The pathetic and ridiculous ?controversy? about the plan to build an Islamic community center a few blocks away from ?Ground Zero,? the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has sharply brought into focus, for me at least, one of the most troubling trends in the Arab American and Muslim American communities: the scandalous lack of serious political engagement and the deterioration of virtually all national organizations that are supposed or claim to represent these communities or major constituencies within them. There is nothing, obviously, legally that can be done to stop the community center backers from going forward with their plan which is fully protected by both private property and religious freedom rights. Mayor Bloomberg deserves enormous credit for his bold stance in defense of these rights and President Obama some credit for taking a firm position, which he then hedged slightly. Short of acts of vandalism and sabotage, which are not impossible but are unlikely if the building project goes forward, the only thing that can be done to try to stop it is to culturally, socially and politically harass the project’s backers into abandoning it as an intolerable burden. That is, of course, exactly what has been happening.
Everyone else allowed a small group of Islamophobic and extremist bloggers and other fanatics to define the issue, most obviously encapsulated in the utterly misleading phrase ?Ground Zero mosque,? which is not at but near ground zero (in a part of lower Manhattan in which almost everything is near everything else) and is not exactly a mosque for that matter. They were then joined by all kinds of scoundrels and opportunists, most notably Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, seeking to play on fear and hatred (two of the most powerful political motivators) to consolidate their positions as right-wing opinion leaders. Because of the way the narrative was shaped, even some liberals like Harry Reid felt unable to take positions they know to be correct, while an unfortunately small group of courageous conservatives stuck up for religious liberty. The whole conversation quickly became toxic as well as utterly irrational, and in its most sinister manifestation has led to protests against a number of mosque projects all over the country. In other words, opposition to the Manhattan community center project has given people authorization to oppose plans for building mosques to serve local Muslim communities without even hiding behind lies about traffic and parking and similar fabrications and base it all bluntly on an Islamophobic narrative.
The mini-narrative about the so-called ?Ground Zero mosque,? in which this rather unremarkable project is bizarrely presented as anything ranging from gross insensitivity to a triumphalist statement of victory by Muslim extremists crowing over 9/11, has dovetailed with the broader Islamophobic narrative that has been developing steadily since 9/11. This is an extremely dangerous situation because once a narrative becomes coherent and familiar, its political power can be fully realized. The main reason that there is so much more overt Islamophobia in 2010 than there was in 2002, immediately following the terrorist attacks, is precisely the development and propagation of the Islamophobic narrative. The bigots have had almost a decade to refine their arguments, congeal their ideas, create a semi-coherent narrative (no matter how nutty) and, most importantly, hammer away at the general public for week after week, month after month and year after year. There have been some violent incidents, of course, such as the Fort Hood shootings, that have reinforced elements of this narrative and done a great deal of harm. And it’s probably worth again noting that obviously the principal culprits responsible for the growth of Islamophobia in the United States were the 9/11 terrorists and their Al Qaeda backers. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s possible to argue that objectively there are more grounds for Islamophobia in the United States now than immediately after the 9/11 attacks. It’s plainly the consequence of the maturation (if you can call it that) and the accumulation of cultural capital and political influence of the Islamophobic narrative.
Many of us who have been systematically tracking the growth of Islamophobia in the United States have been struck by the way it has developed in spurts, sometimes tied to specific incidents, and sometimes to a sudden eruption of cultural artifacts reflecting this form of bigotry, and then plateaus, only to suddenly reemerge, stronger than ever. The present ?controversy? reminds me a lot of the gobbledygook that was so influential during the Dubai Port World brouhaha. Just as it is now necessary to call the backers of the Islamic community center ?radicals,? ?extremists,? and, in effect, terrorists, at that time a wave of people, including many self-righteous liberals, found it expedient to describe Dubai and the UAE more generally as ?an enemy to the United States,? “a sponsor of Al Qaeda,” and a country to be feared and greatly disliked.
That controversy was completely irrational and ridiculous, as the present one is, but what was important about it was not whether or not DPW ended up managing ports in the United States, but the cultural impact of what was being said and implied. I think that’s absolutely true of the present ?controversy.? It really doesn’t matter in the end, I think, whether the community center is built or not. For one thing, almost everyone who is going to have an opinion has already chosen sides between the two narratives: 1) defense of religious liberty and tolerance as important American traditions, or 2) identifying some kind of intolerable objection to the project, inevitably based on some degree of Islamophobic sentiment, and therefore opposing it in spite of religious and property rights and the principles of tolerance and diversity. In the broader cultural sense, the whole thing is already over, and whether the building is built or not will not to make much difference, I think, to the lasting impact (unless, of course, some people respond to it with an act of sabotage of some kind).
As with the DPW ?controversy,? what is really going to have a lasting impact is what is being said and implied about Muslim Americans and Islam in the United States, and all of this discursive accretion is having the long-term effect of promoting and consolidating Islamophobia in American cultural and political life. It is this cumulative discursive effect of a vile but maturing and strengthening Islamophobic narrative that is the reason that there is so much more Islamophobia the United States now than in the immediate aftermath and indeed the first few years following, the terrorist attacks. In other words, this narrative, and this subculture of fear and hate, has a life of its own, largely independent from what happens or doesn’t happen vis-à-vis terrorism, whether or not this community center or any other is actually built, or any other practical realities for that matter.
