Sunday, March 20, 2011

Islamophobia...the Latest Paranoid Style in American Politics

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote a classic article for Harpers called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in which he analyzes an aspect of the American psyche that goes back to the Puritans with their witch hunts and fear of the Other (including Quakers):

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work, mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated, in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But, behind this, I believe, there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind....The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization . . . he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The latest manifestation of this paranoid style is the attack on Muslims and immigrants. Bashing Muslims and immigrants has become the right-wing strategy for dividing and conquering the middle class vote in America, and "taking back America."

I am grateful to John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani for exposing this ugly political strategy:

Conservative Republicans and Islam: A New Crusade for Votes and Funds

by John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani

Recent hearings of Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY) on the radicalization of American Muslims represent a growing campaign to discredit Muslims, witnessed most recently in the Park 51 controversy (the so-called mosque at Ground Zero), the 2010 elections, and efforts to promote anti-Sharia (Islamic law) legislation. King joins the ranks of other Republican politicians, including Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, who have jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon to garner votes and fill their campaign coffers. They do not simply target dangerous extremists and terrorists, but question the loyalty of the majority of mainstream Muslims, flouting fundamental American principles and threatening civil liberties.

Post 9/11, King's criticisms of the Muslim-American community included his unsubstantiated assertion that 80 percent of mosques in America were radicalized. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee provided a bully pulpit which King was quick to use in calling for hearings on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response."

Conservative and Tea Party Republicans have been quick to support the hearings. Rep. Michele Bachmann defended Rep. Peter King's investigations in an interview with Boston's Talk 1200, claiming like King that a "veneer of political correctness" jeopardized the security interests of the country. The New York Times, political commentators, academic experts, civil liberties organizations and religious leaders criticized his actions, referring to King's obsession, witch hunt or a new McCarthyism.

Republicans since the presidential primaries and recent congressional and gubernatorial elections have resorted to Islam and Muslim bashing to win votes and funding. The King hearing came after the 2010 elections in which a perceived threat of Islam was used as a political tool. At the September 2010 Values Voters Summit, Gingrich called for a federal ban on Sharia law. Oklahoma voters passed a resolution in November that prohibits the use of Sharia law when making rulings. Since Oklahoma passed that bill, anti-Sharia laws have been proposed from Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama to North Dakota and Missouri, despite the fact that there has been no call for the implementation of Islamic law in America by the Muslim-American community nor would our legal system and courts allow it. Most recently, Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential hopeful, speaking in New Hampshire, called Sharia law "evil" and claimed that the reason Muslim immigrants came to the U.S. was to escape Sharia law: "They left because of Sharia law." Mike Huckabee called Islam "the antithesis of the gospel of Christ."

Pew Research Center data demonstrates that these Republicans and Tea Partiers know the fears and prejudices of their political base. They are the only groups to think Islam is more likely than other religious groups to encourage violence. Fully 67% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say Islam is more associated with violence than other religions. This contrasts by more than two-to-one (61% to 29%) with liberal Democrats who believe that Islam is no more likely than other religions to promote violence.

Lost in the fog of war is the fact that these political Muslim bashers are long on fear mongering and short on providing any supportive evidence. They ignore major polls by Gallup, Pew, Zogby and others that show that the vast majority of Muslims are politically, economically middle class and educationally integrated into American society. Their desire not to be confused by the facts contributes to a growing climate of Islamophobia that has led to discrimination, hate crimes, violence, desecration of mosques and the violation of the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Surveys have shown that Muslims are not looking to install Islamic law in the U.S., promote terrorism or undermine the American Constitution.

It's time to call a spade a spade, a bigot a bigot and stop those who would resurrect the intolerance of the past and add Muslims to a long list of groups that has included Jews, African Americans, World War II Japanese and others who have been victims of religious discrimination and racism.

Prof. John L. Esposito is the founding director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and author of The Future of Islam. Sheila Lalwani is a research fellow at CMCU.

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