Crossposted on Tikkun DailyBy Peter MarmorekWe probably all start out prejudiced; having been brought up by people who look and act like us and believe the things that we learn to believe, we start by assuming that our way is the right way to do things, and if people do things differently they must be wrong. The need to grow beyond that childhood perspective is what led Mark Twain to optimistically claim that, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” But though we now live in a global village, in which the floods in Pakistan or fires of Russia are no further than a click away, an irrational fear of Islam or Muslims, Islamophobia, has been rising as fast as the floods, and spreading as fast as the fires.
The most obvious examples are the inchoate rage some have felt at plans to build a Muslim community centre two blocks from ground zero, and the proposal to burn Qur’ans sponsored by a fringe Florida pastor. But it goes a lot further: last week Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, wrote: “Muslim life is cheap, particularly to Muslims… This is a statement of fact, not value,” and “I wonder whether I need to honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” Two immediate points: imagine the reaction if such a statement had been made about Jews or Blacks, or any other minority group! But Peretz has not resigned, has not been pilloried in the main-stream media. Philip Weiss does a fine job of disproving the “Muslim life is cheap” canard, meticulously going through the world’s Islamic states and documenting the evidence, but that such desperate medicine is needed is pretty telling evidence of the extent to which the contagion has spread. The Guardian has an insightful overview examining the growing hatred of Muslims in the US; here are two sample voices:
“There is something around the whole United States, something is different. I was here since 1982. I have three kids here and I never had any trouble. My kids, they go to the girl scouts, they play basketball, they did all the normal activities. It just started this year. It’s strange, because after 9/11 there was no problem,” said Fathy, who was born in Egypt. “In the past in America other people were the target. We are the target now. We have trouble in California, we have trouble in New York, we have trouble in Florida.”
“Everybody knows they are trying to kill us. People are really concerned about this. Somebody has to stand up and take this country back.”
As the Peretz incident shows, this irrational fear affects all levels of society. Media political reaction to the recent Turkish referendum offers another example. Here’s the impeccable Juan Cole, in his blog Informed Comment (the first stop for insights on the Middle East), factually summing up the implications of the vote:
It is likely, it seems to me, that the outcome of these changes will in fact be a greater role for believing Muslims in Turkish political and public life. I can’t see what is wrong with that, or how it is contrary to democracy. The old Kemalist system of secularism imposed from above by an urban, educated elite, in such a way as to marginalize much of Turkish society, accomplished good but also created inequities.
Moreover, the constitution that is being amended was imposed by martial law. Letting the public weigh in on it, California style, restores a democratic character to at least some of it. Thus, the new constitution will allow much more in the way of union organizing by labor and restores the right to collective bargaining to public sector employees.
But the referendum (a prerequisite for Turkey’s joining the EU) was won by a moderate Islamic government, and that creates fears. If Muslims vote they may vote for the wrong people (look at Palestine!) and like Peretz’s willingness to discard the constitution, others are equally willing to discard democracy. Here’s Melik Kaylan in Forbes magazine:
If Turkey goes Islamist, there’s no guarantee it will come out the other end. We have seen entire swaths of the globe emerge voluntarily out of secular despotic systems — even Castro is saying that the Cuban system no longer works — but we have not seen a comparable process with any Islamic system. And even the non-Islamic despotisms can last and last.
If Turkey goes Islamic voluntarily, that is through the ballot box, there’s a dangerous possibility that, as with Chavez in Venezuela and Putin in Russia, the country will not emerge for a generation, will not be allowed to, and by the time we next get a look the world will be a much tougher place. If things drift beyond control, Islamist forces from neighbors will flood in and keep things locked into turmoil. Could Turkey turn into another Iran?
