Monthly Archives: September 2016

Radicalization, Responsibility, and Control: The Islamophobic Rhetoric We Use to Talk About ISIS

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the Name of Allah, The Compassionate, The Merciful

Fifteen years following the 9/11 attacks, and studies show that Islamophobia is worse than ever.  One reason that remains under-examined is the manner in which we use Islamophobic rhetoric to talk about ISIS. Rather than doing anything to actually “defeat ISIS” (to quote several politicians), all this rhetoric does is normalize anti-Muslim racism.

First off, it is worth noting that Islamophobia is a confusing term. It insinuates a “phobia” or fear of Islam and, by extension, Muslims. However, reducing Islamophobia in such a simplistic manner does not address the systemic and historical roots of anti-Muslim aggression — namely that it stems from colonial discourses of white supremacy. Put simply, Muslims are technically a religious demographic; but, Islamophobic rhetoric has racialized Muslims as Brown people belonging to a pre-modern civilization that is inferior and subordinate to that of the West. This casts a wide net of who actually experiences Islamophobia: from non-Muslim Arabs, signified by the murder to Khaled Jabara by a neighbor last month, to Sikh men who adorn the turban for religious reasons. This is also why Jaideep Singh even goes so far as to argue that the term Islamo-Racism should replace our use of Islamophobia, with others preferring to use the term “anti-Muslim racism.”

When this rhetoric of Muslims’ inferiority is used to shape our understanding of ISIS, all it does is instrumentalize ISIS to rationalize structural anti-Muslim racism. This was demonstrated well during the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer where Muslims were portrayed either as ISIS affiliates or individuals willing to work with the state to defeat ISIS-like radicalization. In his RNC speech, for example, Donald Trump framed his ambition to “defeat the barbarians of ISIS” by strategically placing the attack in Nice, France, alongside a myriad of other examples in the U.S., including the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the recent Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, FL. In doing so, Trump spoke through a false dichotomy wherein the victims of ISIS are uniformly Western, and marks the aggression as a coherent, linear brand of “Islamic terrorism.” In proclaiming this violence as inherently and solely “Islamic,” however, his rhetoric leaves no room to address that Muslims are actually the primary victims of ISIS. July alone, for instance, witnessed one the deadliest attacks in Baghdad, Iraq since 2003 killing over 250 (predominantly Shia) people in the Karada shopping district; one of the deadliest attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan since 2001, killing over 80 Shi’i Hazara Muslim; and an attack in Istanbul, Turkey killing over 40 people.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2016 RNC

Donald Trump speaking at the 2016 RNC

Unlike Trump’s RNC speech that promoted an “Islamic radicalization versus the progressive West” narrative, the DNC fueled a classical “good Muslim”/“bad Muslim” narrative in which the “good Muslim” was one eager to cooperate with the state to defeat radicalization. Bill Clinton stated this point blank by proclaiming, “if you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together.” Several Muslims immediately pointed out via social media the manner in which Muslim loyalty was put on trial. It may also be worth noting that neither of the candidates – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – even mentioned the word “Muslim,” and that the only time Trump did was in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that Muslims were invisible in both conventions, unless and until terrorism and/or militarism was brought to the forefront.

What the language in the speeches demonstrates is that anti-Muslim racism in today’s ISIS hysteria-ridden/post-9/11 context paints Muslims as if they have been infected by this thing called “Islam.” If it is not surveilled and monitored properly, this will turn into the virus we now call “radicalization”; but with proper care, this radicalization will lie dormant. This was particularly clear in the fear that Trump spurred through his application of “radical Islam,” and in Bill Clinton’s plea with Muslims to stay in the U.S. so long as they can fulfill their “responsibility” to fight terrorism (insinuating that Muslims would have insight into terrorism by virtue of being Muslim).

What’s more, the entity responsible for controlling the “radicalization” outbreak, is the State itself. That is, the federal government has taken it upon itself to cure the nation of this illness by enlisting the help of the U.S. public, and especially Muslims and Arabs themselves, to participate in the surveillance process. Anti-Muslim rhetoric, then, reinforces the need for control and surveillance through the fear of radicalization.

