On White Ignorance and being a security problem

Sep 13, 2023 | Essays

What happens… when the researched become the researchers?1

W. E.B. Du Bois, in his celebrated work ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, articulates a question that persists between him and the other world, ‘how does it feel to be a problem?’ The question elucidates the lingering White gaze on the black bodies. It has an effect on the black souls. Du Bois uses the term the second sight to describe the ability of the black people to see themselves through the eyes of others2. He terms second sight as a gift because it helps the blacks see ‘what it is about whites and the white situation that motivates them to view blacks erroneously’. The second sight provides a clearer picture. According to Mueller3, this unique sight helps the subalterns ‘see’ the problems of racism with greater clarity and hence they can generate ‘truer truths’ about the forms of domination and control. This paper is a subaltern’s attempt to describe what can be seen from the location of the researched.

I am from Pakistan, a place described as ‘the eye of the storm’ by White security analysts after 9/ 114. Riedel (2008), in his article titled Pakistan and Terror: The Eye of the Storm, describes the country in the following words; ‘Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world today. All of the nightmares of the twenty-first century come together in Pakistan: nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, military dictatorship, and above all, international terrorism’. Markey (2013) describes the country in the following words; ‘Pakistan’s internal troubles have already threatened U.S. security and international peace, and Pakistan’s rapidly growing population, nuclear arsenal, and relationships with China and India will continue to force it upon America’s geostrategic map’5 (i).

The other world sees Pakistan as a problem. But being a problem is not new to Pakistan. The country has a long history of being a White man’s burden. Prior to independence in 1947, and since that year, a series of White rescue plans have been enacted at different times to aid and save the trouble prone Pakistani people. As I write these words, many such plans are still in progress.6 So, I can relate to Du Bois when he pins down the piercing question, how does it feel to be a problem? I try to answer this question here. I look around, see the other world, the White world termed as the international, and I describe what I see. From the place called the most dangerous in the world, I gaze back. I begin to record my account from 9/11, 2001- the day two planes demolished two towers and ruined the world security. The limited space does not allow discussion on 8/ 6 and 8/ 9, 1945, the days when two planes demolished two cities to ensure world security. Security is a treacherous word and being a security problem is an idea worth exploring.

When I fix my gaze on the taken for granted and rarely questioned difference between those who maintain world security and those who remain a security problem for the world, Mills’ (1997) idea of ‘the racial contract’ help me see things clearly.7 Race, according to Mills, has been an effective technology of power, invented and deployed to create the modern world where White supremacy is a norm. The idea that a group of people (coded as Whites) have rights and status of full persons while others (non-Whites) have a different and inferior status of sub persons forms the basis of the modern world. The ‘racial contract’, according to Mills (1997), is a series of formal and informal agreements among the White people, during the last 500 years, that grant Whites a differential privilege over non-Whites. Throughout the colonial period, the Whites agreed to deny non Whites the status of full persons, this denial allowed them to exploit non White bodies, lands and resources. Mills (1997) points out how the mainstream (i.e. white) political philosophy remains pre occupied with the notions of rights and justice in the abstract while ignoring the real political struggles of the world’s majority with colonialism, slavery, imperialism etc. The European enlightenment raised slogans of rights, liberty and freedom at a time when Europeans were committing massacres and enslaving people in the foreign lands. The Enlightenment liberals refused to see the reality of racial/colonial exploitation and reserved all newly constructed rights and liberties for the category of full persons only – the Whites. Mills (1997) sums up the racial contract in the following words; ‘when white people say “Justice,” they mean “Just Us.” (110), and ‘European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human (27). I add to Mills assertions and claim that when White people say security, they mean secure me.

White supremacy is enacted and maintained through White ignorance; a refusal to see reality and a commitment to misinterpret and misrepresent the world. Such misrepresentations are validated by White epistemic authorities.8 Mills (1997) asserts that ‘white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years’ (19).Contemporary forms of White ignorance include the denial of white privilege in the prevailing status quo and a refusal to acknowledge ‘the long history of structural discrimination that has left whites with differential resources they have today’9. What disrupts White ignorance and consequently White supremacy is a subaltern’s voice as a knower, ‘whose mere presence in the halls of white theory is a cognitive threat (to White ignorance)’ (Mills, 1997: 132). The ‘ideal speech situation’ in White epistemic spaces, according to Mills (1997), ‘requires our absence, since we are, literally, the men and women who know too much’ (132). I record my account with the intention to make myself visible and audible as a knower.

