The Empire and the War for Muslim Minds: The Process of Empire Building

By Robert Jensen

Published in Policy Perspectives (Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad) · July, 2007

[This article was delivered as a talk at the Institute of Policy Studies, F/7 Markaz, Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 17, 2007.]

Much of the problem with US policy is encapsulated in the phrase “the war for Muslim minds.” First of all, “war” is the wrong metaphor for a need for more dialogue and interaction on the basis of justice. Secondly, although it uses the plural — “minds” — to refer to the Muslim viewpoint, the phrase nevertheless comes in contrast to the US approach of seeing it as a single monolithic Muslim mind.

It is now routine for people around the world, even in the United States, to speak of the United States as an empire. This would not have been the case before 9/11. After 9/11, one of the mainstream commentators in the US, Anthony Gregory, wrote that it was time we stopped pretending we were not an empire and went about the business of figuring out how to run the world more efficiently. The process of empire building, especially after World War II, is a bipartisan project in the United States, which knows no allegiance to party — Republican or Democrat — or to mainstream ideology — liberal or conservative. Whatever the strategic and tactical differences in administrations or in parties, the project of building the American empire has been unbroken, and all of the political forces within the mainstream are equally culpable in its crimes.

It is true that there is as much religious bigotry in the United States as there is all over the world, and there are many people in the US who do in fact hate Muslims or perhaps fail to understand or be terribly interested in Muslims. However, the US foreign policy is not motivated by some irrational hatred for Muslims or a desire to kill them. There are probably people within the George Bush administration and previous ones who do hate Muslims, hate Islam and hate all things that are not Christian and American, but this religious bigotry does not drive the US foreign policy. The driving force in the US policy is the simple equation of how to extend and deepen American dominance, especially in the most strategic regions of the world, and crucially in the energy rich Middle East and central Asia.

For instance, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the US killed large numbers of Vietnamese, who were not Muslims, through proxy wars. The US also kills Christians in large numbers. Much of the US wars fought through proxies in Central and South America were aimed at Christians. At one point, the US was literally in a war with some elements of the Catholic Church. So, it is important to recognize that we must separate the bigotry in the United States from the motive force behind policy. It is easy to ascribe an evil motive based on bigotry when one is the target, especially in the recent years of the post-9/11 era in which Muslim countries have been invaded twice.

It needs to be recognized that the occupation of local governments was no longer possible in a world shaped by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this era, it is not possible to simply forge ahead in the way the great European powers pursued imperial projects in the era of colonialism. So the question arises what an empire in a post colonial world is. Here, the scholars have made it clear that the empire is not just a model but a situation in which a dominant power controls the sovereignty of another people and another nation. For anyone outside the empire, the moral imperative is to refuse to collaborate or cooperate with the empire.

There are certain vehicles of domination and instruments by which an empire is built and works. First and foremost among these is force, including both the threat of the use of force and the actual use of it. The US has always posed a threat to societies that dare to challenge its dominance in the world and it has used force consistently enough to make the threat real. It is not a hollow promise that people around the world can ignore. The use of force does not happen in the traditional colonial model. The US maintains the most massive military with the most destructive capacity in the history of the world and it has demonstrated its willingness to use it. It has rapid deployment forces which it knows how to send around the world, but more importantly, it has a network of more than 700 significant military bases and military presence in almost 140 countries around the world.

This is a key to the American imperial military strategy. Moreover, in reserve, the United States has massive weaponry, not only a nuclear arsenal but a complex range of other weapons that truly defy understanding. The destructive capacity of the US military is, by its very existence, fundamentally immoral, even without nuclear weapons: its arsenal contains weapons that are sometimes called ‘near nukes,’ and other particularly perverse and immoral weapons, like cluster bombs and anti-personnel weapons that continue to kill long after conflict is over, and which impact on an almost nuclear scale. This is a military facet of the US Empire.

The second instrument of empire building is the US diplomatic wing. The US domination of the United Nations (UN) became particularly intense after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is much domestic reactionary and uninformed opinion that denounces the UN as a threat to US sovereignty. In fact, the UN is no threat to US sovereignty and it is the US that is a threat to the functioning of the UN. The US has a functional control over the UN in that it will use the UN diplomatically to its advantage whenever it can. It simply ignores the UN and other instruments of world diplomacy if they go against its own interests.

The third element is an economic component to the empire, as no empire is instituted purely through force and diplomacy. There are international economic organizations, primarily the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which are all dominated by the West, especially by the US. It is true that international organizations and institutions such as WTO and IMF and their other constituencies on occasion resist the complete and total control of the US over them. Even Canada sometimes uses the WTO to try and protest US regulations. However, in general, these are organizations that serve the interests of the West and, heavily, the US.

In addition to such institutions, there are also some specific trade agreements that the United States uses to wield its power in this project of empire building. These are both regional trade agreements and bilateral trade agreements. Among them, the foundational one is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into affect in 1993. These agreements are called ‘free trade agreements’ but they have nothing to do with freedom. They are ways to open up weaker economies to US invasion. The obvious example of such an invasion can be seen in Mexico’s debacle and in the immigration ‘problem’ in the US, which is a clear result of NAFTA rules. These rules have undermined Mexico’s economic independence, forced its peasants into its cities, and the urban Mexicans into the US. In bilateral trade agreements, the US essentially writes the same rules with individual countries.

A third instrument of the economic component of the empire is the operation of US-based multinational corporations, which wield incredible power in society. When one of these corporations moves in, it has its own project to buy off local elites and secure access to the resources of the labor in markets. Such projects are independent of US State Department policy.

The fourth aspect of US Empire building is “soft power,” as explained by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. Soft power is the cultural power that comes through the worldwide US popular culture, television, movies, and media, particularly news media and the global media. The dominant writers, who do not necessarily belong to US corporations, reflect much of the US worldview through news agencies, such as Associated Press. These global media corporations influence almost the entire world. However, their most important effect is felt, not in the developing world, but on the domestic population of the United States.

Although most of the people in the United States dislike news media giants, the fact remains that the dominant segment of the US population gets virtually all of its information about the world from these very few global media corporations, such as CNN. So while the effect of these corporations in the developing world is sometimes important, it plays an even more crucial role in ‘domesticating’ the American population and presenting a picture of the world that makes it easy for leaders like George Bush, Bill Clinton, etc., to sell policies that are fundamentally in conflict with American values and universal human values. It seems there is no way to avoid the fact that media is central now to this empire building because no empire can exist without the complicity of the population.

The American people often focus on the elite sectors of the US — the corporate sector, the state sector, and the way they collaborate with each other to pursue policies of empire. Therefore it is in the capacity of the American public to resist and reject the empire, because the only appropriate moral position in response to empire is resistance. The people of the US are in a unique historical position. There have been empires in the past, but they mostly had subjects, not full citizens. None of these empires had a fully franchised population; none of them had the mechanisms of democracy, whether it was Rome or Britain, French imperialism or the Soviet Union. The US is the first empire that has fully franchised citizens.

History shows us that, despite the claims of empires, all empires eventually fall, and most empires are brought down primarily by resistance from outside. Given the United States’ overwhelming power, and the ecological and political fragility of the world today, if the US Empire falls in the traditional violent and ugly fashion, it is possible that the world will not survive — at least, not in the way it is today. It remains to be seen whether the citizens of the US can be the first citizens of an empire to bring it down from within.