Close encounters of the Islamlophobic kind

 Earlier this year I wrote a column about the growing crisis of Islamophobia in American culture. The depth of this crisis was brought home to me this week in a very powerful, albeit anecdotal, experience I had on a radio call-in show in Missoula, Montana. I’ve been appearing on radio and television programs in the United States at the national level on such controversial topics since 1998, and I’ve never experienced such a stained barrage of bigoted, irrational and implacably hostile sentiments. It was much worse, taken as a whole, than any experience I had in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and is yet another indication that a subculture of hatred in the US is growing completely independent of any political developments or objective facts.

It was all the more shocking as I had spent a couple of days in Missoula in February giving a number of talks on various aspects of US-Arab relations to large and sophisticated audiences that were extremely receptive. My hosts were the local World Affairs Council, a group of well-meaning and very well-informed individuals. Nothing prepared me for what I encountered on the radio. Call after call was hostile, irrational, bigoted and reflected different strands of what is becoming, in certain parts of American cultural and political life, and hegemonic narrative of fear and hatred against Islam and Muslims.

One caller was absolutely convinced and insistent that “they” wanted to “kill all of us.” After a tooth-pulling exercise in demanding to know who, precisely, this murderous “they” might be (I couldn't shake that immortal dialogue from the madcap film noir Kiss Me Deadly: “And who are they? They're the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit") it became clear that what she meant was that the world's Muslims in general (they) “just want to kill us” (everybody else, especially white, middle-class Americans). Eventually, she agreed that's exactly what she meant. When challenged, she cited the Crusades as her primary evidence. She also suggested that President Bush, not President Obama, deserves the credit for in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, another example of the degree to which we were in the sovereign realm of the enemies of reason.

Another caller was completely convinced there is a growing campaign to impose sharia law in the United States through the civil court system, and to teach it in American public schools. She was totally unimpressed by my pointing out that such things are quite impossible given the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that in fact there is no such campaign, or at least not one that can possibly have any traction. Didn't I know a conspiracy is afoot? The clear implication is that I'm undoubtedly a part of it anyway.

A third demanded to know if I “denounce Hamas, Hezbollah and the actions of the Syrian government against its people.” He asked the question in an interrogatory and accusative tone that clearly suggested I was guilty until proven innocent of being pro-Hamas, pro-Hezbollah and in favor of the Syrian government crackdown, even though earlier in the program a quote from one of my recent articles that was harshly critical of Hamas and its Western supporters had been read out by one of the hosts. Another caller suggested that everyone who wants to learn about Islam watch the outrageous propaganda film “The Third Jihad.” He seemed unable to tell the difference between the categories Islamist and Muslim. And on it went.

There are a couple of very important points to be made from this experience. First, we can see in these comments reflections of various parts of the Islamlophobic narrative as received wisdom. Sharia law is being imposed in the United States, and it's a conspiracy. In other words, “they're trying to take over our country.” Muslims want to kill non-Muslims and are prepared to lie about it. In other words, “they are an existential menace, at war with Western civilization and bent on mass murder.” “They all support terrorism, and if they deny it they're probably lying.” “If you want to find out about Islam and the Muslims, watch crude Israeli-funded propaganda movies like The Third Jihad and other Islamlophobic hate speech.” It all boils down to the idea that Muslims are a menacing, dangerous presence in the United States seeking to subvert “our culture” and "our civilization" in the name of a hostile and alien God and that there is indeed a clash of civilizations. As I've noted before, it's all anti-Semitism from the 1920s defrosted and barely warmed over for 15 seconds in a microwave.

What all of these elements also reflect is that over the past 10 years, as I've argued before, Islamlophobic narrative has become first relatively coherent, bringing together numerous strands of intolerant attitudes in one ugly web of fear and hatred that holds together about as well as any irrational conspiracy theory, especially anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, might. Second, that there has been a very successful campaign to not only gather these ideas together into a semi-coherent narrative but a concerted, coordinated and well-funded attempt to insert it into the mainstream American cultural and political life, especially on the political right, and drum it into the heads of millions of Americans through talk radio, cable news, the Internet and the blogosphere, and well-selling books all preaching pure Islamlophobic vitriol and conspiracy theories. It's clearly had a profound impact, as I noted earlier this year, and I've never seen it as dramatically in action as I did on that radio program in Missoula earlier this week.

