The Louisiana governor has provided a timely demonstration of real Islamophobia
One of the more tiresome political clichés, almost as ubiquitous as the indefensible and virtually meaningless claim that “everything happens for a reason,” is the idea that almost anything can become a “teachable moment.” Frequently, indeed most of the time, in practice that’s really not true. Occasionally, however, even (or as it turns out especially) the most ridiculous outbursts — provided that they emerge at the right time and place — can constitute an invaluable intervention in the collective conversation.
Enter Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is still insisting — despite well-established fact — that there are “no-go zones” in European countries like Britain and France where non-Muslims, including the police, dare not enter and which are ruled by vigilante extremist fanatics. Thesepreposterous allegations first surfaced on the FoxNews cable television channel, floated by self-styled “terrorism expert” Steven Emerson, who absurdly cited Birmingham as an entirely Muslim city in which non-Muslims hardly dare to enter. He added the claim that in parts of London, “Muslim religious police ‘beat’ anyone who doesn’t dress according to […] religious Muslim attire.”
Emerson has a long history of making up nonsense and spewing it in public. He blamed the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on “Middle Eastern terrorists” because the culprits had “tried to kill as many as possible.” The attack was, of course, carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Earlier, he had blamed the first World Trade Center bombing on Serbian extremists, when, in fact, Islamist fanatics were responsible.
Both Emerson and Fox subsequently apologized, particularly after an outcry from British Prime Minister David Cameron (who correctly pointed out that Emerson is “clearly a complete idiot”), as well as Birmingham authorities and officials in France (which was also accused of harboring extremist Muslim “no-go zones”).
Not for Bobby Jindal such lily-livered, craven kowtowing to the ruthless tyrant Fact! The sovereign independence of his imagination and convenient fantasyland will never capitulate to the dictates of reality.
In a speech at the increasingly jingoistic Henry Jackson Society in London [full disclosure: in the past, when the group had a rather different profile than it presently does, this author wrote a couple of papers for the think tank], the Louisiana governor accused some Muslim immigrants in the West of seeking “to colonize Western countries, because setting up your own enclave and demanding recognition of a no-go zone are exactly that.”
In a subsequent interview with CNN, Jindal insisted that such “no-go zones” do, in fact, exist, even though Fox and Emerson had both apologized for making the claim, and there is no evidence whatsoever supporting the allegation because it’s a ludicrous fiction. Indeed, this leap of bizarre, parochial, surrealist imagination about the strange doings in foreign countries that can take hold of the American mind, particularly on cable television, seems pulled directly from the brilliant satirical movieTeam America: World Police, which skewers, among many other things, how some Americans are capable of constructing the most preposterous fantasies about other societies, particularly in the context of anxieties about terrorism.
To his credit, CNN’s Max Foster pressed the governor to name one of these areas. Of course he couldn’t. But that didn’t stop him. Jindal insisted: “Look, I’ve heard from folks here that there are neighborhoods where women don’t feel comfortable going in without veils.” Obviously, that settles that, since he “heard” about it from “folks.” He also cited aDaily Mail article about urban problems that did not, in fact, mention religion or actually buttress any of his claims. In a final perfect grace note, Jindal had the astounding temerity to boast that in propagating this laughable fiction, he was merely being brave and honest especially since: “I knew by speaking the truth we were gonna make people upset.”
The episode is important — very important — because it illustrates much about the practical mechanics of bigotry and Islamophobia in contemporary American culture. There are several crucial facts to understand before any analysis of this brouhaha can proceed.
Jindal is a Rhodes scholar. That suggests he is not a stupid man, and he isn’t. And it means he studied (and lived) at one of the finest schools in Britain. So he knows he is lying, and that what he’s saying is not only untrue but ridiculous.
Moreover, Jindal knows where right-wingers have gone off the rails in recent years. In 2012 he complained: “It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that. It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”
So it’s impossible not to conclude that Jindal is quite certain, correctly, that although his present comments about “no-go zones” in Europe deeply insults the intelligence of the voters, his comments will nonetheless be politically helpful to him.
There are several reasons for this.
First, there is still a zone of impunity for attacks against Muslims in the United States. Jindal figures he can get away with this, and he’s right.
Second, he knows that many people in the United States will believe him. They will want it to be true, and they will assume that it is true, and really not care whether or not it actually is true. This is already the case with several prominent “conservative” (read bigoted) commentators on the political right who are backing Jindal to the hilt.
Third, he understands, as Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has pointed out, “that in politics, the worst thing you can be is irrelevant,” and that this outburst, no matter how ridiculous, is getting him a lot of attention. “Point, Jindal,” Cillizza concludes, and it’s hard to argue with that evaluation.
Fourth, and most importantly, Jindal is very familiar with the codes and dog whistles he is deploying. He packages his comments as an attack on “radical Islamists” and the “radical left,” when it’s quite clear that many if not most of his audience will assume that those terms actually, in practice, refer to Muslims in general and mainstream American liberals. Jindal is presenting his outburst as a defense of Western societies from an alien onslaught. “The huge issue, the big issue in non-assimilation,” he says, “is the fact that you have people that want to come to our country but not adopt our values, not adopt our language and in some cases want to set apart their own enclaves and hold on to their own values.”