It hardly needs pointing out the extent to which Muslim terrorists become emblems of Islam, while Christian or Jewish or any other religion’s terrorists are seen as lunatics. (If it does need pointing out, my guess is that you won’t do at all well on Lawrence of Cyberia’s 72 Virgins Quiz, but do give it a try.) Gwynne Dyer points out how Tony Blair is currently traveling around the world, flogging his autobiography, ducking shoes, and justifying invading Iraq by magnifying “radical Islam” into the greatest threat in the world today. Dyer observes:
It depends on what you mean by “radical Islam”, of course … if it means Sunni Muslims who believe in the Salafist interpretation of Islam and are personally willing to use terrorist violence to spread it, then there aren’t very many of them: a few hundred thousand at most…. It’s a big, ugly problem for countries like Iraq and Pakistan, but it is a pretty small problem for everybody else. The number of people killed by “radical Islamic” terrorists in the past decade outside the Muslim world is probably no more than 15,000. None of these deaths is justifiable, but it is weird to insist that a phenomenon that causes an average of, say, 1,500 non-Muslim deaths a year, on a planet with almost seven billion people, is the greatest threat facing the world today.
Why is this weirdness a problem? It’s never a good idea to let irrationality behind the driver’s wheel, and Islamophobia, the belief that all 1.5 billion Muslims are inherently the same as the 10,000 Al Qaida members, or the 100,000 Salafists who might exist, is as irrational as believing anyone who survives testicular cancer is a sure bet to win next year’s Tour de France. It’s never a good idea to allow human rights to become selective, something that applies to some of us but not to all of them, because then those rights are impotent. [See iconic Neimöller quote.] As it finished banning the niqab, France deports the Roma, and as the joke circulating the net this week underlines ( Why did France ban the niqab? Because the Roma might be wearing it.), these are not unrelated.
Yaman Salahi has a wonderful piece this week in the Washington Post, pointing out the similarities of the core fallacies in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Here’s a taste:
I refer to the myopic view that asserts that Islam is the main impetus behind everything a Muslim does or believes. Accordingly, nearly every feature of Muslim life and political activity can be attributed primarily if not exclusively to religion. This approach makes the crucial mistake of treating Islam like a rigid, fixed set of norms and practices when, in fact, the way Muslims conceive of their religion is ever-changing and contingent on a variety of other factors. … We should not look either exclusively or primarily to Islamic scriptures to understand Palestinians, Palestinian politics, or Palestinian resistance to Israel for the same reason that we do not look to the Torah, the Talmud, and the work of Maimonides in order to explain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement expansion plans. We should not look there even to explain former Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef’s recent call for the death of the entire Palestinian people and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. I do not think so poorly of millennia of Jewish tradition, practice, and co-existence with Muslims as to attribute either Israeli policy or Rabbi Yosef’s genocidal remarks to Judaism.
Michael Moore has a gloriously over the top rant ( how unlike him, eh?) in which he accurately focuses on that core fallacy in Islamophobia: the irrational mixing of the disparate views of 1,500,000,000 Muslims with those of the few Muslim “true believers” who commit terrorist acts. He calls for the relocation of the “ground zero mosque” to ground zero:
I believe in an America that says to the world that we are a loving and generous people and if a bunch of murderers steal your religion from you and use it as their excuse to kill 3,000 souls, then I want to help you get your religion back. And I want to put it at the spot where it was stolen from you.
But why have people suddenly become this irrational? As Eric Hoffer said a half century ago in his book, “The True Believer,” “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.” The increasing instability of international capitalism, of the structure on which we have built our lives, has left many of us with deep inner fears, fears that we are no longer good enough, that our time (or our country’s time) has passed, that we can’t succeed any more. And whether from within ourselves, or suggested by those who seek power, one way of denying the roots of that fear is to project it outward, and say that it’s all someone else’s fault. We need to heal those fears, in ourselves and in others, with love, with compassion, with openness, and with working tirelessly to help ourselves embrace the glorious diversity in the world, rather than reducing it to black and white. Such a distorted map can never get us anywhere we want to go.