One of the callers also raised a long-standing tactical conundrum for Arab-American advocates, even dating back before 2001: how to respond to demands to condemn this or that organization or action by some Arabs somewhere. It might even be arguable that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, such questions were inevitable and possibly even understandable. But given the amount of time that has passed, my own copious track record on these issues (relevant only because I was the person being interrogated by this ignorant nitwit), and the fact that extremely harsh criticism I wrote about Hamas and its supporters was read out on the air early in the program by the hosts as part of a question, the assumption of the right to interrogate me simply because I’m an Arab-American was not only offensive, it was insidious. Not only did it assume certain negative attitudes on my part based solely on my identity, it also ascribed the authority to interrogate me about them to the caller based on his identity. There is a hierarchy of prerogatives implicit in all of this, such that I have to prove myself, as an American, to him because I am an Arab-American and he, presumably, is not.

There can be no question that had my name been “Bob Smith, Professor from Brown University” and I had said exactly what I had said on that program, no such question would have been asked and none of the hostile calls would have been placed. The whole thing was a reaction purely to my identity, based on my name and my affiliation with the American Task Force on Palestine, with the two words “Hussein” and “Palestine” ringing Pavolian alarm bells.

It was clear from the outset that with caller after caller, I was in the presence of that form of irrationality which is not only impervious to correction but which sees all contradictory evidence as confirmation of the paranoid fantasy. On the question of whether or not I support Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, a clear answer of no makes no impact. It’s assumed that there’s a good chance that I’m lying or practicing “taqiyyah,” a term that’s been systematically misrepresented in American Islamophobic discourse as authorizing Muslims (as if I were one instead of being an agnostic) to lie freely in the service of Islam. The game is called “gotcha,” and the only thing that can register is an apparent effort not to answer the question directly.

However, answering the question — which in my case is easy because as I have a very strong objection to the policies and actions of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime (the three entities in question) – implicitly acknowledges the right of the questioner to interrogate Arab-Americans on such matters in an inquisitorial and accusatory manner. The tone clearly indicates that the only response that will register is one that confirms the stated fears of the earlier caller that “they [including me] just want to kill us [not including me] all.” Attacking the question, which is the dignified and intellectually sound thing to do, falls into one trap: it will be taken by the questioner and much of the audience as confirmation of the inherent extremism in the Arab-American subject (namely me), and “prove” the inquisitorial point, reinforcing the paranoid fantasy. Answering the question falls into another trap: not only doesn’t dispel fantasy for many of its adherents, it submits to the indefensible process of interrogation based on ethnicity.

My response was to do both simultaneously. I attacked the question as unfair, unjust, accusatory and inquisitorial (and, implicitly, racist), and pointed out that I had a very large body of writing and speaking that made the question preposterous and based on bigoted and irrational assumptions about what someone with my name and affiliation probably thinks. Guilty until proven innocent. But of course given the Islamophobic narrative about Muslims being religiously authorized to lie to non-Muslims in the service of Islam, proof of innocence can never be achieved. I also answered the question, contemptuously of course, but I did say that I had a long track record of criticism for Hamas, Hezbollah and Syrian regime. I also pointed out that if the caller had bothered to listen to my comments or read my writings, he wouldn’t have to have such a stupid question. Nonetheless, by answering the question I very consciously and reluctantly fell into the trap of tacitly accepting its legitimacy, vigorous protests notwithstanding.

In the gotcha game, none of this makes a dent in the paranoid fantasy, of course. Suspicions will persist no matter what is said or done, and only evidence that reinforces the fantasy will be accepted. Contradictory evidence will be either dismissed or, in the final stages of paranoid delusion, serve as further confirmation of the paranoid fantasy. This dilemma has placed almost every Arab-American public figure between the Scylla of not answering the question out of righteous and fully justified indignation and the Charybdis of actually answering it. The dilemma wouldn’t be as acute if a clear answer actually resolved the matter. But since it doesn’t, there seems to be genuinely no satisfactory tactical response. My method of handling the problem – answering the question while simultaneously vigorously objecting to it – seems entirely unsatisfactory to me, but I can’t think of a more effective alternative either. Clearly this problem demands more sustained collective thought, and I'd strongly welcome any serious intervention on the problem.

My default is to view such challenging experiences as pedagogical opportunities or, as they say, “teachable moments.” In most instances, dealing with most of our fellow Americans, this is the norm. Slow and patient explanation usually pays off at some point. But the depth of paranoia in the Islamophobic fantasy is such that pedagogy and any appeal to reason is hopeless. The narrative has constructed a series of virtually impregnable barriers to any kind of corrective: huge webs of false facts about what Arab and Muslim Americans want and are doing; virtually unshakable and hostile assumptions about Arab-American opinions and attitudes that boil down to a conspiracy theory akin to classical anti-Semitism; and, above all, the deep-seated belief that Islam permits and encourages wholesale lying to the “infidels,” such that nothing one says will be credited unless it overtly confirms the worst fears. Everything else will be dismissed out of hand, or taken as confirmation.