I first explain how a new category radical/ extremist/violent extremist (non-White) was invented after 9/11 and projected as a threat to international security; how monitoring/ controlling/ countering/ preventing the radical mind was constructed as a security imperative and how education was projected as a tool to monitor/control/counter/prevent the radical mind. This discourse was backed by the White epistemic authorities. I describe how, during this time, I felt the heat of the White gaze on my being, as I ticked many boxes of the newly invented category of a suspected radical. Next, I caste a reverse gaze on the White rescue plan to counter extremism through education .Using insights from Mueller’s Theory of Racial Ignorance, I critically analyze UNESCO’s policy guide to counter violent extremism through education.

On Becoming a Security Problem

On Sep 20, 2001, nine days after 9 / 11, the US President addressed the American Congress and the nation, and explained the attack in the following words;

On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil…Americans are asking:  Who attacked our country?  The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda…. its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world…In Afghanistan, we see al Qaeda’s vision for the world.

Afghanistan’s people have been brutalized — many are starving and many have fled.  Women are not allowed to attend school.  You can be jailed for owning a television.  Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate.  A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough.

I heard these words attentively from a foreign soil, closely connected to Afghanistan, the land and the people the US President happened to know well. I tried to make sense of the knowledge the President was sharing about Afghanistan.

‘These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life… They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other…’10

The president’s words reflected a fixed, selective; simplistic ‘us vs. them’ view of the world that conveniently ignored history. Even recent history of the US involvement in Afghan jihad against the Soviets, and the heavy US funding for Islamist militancy in the region was completely ignored. But eventually this erroneous worldview of the President erected the Global War on Terror; a new long term war on the foreign lands to rescue ‘us’ from ‘them’. Also to rescue ‘the good among them’ from ‘the bad among them’, such as the good Afghans from the bad Afghans , the Afghan women from the bad Afghans, the good Muslims from the bad Muslims (Mamdani, 2002).11

The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends.  Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them…Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.  It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated’.12

As a Pakistani, a headscarf wearing Muslim woman, a teacher and researcher of Peace Studies, the US President’s plan to rescue the world changed the way I lived and breathed in the world.13 I struggled to find my way through the newly invented categories imposed on my being (good / bad/ radical/ liberal Muslim, pro-US or pro-Taliban), demanding me to explain myself and my position to the world 14. As a scholar, I struggled to find my voice in the mainstream discourses of peace and security. As a teacher, I found myself under surveillance, as education in Pakistan quickly became an international security concern15. Hence, my path as a teacher and a scholar in the years following 9/11 was determined by my frequent encounters with epistemic violence and injustice in peace, security and International Relations discourses. I found myself at the centre of these discourses, as a suspect, a possible source of the problem, but I was rarely given a chance to speak for myself.

In his address to the US Congress, President Bush asserted that ‘ the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it and destroy it where it grows’ . A vast body of post 9/11 academic and policy literature endorsed the President’s view and pointed out places where roots of the problem can be located. Pakistan remained at the centre of this White security discourse.

The 9/11 Commission Report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, identified religious schools in Pakistan as places where violent extremism grows;

Pakistan’s endemic poverty, widespread corruption, and often ineffective government create opportunities for Islamist recruitment. Poor education is a particular concern. Millions of families, especially those with little money, send their children to religious schools, or madrassahs. Many of these schools are the only opportunity available for an education, but some have been used as incubators for violent extremism … the United States should support Pakistan’s government in its struggle against extremists with a comprehensive effort that extends from military aid to support for better education (Kean and Hamilton ,2004; 367-69 ).16

