The Eternal Return of Islamophobia

Taher eating something

My father Taher in the early 1970s

I remember when my mom called. I was sleeping in on a Tuesday, because my first class wasn’t until 11AM. My roommate, a proto-metrosexual, knocked on the door and handed me the phone. Mom was hysterical: “They blew up the World Trade Organization.”

She knew I had been involved in protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank in the past few years, and she was doubly or even triply worried—for the evidence suggested that the perpetrators of this latest terrorist act were Muslim and/or Arab.

This was my mom’s worst nightmare. She knew about the Japanese internment camps in World War II, and she had always feared that my Arab heritage would come back to haunt me in some way or another. When I was born, America was still grappling with the aftermath of 1970s oil shock, the Iran hostage crisis, and the US conflict with Libya—where my father happened to be from—and fear of persecution had always been foremost in my mother’s mind. To her, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 seemed like the perfect pretext for a round-up of state enemies akin to what happened during WWII.

Yet that didn’t exactly happen—even though many Muslims in the United States were arrested, interrogated, and deported in 2001 and 2002. George W. Bush, God bless his desiccated little heart, at least tried to stress that the “War on Terror” was not a war on Islam, which he insisted was “a religion of peace.” Having a Republican president, in a way, helped to keep the lid on the nastiest, most revanchist sentiments within the GOP, since there was a conservative at the helm urging caution.

In the end, my mom was wrong. Americans of Arab descent weren’t rounded up and shunted into internment camps as Japanese Americans were during WWII. But in a way she was right, as the wildly Islamophobic twists of American politics have shown over the last few years.

Indeed, the election of Barack Obama seemed to lift any restraints on anti-Islamic sentiment that might have existed under a Republican administration, when bigots felt compelled to stay in line. Even the normally wise and sensible WNYC host Brian Lehrer indulged listeners who objected to the idea of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—criminal, killer, and terrorist mastermind—being tried in Lower Manhattan, in what turned out to be an early setback for the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, the media stoked the story of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—an interfaith center that would be located several blocks from the World Trade Center site. This controversy erupted just as my wife and I were leaving New York, and I was appalled to see the kind of rank bigotry and ignorance that emerged when a few Muslims hoped to build a religious and cultural center—in New York of all places!

When we moved to Georgia, we learned that local authorities in towns such as Lilburn (and later Kennesaw) were also trying to block the building of mosques, on a variety of flimsy pretexts. From supposedly liberal New York to conservative Georgia, there appeared to be an emerging anti-Islam animus that cared not a whit for the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and assembly or good old-fashioned property rights.

Today, hostility toward religious minorities—particularly refugees from conflicts in the Middle East—provides an excellent case study in Americans’ attitudes toward the foreign and the other. The United States may be, in some ways, more welcoming to newcomers than the nations of the European Union, thanks to its storied sense of being an “immigrant nation” without a clear ethnoracial identity like, say, France or Germany. America has had more than its fair share of xenophobia, Know-Nothingism, and general paranoia, but it has also opened its doors to vast numbers of immigrants, refugees, and asylees over the years.

Yet Republicans have been stoking fear of an imaginary horde of Mexican immigrants in recent years—when migration from Mexico has been flat or even negative—while politicians in both major parties have cravenly seized on the issue of resettling refugees from the Syrian conflict to grandstand on national security. Presidential contender Jeb Bush even suggested that only Christian Syrian refugees should be allowed to enter the country, though he had a hard time explaining exactly how that would work.

So how is it that we seem to be at a more xenophobic, more anti-Muslim moment today, fourteen years out from 9/11, when terrorism is a palpably less significant concern than a random, white “gentle loner” shooting up a school, church, or reproductive health center? I don’t mean to discount the sense of fear and anxiety that gripped the country on September 11th. Acts of violence were visited on hapless strangers, including Sikhs who were assumed to be Muslim because of their turbans. More prosaically, my desi friends and I felt anxious going to a coffeeshop later that day, worried that people were looking at us as suspicious brown people. We faced greater scrutiny at airports for a few years, but the United States did not spiral into the rank race hatred now promoted by Donald Trump or Mike Huckabee.

I have a great faith in America, for better or worse. I personally believe that the current wave of unabashed xenophobia reflects the anxiety of a white majority that senses its grip on power slipping. (By 2011, slightly more children from ethnic minorities were being born than children defined as “white.”) Indeed, a more diverse America is emerging, thanks to the civil rights movement that brought formerly disempowered minorities into the fold of American civic life, and the 1965 Immigration Act that lifted racist national quotas aimed at replicating a white American population. My father and brother and I, my wife, my in-laws, and, indeed, many of my students are all of part of a great demographic shift in American life, not unlike the transformation of the United States that resulted from mass immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I do believe that a more tolerant and diverse America is waiting in the wings. As the very American “Song of Myself” said many years ago, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” But the forces of fear, suspicion, and hatred have deep roots in the country as well—there’s always Richard Hofstadter’s thesis about the “paranoid style” in American politics for lazy op-ed writers to take up—and we should not be surprised that unscrupulous politicians take advantage of people’s anxieties. (As Barry Goldwater once said, you go hunting where the ducks are. That’s capitalism and democracy 101.)

Arab-Americans have already been incorporated into American life – so long as they’re Christian and not too swarthy. (See John Sununu, Darrell Issa, Tony Shalhoub.) And while critics such as Steven Salaita have doubted whether Muslims could ever be truly accepted as Americans, I don’t share these doubts. There is no Muslim equivalent to the despair that grips Ta-Nehisi Coates in his instant classic Between the World and Me, in which blackness and the black body appear to be permanently marked as the bottom caste throughout American history. Like Irish, Jews, Italians and others before us, Arabs and Muslims do not enter the American scene slotted and fixed into an inexorable, structural position of disadvantage, whatever misfortunes we may face in the interim.

Indeed, we are merely the targets of America’s latest round of intramural demagoguery and national neurosis, but not much more than that. I still feel myself regarded warily in certain situations and sense an asterisk next to my skin tone and frizzy mop of hair, but I don’t think my kids or my kids’ kids will feel the same way. In the meantime, though, a lot of very opportunistic politicians and a lot of very ill-informed people are going to say and do a lot of very stupid things. As the great novelist and humanitarian Kurt Vonnegut said so many times—so it goes.


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