The Muslim Paranoia Narrative

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The issue of radicalization is at the forefront of policy debates as ISIS continues to draw recruits from Western democracies. Recent summits on countering violent extremism have sought to highlight the importance of undermining extremist narratives, mobilizing moderate Muslims who oppose ISIS, and working to address underlying drivers of radicalization. Yet representatives of Muslim communities have met this approach with considerable skepticism, both in Western states and across the Muslim world. A common complaint is that Muslims are singled out and caricatured as a unique danger, which only increases the level of vilification experienced by Muslims.

In recent research published in Critical Studies on Terrorism, I explore the underlying ideological conditions that work against engagement with Muslim communities thought vulnerable to radicalization. I do this through a close examination of what I call the “Muslim paranoia narrative,” a recurring feature of Western counter-radicalization discourse that helpfully captures these underlying ideological dynamics. In the Muslim paranoia narrative, resentment towards Western society is said to be motivated to some degree by a paranoid and conspiracy-riven worldview, which is thought to thrive in alienated and disempowered communities. On this account, terrorist recruiters exploit distorted outlooks to fuel a sense of injustice about the plight of Muslims abroad. This association between radicalization and paranoia appears repeatedly through official statements and policy documents, including those associated with ongoing counter-radicalization strategies.

Before I go any further it is worth explaining why an examination of the Muslim paranoia narrative is so useful. Paranoia has a medical and an everyday meaning. The former points to a psychological pathology characterized by “systemized delusions of persecution or grandeur” (Miriam-Webster 2016); the latter indicates an unduly suspicious mindset, particularly with regard to politics and historical events. Yet it is important to recognize that the everyday understanding includes heavy intimations of irrationality and psychological dysfunction in a way that blurs the distinction with medical pathology. When paranoia is used to describe Muslim interpretations of politics and historical events, it is precisely this combination of suspiciousness, irrationality, and abnormality that is evoked.

This is why the Muslim paranoia narrative is worth examining: it is a clear tension point in contemporary radicalization strategies that are increasingly focused on engagement and collaboration. The negative connotations associated with paranoia connect palpably with the sense of vilification often highlighted by Muslim critics of these programs. Moreover, the paranoia narrative can be connected to a broader ideological imaginary. Tracing the Muslim paranoia narrative to its ideological roots provides a window into the assumptions and priorities informing radicalization discourse and contextualizes the reticence of Muslim communities towards it.

The Muslim paranoia narrative is especially intense in the United States and it is here that my research is focused. Richard Hofstadter is widely understood to have established the now commonplace account of political paranoia in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which identified a recurring strain in American politics characterized by a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter positioned political paranoia on the periphery of pluralistic American democracy as the irrational pathology of angry extremists, and contrasted it with a rational political center where sensible politics occurred.

Although Hofstadter wrote this seminal piece in 1964, it is difficult to overestimate its traction and influence. This is in large part due to the fact that Hofstadter deployed many of the most common conceptual features of post-War liberalism, which abhorred populism and focused on the mediation of competing interests through bargain and compromise. America was situated as a moderate democracy, pragmatic, centrist, and non-ideological, in contrast to the radical politics sweeping the post-War world. Although liberalism has evolved significantly over the intervening years, the basic conceptual features set out by Hofstadter have remained pervasive in contemporary perspectives on political paranoia.

One reason for this is that political extremism is still largely understood through the same center/periphery framework. This dynamic is at the heart of radicalization discourse in the US, where the political and religious beliefs of Muslim communities have emerged as a subject of concern. In this context, the Muslim paranoia narrative locates paranoia not just on the fringe of liberal democracies, but also on the periphery of international power and legitimacy from the point of view of political leaders and security experts. Here the pervasive perspective on political paranoia folds together with a long-running orientalist narrative about the supposedly dysfunctional characteristics of Muslim cultures, particularly in the Middle East, which has often framed America’s regional encounters.

By exploring these connections I show that the Muslim paranoia narrative is involved in a powerful process of ideological reproduction that works against engagement and collaboration with Muslim communities. In so doing I indicate how underlying liberal and orientalist frameworks situate Muslim cultures as dysfunctional and anti-modern, while associating Muslim resentment about Western foreign policies with problematic and potentially pathological modes of thought. Like post-War liberal orthodoxy secured by contrast with paranoid populism, here contemporary liberal modernity is secured by contrast with the paranoia of alienated Muslims.

On the one hand, the paranoia theme is a useful marker for the way these frameworks inhibit genuine engagement with Muslim communities potentially vulnerable to radicalization. For instance the term conspiracy theory operates in American media and academic discourse to disqualify particular claims by “stripping claimants of the status of reasonable interlocutor.” It prompts the reader to “go meta”, to pull back from the specific claims of the apparently paranoid and instead assess their right to say anything at all.

This same reaction is triggered – perhaps less explicitly – by the negative tropes and associations embedded in the liberal/orientalist imaginary that frames contemporary radicalization discourse. Many scholars have pointed to the political issues that drive widespread Muslim resentment towards America, including its relationship with repressive dictatorships; its role in regime change in the Middle East, particularly Iran; its strategic alliance with Israel, with particular reference to military and diplomatic support; and, most recently, its case for invading Iraq in 2003. Yet these topics do not achieve the same prominence in contemporary radicalization discourse as the Muslim paranoia narrative and the wider scripts it is situated in. Instead, political leaders, policy makers, counter-radicalization practitioner, and the concerned public are directed away from specific political critiques and towards the supposed social-psychological dysfunction of the people advancing them.

On the other hand, the paranoia theme indicates how a contemporary radicalization discourse concerned with problematic thought disciplines the wider public against consideration of Muslim grievances and associated criticisms of US policy. For instance, the identification of political paranoia as a subject of concern has the double effect of producing a strong general deterrent against the interrogation of elite power and political controversy, when the personal and professional costs of such engagements are potentially catastrophic. The taint of irrationality can be devastating, even by association – undermining credibility and calling motivations into question.

The broader point is that potent narratives around extremism and oriental otherness have undermined the approach of successive US administrations to counter-radicalization. These scripts have worked against a persuasive encounter with Muslims critical of American foreign policy, when such criticisms are framed as the product of a problematic thoughts and dysfunctional culture.

Indeed, it is critical to acknowledge that although the identities and relations highlighted in my analysis of the Muslim paranoia narrative exist within a specific policy discourse, they bear no necessary relationship to the lived experience of differentiated Muslim people, who often refuse classification in these terms. Moreover, it is critical to acknowledge that there is still no conclusive evidence for a particular terrorist profile, for a common pathway or pattern to radicalization, or for predicting which holders of radical views will become violent. Without critical awareness of the ideological conditions identified here and a sustained attempt to move beyond them, the crucial work of engagement, partnership, and community building will be likely ineffectual.

A revised version of this article appeared in Sustainable Security.

Timothy Aistrope is Lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.