Legitimizing Empire: Racial and Gender Politics of the War on Terrorism

By Zacharias, Usha | Social Justice, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Legitimizing Empire: Racial and Gender Politics of the War on Terrorism


Zacharias, Usha, Social Justice


I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag.... My world has died, and I write to mourn its passing.

--Arundhati Roy ("The End of Imagination," an essay written after India's nuclear test in May 1998).

MANY OF THE IDEAS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE EMERGED FROM DIALOGUES with friends and activists who shared the experience of living on the wrong side of right America. An all-too-brief meeting with the brilliant Sunera Thobani, the "first brown woman who spoke out," inspired many of the ideas in this article, as well as the conference on "Afghan Women and Transnational Activist Networks" held at Mr. Holyoke College. Given the dramatic changes in political contexts during 2002 and 2003, I am rearticulating some of the arguments upon which this article, as an initial reaction to the war, was based.

From the ashes and public grief of the month of September in the year that erased history, America's ruling coterie wrested a new flag. Inscribed with the image of the smoke-wrapped World Trade Center, the new flag represented the imagined community of a whole new nation, a remasculinized America, a new race whose politically correct color composition was homogenized through the monoculture of patriotism. Flying this flag, patriotic America went to war in October 2001 to bomb one of the poorest nations in the world. At the World Trade Organization negotiations in Qatar in November 2001, corporate America extracted more gains from impoverished countries even as it sought to fast track free trade and laid off thousands at home. In March 2002, military America declared hostile intentions toward an "axis of evil" that includes Iran, Iraq, and the little communist nation of North Korea. In addition, the new nuclear policy places China, Syria, Sudan, and Libya on the expanding list of dangerous nations.

The Bush administration's war envisaged a politically renewed project of global expansion of U.S. military power allied to its capitalist agenda as we move into the resource crunch of the 21st century. The intimidation of non-Western nations in Africa (Libya, Sudan), the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Syria), and Asia (China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea) is part of a larger project of economic and cultural recolonization in collusion with the dominant classes and antidemocratic groups in these nations. The U.S. foreign policy tradition of supporting antisocialist repressive regimes in Asia and the Middle East has acquired a dangerous and aggressive edge in the Philippines and Indonesia, where insurgent movements have been crushed with fresh vigor after the U.S. military presence in the region. Anti-Muslim sentiment has run high in India after September 11, legitimating the bloodbath initiated by Hindu fundamentalists who slaughtered over 600 Muslims in March 2002, even as the state has enacted a new "antiterrorism" ordinance that outlawed groups fighting for social justice. The new war ensures the strategic presence of U.S. bases and forces throughout the world even as its corporate salesmen demand more and more profit-making provisions at the negotiating tables of the World Trade Organization.

By enforcing an international political culture that suppressed dialogue, debate, and dissent, and by strengthening national security states and repressive regimens in the non-Western world, the United States and its neoconservative allies across the world challenged political and civil rights that were won by anticolonial and antiracist movements over the last century. The conservative think tank project of building an American empire is dangerous not just to Americans who have been bearing the brunt of corporate privatization and militarism since Ronald Reagan, but to democratic movements and alliances for social justice the world over. It constitutes an attack on large sectors of Americans who have been struggling for class equality, racial justice, and gender reforms by silencing or bringing them under a new cultural regime of imperialist nationalism. …

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