculinity that disrupt this hegemony.
The Other Side of the Coin: Muslim Women and Distraction Games
As previously mentioned, the sexualised racism underpinning the rhetoric of the War on Terror cannot be separated from Western perceptions of Muslim women and Muslim femininity. Whilst representations of Muslim men centre on aggression and criminality, depictions of Muslim women overwhelmingly focus on their perceived oppression, language barriers, and vulnerability to Muslim male violence.
Despite the focus on women’s rights as the rallying cry for restricting Muslim male identities and the apparent need to ‘rescue’ Muslim women, the apparatus of the War on Terror has not protected Muslim women from surveillance and discriminatory measures. Rather, it has increased scrutiny, with normative practices of Muslim femininity (such as wearing hijab) becoming simultaneously a symbol of extremism and cultural invasion, whilst also a symbol of Muslim women’s perceived lack of personal agency and therefore a reason to exclude their voices from public discourse due to their disruption of a distinctly white Western feminist framework. As such, the message of female empowerment and equality promoted by the War on Terror rhetoric is not a message intended to engage a Muslim audience. In reality, it is a message intended solely for a Western gaze as a mechanism for reinforcing the a priori knowledge of cultural superiority and the necessity of imperialist control over non-Western identities.
By largely avoiding critical engagement with Muslim women themselves, the cultural project is able to secure the unquestioned image of Muslim men as innately dangerous, and therefore present them as the core threat to all women’s rights and safety. One advantage of this process is the ability to distract attention from misogyny and violence against women and girls that remains pervasive throughout Western societies, regardless of any claims to gender equality and sexual enlightenment. Indeed, it is hard to marry political statements surrounding the dangers posed by Taliban rule in the early 2000s with reports of sexual assault within the US military, with one in three female US service members being raped by colleagues during their service.9
As one inescapable example, starting in the early 2010s, UK media was rocked by ‘grooming gang’ scandals involving groups of South Asian men (amongst others) systematically abusing young people across the UK. These instances were capitalised upon by the now defunct Quilliam Foundation, which produced a report (which has since been removed) arguing that 84% of grooming gang offenders in the UK are Asian, with the majority being of “Pakistani origin with Muslim heritage”.10 Under academic scrutiny, this statistic and accompanying report were exposed as deeply flawed and described as “a case study in bad science: riddled with errors, inconsistencies, a glaring lack of transparency, sweeping claims and gross generalisations unfounded its own ‘data’”.11 However, the report had already been circulated by international media outlets and mobilised by far-right politicians and pundits to justify anti-Muslim and anti-immigration agendas. Such misrepresentation of horrific abuse and exploitation as a uniquely Muslim phenomenon sacrifices the opportunity to engage in genuine approaches to solve these pressing issues.
In England and Wales, two women are killed by a current or former partner every week,12 and during the year up to March 2020, 1.6 million women reported domestic abuse,13 with the actual figures likely to be significantly higher. In March 2021, Sarah Everard was kidnapped from a London park, raped, and murdered by a serving police officer. In August 2021, a shooter inspired by incel ideologies shot and killed five people in Plymouth. When critically and honestly analysed, genuinely tackling violence against women and girls often feels like an insurmountable challenge. Having said that, the solution will not be found in political distractions deflecting the underlying causes of these problems onto minority communities.
The successful dehumanisation of Muslim men conducted through the cultural project undertaken by the War on Terror has regulated Muslim models of masculinity within the Western context to the extent that domestic and foreign policies designed to control Muslim populations have been met with little resistance across the West. This has justified the pursuit of a myriad of Western interests allegedly in the name of self-preservation.
Central to this has been the reproduction of sexualised and racialised mythologies surrounding violence, abuse, and misogyny as a key component of a uniquely and exclusively Muslim masculinity. It would be ludicrous to say that these issues do not exist amongst Muslim communities—misogyny and violence is a problem universally witnessed and in urgent need of address in every society. However, inscribing the threats that women face exclusively upon Muslim male bodies relieves the pressure for self-introspection on the part of the beneficiaries of the cultural project of the War on Terror. Such a situation can only frustrate attempts to meaningfully address these challenges.