Education in Pakistan has been under surveillance since then.17

The target of the US led War on Terror was ‘the radical mind’. A massive terrorism industry was erected by the United States to hunt, capture, kill and counter the radical mind. US tightened homeland security, attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, killed suspected terrorists through drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and launched ‘extensive manhunts across the globe’18. The mainstream International Relation and security literature during this time sought to explain the making of the radical mind (Bizina and Gary, 2014; Thompson, 2011; Borum, 2011; King and Taylor, 2011)19. Spivak (1999) uses the term epistemic violence to refer to the violent knowledge production of the imperial powers to justify domination. The imperial knowledge constructs the character of ‘the subjugated others’ without giving them a chance to speak for themselves. The post 9/11 construction of ‘the radical mind’ and its link with education in Pakistan was a characteristic form of epistemic violence that described ‘the other’ as a source of the problem and deprived ‘the other’ to have a voice of their own. Initially, religious schools (madrassas) were projected as a grave threat to international security. Madrasas were termed as Islam’s Medieval Outposts (Haqqani, 2002)20, The Jihad Factory (Sareen , 2005)21 and incubators for violent extremism 22disseminating out dated education and violent ideas. There were apprehensions about the ‘explosion’ of madrasas in Pakistan, teaching jihad and violence (Singer, 2001)23. Few reports however , pointed towards the absence of militant content in traditional madrasa curricula, and the role of United States in introducing Islamist militancy to these institutions during Afghan jihad of 1980s 24. Further studies pointed out multiple factual inaccuracies in the papers reporting ‘madrasa boom’ in Pakistan, calling such fears ‘the Madrasa Myth’ created by the academics that misrepresent reality on ground 25. Cesari (2013)26 pointed towards a deeper secular bias in Western societies that generates fears about Islam. Malik (2009)27 and Bano (2012) indicated how the everyday life and systems in madrasas were quite different than the stereotyped images projected on the Western media and academia.

Being Muslim, dressing like a Muslim and being Pakistani was flagged as a potential security threat after 9/11. As a Pakistani Muslim, the security literature’s focus on religious schools in Pakistan was a cause of personal concern for me. I realized that certain problems of religious schooling identified in literature, were genuine and required serious deliberation. For example the pedagogical practices and curricula in many madrassas needed attention for a long time. However, the selective framing of madrasa education as a security threat, the absence of the broader historical picture and most importantly the absence of the voices of people from inside madrasas in security literature, troubled me deeply.

Meanwhile, public education in Pakistan became another concern for international security, as policy discourses pointed out poor education , numbers of out of school children and tacitly intolerant curricula as risk factors that may push young people towards violent extremism. (Hathaway 2005a).28 Simultaneously education was projected as a means to counter or prevent violent extremist ideas. Hence, the US government, with the help of USAID, sent ‘tens of millions of dollars’ for education sector reform in Pakistan (Hathaway, 2005: 1). As a teacher, I was troubled by the selective framing of Pakistani education as a source of the problem. I realized how out of school children and intolerant content of education were problems that needed urgent attention, however, I could not understand why these reforms are initiated to counter what is termed as violent extremism and not to empower the young people. Also, why the larger problems of a sharply divided, unequal education system, epistemic violence and injustice remain excluded from the discourses on education reform in Pakistan. These questions became crucial when the heavily funded counter violent extremism initiatives showed little success on ground and turned counterproductive at many places. A decade after the education sector reforms were initiated in Pakistan, multiple sources reported a much higher level of extremism among Pakistani youth, as reported by Siddiqa (2010)29 and Sajjad et al (2017)30 who termed the phenomenon as psychological reactance.

