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.
[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.]