This crude xenophobic fear of the other is a powerful political tool, as old as human society itself. French neo-fascist politician Marine Le Penessentially played the same card in an 18 January New York Times op-ed, in which she shamelessly tried to exploit the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices to press for “a policy restricting immigration.” She characterized what she called “massive waves of immigration” as an attack on “our laïcité, our sovereignty, our independence, our values.”
Both of these calculating cynics know perfectly well what they are doing by appealing to the public’s basest instincts of fear and loathing. They are dividing the world into “them” versus “us,” and making it very clear that the identifying characteristic of the “them” is that “they” are Muslims. Naturally, they don’t provide any benchmark for distinguishing radicals versus anybody else. It doesn’t matter to their game. What they are doing is seeking popularity and support based on chauvinism and jingoism.
Unfortunately, following Jindal’s outrageous comments, someone namedArsalan Iftikhar argued on MSNBC that the governor “might be trying to scrub some of the brown off of his skin.” This, of course, played into the racially-charged agenda Jindal is promoting and provided the Louisiana governor with a great deal of unintentional support which he certainly did not deserve. It’s a perfect example of precisely how not to argue against bigotry or, as in this case, Islamophobia.
On this site last week, I argued that the most recent Charlie Hebdo cover wasn’t bigoted, Islamophobic or in any other way objectionable. It’s useful now to have a perfect example of what Islamophobia actually looks like. Jindal is trying to cover his tracks by saying he’s talking about extremists, but by propagating urban legends and paranoid mythologies he is deliberately creating an atmosphere in which his listeners have little choice, assuming they believe him, but to conclude that there is a very dangerous menace in the form of an immigrant community that constitutes a dangerous fifth column in a clash of civilizations.
Like Le Pen, Jindal’s rhetoric is not only grotesquely unfair and untrue, it can only have the effect of making it more difficult for the individual members of Muslim communities and their families in the United States and other Western countries to function effectively and happily in their societies. It promotes fear and hatred of them. What makes it “phobic” is that it is irrational, particularly given that Jindal’s claims rely entirely on a mythological urban legend. Charlie Hebdo is an iconoclastic magazine that makes fun of Islam and all other religions. In its irreverence, it is clearly an equal opportunity offender. However, what Jindal is doing precisely singles out Muslims, stigmatizes them and promotes the idea that they are particularly or uniquely dangerous.
In any free society there has to be space and protection for rhetorical attacks, critiques, lampoons or any other speech that challenges religious ideas, icons or other sensitivities, particularly when they are dealing with abstractions, no matter how sacrosanct they are in some people’s eyes. Of course, this can cross the line into bigotry. But the benchmark for judging must always be the impact such speech has on the ability of actually existing, living human beings to live rich, full and, especially, equal lives in their own societies. Muslims, like other believers, are just going to have to live with critiques by atheists or agnostics or others about their religious views. But when those critiques cross the line into hate speech, they abandon any sense of fairness or accuracy and make claims that are clearly intended to, or will inevitably, stigmatize existing communities and create fear and hatred of them.
Assertions that Islam promotes murder, terrorism, lying, rape and so forth are not critiques of Islam. They are hate speech, because it is manifestly untrue, cannot be argued in good faith, and will inevitably have the effect of creating fear and hatred on the part of non-Muslims against individual Muslims. In the same way, attacks that argue that Judaism also promotes murder, terrorism, lying or rape are not only anti-Semitic, they are a very familiar and old-fashioned form of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the accusations by bigots against Muslims today are virtually indistinguishable from traditional accusations anti-Semites in the West have leveled against Jews, particularly from the middle of the 19th century until the end of the World War II.
So, I suppose that Jindal (and Le Pen, for that matter) are to be thanked, in a bizarre way, for reminding us of what Islamophobia really looks like, since so many people got confused about Charlie Hebdo and its iconoclastic caricatures. Their thinly-veiled, indeed barely-disguised, attacks on people (in this case Muslims) reminds us most helpfully that opposition to bigotry is about the defense of our fellow human beings and their right to be free from calumny. The battle against Islamophobia must, if it is to be successful and respectable, always be squarely directed along those lines. It cannot be about protecting people’s feelings or religious sensibilities. It cannot be about preventing attacks on religions — which, if they are true at all, can defend themselves — or any other set of abstractions.
But it can and must be about squarely recognizing, and insisting that others acknowledge, that attacks like these — which threaten the ability of individual people to practically and functionally be equal to others in their societies, and to live without being subjected to a climate of fear and hostility — have no place in respectable circles. Obviously there shouldn’t be any laws restricting bigotry. Free speech, if it is to have any meaning and really be free, must protect the most outlandish and ridiculous of opinions. But societies have a clear ethical obligation not to treat bigotry as if it were respectable.
Jindal’s comments should have meant the end of his career, and if he had made similar comments about many other groups it would have. In the future, there is no doubt that these kinds of remarks about American and European Muslims will not be uttered with the complete impunity that currently exists. But to get to that stage not only will everyone of goodwill have to redouble their efforts to stigmatize bigotry, we are going to have to be very clear about our definitions, identify hate speech as narrowly as possible, and choose our battles carefully.