Almost a decade after the declaration of War on Terror, the White lands also witnessed a marked increase in what was called ‘the home grown militancy’. In 2011, the White House issued a policy paper to combat the rising violent extremism inside United States. The paper, which was part of President Obama’s wider strategy to defeat al Qaida, noted that ‘the past several years have seen increased numbers of American citizens or residents inspired by al-Qa’ida’s ideology and involved in terrorism’ (Empowering Local Partners, 2011:2). It aimed to support local communities at grass root level to build resilience against violent extremism. The same year, the ‘Prevent Strategy’ was revamped in UK and it warned that a terrorist attack in UK is ‘highly likely’. According to the report ‘the threat comes not just from foreign nationals but also from terrorists born and bred in Britain.’(Prevent Strategy, 2011:1).The Prevent strategy marked education as a key area for security. Other European countries including France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany as well as Australia followed suit, introducing similar policies that linked education to security (Practicies Project, 2019:13)31. In 2016, UN Secretary General presented a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism in the General Assembly, calling for a global action to combat the alarming rise in violent extremism across the globe. The UN plan observed that ‘violent extremism has reached a level of threat and sophistication that requires concerted action’ (UN, 2016).32 This was almost fifteen years after President Bush vowed to rescue the world from the scourge of terrorism and announced a ‘comprehensive and visionary foreign policy against international terrorism’ ( US Dept. of State, 2001-2009 ).33 The visionary Global War on Terror was clearly counterproductive. However, the mainstream security discourses continue to validate the White vision of world security that locates the security problem in non-White lands and people34.

I belong to the community of scholars who view IR from below, a space where people live ‘below the vital ability of shaping the world according to their own vision’ (Blanely and Inayatullah, 2009: 663)35. Such people have ‘a multiple and complex critical vision’ as they live ‘within the theory and practice of a world largely created by those “above”, but also in worlds partly defined by alternative visions that critique praxis “from above” (663). So, armed with a critical vision to view the world, I question the blindness of the mainstream IR theory to the problem of race (Zvobgo and Loken, 2020).36 In the process, I reclaim my personhood and my space as a knower in IR. As Mills (1997)37 explains; ‘The exposure of the misrepresentations of Eurocentrism, not-so-innocent “white lies” and “white mythologies,” is… part of the political project of reclaiming personhood’ (119).

As a teacher, an alternative critical vision that gives me hope is Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy that aims to nourish critical consciousness in students and empowers them to question and transform the world in a desirable way (Freire, 1972).38 Based on my long term engagement with Pakistani students in classrooms, I can claim that nourishing critical consciousness in students is one of the most effective ways to make them resilient to extremist, dogmatic ideologies of all kinds.

My intersecting identities as a Muslim woman, a Pakistani, an IR scholar from the Global South, and a teacher , all direct me towards one goal , to borrow from Mills (2014) words, to situate my critique in the same space as my adversary and then show what follows from ‘writing “race” and [seeing] the difference it makes’ (132).

Using the construct ‘White Ignorance’, I therefore examine how the current international policies frame the role of education in preventing what is termed as violent extremism.

About the Author

Dr. Fatima Sajjad

Dr. Fatima Sajjad is Chairperson, Department of Political Science and International Relations, and the Director of Center for Critical Peace Studies (CCPS) at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore.

This essay is based on an article recently published in Security Dialogue by the same author. The article entitled ‘A Subaltern Gaze on White Ignorance, (In) Security and the Possibility of Educating the White Rescue Plans’ is a candid critique of White security praxis as viewed through a subaltern lens. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/09670106231165660 

