The Second Doctrine: US Exceptionalism

American journalists remain deeply committed to US exceptionalism and imperialism. When the US murders and kills, when it funds others who support its imperial interests, mainstream journalists work hard to recast this violence as necessary, benign, and liberal. Or erase it. There is a conviction in the USA’s “achievable perfection” that informs the work of most US media and sits uncomfortably behind their writings. This idealization infects liberal and conservative thinkers, pundits, academics and intellectuals in the country. It isn’t just reserved for the right political parties or the neoconservative war-mongers. The US liberal Left retains the same commitment to US perfection.

Speaking about US intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, Garry Coulter argued that despite their dissent, there remains very little difference between them when it comes to their idealisation of the USA as a flawed but ultimately reformable beacon of hope, liberty and justice. George Bush and Noam Chomsky share the conviction that America is an unfinished project but ultimately the best one.

Their methods may be different, but their belief remains the same. There is a “deep-seated love of the idea of America,” Coulthard argues, one that insists that any criticism “must stop short, of challenging the idea that America is potentially the best nation on earth–it simply needs repair and better leadership.” [Gerry Coulthard, “Cool Memories of Susan Sontag: An American Intellectual,” In Gerry Coulthard, Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert or the Poetics of Radicality, Intertheory Press, 2012].

These presumptions of America, the flawed but perfect-able, the essential and indispensable, stain much of US journalism itself, and we can see the way it plays out when it comes to writing about the US and the easy effacement of the violence and brutality of its imperial footprint and practices. US violence is always benign, gentle, acceptable, necessary, done for the good of the world, and justified for US journalists. Its scale, scope, depth, and breadth notwithstanding, it is a violence that can leave millions dead and yet disappears from their reporting with a confident ease that defies belief.

And yet, such is the belief in US exceptionalism and perfection that no amount of violence, racism and exploitation that defines its social, economic and political reality affects this ideology. It is an exceptionalism that produces the most extreme forms of unquestioned and unthinking loyalty. This stretches across the left and right divide: “If there is a universal characteristic among American intellectuals and politicians, this may well be it: the inability to reach escape velocity from the idea of America as the predestined moral leader and giver of freedom to planet earth.” [Ibid.]

This loyalty to the idea of America plays out in some obvious and some not-so-obvious ways. The most obvious way is how US media celebrates US wars and insists that these are for helping “spread democracy” around the world. But it is a commitment that creeps into their reporting in more insidious ways, one that isn’t always evident.

When reporting about the world. American journalists revel in stories about the Other’s desire to be more like America, migrate to America, or become American. These stories are less about their subjects and more about their love and loyalty to American exceptionalism. Western journalists represent the “aspiring” Other as a perfect foil for their commitment to US exceptionalism.

Nowhere is the reliance on this ideology more prevalent than when writing from the Middle East, a region riven with the debris of direct US military violence, occupations and supported dictatorships.

The US has long maintained a vast political, economic, military, and intelligence footprint in the Middle East. Moreover, events such as the discovery of oil in the Middle East in the 1950s, the post-WWII diplomatic and military confrontations because of the support for Israel, the oil crisis of the 1970s, the aftermaths of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the military invasion of Iraq in 2003 are central to political, economic and social development in the US itself.

For at least the last 100 years, Muslims and Arabs, whether the US wants to admit it, have been significant players in defining US historical, social and political developments but not in a way that the US can be proud of or integrate into its historical and social narratives.

The Muslims and Arabs have never entirely capitulated to US domination or accepted the repression of their cultural worlds and political aspirations. It is, however, a remarkably sordid history. [ There are tons of books to reference, but notable ones include: Jack Shenker, The Egyptians: A Radical Story, The New Press, 2017; Eric Walberg, Islamic Resistance to Imperialism, Clarity Press, 2015; Sohail Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America, Minnesota University Press, 2012; Elizabeth F. Thompson, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020; Salim Yaqub, Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.–Middle East Relations in the 1970s, Cornell University Press, 2016; Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism, Zed Books, 2012; Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U. S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, Beacon Press, 2014; Ian Johnson, A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2010; Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Metropolitan Books, 2006; Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom; Myth-making on the Saudi Oil Frontier, Verso Books, 2009; Karine V. Walther, Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, The University of North Carolina Press, 2018; Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World, Public Affairs, 2020].