Muslims demand equal rights in a 2013 U.S. protest.

Muslims demand equal rights in a 2013 U.S. protest.

The language of fear, responsibility, and control that was extolled throughout the convention speeches has material consequences that structure anti-Muslim racism, particularly through state and federal policies.  This includes (but is not limited to):

  1. Support for surveillance programs such as the “Shared Responsibility Committees” which ask counselors, teachers, and community leaders to help the state identify individuals who have been potentially “radicalized.” These rely heavily on the use of “suspicious activity reporting,” which, some claim, has questionable and unsuccessful methods.
  1. Rationalized forms of racial profiling, particularly through the use of community informants. This, arguably, encourages Muslims and Arabs to engage in the State’s work of criminalizing their own communities. Since the informants are community members, this allows the federal government to evade the accusation of direct racial profiling.
  1. The prevalence of anti-Shari’a legislation in nine states, even though Shari’a was never practiced in U.S. court systems.
  1. The stigmatization of refugees seeking asylum simply on the basis of ethnic and faith-background, as indicated by attempts by state governors to deny refugees asylum — even though they do not hold that power.
  1. The emboldening of policies such as the Countering Violent Extremism Act, which may make innocuous acts of Muslim worship appear suspect, thereby further criminalizing Muslims for merely observing their faith. The CVE website “Don’t be a Puppet” reflects the manner in which not engaging in the acts of surveillance renders you “a puppet” that may, one day, be responsible for the presence of radicalization within our country.

As a necessary point of clarification, I am not trying to argue that nothing should be done or that “extremism” doesn’t exist – as a Shia Muslim woman myself, I belong to one of the most targeted groups of ISIS; however, the “countering extremism” measures here promote structural anti-Muslim racism by criminalizing Muslim communities, and renders Muslim victims of both ISIS as well as structural anti-Muslim racism, completely invisible. This is enhanced through the rhetoric surrounding radicalization, responsibility, and control.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Conspiracies and Cucks: The Rhetoric of the “Alt-Right”

This post was co-authored by Kevin Musgrave (UW-Madison, Communication Arts) and Jeff Tischauser (UW-Madison, Journalism and Mass Communication).

The brash new wing of the conservative movement, the so-called “Alt-Right,” has drawn public attention and ire, with Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton condemning them in a recent campaign speech in Reno, Nevada.  Despite this recent publicity, questions abound.  Who exactly are the “Alt-Right?”  How do they differ from other conservative groups and what are the defining characteristics of their rhetoric?

Clinton condemns the "Alt-Right" in Reno

Clinton condemns the “Alt-Right” in Reno

Though many prominent media outlets including the New York Times, Salon, the Daily Beast, as well as media watchdog groups FAIR and Media Matters have published pieces on the group, a solid conceptualization of the “Alt-Right” remains elusive.  Emerging from these pieces, however, is a list of common characteristics that may allow us to articulate the defining communicative and rhetorical norms and strategies of the “Alt-Right.”

The “Alt-Right” is often defined with and against the development of the New Right, a nebulous conservative movement represented by the rise of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Blending fiscal and social conservatism with a strong military presence and foreign policy, the New Right offered a means of fusing what rhetorical scholar Michael Lee calls the conflicting dialects of traditionalism and libertarianism that constitute the political language of conservatism in the United States.

Yet, if Reagan has become synonymous with the fusionist message of the New Right, the “Alt-Right” has emerged within a conservative vacuum that has seen the Republican Party, post-George W. Bush, struggle to create a message capable of unifying traditionalists and libertarians alike. Indeed, what the “Alt-Right” appears to be doing in its rhetoric is actively delinking these two dialects, re-articulating an extremist traditionalist message, and separating the language of conservatism from the Republican Party.

Manifesting primarily in online forums such as 4Chan, Reddit, and RadixJournal, the “Alt-Right” consists mainly of 18-35 year-old white males who are, as their leader Milos Yiannopoulos claims, “young, creative and eager to commit secular heresies,” through the creation and circulation of openly racist, sexist, and nationalistic memes.