1 Smith LT (2012) Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd
2 Du Bois W (1903) The Souls of Black Folks. Of Our Spiritual Strivings. Chicago: AC McClurg and Co.
3 Mueller, Jennifer C. “Racial ideology or racial ignorance? An alternative theory of racial cognition.” Sociological Theory 38, no. 2 (2020): 142-169.
4 Jones , OB (2002) Pakistan: Eye of the storm. New Haven and London. Yale University Press Riedel B (2008) Pakistan and terror: The eye of the storm. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 618(1): 31-45.
5 Markey, Daniel S. No exit from Pakistan: America’s tortured relationship with Islamabad. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
6 See for example USAID programs in Pakistan; https://www.usaid.gov/pakistan accessed 5 May,2022 and European Commission’s programs in Pakistan ; https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/where-we-work/pakistan_en accessed 5 May, 2022
7 Mills, Charles W.1997. The racial contract. Cornell University Press.
8 See ‘Corporate White Agency’ in Mueller’s Theory of Racial Ignorance cited in the text (p. 11).
9 Mills, CW (2007) White ignorance. Race and epistemologies of ignorance, 247, pp.26-31.
10 See Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html accessed 1 June, 2022
11 Mamdani M (2002) Good Muslim, bad Muslim: A political perspective on culture and terrorism. American anthropologist 104(3): 766-775
12 Ibid
13 See ‘Two decades after 9/11, Muslim Americans still fighting bias’. https://apnews.com/article/September-11-Muslim-Americans-93f97dd9219c25371428f4268a2b33b4 accessed 25 Dec, 2022
14 Mamdani, M (2005) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the cold war and the origins of terror. India International Centre Quarterly 32(1): 1-10. Palit, PS (2004) The 9/11 report: Reaffirming Pakistan‐terrorism nexus. https://doi.org/10.1080/09700160408450150
15 See for example; Fair, CC. 2007. “Militant Recruitment in Pakistan: A New Look at the Militancy-Madrasah Connection.” Asia Policy 4, no. 1, 107–134. Fair, CC. 2008. Madrassah Challenge Militancy and Religious Education in Pakistan.Washington: United States Institute of Peace. Haqqani, Husain. 2002. “Islam’s Medieval Outposts.” Foreign Policy 133, no. 133: 58. Hathaway, Robert M. 2005. Education Reform in Pakistan: Building for the Future.Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. ICG (International Crisis Group). 2002. Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military. Islamabad. Kronstadt, K Alan. 2004. Education Reform in Pakistan. Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for US Congress. Winthrop, Rebecca and Corinne Graff. 2010. “Beyond Madrasas: Assessing the Links Between Education and Militancy in Pakistan.” Brookings Center for Universal Education working paper 2.
16 Kean T and Hamilton L (2004) The 9/11 commission report: Final report of the national commission on terrorist attacks upon the United States (Vol. 3). Government Printing Office
18 Markey,2013: p 11
19 Bizina and Gary, 2014; Thompson, 2011; Borum, 2011; King and Taylor, 2011
20 Haqqani H (2002) Islam’s medieval outposts. Foreign Policy (133) : 58.
21Sareen S (2005) The jihad factory: Pakistan’s Islamic revolution in the making. Har-Anand Publications.
22 ( Kean and Lee, 2004:367)
23 Singer PW (2001) Pakistan’s Madrassahs: Ensuring a System of Education not Jihad. Brookings
24 International Crisis Group (2002) Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/pakistan/pakistan-madrasas-extremism-and-military accessed July 2, 2020
25 Andrabi T, Das J, Fair C (2009) The Madrasa Myth. Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/06/01/the-madrasa-myth/ accessed July 6, 2020
26 Cesari (2013)
27 Malik J (Ed.) (2009) Madrasas in South Asia. Teaching Terror? Routledge
28 Hathaway RM (ed.) (2005a) Education Reform in Pakistan: Building for the Future. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
29 Siddiqa A (2010) Red Hot Chilli Peppers Islam: Is the Youth in Elite Universities in Pakistan Radical? Lahore: Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
30 Sajjad F, Christie DJ and Taylor LK (2017) De-radicalizing Pakistani society: The receptivity of youth to a liberal religious worldview. Journal of Peace Education 14(2): 195–214.
31 Practicies Project (2019) Literature review report. 29 March. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/documents/downloadPublic?documentIds=080166e5c39cd363&appId=PPGMS (accessed 7 May 2020).
32 United Nations (2016) Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. Available at: https://www.un.org/sites/ www.un.org.counterterrorism/files/plan_action.pdf (accessed 2 July 2020).
33 US Department of State (2001–2009) The Global War on Terrorism: The first 100 days. Available at: https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/ct/rls/wh/6947.htm (accessed 2 July 2020).
34 See Bilgin, P. (2010). The ‘Western-centrism’ of security studies: ‘Blind spot ‘or constitutive practice?. Security Dialogue, 41(6), 615-622.
35 Blaney DL and Inayatullah N (2009) International relations from below. In: Reus-Smit C and Snidal D (eds) The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, online edn. DOI: 10.1093/oxfor dhb/9780199219322.003.0038.
36 Zvobgo K and Loken M (2020) Why race matters in international relations. Foreign Policy, 19 June. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/19/why-race-matters-international-relations-ir/ (accessed 26 July 2022).
37 Mills CW (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY & London: Cornell University Press.
38 Freire P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Bergman Ramos M. New York: Herder.