US Holds Up A Mirror To Muslim Bigotry
IT is almost certainly no coincidence that the recent surge in anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States has occurred during the presidency of Barack Obama. Which is not to suggest that he is in any way to blame for the heightened level of bigotry, but merely to acknowledge that it is intimately related to the backlash against his electoral success.
Many years ago, during the Nixon presidency or shortly thereafter, I was amazed, and perhaps even a little alarmed, to read in Newsweek (or it may have been Time) the results of a survey which found that 25 percent of Americans could not correctly identify their president. Today that same tendency towards ignorance is reflected in the finding that one-fifth of Americans (and, proportionately, more than twice as many Republicans) reckon Obama is a Muslim.
For those inclined to swallowing this fantasy, it takes but a short hop of the imagination to believe that he must perforce empathize with Islamist terrorists. After all, it goes with the territory: any Muslim who claims he’s not particularly enthusiastic about mass murder as a means of establishing the global supremacy of Islam is nothing but a liar.
Once you accept that, is there much room for doubt that a Muslim cultural centre in the vicinity of where the World Trade Centre’s twin towers once stood would be not just a symbol of Islamist triumphalism but also a terrorist centre? But a cultural centre doesn’t sound sufficiently intimidating, so let’s call it a mosque. And proximity isn’t insulting enough, so let’s say it’s actually at Ground Zero.
What you then get is an extravagant monument to Islam at the very spot where Islam - that’s right, Al Qaeda’s just another name for that faith (and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to discover that some Americans view Al Gore in a similar light) - attacked America. One more short hop and you’re at least in the periphery of the mindspace where burning 200 copies of the Quran seems like a particularly good idea.
To their credit, a great many Americans strongly disapproved of Terry Jones’ initiative. They ranged from political leaders (not just Obama and Hillary Clinton but even Sarah Palin) to representatives of a broad spectrum of Christian and Jewish congregations and organizations. Jones, the pastor of the minuscule (and egregiously misnamed) Dove Outreach Centre in Florida, after dithering a bit and toying with the idea of holding the Qurans to ransom in an attempt to get the New York cultural centre relocated, eventually caved in.
“We feel that God is telling us to stop,” he announced on NBC television. It may just have been a call from Robert Gates that did the trick, in the wake of General David Petraeus’s warning that such a provocation would further endanger American lives in Afghanistan.
Of course, a great deal of damage had already been done, well before the isolated instances of Quran-burning on the ninth anniversary of September 11. And it is hardly surprising that the Taliban-ish elements in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere who latched on to the proposed incineration tended to project it as a considered insult against Islam by all Americans, or even all Christians. That’s a load of offensive nonsense, of course. But it reflects a mindset not all that far removed from those who hold all Muslims accountable for 9/11.
If the likes of Terry Jones, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich were perceptive enough, when admiring themselves in front of the mirror each morning they’d probably catch a glimpse of Osama bin Laden staring back at them. And one can only wonder, when the likes of Gingrich argue that a “mosque at Ground Zero” would be anathematical so long as Saudi Arabia disallows churches and synagogues, whether they are aware of the irony of comparing a democracy unambiguously founded on the principle of a separation of church and state with a theocratic monarchy.
Furthermore, why do they not take issue when their government - and that goes for more or less all administrations in living memory - sells weapons worth tens of billions of dollars to the regime in Riyadh?
This kind of hypocrisy is disconcerting but not particularly surprising. And there is, no doubt, plenty of hypocrisy in the Muslim world too, often of the monumental variety. Not to mention bigotry. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is perfectly correct in comparing the anti-Islamic bias of Americans who have rarely encountered a Muslim with the anti-Semitism of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere who have never met a Jew.
The difference, of course, lies in the fact that America is supposed to be both an enlightened society and a melting pot of cultures - and, furthermore, a nation that hosts many of the world’s most prestigious seats of higher learning. It also boasts an underbelly, though - an underbelly seething with discontent in the face of the vagaries of capitalism. The malcontents needed a target against which to vent their rage, so why not point them in the direction of Obama? And, by association, Muslims in general.
Even for someone who finds organized religion and religious institutions inessential or even distasteful, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's concept of a cultural centre - a "shared space for community activities, like a swimming pool, classrooms and a play space for children" with "separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians, Jews and men and women of other faiths" and "a multifaith memorial dedicated to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks" - sounds fairly innocuous. And when the concept was first aired last December, even the deplorably extremist Fox News channel considered it unobjectionable. But then the Murdoch media empire apparently decided it was too good an angle to let ignore in terms of its ideological onslaught against the Obama administration.
During the 20th century, elements of American society - who weren't always in a minority - have periodically vented their venom against a variety of "intruders", ranging from Poles, Itlaians and Roman Catholics in general to Jews and communists. This in an immigration nation founded on the genocide of Native Americans and bulit on the blood and sweat of slaves from Africa (a fair proportion of whose descendants found solace in a version of the Muslim faith).
Today, all manner of Muslims, many of them US-born, find themselves beleaguered and uncertain about the future. What lies ahead arguably cannot be forecast with any greater degree of certainty than the consequences of global warming. But America has reconciled itself to many of the ethnicities and denominations whose existence was initially troubled. One can only hope, then, that it can be said of the present Islamophobia that, like a painful intestinal obstruction, this too shall pass.