Racist Security


Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

The racialization of security currently playing out is nothing new. Security has often been racialized and racism has always been securitized. Historically, the incestuous relationship between these two issues has been anchored in a logic of instrumentalization. Definitionally, racism is essentially a threefold dehumanizing construct representing a vision of irreconcilable difference, a belief in human inequality, and a political program of ideological action. These three dimensions have regularly aligned with the development of a powerful narrative about security. Around the world, arguments about the economic, physical, social, cultural, religious, or health ‘security’ of particular groups have led these communities to manifest their bias against others presented as existential danger. Thus imagined, the process generated, as it were, not so much the preservation of the former groups but the insecurity of those discriminated people.

Colonialism and imperialism were inherently built on this intent of unequal effect and the articulation of a felt ‘need’ to expand and control so as to ensure the ‘safety’ of the European world. Extermination campaigns and diplomatic conferences alike furthered this worldview. Invariably, racism proceeded from built choreographed categories of identity that have been created and recreated throughout national and international histories, and which — importantly — were continuously securitized.

Today, this sequence both informs current debates about historicizing racism and raises the urgent dual question of, on the one hand, decoupling security from racism and, on the other, delimiting the notion of security (in a way that includes reviewing its civilizational conceptual edifice). Steadily and problematically, security has in recent decades become an excessively malleable concept, further enabling its political instrumentalization in the name — now implicitly, now explicitly — of racial ideologies. As has also been the case with the related concept of terrorism, security has been elevated, fetishized, and, resultingly, hollowed out.

If the ‘war’ on ‘terrorism’ is no longer used explicitly, its substance has penetrated the practice of international affairs leaving an imprint of racialized security.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, we witnessed the further emergence of a near-explicit form of what we can term ‘racist security.’ Security became located around the notion of threat, and that threat (i.e., ‘the problem of terrorism’) was specifically identified as the Muslim, Brown, and Black terrorist. Galvanized by the Global War on Terror and associated legal tools, such as, in the United States, the 2001 Patriot Act, this exceptionalizing and stigmatizing regime successfully entered the practice of international affairs. Put simply, the post-9/11 era saw the vast expansion and the steady normalization of prejudice and dispossession rationalized in the name of ‘the demands of and requirements of security.’ In the event, in the United States and in Europe, racism made a comeback. To be sure, it never went away, but in the 1980s and 1990s, it had been the target of dedicated anti-racism campaigns. Similarly, the routinized stigmatization of Muslims allowed for racist talk and practice to become increasingly socially acceptable, since it concealed itself in the now-consensual public policy discourse about security and safety.

In particular, the post-9/11 era updated and upgraded the link between security and racism through the militarization of policing and public order. Whether domestically or internationally, a cast of suspected groups (and communities) was installed in the role of security threats. This perspective established a novel grammar of national and global security practice — new in the sense that it was echoed transnationally, across the West and the Global South. The dynamics were built notably around a notion of endless wars, which gained further normalcy: war on drugs, war on crime, war on terrorism, and war on poverty. The depth of this routinized martiality and the problematic association between (alleged) security and (very real) racism has been further revealed and institutionalized since 2016 under the Donald Trump administration, in particular its 2017 Muslim Ban, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies targeting Latino migrant families, and the repeated killing of African-Americans by police officers.

If American society is at the forefront of these global dystrophies, it is because the country is  today cumulatively home to layered racist security. To the continuing patterns of discrimination against African-Americans (principally the male African-American historically built as social threat) were added the deepened prejudice against Muslims (here too the Muslim man imagined as religious menace) and the updated bias against the Latino migrant — all imbued with a lasting special status of police enjoying a form of populist support or tolerance of racism. Though it may be more vividly playing out thus in the United States — given the country’s history of segregation and imperialism — the cemented link between security and racism is nonetheless a global phenomenon. That welding was also the result of simultaneous waves of neo-authoritarianism led by populist leaders targeting different communities while proclaiming that this was necessary for national security — in Italy, Hungary, China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and elsewhere. In France, where Islamophobia has been rampant since the colonial era and where, in the period 1970-1990, more than two hundred North Africans had been killed in what Fausto Giudice terms a sort of ‘Arabicide,’ the 2000s and 2010s became marked by heightened and ever-expanding levels of racism against Arabs and Muslims, all along under the theme of domestic security. Laws, judicial systems, media coverage, police dispositions, expert analyses, and policy-makers pronouncements joined in a modern-day security symphony producing again not so much the safety of the favored community but the stereotyping of the Black and Brown as a security threat. 

Steadily and problematically, security has in recent decades become an excessively malleable concept, further enabling its political instrumentalization in the name — now implicitly, now explicitly — of racial ideologies.

Over the past two decades, the vocabulary of security was expanded to include notions such as preemptive action, preventive detention, and dangerosity of individuals. These notions — themselves violations of basic tenets of human rights and justice: due process, habeas corpus, and the presumption of innocence — have overwhelmingly been used against communities already experiencing racial discrimination, such as African-Americans in the United States and Muslims in Europe. Many in academia tagged along producing ‘scholarship’ anchored in Orientalist techniques, othering tropes and semantics of fear. As new biased constructs such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE), now further redubbed Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP), took center stage, they carried further this euphemized association between racism and security. Adorning Islamophobia with scientific credentials, a policy paper entitled Countering Violent Extremism: Scientific Methods and Strategies, released by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory in 2011 and reissued in 2016, characterized the wearing of Islamic headscarves as “passive terrorism”. 

If the ‘war’ on ‘terrorism’ is no longer used explicitly, its substance has penetrated the practice of international affairs leaving an imprint of racialized security. The Covid-19 pandemic played out in a way reinforcing these existing systemic disparities. Social distancing and confinement policies were implemented in hardly-concealed discriminatory ways, and scrutiny was displayed and enforced differently based on class and ethnic divides. ♦


Dr. Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Professor of International History and Chair of the International History Department at the Graduate Institute of Geneva whose research focuses on political violence and transnational terrorism, the transformation of warfare, state-building, transitions to democracy and racism.  He is the author of a trilogy on the post-11 September era; Contre-Croisade – Le 11 Septembre et le Retournement du Monde (2004), Understanding Al Qaeda – Changing War and Global Politics (2011) and A Theory of ISIS – Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order (2018)