Deepa Kumar

Media coverage of Israel’s assault on Gaza has concentrated blame for what has unfolded on Hamas, making it possible to absolve Israel of responsibility for nearly all of the warfare that has killed over three hundred civilians and wounded over a thousand Palestinians. But this is not limited to the people of Gaza. There is a cultural bias in media toward Muslims or Arabs.

Over a week ago, The Intercept reported on five Muslim Americans who were targets of NSA and FBI surveillance. Why has this, in comparison to previous major stories on NSA surveillance, received so little mainstream coverage? After all, for the first time, a news organization was putting a human face on the kinds of people directly subject to this mass surveillance regime.

Deepa Kumar, an associate professor in the journalism and media studies department of Rutgers University and the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, points out that indiscriminate surveillance sweeping up the communications of “ordinary Americans” has received a lot of attention. She contends that the lack of coverage of this major story is reflective of anti-Muslim racism. There is a dominant view that this surveillance is acceptable. Muslim Americans need to be tracked because they are prone to “radicalization.” That’s what the security establishment wants all Americans to believe.

Kumar is this week’s guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure”  podcast. We spend over a half of an hour digging into the media’s coverage of Gaza as well as how the national security state has grown into this apparatus that is specifically targeting Muslim Americans. The influence of Israel on the US security establishment is briefly highlighted as well.

After the interview, Khalek and I talk about Israel’s ground invasion and how Israel is blaming Hamas for all the civilians who die. We also describe censorship news organizations like NBC News and CNN have imposed on reporters covering Gaza.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a direct link (and direct download), go here. And, below is a player for listening to the podcast without getting it from iTunes:

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Partial transcript of the interview with Deepa Kumar: 

RANIA KHALEK: We have to begin by talking about the coverage of Gaza. It’s in the news right now, and it’s been insane. I’m sure you’ve been following as well, the way that Palestinians as always have been portrayed, especially Hamas, as this suicide organization that’s been responsible for using human shield and then Palestinians apparently all worship death and want to die and be martyrs. So, can you start off by talking a little bit about that?

DEEPA KUMAR: Absolutely. The reason particularly casualties of Palestinians are in the news is because of the cold-blooded murder of the four young boys on the beach yesterday, Palestinian boys, by Israelis. And if you look of the framing of it, even the State Department is coming out and saying blame Hamas, right?

And you have to ask where does this framing actually come from and, in fact, there is a propaganda handbook that was produced back in 2009. It’s called the Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary in which they have a sort of step by step, five-step approach, if you will, about how Israeli spokespeople should talk about civilian casualties in Gaza.

So the first speaking point is show empathy. In fact, I’m quoting from the handbook. It says, “All human life is precious. We understand that the loss of one innocent Palestinian life is every bit as tragic as the loss of an Israeli life.” Then go on to admission, as a second step, “We admit that Israel isn’t always successful at preventing civilian casualty.” Third step is effort saying, “We’re trying to stop civilian casualties,” etc.

Ultimately, it’s about turning the table. That’s step five. Blame Hamas. Say that it’s a tragedy that Hamas continues to want to perpetuate this so-called war, whatever. Because they didn’t accept the ceasefire agreement, it’s Hamas to blame right now. And it’s truly shocking and callous that that is the framework that has also been adopted by the US spokespeople so that we have very little empathy. We’re not asked to feel sad for the innocent people who are being killed by Israeli gunfire.

KHALEK: That’s literally word for word yesterday what the State Department said, exactly what you just mentioned. Hamas is responsible for putting people in danger. And it’s really alarming that Israel’s handbook for blaming Palestinians has been adopted and I think I would expand it to the way the United States media react when the United States commits crimes and kills people in Yemen and in Pakistan by drones and the way that they are treated as well. Could you talk about the way that Israel has been at the forefront of what we would call the Islamophobia Industry as we call it?