Its unquestioned support for Israel has required it to undermine Arab political aspirations and misrepresent them as fundamentalist religious extremisms. It has also led to the dehumanisation and demonisation of Muslims in the US. Representing the Arabs and Muslims as deviant, violent, calculating, fundamentalist, misogynist, and untrustworthy has helped silence criticism of US interventionism, militarism, and support for compliant dictatorships in the Middle East. [Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U. S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, Beacon Press, 2014; Edward W. Said, The Question of Palestine, Vintage Books, 1992].

Muslim life in post-9/11 USA has been one of fear, anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty. A life lived in silence, compliance, and obedience for fear of deportation, harassment, or imprisonment. Muslim political speech has been criminalised, and those expressing outrage at US militarism and genocidal violence in the Middle East are labelled as “terrorist sympathisers” and carried off to prison. [Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming! : Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, Verso Books, 2015; “Material Support/Thought Crimes Prosecutions,” National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, online at (last accessed, April 2021); Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson, “When the FBI Knocks: Racialized State Surveillance of Muslims,” Critical Sociology, Vol. 45(6) 2019:871–887; Jeanne Theoharis, “My Student, the Terrorist,” The Chronicle for Higher Education, April 3, 2011; Alex Delmar-Morgan, “Islamic charities in UK fear they are being unfairly targeted over extremism,” The Guardian, July 20, 2015; “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity: Chilling Muslim Charitable Giving in the ‘War on Terrorism Financing’,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), June 2009; ]. As the US continues its violence and massacres in the Middle East, it perpetuates a form of domestic terror against its Muslim populations, ensuring that they do not veer into speaking. Muslim life in the US is one in which “every day, normal behaviour becomes suspicious when practised by US Muslims, which would otherwise be acceptable, mundane, and unremarkable for ordinary white Christians.” [Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson, “When the FBI Knocks: Racialized State Surveillance of Muslims,” Critical Sociology, Vol. 45(6) 2019:871–887].

Today, the many different “Muslim” communities in America are aware of the precarity of their place in the country and the fragility of the “citizenship” they carry. [Besheer Mohamed and Gregory A. Smith, “U. S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream,” Pew Research Center, July 26, 2017]. In the wake of America’s counterinsurgency and surveillance tactics in the colonies, “Muslimness” has become racialised with “cultural markers associated with Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, languages, etc.)…turned into racial signifiers.” [Arun Kundnani and Deepa Kumar, “Race, Surveillance, and Empire,” March 21, 2015, online here: (last accessed January 2021)]. It is not a good time to be a Muslim in America unless you are a “good Muslim,” willing to praise US society and perpetuate its myth as a place of ethnic equality, freedom of speech, gender justice, economic liberty, and democracy. The “good Muslim” is the one who may use his mouth to speak in the voice of the US State. The “good Muslim” is the one who regurgitates the mythologies of an exceptional USA.

And this is the Muslim who, for example, turns up in the National Geographic Magazine article. Titled “How Muslims, Often Misunderstood, Are Thriving in America,” the article offers us a carefully curated view into the “good Muslim” in America. National Geographic Magazine has a unique place and credibility in American culture because of its “connections to the state, national identity, and science.” [Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic, The University of Chicago Press, 1993:5–7].

It presents the world to the Americans from a “white, educated, middle-class” worldview with an “upbeat and magnanimous style” that “invites them to look out at the rest of the world from the vantage point of the world’s most powerful nation.” [Ibid.] Its writers are committed to seeing the world only through cultural, historical, scientific, and environmental frames and are equally determined to never speak about political, military, or economic issues. They are the US exceptionalists par excellence.

[Aside: Leila Fadel is a highly experienced journalist with deep experience of US war zones in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. She is no propagandist, and her track record suggests someone who has taken considerable risks to speak from the ground without trapping herself in these “move to innocence” imperial narratives. Yet, ironically, she is now at NPR, a media organization under the leadership of a significant US propagandist, John Lansing, who previously was the chief executive of the United States Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America, Radio and Television Martí and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, among others.]

The people we meet in the article confirm American generosity, diversity, and “melting-pot” mythologies. “I feel I live here with more freedom and courage than anywhere else in the world,” says Elham Karajah, a nurse. Fatima Kebe, an industrial engineer from Dearborn, Michigan, says, “I am thankful to live in a country that supports freedom of religion.” Then there is the man from Gaza, “born into a poor family” (although nothing is said as to why he was “poor,”) who came to America, met a white American woman, fell in love, got an education, got himself a large house with a pool, and became an entrepreneur. “I wanted to show that not all Muslims are terrorists,” we hear a Palestinian-American man say, revealing how people internalise settler logic, recasting resistance to settler colonial crimes as “terrorism.”

