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Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb in the Era of Global Terror (February 2018): Torture and the Racialization of Muslims since 9/11

By Julie Beicken

Torture and the Racialization of Muslims since 9/11

A key element in torturing is the dehumanization of the individual(s) to be tortured. Literature addressing the dehumanization of Muslims since 9/11, the group targeted as the primary threat in the War on Terror, collectively asserts that 9/11 expanded on already existing stereotypes of Muslims as backward, irrational, and cruel, thus warranting their mistreatment. Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism first laid the groundwork for this position, arguing that the “Orient” (East) has throughout history been framed as an entity entirely different from the “Occident” (West). Where the West is civilized, rational, progressive, and democratic, the East is uncivilized, irrational, backward, and totalitarian. Islam is a primary religion of the East, in contrast to the Christian West.

More recently, the work of philosopher Judith Butler seeks to answer the question, “What makes for a grievable life?” In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, she explores how and why violence, such as torture, can be committed. She contends that some people are considered human and others are not. Violence perpetrated against a life that is not grievable does not count as violence. For Butler, history has already placed many Arab peoples, particularly Muslims, outside of the category of “human.” She expands on this line of thinking in Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, in which she asserts that arguments about the atavistic nature of Islam relate to the use of torture against Muslims. She claims that it is easy to destroy lives that lie outside of one’s understanding of culture and time. Sherene Razack also builds on Said’s thinking in Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. She contends that the grouping of Middle Eastern Muslims as a singular racialized “other” justifies their seclusion in detention camps, which in turn validates their mistreatment. These camps are “states of exception” (in Agamben’s sense), where lawlessness abounds, in part, because of the denial of their inmate’s citizenship.

Similarly, in Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, Janaid Rana contends that Muslims currently represent a racialized group, and this group falls on the wrong side of the binaries of freedom/terrorism and democracy/militancy. Rana exposes the violent treatment of Pakistani detainees after 9/11 in a Metropolitan Detention Center in the US. His analysis reveals that Abu Ghraib represents part of a larger ideological treatment of Muslims since 9/11 that has included violence and abuse in many contexts and forms. Jasbir Puar relates this argument to gender and sexuality in Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Puar argues that while we live in an era of greater lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) equality, the heteronormative backdrop of American society remains and is actually reinscribed in the War on Terror. The acceptance of LGBTIQ in the American imaginary, what Puar terms “homonationalism,” is part of the American exceptionalism that sets the US apart from the supposedly backward peoples of the Middle East. Thus, one of the outcomes of the War on Terror is the hypersexualized torture at Abu Ghraib, where the masculinity and heterosexuality of Arab Muslim men were simultaneously called into question and exaggerated.