What all of this demonstrates is the grave vulnerability, especially at the cultural and social levels, that Muslim and Arab Americans are presently facing. There are a lot of people who are exaggerating the situation, of course, saying preposterous things like ?it?s 1938 for Muslims in the United States,? comparing the present situation to Kristallnacht, or some other offensive and completely unhelpful hyperbole. However, the fact is that there is a worse situation at present, believe it or not, overall than the Muslim and Arab Americans faced in the aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack. This does not surprise me. Fear and hatred as cultural and political phenomena are born of worldviews that are shaped by narratives and discourses, not by events themselves. The events have to be interpreted in a certain way to feed into patterns of fear and hatred. With this many passionate Islamophobes, motivated by a plethora of different forms of malevolence and presenting variations on an Islamophobic theme, hammering away for years and years it was bound to have an increasingly negative impact. And, it’s almost certainly only going to get worse.
What IS surprising to me, even shocking, is the extent to which the Muslim and Arab Americans are by and large, collectively, and worst of all increasingly, simply passive observers in this entire cultural development that targets them. I’m not saying there is no one doing anything, but these communities as a whole have simply checked out of the cultural and political process in this country, at least in an organized manner at the national level. A fact that is probably not appreciated by enough people is that these communities are much less organized, and ready to defend themselves or push back against bigotry and discrimination, than they were 10 years ago, before 9/11! I’m not going to single out any group because this is a phenomenon that affects both Arab and Muslim Americans, left and right, secular and religious, pretty much across the board. The fact is that there is no national Arab or Muslim American organization that is not in some significant way or other smaller, weaker or more ineffective now than they were 10 years ago, and there are no new significant national community organizations either. There are effective local organizations like ACCESS in Michigan, social groups like the Ramallah Federation, policy-specific organizations like the American Task Force for Lebanon and the American Task Force on Palestine, and others that are able to play the roles that they have defined for themselves in a serious manner. But none of those groups claim, seek or attempt to represent the communities generally at a national level or even the generalized interests of constituencies within the communities.
So what this means in practice is that the Muslim and Arab Americans are content to be less defended at the national level on broad cultural and political issues than they were before 9/11. As communities, they are watching their organizations deteriorate, become marginalized, lie fallow or simply remain ineffectual in one way or another without seriously attempting to do anything about it. It’s really an extraordinary and bizarre reaction to a very dangerous situation. The reasons of course are completely overdetermined: probably most people aren’t aware of this because organizations like to present themselves as thriving and effective even when they’re in dire straits or otherwise unable to perform the functions they have defined for themselves; some argue that serious engagement with mainstream American culture and politics is unacceptable, impossible or degrading and voluntarily not only opt for but insist on not being represented within the mainstream of the national conversation (in an inverse of the founding of the Republic, they demand to be taxed without representation); some are so frightened that they think any form of political communal engagement will immediately place you on a list compiled by some form of American mukhabarat or lead to some other kind of dreadful difficulties; some enjoy their victim-status and the moral authority that parts of our society, particularly on the left, ascribe to objectified, exoticized Others. There are many more causes of this effect. Atomizing them is not that interesting in the long run. But it is truly striking, and to me shocking, that the Muslim and Arab Americans in general and at the national level are so self-deluded, self marginalized, self-defeating and alienated that they appear to be willing to be moving quickly in the direction of being absolutely passive observers in their own tragedy.
Obviously there are a lot of individuals and groups that must be exempted from this generalized indictment. There are lots of people doing outstanding work. But the truth is they don’t get the support they need from the people in whose interests they labor, and in general get less support now that the problem is much more extreme than they did 10 years ago when the situation was relatively calm and stable. And there is a pervasive pattern of not only ineffective or barely effective leadership, but also absolutely terrible and counterproductive leadership. The amount of self-styled ?leaders? among Arab and Muslim Americans who have no real sense of the political culture and system of the country they?re living in and an absolutely tin ear for how their words and deeds will be perceived by many other Americans is simply extraordinary, and it?s not getting better. If anything, it?s getting worse. Demagoguery is always popular but in a situation like this, the real task is not to please but rather to serve wisely the constituency. Leadership is required, and that means doing the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. That is in exceptionally and perhaps even increasing short supply among Arab and Muslim American ?leaders? and organizations, such as they are.
In spite of being able to identify some of the main causes of this extraordinary collective behavior, I’m really at a loss to explain how communities of millions of people can consciously watch the threat against them at every level steadily increase over many years while at the same time being willing to allow their ability to collectively push back against that threat erode and begin to approach something like a zero-level. I’m afraid to say I’m also unable to offer any solution. I don’t know what it will take to snap the variously apathetic, fearful, cynical or alienated Arab and Muslim American majorities out of their stupor and decide to engage seriously and meaningfully with mainstream American culture and politics in an organized, sustained, responsible and patriotic manner. If the situation isn’t bad enough yet, I don’t know when it will be, and of course at some point, it may have become too late to prevent some genuinely ugly developments. I scorn comparisons to 1938 or Kristallnacht, but that doesn?t mean the situation isn?t grave enough, in its own way. In the end, I’m sure American and other Western Arab and Muslim communities will successfully assimilate and also help further develop their societies. But along the way there are significant dangers and there is simply no excuse for the kind of passivity and self marginalization these communities at large are indulging in at the moment, or the generally dwindling, often dreadful, and almost entirely ineffective leadership they seem to be satisfied with.