At the same time, Muslim women’s empowerment cannot be served without direct engagement with Muslim women themselves. To continue to represent them purely as a mechanism to further intrench Islamophobic narratives about the danger of Muslim men, thereby reinforcing Western control over Muslim identities, is disingenuous at best and exploitative at worst.
Recognising and confronting the power of Islamophobia and sexualised racial mythologies embedded within current political discourses is thus the first essential step in successfully pursuing the equality, freedoms, and opportunities for all that Western liberalism claims to hold so dear and which were a central justification for the War on Terror. Ironically, in order to achieve these proclaimed aims of the War on Terror, we must first dismantle the logics that perpetuated it.
1. Louise Archer, Race, Masculinity and Schooling: Muslim Boys and Education (Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 2003), 1.
2. Brown M (2006), Comparative analysis of mainstream discourses, media narratives and representations of Islam in Britain and France prior to 9/11, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26(3): 297–312.
3. El-Aswad ES (2013), Images of Muslims in Western scholarship and media after 9/11, Digest of Middle East Studies 22(1): 39–56.
4. Sian, et al. ,”The Media and Muslims in the UK”, Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies, March 2012. Accessed: 16th September 2021. https://www. ces. uc. pt/projectos/tolerace/media/Working%20paper%205/The%20Media%20and%20Muslims%20in%20the%20UK. pdf.
5. “Our lunatic laws just help Al Qaeda”, Daily Mail, July 2005. Accessed: 15th September 2021. https://www. dailymail. co. uk/columnists/article-356821/Our-lunatic-laws-just-help-Al-Qaeda. html.
6. Daniel Bates,”American Muslims Who Died Fighting for Their Country after 9/11 Revealed,” Daily Mail Online, July 29, 2016, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www. dailymail. co. uk/news/article-3715233/Faces-American-Muslims-died-fighting-country-9-11-revealed-fallen-soldier-s-father-tells-Trump-sacrificed-no-one. html
7. "Britain Must Not Desert Its Afghan Interpreters | Letters,” The Guardian, August 08, 2021, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www. theguardian. com/uk-news/2021/aug/08/britain-must-not-desert-its-afghan-interpreters
8. Anthony Loyd,”British Embassy Left Details of Afghan Staff for Taliban to Find,” News | The Times, August 27, 2021, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www. thetimes. co. uk/article/british-embassy-left-details-of-afghan-staff-for-taliban-to-find-pr7vh5db0
9. Sarah Lazare,”Military 'rape Epidemic',” Asia | Al Jazeera, October 20, 2011, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www. aljazeera. com/features/2011/10/20/military-sexual-assault-and-rape-epidemic
10. Haras Rafiq and Muna Adil,”Group Based Child Sexual Exploitation: Dissecting Grooming Gangs,” The Quilliam Foundation, accessed September 14, 2019, https://www. quilliaminternational. com/shop/e-publications/group-based-child-sexual-exploitation-dissecting-grooming-gangs/
11. Malik, Kenan. 2020.”We’re Told 84% Of Grooming Gangs Are Asian. But Where’S The Evidence? | Kenan Malik". The Guardian. accessed September 15, 2021 https://www. theguardian. com/commentisfree/2018/nov/11/84-per-cent-of-grooming-gangs-are-asians-we-dont-know-if-that-figure-is-right.
12. "The Facts,” Refuge Charity - Domestic Violence Help, October 26, 2020, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www. refuge. org. uk/our-work/forms-of-violence-and-abuse/domestic-violence/domestic-violence-the-facts/
13. "Domestic Abuse in England and Wales Overview: November 2020,” Domestic Abuse in England and Wales Overview - Office for National Statistics, November 25, 2020, accessed September 14, 2021, https://www. ons. gov. uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2020
Isobel Ingham-Barrow has a BA (Hons), MA, MRes, and MPhil from the University of Exeter. Her PhD research explores the impact of Islamophobia on British Muslim men. She is currently Head of Policy at a Muslim NGO tackling Islamophobia in the UK.