The photographs accompanying the article are bright, colourful, and suitably diverse, showing “Muslims” in prayer, play, parenting, and professionalism. All the characters are either visibly identifiable by their “Muslimness” (hijabs, skill caps, prayers, rituals) or identifiable by their non-Muslimness/secularism as they are shown taking part in “American” traditions of pizza, hip hop, parties, fashion shoots and even, joining the US armed forces. We see religious devotion, professional determination, and mild sensuality covering what the magazine believes is the acceptable spectrum of Muslim lives in the USA.

Despite the heavy-handed and syrupy image of American social perfection, the ghosts of America’s imperial geography–its war zones, its compliant dictatorships, its settler-colonial allies–haunt the spaces between the words. We see and read about individuals from Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, yet we read nothing about them and their reasons for “arriving” in the US. Their histories and memories are carefully excised and begin only after arriving in America and after their “success.” The silences–about war crimes, about millions dead and displaced, about occupation, torture, renditions, drone killings, indefinite detentions, surveillance, deportations, and entrapment–and how these experiences inform and define the life of the diverse, complex, varied, and vastly different Muslim communities in America in American, are never considered. 

For a more detailed analysis of this article, see Case Study: Finding The Good Muslim.

So who is the “good Muslim”? She is the one who “integrates” into the American way of life, mouths the values and ideals of its liberalism, helps launders American imperialism as “a force for good” or “democracy,” and repeatedly supports “interventions” as a way to bring “rogue” nations into “modernity.” She is the compliant, the “model immigrant” who “arrives” in America and finds freedom and liberty. She is the “Muslim” who regurgitates and relives America’s founding myths of a “nation of immigrants” that belie its actual history in white settler violence, Indigenous genocide, and chattel slavery.

The “Good Muslim” is sufficiently “Muslim,” but with an Islam that is only ever an exotic cultural or individual identity. She is apolitical and speaks through individualism, consumerism, and careerism. As Kundnani pointed out, focusing on “good Muslims” is a tactic of silencing and disassociating America from its acts of violence abroad. [Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, Verso Books, 2015:273].

It is a “Muslim” constructed to serve the interests of the imperial state.

This hasn’t happened in isolation. The US has, despite its public image as a secular state, long worked to interfere in and construct religious identities closely affiliated with patriotic citizenship. It has worked to create an “American Islam,” one that is closely aligned with the geo-political priorities and interests.

“The United States presents itself as a place of tolerance where ‘true’ Islam can thrive,” Mitra Rastegar argues, warning us that “In producing this image, and implicitly promoting specific religious positions, the United States proves itself to be invested in constituting an ‘American Islam’ in opposition to the other ‘enemy’ version of Islam.” Those who then fall outside its definition of the “proper” Islam get marked as dangerous, anti-modern, extremists and un-American.” [Mitra Rastegar, “Managing ‘American Islam’: Secularism, Patriotism And the Gender Litmus Test,” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 10:4, 2008:455-474].

This is where the media comes in. US media normalises non-compliant Islam and dissenting Muslims as violent, dangerous, and a threat to the nation. They create the widespread public acceptance of legal discrimination practices, mass deportation, surveillance, entrapment, harassment, and criminalisation, which have further enabled Islamophobic rhetoric, law, and life. [There are a lot of books and articles around this issue, but some notable works includfe: Wadie E. Said, Crimes of Terror: The Legal And Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions, Oxford 2018; Irum Shiekh, Detained without Cause: Muslims’ Stories of Detention and Deportation in America after 9/11, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011; Daryl Li, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, Stanford University Press, 2020; Shamshad Ahmad, Rounded Up: Artificial Terrorists and Muslim Entrapment After 9/11, The Troy Book Makers, 2009; Report: “Worlds Apart: How Deporting Immigrants After 9/11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 2004; Muzaffar Chisti, Claire Bergeron, “Post-9/11 Policies Dramatically Alter the US Immigration Landscape,” Migration Policy Institute (MPI), September 8, 2011; Petra Bartosiewicz, “NYPD Surveillance of Muslims Has Created a Climate of Fear,” The Nation, March 18, 2013; Rowaida Abdelaziz, “Michael Bloomberg’s Surveillance Of Muslims Sets Dangerous Precedent For His Presidential Run,” HuffPost, December 16. 2019; Glenn Greenwald, “Why Does the FBI Have to Manufacture its Own Plots if Terrorism and ISIS Are Such Grave Threats?” The Intercept, February 26, 2015; Paul Harris, “Fake terror plots, paid informants: the tactics of FBI ‘entrapment’ questioned,” The Guardian, November 16, 2011]. They normalise them as anti-American and a threat to the “American way of life.” The “fear of Islam is tightly knit into the American fabric, and deeply rooted in its legal, political and popular imagination.” They normalise “Muslims” as anti-American and a threat to the “American way of life.” The “fear of Islam is tightly knit into the American fabric, and deeply rooted in its legal, political and popular imagination.” [Khaled A Beydoun, “Islamophobia has a long history in the US,” BBC News: Viewpoint, 29 September 2015]. A normalisation of difference and framing anyone from a Muslim background through their religion creates this “tight-knit” fear. A society that has whitewashed its Christian fundamentalism into a “secularism,” constructing the Other through a religious frame only sets them apart as antithetical to its norms. [Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press, 2003].