KUMAR: I’ll just go back a little bit to the specific frameworks used by [Israelis] in their propaganda and then talk about how that gets adopted by the US in terms of how it sells their own War on Terror.

So, some of the research that’s been done around how Palestine is covered in the Western media—There are about seven or eight frames that consistently get used to talk about this topic. I’ll just mention three.

First of all, what’s completely absent is context. There is no indication that Palestinians are under occupation, that Israel is a settler colonial state, and, therefore, when people respond to occupation, they are acting in self-defense. Instead, the perverseness of this—and this is the second frame—is it is presented as if Palestinians provoke Israel and Israel defends itself, which is why the current incursion is called Protective Edge. That’s not a coincidence. That comes from a long propaganda orientation about how Palestinians provoke and Israel protects and defends itself.

Finally, there’s the myth of the generous offer, the idea that somehow all sorts of fabulous officers have been made, including in this case a ceasefire agreement, which Hamas was not even invited to come to the table around. And, when they rejected, because it’s basically a return to the status quo where 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza will continue to live in an open-air prison and somehow they are to blame for the situation.

And, by the way, I want to go back to that propaganda handbook. There’s some language that specifically says don’t use words like randomly rocketing Israel. Talk about these rockets as a deliberate attack. That’s the extent to which this propaganda has been worked out.

Now, in terms of the US and the US’s War on Terror, absolutely—The relationship between the neoconservatives, who were in power during the Bush administration but who obviously existed before the Bush administration—The relationship between the neocons and the Likud Party in Israel is really the basis from which Islamophobia, particularly the association of Arabs with terrorism comes into being.

I’m working on another book right now where I develop some of the stuff that I already argued in the previous book, which is if you look at this development of the terrorist menace it begins around the early 1970s, particularly after the incident at the Olympics in Germany and how through the course of the 1980s the racialization of terrorism occurs as a result of this kind of Likud-neocon media offensive and how the media, news media, take their talking points from particularly two very important conferences, one that happens in 1979 and the other that happens in 1984. These are international counterterrorism conferences that by the way Benjamin Netanyahu that was the head of an institute that organized these conferences actually presided over.

KHALEK: That’s actually a fascinating topic is the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now the prime minister of Israel, in case anyone doesn’t know, was in fact one of the leaders in sort of coming up with the way of framing terrorism as something that is racialized.

I know that we wanted to get to talking about more of how this has affected national security. I know Kevin has some questions about that.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah so, I guess I will begin specifically and then we can always broaden out. I wanted to get your comments on the story that came out from The Intercept over a week ago, for the first time putting some focus on specific Muslim Americans that have been targeted. What was your response to seeing this published?

KUMAR: I knew beforehand that this was going to be coming out and in a way I wasn’t surprised because what you’ve seen is only the latest revelation that the NSA is part of the spying game. Because we’ve already known, for instance, that the NYPD was involved in systematically spying on Muslim Americans not just in New York City but in the tri-state area. We also know that the FBI is involved in such spying efforts and what the recent leaks by the NSA surveillance program shows that this institution is yet another of the security apparatus that’s involved in this process of systematic spying and surveillance.

So I think this is part of a larger picture of how Muslim Americans or people who “look Muslim” or brown people, more generally, have been cultivated as suspect population, who simply because they are Muslim or if they happen to have political views that in some ways don’t sit well with what the US think they should have—particularly if you’re critical of US foreign policy—then automatically you’re seen as a potential terrorist. And that’s the thinking not just in the NSA but in the FBI and the NYPD and the security apparatus more generally.

GOSZTOLA: A follow-up that I would ask is you had two major things that seemed to simultaneously come out of this story. You had these named targets. You had their prominent positions and prominent organizations and who they were, their backgrounds. But then separately they also had uncovered this memo where apparently the NSA in suggesting how they could request authority that they would have to do this surveillance—In the memo they put Mohammed Raghead in as the target name. It wasn’t John Doe. It was Mohammed Raghead. But what I want to have you specifically address is how those were actually addressed in the media separately. It was as if the racism, the racial slur, the ethnic slur was one issue and the issue of the targeting, but it would seem that the issue of the Islamophobia fuels this targeting of these people.