In other words, one of the greatest strengths of the Islamophobic narrative, like its anti-Semitic predecessor, is that it is impervious to rational challenge. It reminds one of the adage about anti-Semites in which someone is railing against the Jews, and another objects that he knows a very fine Jewish family up the street. “Aha,” comes the retort, “you see how clever they are: they’re fooling even you.” Paranoid fantasies have a particularly insidious way of refusing to be dispelled. The old joke has it that a patient goes to a psychiatrist believing himself to be a grain of corn being pursued by a giant chicken. After much intensive therapy, the psychiatrist agrees with the patient that he is in no sense a grain of corn but a human being. The patient leaves the doctor’s office in high spirits, only to immediately return in a full-fledged panic. “But,” the doctor observes, “didn’t we agree that you are a human being and not a grain of corn?” “I know that and you know that,” says the patient, “but does the giant chicken know that?” In other words, paranoid delusions based on a coherent narrative, no matter how preposterous, are uncannily resistant to rational correctives or appeals to logic.

Is it necessary to write off those who have swallowed narratives of Islamophobia as irredeemable bigots in the grip of a paranoid delusion? Certainly there is nothing that can be done on a radio call-in program with people who take such attitudes. But in the long run, public awareness campaigns, especially those led by mainstream American social, cultural and political leaders and opinion-makers, to counteract Islamophobic ideology can and should be effective, just as other campaigns against bigotry, most notably the fight against anti-Semitism (Islamophobia’s close cousin and immediate predecessor) have been. It’s understood that a fringe in any society will adhere to bigoted perspectives, and that when an energized and empowered group of ideologues push hatred in many media over an extended period of time, such views will begin to penetrate a culture in the most damaging manner. We have been witnessing this happening in terms of Islamophobia in the West generally, including the United States, over the past decade, and it’s only getting worse. (The shameless, dangerous and hyper-aggressive Dutch racist and Islamophobe Geert Wilders is currently touring North America and on Monday I flew to Canada for a TV program, only to be confronted on the airplane by a front-page story in the Globe and Mail newspaper praising him for his bold and reasonable stances.)

It is striking that Islamophobic sentiment should reach such a crescendo in American and Western culture of full decade after the 9/11 attacks during which there has been no repetition of any similar act on American soil and during which the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims have made their opposition to bin Laden’s ideology crystal clear. It’s even more distressing that the events of the “Arab Spring,” particularly nonviolent protests in Egypt succeeded in ousting Pres. Mubarak in the name not of Islam or Islamism, but in the name of democracy, pluralism, accountability and good governance (all-American values) should have made no impression whatsoever on these callers in Montana. When I tried to invoke the Arab Spring, yet another caller vehemently objected that the sexual assault on the journalist Laura Logan proves that the protests were not nonviolent and that there is something deeply pathological with Arab and Muslim culture (she assumed the attackers were Muslims, although that is certainly not known for a fact since there were many Christians and others in Tahrir square). I expressed my indignation at the outrage, but pointed out that sexual assaults on women, by both individuals and mobs, happen on a daily basis in all societies, including our own. The caller, a woman as it happens, indignantly rejected this idea. I don’t know what world she lives in (okay, well I suppose rural Montana is the answer to that), but the willingness to take what was clearly a very ugly but isolated incident, deny that such incidents occur in the United States, and see in it confirmation of the worst stereotypes of a pathological Arab culture again points to the irrational animus driving so much of this thinking.

A decade ago, it was clear we had our work cut out for us to combat the growth of hatred against Arabs and Muslims post-9/11. Not only have we failed to make progress, the situation is markedly and obviously much worse. Meanwhile, the Arab and Muslim American communities are content to watch their organizations die, atrophy or marginalize themselves without exception, without stepping in to support them and without creating alternative groups that could better challenge these narratives of fear and hatred. I do not here offer a prescription, merely another barometer of how grim the prognosis is becoming. This is a generational and mass cultural crisis that will require a generational and mass cultural solution. Ultimately, the only answer is the promotion of responsibility and the shunning and shaming of those who promote fear and hatred, thereby blunting their message and driving it back into the fringes where it used to be, and where it most certainly belongs.