“These are not the droids you’re looking for.” One reason that Obi Wan Kenobi quote is so well known and so often invoked with a wink is because it succinctly captures American politics’ most favorite bait and switch: the tactic whereby partisans deny the existence of a phenomenon that’s there for everyone to see, all so that the phenomenon can continue unabated. This “Star Wars”-ism, indeed, is a perfect way to understand the way Islamophobia works in America, and not because of Tatooine’s Arabian aesthetic (it was filmed in Tunisia), but because the way so many seem intent on pretending anti-Muslim sentiment doesn’t exist, all to make sure it continues to flourish.
The aftermath of 9/11 is, of course, the best example. In the years following the attack, conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to Commentary magazine’s Jonathan Tobin have insisted with straight faces that there was never any evidence that many Americans blamed all Muslims for the act of a small group of terrorists. Willfully ignored in such analyses was the fact that after 9/11 violent anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 1,600 percent; Muslim communities have been subjected to mass surveillance in New York (even though, as CUNY’s Diala Shamas notes, “the NYPD still cannot point to a single lead or prosecution that has resulted from this strategy”); mosques have been targeted for attack; polls documented a spike in open prejudice against Muslims (including one showing almost half of the country supportive of curtailing the constitutional rights of Muslim citizens); and Muslims now face a disproportionately high rates of job discrimination. Meanwhile, after 9/11, conservative media outlets became megaphones for Islamophobic rhetoric.
Now, unfortunately, the same thing is playing out after the Boston bombing. Limbaugh has insisted that innocent Muslims “will be in no way associated with” the attack and pundits like the Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill claim that anti-Muslim bigotry is just “a figment of liberals’ imaginations.” Yet, here is but a taste of what’s happened in just the three weeks since the Boston attack:
- The Boston Globe reports that a Palestinian woman walking with her baby daughter was assaulted in the Boston suburb of Malden by an assailant blaming her for the bombing.
- The New York Post reports that a Bangladeshi man was beaten nearly unconscious by New Yorkers as retribution for the Boston bombing.
- The Washington Post reports that a Muslim cab driver, who was also a U.S. Army reservist Iraq War veteran, was assaulted by a passenger who “compared him to the men accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon.”
- U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for Muslims to be subjected to more intensive mass surveillance.
- Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., appeared on national television to declare that America’s “enemy” are all “young Muslim men.”
- Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (an organization whose mission is to combat rather than foment bigotry), publicly justified proposals for mass surveillance of all Muslims.
- On national television, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade called for installing listening devices in mosques.
- Ann Coulter appeared on syndicated radio to declare that all mosques be put under police surveillance.
- On national television, Fox News host Bob Beckel not only called for barring Muslim students from visiting the United States, but also said that young Muslims already in America on visas “should be sent back home or sent to prison.”
- Conservative comedian Erik Rush said the Boston bombing proves Muslims “are evil — let’s kill them all.”
As evidenced by the pattern after the Boston bombing — and by how the pattern follows pre-Boston bombing trends — these are not isolated incidents. On the contrary, they are part of an unsurprising pattern. As conservative media outlets at once pretend there is no Islamophobia in America but then use the horrible actions of a handful of Muslim extremists as an excuse to vilify all Muslims, Islamophobic bigotry and the threat of hate crimes follow. It is as predictable as it is lamentable.
To know that this is specifically Islamophobia and not just generalized anger following an inexcusable act of violence, just remember that, as Tim Wise notes, America saw no similar rhetorical or physical assaults targeted at specific demographic groups after the violence of:
Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph and Joe Stack and George Metesky and Byron De La Beckwith and Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton and Herman Frank Cash and Robert Chambliss and James von Brunn and Lawrence Michael Lombardi and Robert Mathews and David Lane and Chevie Kehoe and Michael F. Griffin and Paul Hill and John Salvi and Justin Carl Moose and Bruce and Joshua Turnidge and James Kopp and Luke Helder and James David Adkisson and Scott Roeder and Shelley Shannon and Dennis Mahon and Wade Michael Page and Jeffery Harbin and Byron Williams and Charles Ray Polk and Willie Ray Lampley and Cecilia Lampley and John Dare Baird and Joseph Martin Bailie and Ray Hamblin and Robert Edward Starr III and William James McCranie Jr. and John Pitner and Charles Barbee and Robert Berry and Jay Merrell and Brendon Blasz and Carl Jay Waskom Jr. and Shawn and Catherine Adams and Edward Taylor Jr. and Todd Vanbiber and William Robert Goehler and James Cleaver and Jack Dowell and Bradley Playford Glover and Ken Carter and Randy Graham and Bradford Metcalf and Chris Scott Gilliam and Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder and Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith and Donald Rudolph and Kevin Ray Patterson and Charles Dennis Kiles and Donald Beauregard and Troy Diver and Mark Wayne McCool and Leo Felton and Erica Chase and Clayton Lee Wagner and Michael Edward Smith and David Burgert and Robert Barefoot Jr. and Sean Gillespie and Ivan Duane Braden and Kevin Harpham and William Krar and Judith Bruey and Edward Feltus and Raymond Kirk Dillard and Adam Lynn Cunningham and Bonnell Hughes and Randall Garrett Cole and James Ray McElroy and Michael Gorbey and Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman and Frederick Thomas and Paul Ross Evans and Matt Goldsby and Jimmy Simmons and Kathy Simmons and Kaye Wiggins and Patricia Hughes and Jeremy Dunahoe and David McMenemy and Bobby Joe Rogers and Francis Grady and Cody Seth Crawford and Ralph Lang and Demetrius Van Crocker and Floyd Raymond Looker and Derek Mathew Shrout and Randolph Linn.
Noting the disparity in how we react to different acts of terrorism is not to argue that other demographic groups should be treated the way American Muslims are too often treated. Quite the opposite, in fact; it is to argue that there are unfortunately violent extremists who hail from most demographic groups, and we should focus our anti-terrorism actions intensely on those individuals. However, we shouldn’t blame whole groups of innocent people for the acts of those individuals.
That ideal is the kind of principle our country may not always live up to, but that we do at least conceptually value to the point of teaching it to kids in kindergarten. Indeed, it’s hard to be publicly against the notion of not blaming groups for the actions of individuals because the principle is basically a version of the Golden Rule — that is, it is how everyone wants to be treated in their own lives. Thus, why we so often hear conservatives’ laughable “not the droids you’re looking for” denials from Limbaugh et al. about anti-Muslim bigotry, all while they turn around and stoke such bigotry.
Why the bait and switch? More specifically, why are conservative media outlets and politicians obsessed with stoking anti-Muslim animus? That’s a subject for a whole other article (or, better yet, book) involving everything from the right’s notions of a religious war to neoconservative ideas about foreign policy to just straight up bigotry. But there’s also undoubtedly a shrewd political calculation at work.
Right now, the Republican Party is tearing apart at the seams. Simply put, for various (obvious) reasons, the GOP’s unholy alliance of super-wealthy country clubbers and working-class cultural conservatives is now fraying. Ratings-hungry conservative media outlets and desperate politicians are therefore grasping for any issue or cause that unifies the conservative audience across increasingly wide economic, cultural and class lines. According to polling data, Islamophobia is sadly one of the few things that can achieve that among Republicans. So it has become a central organizing principle on the right.
Conservative leaders cannot openly admit to that political calculation, of course. Thus, the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” denials. But that’s clearly what’s at work, and if it isn’t routinely called out, it will continue, and probably get worse.