The usage of these memes is a way of signaling belonging to the group by demonstrating a fluency in the “Alt-Right” vernacular.  The memes are marked by the conspiratorial style of a white genocide narrative, an ironic deployment of racial tropes, protectionist rhetorics of white tribalism, and a European Anglo identity politics premised on racist pseudo-science.

In advancing a return to tribal politics, the “Alt-Right,” as Jack Hunter of the Daily Beast argues, defines itself against the radical individualism of the libertarian dialect as articulated by conservative firebrands such as Goldwater.  Denouncing individualism in favor of a radical traditionalism that calls for a return to communal, authoritarian, and hierarchical politics premised on racial difference, the “Alt-Right” abandons the religious metaphysics of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and other traditionalists in favor of a racial science that justifies a disdain for egalitarianism and democracy.

One prime example of how those in the “Alt-Right” use memes to circulate these messages is the common term used by its members: “cuck.”  This term rhetorically defines the “Alt-Right” as opposed to establishment Republicans–cuckservatives–maligned by the “Alt-Right” as neocons and liberal Republicans pushing an internationalist agenda that threatens the white race.

In the satirical depiction of the American Conservative magazine below, internet users have fashioned the publication as a cuckservative mouthpiece, promulgating the death of the white race in efforts to achieve social justice.  Advancing a conspiratorial narrative that views immigration, inclusion, assimilation, and diversity as an affront to white masculinity and racial purity, the cuckservative is one who has emasculated himself, become a traitor to his race, and permitted the affordance of a white minority population and colored body politic through liberal policies that advocate for pluralism and equality.


Engaging in racist pseudo-science to support claims of white supremacy, the “Alt-Right” not only biologizes racial difference but also uses hereditary and cognitive science to argue against egalitarianism.  In this way, the values of the Enlightenment philosophy of classical liberalism, heralded by the libertarian right, become anathema to core “Alt-Right” tenets of communal, tribal belonging, racial hierarchy, and authoritarianism.  In redefining conservatism this way, the “Alt-Right” is imagining conservatism as an Anglo European identity politics and mainstreaming core tenets of white, authoritarian nationalism in popular discourse.

Enter Pepe the frog, a character previously associated with #gamergate, anti-semitic attacks on journalists and activists, and the male rights movement. Pepe plays to members of the white in-group who understand the joke for what it really is, a call to action. In this sense, Pepe is the wink after the racist joke. The rhetorical power of Pepe, like the racist joke, is that it lets its purveyors escape with plausible deniability. The ironic detachment that emerges in Pepe’s history helps to conflate intention with effect, allowing users to distance themselves from its often racist connotations. Rendering Pepe in Hammerskin Nation-like attire, covered in blood, carrying guns used by Nazi SS Stormtroopers, is not racist, or disrespectful, rather it’s an irreverent way to shock and disrupt PC culture.  Sharing Pepe memes allows members of the “Alt-Right” to espouse its “fuck your feelings politics,” distancing themselves from liberals and mainstream conservatives through vitriolic rhetoric.


When the Trump campaign tweeted an image of himself as Pepe in October 2015, to @BrietbartNews and others, with the message, “You Can’t Stump the Trump,” he rhetorically positioned himself as the Presidential candidate of the “Alt-Right.”  As a candidate whose views on American exceptionalism, immigration, and anti-PC culture resonate with the message of the “Alt-Right,” Trump stands as a figure capable of making white nationalist ideas a political reality.

Trump thus represents the power to create a sovereign nation state that protects white men from perceived economic and cultural threats. However, Trump stands more as a vehicle for the “Alt-Right” ideology than its driver. Even as Trump’s appeal appears to be diminishing with conservatives, his core “Alt-Right” constituency, aided by an array of “Alt-Right” media outlets and its dedicated meme warriors who troll Reddit and 4Chan, the “Alt-Right” as a political force is not going away any time soon.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized