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Annals of the President Trump Regime IX

Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer from Hyderabad, and all of 32 years old, was shot dead in a bar in the city of Olathe, Kansas, on Wednesday night.  He and his friend, Alok Madasani, were nursing a Jameson whiskey at Austins Bar and Grill when a Navy veteran, Adam Purinton, 51, fired on the two men.  Madasani survived the attack; so did Ian Grillot, 24, another patron who confronted the gunman after mistakenly thinking that he may have run out of ammunition.

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Srinivas Kuchibhotla. Source: Indian Express.

A surge in hate crimes has been reported from across the country, and not only since Trump gained the White House; there is ample empirical data to suggest that hate crimes began to increase once Trump had clinched the Republican nomination for the Presidency.  The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that on one single day, November 9, immediately after the election had been decided, 202 hate crimes were reported from across the country; in the ten days following the election, 867 such crimes of “harassment and intimidation” were reported.  “Many of the incidents involved harassers invoking Trump’s name, the Center’s report states unequivocally, “making it clear that the outbreak of hate was primarily due to his success in the election.”  In recent days, dozens of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated.  The racists have evidently been feeling greatly emboldened since Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’ and take the country back—though back from whom, and back to what, are almost never specified.

The history of the US is drenched in hate crimes, but the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla will in time to come surely be seen as forming an extraordinarily distinct chapter in this troubled history.  The killer, the New York Times has reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States” (Saturday, February 25:  “Drinks at a Bar, Ethnic Insults, Then Gunshots).  There are few hates crimes which are not accompanied by ‘ethnic slurs’; and doubtless the most common form of opprobrium that immigrants have continued to face is to be told, especially if they dare to be at all critical of the US, to return to where they came from.  Thus far, then, the killer, Adam Purinton, seems to have said nothing spectacularly vile.  However, it is Mr. Madasani’s testimony which furnishes the more pertinent clue to the unusual characteristics of this killing.  Mr. Madasani recalled, “He [Purinton] asked us what visa we are currently on and whether we are staying here illegally.”

The fact that both Mr. Kuchibhotla and Mr. Madasani had been living in the United States for many years, and had received their graduate degrees from American universities before becoming gainfully employed, is beside the point.  The shooting would have been no more justified had the victims been illegal, Muslims, refugees, or from working-class backgrounds.  The killer did not bother very much with their answers, since he pulled out a revolver and then shot one of them dead—but not before he yelled at them to “get out of my country”.  Ever heard of a killing where a victim was asked what kind of visa he had before bullets were pumped into his body?  One is accustomed to hear of killings over botched drug deals, a sex triangle, or a disputed inheritance, but what kind of hate crime is it where the victim is interrogated over his visa status?

The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, forcefully rejected on Friday any suggestion that the murder of Mr. Kuchibhotla and attempted murder of Mr. Madasani could even remotely be linked to the ferociously anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been emanating from the Trump administration. Spicer is not known for his command over the English language:  naturally gifted in being incoherent, he nevertheless made himself quite clear, “I mean, obviously, any loss of life is tragic, but I’m not going to get into, like, that kind of – to suggest that there’s any correlation, I think, is a bit absurd.  So I’m not going to go any further than that.”  But why should such a “correlation” be “absurd”?  If Trump’s followers, acolytes, and foot soldiers are sold on the idea that immigrants have stolen ‘their’ country, taken ‘their’ jobs, and made America unsafe, why is it at all unreasonable that the present administration, which has done everything within its power to incite hatred against immigrants, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, Syrians, and various other classes of foreigners, should be forced to acknowledge it has opened the flood-gates of racial and religious hatred?

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Srinivas Kuchibhotla and his wife Sunayana Dumala in happier days. Source: Live Mint.

Mr. Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, who is employed by another IT company in the same area, said that her husband’s killing had forced her to confront the question:  “Do we belong here?”  She has gone on record as saying that she awaits an answer from the US government about what “they’re going to do to stop this [kind of] hate crime.”  The entire country awaits such an answer.

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February 19, 2017

Annals of the President Trump Regime VIII

 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously characterized December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes swooped down on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in a ‘surprise attack’ and devastated the greater part of the American Pacific fleet, as a “day which will live in infamy”.  A little more than two months later, seventy-five years ago, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.  Little did he know then that February 19, too, would go down as a “day which will live in infamy”; indeed, February 19 is likely to resonate far into the future, perhaps even more so than December 7.

Executive Order 9066, dated February 19, 1942, has long been described as a presidential decree that authorized the removal of Japanese Americans (and, though this is little known, a few people of German and Italian ancestry) from the West Coast to specified incarceration camps.  (In two previous blogs dating to mid-2015, I recorded my impressions of a visit to one such camp: Manzanar, California.)  This common understanding is by no means incorrect; however, the Executive Order does not once mention Japanese Americans, or any other ethnic community, by name.  It in fact authorizes “the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas”, that is to secure them against foreign enemies, in the interest of the “successful prosecution of the war [which] requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities”.  EO 9066 notes that persons may be “excluded” from “military areas” prescribed by the Secretary of War and the Military Commanders acting under his direction, and that the “right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave [such areas] shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”

Nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans would thus be ‘relocated’ to what have variously been described as war relocation centers, incarceration camps, detention centers, internment centers and concentration camps.  American citizenship did not save them from this hideous oppression; a full two-thirds of those so incarcerated were American citizens, the rest “resident aliens”.  Fred Korematsu was among the few who refused to comply with the Executive Order; he was hauled into jail and then convicted of evading internment.  His appeal to the Supreme Court fell on deaf ears, even if Justice Frank Murphy, in his dissenting opinion, unequivocally affirmed that “racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.”  Four decades later, the conviction of Korematsu was vacated by Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who unambiguously declared that Korematsu’s case “stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect government actions from close scrutiny and accountability.”  Judge Patel did not, however, explicitly overturn EO 9066, and the decision of the court in Fred Korematsu vs. United States [1944] still stands, even if, as various legal scholars have noted, the decision is now routinely condemned and not even remotely taken to constitute precedent.  Korematsu would, in time, be decorated by President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Japanese-Americans, as a whole, would be rendered a rare apology along with compensation for “a great injustice”.

Roosevelt’s EO 9066 calls to mind, of course, the recent and now recalled Executive Order issued by Donald J. Trump in the opening days of his Presidency.  Much ink has been spilled on EO 13769, or, as it is known in popular parlance, “the Muslim Ban”.  Barring Syria, no country is in fact mentioned by name; an exception is made for Syria with the argument that “the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” and is suspended until such time as the President, or someone delegated by him, makes the determination that their admission to the US would not be inimical to American interests and the security of the American people.  Refugees from Syria, in other words, may be excluded for an unspecified length of time.  Neither the word ‘Muslim’ nor the word ‘Islam’ appears even once in Trump’s Executive Order; but that it is seven Muslim-majority countries that Trump had in mind when he barred admissions from those countries for 90 days may be inferred when the Executive Order is read in tandem with certain portions of the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as the United States Code.  Sec. 3(c) of EO 13769 states that “the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” and their admission is thus suspended for a period of 90 days.  The countries so referred to in the INA & USC are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia.

There is much that calls for an analysis and comparison of EO 9066 and EO 13769.  There is no conception of a nation-state without borders; and borders exist to be safeguarded, patrolled, and policed; but they also exist, for precisely that reason, to be transgressed.  No border can be such until it is transgressed.  There is also the extraordinarily and palpable fact that the body of the nation-state in such political discourse is rendered much like the human body.  The body ingests food and expels it in the form of waste matter; the body has its points of entry and exit.  The language of Trump and his followers has hinted, and more, at immigrants as a repository of waste and filth that must be expelled from the body-politic.  All this is certainly worthy of lengthy comment.

At this juncture, however, only one arresting set of facts interests me and seems to have received little if any attention in the sprawling commentary on the ‘Muslim Ban’ and its comparisons with Roosevelt’s Executive Order.  Even those who hold no brief for EO 9066 have sometimes sought to argue that Roosevelt was responding to a declaration of war, indeed a pre-meditated and coordinated attack on American soil.  Caught up in the war hysteria, and the ferocious anti-Japanese sentiment that had been building up for decades and that would assume a terrifyingly xenophobic and vindictive characteristic in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt succumbed as anyone else would to the virulent racism of the day. Many of his supporters, even as they are critical of his Executive Order, insist that he was fundamentally a man of liberal and well-meaning disposition.

A man’s acts may be monstrous—let us call EO 9066 that—but he himself may not be a monster. On any reading, that is a reasonable view; and it may be a stretch to think of Roosevelt as a monster.  But it is not any less reasonable to ask whether Roosevelt’s racism was merely provoked by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, or whether, as was true of much of white America then, it was a part of his (to use almost an Indianism) ‘constitutional makeup’.  In 1925, Roosevelt had retreated to Warm Springs, Georgia, to give his battered body some rest; between April 16 and May 5, he authored nine editorial columns for the Georgia Macon Telegraph.  On April 21, Roosevelt turned his attention to the subject of immigration into the United States.  “It goes without saying that no sensible American wants this country to be made a dumping ground for foreigners of any nation”, he wrote; and this sentiment is elaborated upon towards the end of his article:  “We have, unfortunately, a great many thousand foreigners who got in here and who must be digested. For fifty years the United States ate a meal altogether too large—much of the food was digestible, but some of it was almost poisonous. The United States must, for a short time at least, stop eating, and when it resumes should confine itself to the most readily assimilable foodstuffs.”  Just what Roosevelt construed as poison and indigestible is rendered more explicit in his column of April 30, where he let loose a volley of words about—the Japanese, who else?  Here is Roosevelt:  “Let us first examine that nightmare to many Americans, especially our friends in California, the growing population of Japanese on the Pacific slope. . . .  Californians have properly objected on the sound basic ground that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. . . .”

We have heard much the same about the Muslim “nightmare” in the US.  Muslims are inassimilable and they cannot be reconciled to American values.  If the ‘liberal’ Roosevelt and the ‘authoritarian’ Trump speak nearly the same language, what does that tell us about ‘American values’?  Is what is happening really “un-American”, as we are being repeatedly assured by all those whose liberal sentiments are deeply offended by what is transpiring in the country?  And, just as importantly, might we not have to know something about the political past of Donald J. Trump, about which we have heard very little, to tell us about his ‘constitutional makeup’?

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Los Angeles, 25 June 2016

Amjad Sabri, 45, was shot dead on a Karachi street Wednesday morning.  To millions of people around the world, he and other members of his famous family have been the torch-bearers of Sufi qawwali music since the late 1950s when the two brothers, Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, released their first album under the EMI Pakistan label, Mera Kohin Nahin Hai Teray Siva [I Have None Other Than You].  Amjad Sabri not only inherited the legacy of his father, Ghulam Sabri, but was in every way a worthy legatee.

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Amjad Sabri

Pakistan has gone well beyond being in a state of crisis.  It has been so long in a crisis that one needs a more trenchant, soul-searching, and analytically penetrative vocabulary to describe the abysmal state to which it has long been reduced.  This nation-state, not yet 70 years old, is now in its death-throes.  It is, as the world’s affairs have made evident, and as is suggested by the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to mention only a few other countries, far from being the only country where common people can no longer expect to live with any assurance of even minimal security and dignity.  No Indian, such as myself, should ever be able to throw a stone at Pakistan without casting a glance at India’s own sordid state of affairs.  India has had its own share of open assassinations of intellectuals and its suppression of voices of dissent is alarming.

Nevertheless, the problems of Pakistan are not only quite distinct but of an altogether different order, even if the assault on freedom of expression and religious worship has taken on menacing overtones even in relatively robust democracies.  One splinter group of the Taliban, the so-called Hakimullah Mehsud faction, has claimed responsibility for Amjad Sabri’s murder and described the music of which he was a superb exponent as “blasphemous.”  The charge of blasphemy is not to be taken lightly in Pakistan, where people so accused—Christians, Ahmadis, non-believers, apostates, even those who are just resolutely secular—have even been killed in custody while awaiting trial.  If an accusation of blasphemy is in many instances nothing short of a death warrant, Sabri’s offense was, from the Taliban perspective, compounded by the fact that Sufi qawwali music is seen as an absolute anathema to Islam.  This view stems from a profound ignorance among the extremists both about the status of music and indeed the place of Sufism in Islam.  Far from being an aberration, Sufism had been central to Islam for centuries; indeed, it would be safe to say that most Muslims, until the advent of ‘modernity’, would have had some affinity to a Sufi order.  What is perhaps even more germane is that the notion that music ought to be abhorrent to a believing Muslim is an idea that is of very recent vintage with little or or no credibility in Islamic history.

The assassination of Amjad Sabri, then, fits the template of interpretation that is now firmly in place.  We have been hearing for many years about the rigid intolerance and fanaticism of the Taliban.  Pakistan is in the grip of several insurgencies, in Balochistan, Waziristan, and among Afghan Pashtuns, but to outside observers, especially in the United States and Western Europe, the battle for Pakistan is essentially between the state and the Taliban.  We may ignore, for the present, the fact that the Taliban is far from being one single entity, and that various Taliban factions do not all share the same ideology.  There is, more pertinently, a lurking suspicion in the foreign policy establishments of India, the US, and most Western powers that the Pakistani political elites only make a show of being committed to the eradication of the Taliban.  Many of them are believed to be sympathetic to the Taliban and extremist ideology is supposed to have many adherents among Pakistan’s politicians and army officers.  A variation of this argument, and it is little more than that, posits the deep discord that is apparently tearing apart the country as one between “moderates” and “extremists”.  In this scenario, whatever the local elements that might be feeding into the conflict, Pakistan is yet another stage where ideologues who are wholly beholden to the Wahhabi and Salafi elements are making an extremely violent and desperate bid to impose a puritanical, harsh, and ferociously punishing version of Islam throughout the world.

While this standard template of interpretation has much merit, it is oblivious to the most critical component that distinguishes the Muslim extremists in Pakistan from their brethren in the Middle East.  Muslims in Pakistan are not only part of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, but they also partake of what might be called the Indic worldview.  Much before the rise of the Taliban, South Asian Islam, especially in Pakistan, was beginning to fall hostage to the notion that it was an inauthentic and feebler version of the Islam of Muhammad’s homeland.  The purists in Pakistan, whatever their misgivings about the political implications of the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, have always been troubled by the sheer proximity of Islam to Hinduism in South Asia, and Bengali Muslims in particular were seen as the source of contamination which both enfeebled and compromised true, muscular Islam.  Thus the loss of East Pakistan was a blessing in disguise, and Muslims in Pakistan could be weaned, as has been happening over the last 45 years, from those distinct socio-cultural and religious practices, such as visits to the dargahs of Sufi saints, that reeked of Hindu influence and idolatry.

Students of Pakistani society are aware of the close and ever growing ties between the Saudis and Pakistan.  But Pakistan, again, is not even remotely the only country where the Wahhabi state of Saudia Arabia has successfully sought to peddle its noxious and virulent version of Islam.  It thus becomes imperative to understand what is distinct about Islamic extremism in Pakistan and why the stakes are extraordinarily high.  It cannot be emphasized enough that, unlike in the Middle East, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that developed in South Asia over several centuries, from the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century to the end of Mughal rule, is a glorious monument of world culture and a testament to the ability and resilience of the practitioners of two very different faiths to cohabit the same space in the most productive fashion.  The terrorists who murdered Amjad Sabri are seeking to undermine this past, little realizing that they will have succeeded in turning Pakistan into a desert:  not the desert of Muhamamad’s time but akin to a wasteland following a holocaust.

 

 

 

 

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The United States is conservatively estimated to have at least 300 million firearms in private ownership, though the actual number may be considerably higher.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey put forward a figure of 270 million in 2007, nearly ten years ago, but this estimate is based largely on recorded sales and information furnished by individual gun owners. However, gun registration is not mandatory across the United States, and trafficking in firearms is a lucrative business.  What is unequivocally true is that every study ranks the United States as number one globally in the per capita ownership of private firearms.  It is, of course, far from being the only trigger-happy country in the world.  Other countries that place in the top ten are Iraq and Yemen; though officially Afghanistan was placed only 102nd in the 2007 Geneva survey, the country is known to be awash with private firearms.  Indeed, the Pathan has long had a reputation, whether deserved or otherwise, for a love affair with his rifle.  But these are not the countries with which the US likes to be compared, though it is a telling fact that the US often finds itself—for example, in the matter of adhering to capital punishment—in the company of countries, among them Iran and North Korea, which it otherwise describes as “rogue” states.

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First Group of Dukhobors Arriving in Halifax, Canada, by ship. Source: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

So just what is it that is to be done with all these guns? Assuming, as I have had occasion to remark on my blog on several previous occasions, most recently in my essay posted yesterday, that the measures—background checks, placing a ‘reasonable’ limit on the number of firearms an individual might own, initiating a waiting period—that are from time to time proposed in the US, varying only in degree rather than in kind as one moves from one state to another, are nearly worthless, what lessons might be drawn from other countries?  To pose a question in this fashion itself often invites opprobrium in the US, since many Americans, and not merely those who are not well-educated, hold dearly to the view that America has little to learn from the rest of the world.  To take one illustration, the late Justice Scalia, whose sudden departure to another world led to a rather mysterious, indeed I should say herd-like, outpouring of grief, held firmly to the opinion that American justices had no business citing the opinions of courts in countries such as India since American jurisprudence was self-sufficient, supreme, and trend-setting.  Michael Moore’s late 2015 film, Where to Invade Next?, dwells precisely on these forms of American insularity and exceptionalism, though as he points out some of the most progressive social innovations were the consequence of American ingenuity but were later abandoned in the US even as they came to be adopted in other countries.

 

Australia offers perhaps the best illustration of how private gun ownership might be limited while not outright eliminated.  Japan’s rate of homicide by private firearms is practically zero; there have been years when there have been fewer than ten fatalities on account of gun violence in an entire calendar year.  But once one moves beyond the iconic Japanese brand names and the taste that a certain sector of the white population has acquired for Japanese cuisine, Japan is construed as much too alien to the American sensibility.  Most Americans would take offense at the suggestion that their country might consider emulating Japan.  Australia, on the other hand, shares with the US an Anglophone culture, English common law traditions, and much else—even if cricket and Australian Rules are not quite akin to baseball and (American) football.  In 1996 and again in 2003, Australia initiated a gun buyback program.  The 1996 program, precipitated by a massacre in Tasmania that took a toll of 35 lives, required Australians to surrender certain firearms, among them some semi-automatic rifles, long guns, and pump-action shotguns.  This mandatory buyback program provided owners with “just compensation” and was financed by an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5% to 1.7% of income for a period of one year.  The NRA and its various mouthpieces, among them the National Review, have not surprisingly contested the efficacy of this program; however, more scholarly studies have established that the firearm homicide rate in Australia fell by an astounding 59% while the firearm suicide rate decreased by 69%.  Australia’s gun ownership rate is presently about 21.6 per every 100 residents; its gun homicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000 in contrast to around 11 per 100,000 in the United States.  Gun buyback programs have barely been tried in the US; where at all they these feeble measures have been grudgingly attempted, they have been on a voluntary rather than mandatory basis.

 

If, however, the US is going through a period of mass delusion, then Americans will be impervious to reason.  When rational argument cannot prevail, we should at least permit ourselves some stories.  The social history of one radical anarchist community, the Dukhobors, also known as the “Spirit Wrestlers”, has been little told.  Even chroniclers of nonviolent resistance are unfamiliar with them:  there is no mention of the Dukhobors in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Resistance (2000), or in Mark Kurlansky’s short but engaging NonviolenceTwenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).  Arising from the great 17th-century schism that shook Russia, the Dukhobors were a mystical evangelical group that faced intermittent persecution from 1773 onwards.  The Dukhobors rejected all external authority, the Bible not excluded, and viewed their own leader as a reincarnation of Christ.  The convoluted history of the Dukhobors, among whom the adherence to nonviolent resistance to oppression, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, communal ownership of property, and the repudiation of conscription is common if varying in degree, need  not be rehearsed at this juncture.  A series of exiles—to the Caucasus, Siberia, then to scattered villages in Georgia—eventually brought them, with the financial assistance of Leo Tolstoy and English Quakers, to Canada.  The bulk of the Dukhobors, some 25,000, are now settled in western Canada; there is a small population, numbering not more than 5,000, in the US; and estimates of their numbers in Russia vary immensely, from a mere few thousand to something like 30,000.

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Russian Dukhobor settlers on ship, enroute to Canada, 1898. Source: Canadian Archives.

 

It is the Dukhobor practice, very much alive today if only in the form of symbolic remembrance, of creating a bonfire of guns that is of supreme interest.  7,000 Dukhobors first engaged in the burning of weapons in 1895, on June 29, at three different sites in the Caucasus, to protest conscription in Tsarist Russia.

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The Doukhobors’ “Burning of Arms”, 29 June 1895, painting by Terry McLean. Source: http://www.doukhobor.org

This act of defiance is one of the more remarkable chapters in the history of human awareness, an affirmation of the dignity of every human life and simultaneously an expression of an adamantine refusal to kill another person.  One need not idealize the Dukhobors:  they have been implicated in previous years in Canada in acts of arson and dynamite, even if such acts were directed at their own properties to signify their repudiation of material possessions.  In all the discussion that is presently taking place in the US on gun violence, and amidst all the bravado about the intent to be unified and to prevent terrorists from dominating the narrative, there is barely any reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications for the human spirit when killing becomes a sport.  It is not for nothing that the Dukhobors have been known as the ‘spirit wrestlers’ or ‘spirit warriors’:  they call to mind, with unmistakable urgency, the simultaneously necessity to tend to the spirit and to take arms against arms. The call to nonviolent resistance is heard loud and clear in the Dukhobors’ burning of weapons.

 

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For the fifteenth time in his presidency, Barack Obama appeared this morning before the American public to express his sadness and shock at a mass shooting.  Just hours before, a gunman, identified as 29-year old Omar Mateen, opened fire with an assault rifle (AR-15) and possibly a handgun at a gay club called Pulse in Orlando, Florida.  The precise facts of what transpired are yet to be established, but this much is known:  he commenced firing just a little after 2 AM on Sunday morning, was then holed up in the club with hostages, and was finally taken down in a gunfight with a SWAT [Special Weapons and Tactics] team around 5 AM.  But this was not before Mateen had killed at least 50 people; at least another 53 people have been injured, some critically.  This carnage is being described as the “worst mass shooting” in American history.

 

The gunman’s name identifies him as a Muslim.  The media chatter all morning has swirled around speculations about Mateen’s possible fidelity to ISIS, his links if any with ISIS or other Islamic “radical” groups, his friendships with those who might have been similarly radicalized, or his probable homophobic tendencies.  The killer’s father has issued a statement where he has disavowed any possible connection between the killing and “religion”—he did not mention Islam by name—and he has suggested that that his son was repulsed by his sighting in Miami of two men kissing each other in public several months ago.  It has also emerged that minutes before Mateen started firing, he placed a call to 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS.  Mateen had apparently come to the attention of the FBI a few years ago for possible links to radical groups but was no longer under surveillance.

 

In the hours and days ahead, a picture will be formed of the gunman’s motivations.  Most likely, it will be established that he had been radicalized by ISIS videos and literature, and that he was moderately active on social media sites which espouse radical Islamic views.  The carnage will be described as arising from a conjuncture of circumstances:  all over the United States there are celebrations these days of gay pride, and Mateen may have chosen this moment to signal both his abhorrence of homosexuality and his acceptance of radical jihadists’ denunciation of homosexuality as a form of wickedness intrinsic to the West. The abhorrence of homosexuality is, of course, not particular to ISIS or Islamic extremists:  the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia does not tolerate open expressions of homosexual conduct, and likewise many Christian fundamentalists are also violently homophobic. But these comparisons will not be allowed to disturb the placid waters of American reporting, especially not at this juncture.  We can also be certain that, whatever Mateen’s motivations, the Orlando massacre will now be exploited by Trump, whose credentials as an utterly shameless person are well established, to the hilt.

 

Speaking with an air of resignation, President Obama mentioned that investigators would go wherever the facts take them.  It may be that he has come around to the view that no intervention by him can make an iota of difference, and that as Consoler-in-Chief he can only express his condolences to the families of the victims, congratulate various law enforcement agencies for stepping into the line of fire, rally the American public, and ask for God’s guidance and wisdom in helping the nation meet such challenges. Indeed, it is beyond him to do anything else at all, for the simple reason that what we are dealing with here is not a “mass shooting” but rather mass delusion.  Whatever the gunman’s motivations, or his state of mind, the one indubitable fact is that he was able to access an assault rifle, a handgun, and possibly explosives.  In Florida, an assault rifle can be purchased legally, which is in itself an outrageous statement on the affairs of this nation.  However, it is quite immaterial whether Mateen was able to make a legal purchase of an assault rifle in Florida, since such legal gun purchases are possible in other states; there is, moreover, an open arms market, including one on Facebook.  The “facts” that the FBI and other investigative agencies will chase down are altogether irrelevant; they will establish merely the history of the weapons in question, and, at best, whether Mateen may have been assisted by others in procuring such weapons.

 

What does it mean, then, to suggest that the Orlando shooting is nothing other than a visceral demonstration of the fact that the United States is living through a period of “mass delusion”?  To be deluded, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, is to accept foolishly a false or mistaken belief; a delusion is “a false impression or opinion, especially as a symptom of mental illness.” Another dictionary definition offers an elaboration:  a delusion is persistence in an idiosyncratic belief that is maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, and this is typically a symptom of mental disorder.  Mateen’s ex-wife has stated that he was abusive in their relationship and beat her often; she describes him as someone who was “unstable”.  Let us leave aside for the moment the colossal understatement involved in characterizing the gunman as “unstable”:  one would think that anyone who perpetrates such a massacre is, in some sense of the term, unstable.

 

What is far more germane to my argument is that the characterization of Mateen as someone who was of unsound mind ought not to be allowed to obfuscate the graver reality that begs to be recognized.  In an earlier blog, precipitated by a shooting at a community college in Oregon last year, where too the killer, Chris Harper Mercer, was described as a “loner” with a history of mental illness, I had called for the National Rifle Association to be declared a criminal or terrorist organization and be banned.  The same pussyfooting that has characterized the response to every mass shooting will doubtless be on witness again in the days ahead. There will be much discussion of the necessity of background checks, tightening gun laws, restricting the number of firearms an individual can buy, and so on.  The lunatic NRA will respond with predictable bravado, suggesting that “guns do not kill, people do”, and that the only way America can be made safe is to ensure that guns do not fall into the wrong hands and that a well-armed people is the best retort to killers.  Other well-meaning people will chip in with the observation that hunting is nothing less than a sacred American tradition: indeed, though I have not verified this, it would not be surprising if every American president has not declared a fondness for hunting.  Some noise will be generated; and, then, life will go on.  Another shooting will be around the corner, as it must.

 

A few generations from now, when one hopes that the United States will join the rank of civilized nations and virtually ban private ownership of firearms, or make the conditions so restrictive as to virtually eliminate violence by firearms, Americans will wonder how and why the country labored under a mass delusion for so long.  This mass delusion begins with a primitivist not to mention outrageously silly reading of the second amendment to the US Constitution.  The mental illness of which many previous killers have been accused is in actuality the mental disorder that now afflicts this nation as a whole.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, the NRA and the millions of their supporters in the wider public domain have persisted in peddling the view that gun ownership is an inviolable part of American identity, that private ownership of guns makes people safe, and that the antidote to gun violence is more guns.  It is not the “lone wolf” or the insanity of one gunman that we need to be worried about, but rather the state of lunacy to which the United States has been reduced.  No diagnostic manual has a known remedy for the mass delusion through which the United States is now living.

 

 

 

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Part III of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (concluded)

The short history offered in the previous post of attempts to exclude those viewed in mainstream American society, or by a considerable majority of Americans, as ‘undesirables’ tempts one to conclude that xenophobia is intrinsic to American history, and that the fear, suspicion, and hatred of the Muslim is only the latest instantiation of an inability to live with the Other.  However, such a conclusion stops considerably short of pursuing the implications of present-day Islamophobia, if only because disdain for the Chinese or hatred for the Japanese did not entail wholesale contempt for Confucianism, Shintoism, or Buddhism.  Indeed, religion has seldom entered into American discussions of China or Japan, and Zed Buddhism’s attractiveness to a certain class of Americans resides in, if one could put it this way, its secular qualities.  The Muslim from Iraq, Iran, Libya, or Syria is a different kettle of fish.  The Middle East, or West Asia as it is known in other parts of the world, has to Americans been largely synonymous with oil; if it conjures any other image, it is of a barren landscape and a cultural desert.  It is doubtful, for example, that most Americans have ever heard of a single poet of writer from any of these countries, even if Iranian cinema has now been acknowledged as having produced masterpieces of world cinema.  The closest most Americans are likely to get to a feel for this part of the Muslim world is perhaps a taste for Persian food or some belly-dancing from Egypt or north Africa.  Some Americans who are sensitive to criticisms about insularity might suggest that Arabs themselves have conceded that nothing remains of their culture. Did not, after all, the Syrian poet Adonis say in an interview he gave to the New York Times in 2002:  “There is no more culture in the Arab world.  It’s finished.  Culturally speaking, we are part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators.”  Insert into this landscape what appears to Americans to be an arid, sterile, and humorless religion, and one can begin to fathom the deeper roots of Islamophobia.  There is also the matter, which is perhaps tacitly present in the vast resentment against Islam that has long been brewing in the US, that it is the fastest growing religion in the world, and it presents the stiffest possible competition to American evangelical proselytization.  If there are two religions which have not eschewed proselytization, they are certainly Christianity and Islam:  and it is their proximity and nearness to each other, in far many more respects than can be enumerated here, that of course feeds the anxiety of Trump, Cruz, Carson, and their ilk.

It is important, as well, that the difficult questions about the nature of “American” identity not be deflected by considerations that, while they are important, are not centrally important in the present discussion about the implications of Islamophobia in the “land of freedom”.  Many Americans and even some Muslims, for example, will argue that Trump and his ilk are only proposing to do what Muslim nations have already done.  The treatment of non-Muslims in most predominantly Muslim countries is shabby at best, and more often simply horrendous.  On this account, merely being a non-Muslim is hazardous in a country such as Saudi Arabia.  Pakistan, to name another country, even requires all Muslims who are applicants for a passport to take an oath denouncing Ahmadis.  A second argument, which is increasingly being heard in Muslim communities and has been voiced by most American public officials, including President Barack Obama, is that law-abiding and “good Muslims” must increasingly take responsibility for the “bad Muslims”; or, in somewhat more sophisticated language, the onus falls on the vast majority of Muslims to understand how radicalization has affected their youth, and then isolate and rehabilitate the “bad Muslims” and “evil jihadists” among them.  But when Christians engage in mass shootings in the US, which happens rather often, we do not hear calls for the Christian community to take responsibility for the evil ones in their midst.  Moreover, surprisingly little attempt has been made to situate the present controversy in relation to the widespread language of “diversity”, which today is conceivably the single most important issue in the American workplace.  Diversity has most been understood as a way of accommodating women, ethnic minorities, and increasingly members of the LGBTQ communities; however, there has been scant discussion of religious diversity.  Ignorance of Islam is widespread; the greater majority of Americans admit that they have never known a Muslim.

 

Five years ago, there was a storm of resentment over the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at ‘Ground Zero’, the “hallowed ground” where two planes struck the World Trade Center towers and made martyrs of some 2500 Americans.  (I wrote about this in two previous posts .)  Obama, echoing Lincoln, declared that “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”  There was indignation that Muslims were being allowed to lay claim to the very ground that their fellow Muslims had desecrated:  the unstated supposition, which has never been allowed to tarnish the barbarism of any white Christian, was that all Muslims stood condemned.  The public remarks that were then on display could reasonably have led one to the view that the abuse of Islam is the new form of anti-Semitism in America.  Yet the implications of Islamophobia are still deeper.  Arguments that the ban on Muslims will keep America safe from violent terrorists, or that America is in dire need of controlling its borders, are a smokescreen.   Immeasurably more Muslims have paid with their lives for the terrorist attacks of September 2001 than Americans, or practitioners of any other faith, though an American can only recognize this if a Muslim life is viewed as equivalent to an American life.  Those who denied Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That is the fundamental problem that lurks behind American Islamophobia.

See also Parts I, “Trump and the Spectacle of Xenophobic Buffoonery”, and II, “The Deep Roots of Xenophobia in US History”

[The three parts were published as a single piece, of considerably shorter length, entitled “The Implications of American Islamophobia”, Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 51 (19 December 2015), pp. 12-14.]

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Part II of “The Implications of American Islamophobia”

 

Michael Moore’s passionately felt response permits us to grapple with some of the questions that are central to the question of Islamophobia:  what defines an ‘American’, the nature of the American past, the essential characteristics of America as an immigrant society, and the conception of the sacred that undergirds what purports to be a secular society.  Some might ask why the United States is being described here as a society that “purports” to be secular, considering that the separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution, and that the first Amendment states clearly that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  But neither the “establishment clause” nor the “free exercise clause” have ever prevented any American president from making a show of his Christian faith, nor have the constitutional provisions or considerations of morality constrained those American politicians who in recent works have been heard arguing that only “Christian refugees” among the Syrians would be admitted into the US.  According to Ted Cruz, “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror”, and consequently Syrian Christians might be allowed in even as the idea of “tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees” being permitted entry into the US is nothing short of “lunacy”.  If one should be inclined to dismiss his views as those befitting a man who temperamentally is a fascist, it is well to remember that the so-called “moderate” Republican candidate, Jeb Bush, whose family for at least two generations has been coddling the orthodox Saudi royal house, in an interview a few days after the Paris attacks gave it as his opinion that the US “should focus [its] efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered.”  One might additionally cite hundreds of instances of the profoundly Christian foundations of the American political establishment.

 

Before moving to explore the ramifications of the question, ‘To whom does America belong’, it is well to recognize, as Moore’s brief recounting of the American past tacitly does so, both that Islamophobia has deep roots in American history and that Trump is at best an egregious example of a disease that is pervasive across all ranks of the Republican party and indeed in large sectors of American civil society.   Among Republican Presidential candidates, the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who led the pack before he was dislodged by Trump, has said that a Muslim should not be permitted to occupy the White House, and he expressed a widespread concern that the election of a Muslim to the Presidency would lead to the sovereignty of Sharia and the abrogation of the US constitution.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has advocated racial profiling; when asked if he had any particular groups in mind, he unhesitatingly said:  “Obviously Muslims would be someone you’d be looking at, absolutely.”  Mike Huckabee has shed all decorum in speaking of Muslims:  in a speech delivered in 2013, he asked “why it is that we tiptoe around a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet in their so-called holiest days.”  One could go on in this vein, ad infinitum; but what remains unsaid thus far is the fact that no candidate appears to be any worse off as a consequence of their naked embrace of bigotry and ethnocentrism.  Indeed, as a poll conducted on 22-23 September 2015 established [youguv.com], 57% of all Americans, and an overwhelming 83% of Republicans, agreed with Carson that a Muslim ought not to be put “in charge of this nation”; only 27% of Americans expressed disapproval with this view.

 

Secondly, it would be disingenuous to suppose that the call to ban Muslims is un-American or a fundamental departure from the entire course of American history.  Most Americans, even those who are educated, are aware of only one major precedent for which they believe the country has atoned enough.  By Executive Order 9066, the removal of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them US citizens, to various concentration camps—or, in the more anodyne language of the apologists, “relocation centers”—was effected after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.  The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by Ronald Reagan, offered an apology and financial remuneration to 100,000 people of Japanese descent for their unlawful incarceration.  Many Americans see this repentance as more characteristic of the spirit of the country, and some are bold enough to ask how and why the US seems to have so quickly relapsed to an earlier age, unmindful of the drone-like insistence on ‘never again’.  But even the more liberal narratives have little if any room for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or the 1917 Immigration Act, repealed only in 1952, which prevented large classes of “aliens” from entering the US, among them “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, beggars, criminals, polygamists, anarchists, and prostitutes”; it also defined an “Asiatic Barred Zone”. Thus all Asians, except for Filipinos, were shut out from the US; they were also given the none-too-subtle message that they were no different from imbeciles, criminals, and anarchists—in a word, “undesirables”, one and all.

(to be continued)

 

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