KUMAR: Absolutely. Just to step back from your immediate question, we have to ask why it is that there’s been so little mainstream media coverage of this most recent NSA exposay. You look at all the stories that leaked since 2013 and they have gotten quite a lot of play in the mainstream media, particularly programs that indiscriminately collect our signals intelligence from “ordinary Americans.” And then you look at this particular revelation and there’s been really very modest coverage of this and you have to ask the question, why? And it’s because there is widespread acceptance that Muslim Americans should be targeted, right? And therefore there’s nothing here to look at. This is how the NSA should be working is the assumption and the understanding. And so, Islamophobia or let’s call it what it is—anti-Muslim racism—I think is central not just to the security establishment in terms of how they actually target people but in the wider corporate media as well. I think that’s where I would start discussion around this particular revelation.

GOSZTOLA: I’ll ask two parts and I know Rania will have some more to ask you here. But, specifically, there’s been this comparison drawn between what J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI was doing toward civil rights groups and antiwar groups back in the 1960s and this, but it would seem particularly in the press and especially and particularly among national security journalists that there is—and I think it is racist—this looking at these individuals and making these claims that they are not involved in advancing these rights; that they are not similar to the sort of leaders who were targeted by the national security state back in the 1960s. And that to me has been striking.

I know that you were here in Chicago a couple weeks ago speaking at the Socialism Conference and one of the things I know you said is you believe that, “Security is the new means by which racism operates in the post-racial era.” And this point I am making would seem to go to that.

KUMAR: Absolutely. You raise so many points I don’t even know where to begin.

Let’s do a little historical account of the birth of the NSA, its spying operations and bring that up to the present because I think that might be a useful way to do this.

The NSA gets formed in 1952. It basically comes out of the mindset in the Cold War era where the national security state gets formed. And what the National Security of 1947 establishes is eventually a prominent defense and security establishment in this country. Around the time of the Second World War, the first large scale spying program called Project SHAMROCK was actually begun and in 1952 the NSA takes this over. And you see another project come into being called Project MINARET and particularly after the 1967 March on the Pentagon, when antiwar sentiment begins to escalate in this country quite dramatically, people like Joan Baez, Jane Fonda, Martin Luther King Jr. become not only a part of the FBI COINTELPRO surveillance but he is also being targeted by the NSA through Project MINARET.

And the point I made at the Socialism Conference is that if you look at the indiscriminate way in which the NSA is targeting and collecting information about people it’s primary function really is to prevent any kind of threats to the agenda of empire – antiwar movement, people critical of war. Famously, Martin Luther King Jr. would come out against the Vietnam War, calling the US the greatest [purveyor] of violence in the world and so on.

So what is the NSA doing? It’s trying to make sure that all criticism of the national security state, of empire, is kept under check. And of course it’s not just a collection of information. The FBI and the COINTELPRO program actually tries to induce the suicide of MLK by revealing information, extramarital affairs, and so on and so forth.

So, ultimately, surveillance is about social control. It is about telling people that you will be watched and you will be monitored. And should you act in ways that are socially unacceptable you will be punished.

But I just want to say one more thing about this, which is that this doesn’t necessarily work. People aren’t always cowed by this sort of surveillance because if you look at, for instance, one of the most exciting things that has been happening of late is the proliferation of the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, that is raising enormous awareness about Israeli apartheid. And largely it is Arab-American, south Asian students and some Jewish students that are part of this work.

Even though they know, particularly brown people know, that they are targets of surveillance there’s a way—You reach a point where you say you don’t care anymore. I need to stand up for what’s right. And this has been one of the most exciting movements that we’ve seen in the last two year that’s really bringing issues of social justice and rights for Palestinians and generally talking about US complicity in Israeli aggression in the Middle East.