A “Muslim” with a modicum of knowledge of the post-9/11 “Muslim” experience knows better than to reveal her politics or reach for free speech rights. She knows better than to speak about her past and the threads of concern, care, anger, worry, doubt, anxiety, loss, and memory that still tie her to family, friends, and others in geographies left behind. She knows better than to speak about her anger, her humiliation, and the scars of the desperation that demand she maintain her silence.

In the USA, where being a Muslim became a crime, where hundreds of thousands were deported, and others imprisoned for simply expressing the wrong political view, Muslims in the USA have learned to shut up and smile and become“model migrants.” By curating the voices that appear on the page, agents of violence become interlocutors, interpreters, and framers of the experience of the victims of their violence. US imperialism disappears behind feel-good stories, ahistorical representations, a disassociation of domestic reality from international interventionism, and amputating individual histories from imperial interventionism.

The “good Muslim” exists only with the “bad Muslim” and is constructed only in opposition to it and through the same frames used to create it. [Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Olive Branch Press, 2013]. S/he lives only as long as US imperial paranoias and fears exist. The “bad Muslim” is the bogeyman that US imperialism and exceptionalism construct to justify its ongoing barbarism and fanaticism in the Middle East.

And the US media are willing collaborators in the process, erasing and veiling the violence and anarchy of the US in the Middle East. As Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor point out, US imperial violence has “made itself so much at home; it is now peripheral to analysis”, even when it comes to nations suffering directly under US military occupation or ongoing imperial wars. [Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor, “Damage Control: The Unbearable Whiteness of Drone Work,” Jadalliya, March 16, 2021]. It is not atypical to speak about the chaos, poverty, violence, and dysfunction in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq without mentioning US imperial projects, war, occupation infrastructures, military bases, puppet governments, death squads, torture centres, or military operations. The outcome, at times, can be a little short of comical, as when the New York Times recently worried that the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and an end to its illegal occupation would allow the country to fall back into the hands of the Afghans. [Julian E. Barnes, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Officials Try to Sway Biden Using Intelligence on Potential for Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan,” New York Times, March 26. 2021].

US exceptionalism as a force of good and US imperialism as a necessary act of good remain central to US media’s normative worldview. It limits their ability to report on the world, and in particular, on regions cruelly distorted by the US imperial footprint, where they quickly become propagandists, apologists, and at best, mild critics complaining about “civilian casualties” or “loss of goodwill” rather than focusing on the original crime. They can periodically pen a piece about an “outrage” but carefully absolve the machinery of war and the executors of it, focusing instead on “rogue elements,” “mentally disturbed” soldiers, or “errors of judgment.” [Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor, “Damage Control: The Unbearable Whiteness of Drone Work,” Jadalliya, March 16, 2021; Matthew Aikens, “The A-Team Killings,” Rolling Stone Magazine, November 6th, 2013].

Or, they can write their outrage whenever someone dares point out that US imperial violence sits at the heart of so many armed resistance movements determined to throw off the yoke of their US and US-backed oppressors. “Representative Ilhan Omar appeared to equate US and Israeli ‘atrocities’ with those of Hamas and the Taliban, prompting outrage at a time when her party needs unity to maintain its slim majority,” the New York Times’s Jonathan Weisman recently declared. [Jonathan Weisman, “Showdown Over Omar’s Comments Exposes Sharp Divisions Among Democrats,” New York Times, June 10, 2021]. Note the quotation marks around the words atrocity in the quote above, suggesting that US and Israeli violence and murder of innocent, unarmed civilians cannot be categorised as the atrocity it is. The only ‘atrocities’ that count are those carried about resisting military superpowers imposing their will.

The whitewash of US war crimes, crimes against humanity, and atrocities against civilians are repeatedly erased or recast in benign and liberal terms.