Muslim fever goes viral: After Paris and San Bernardino, Islam-bashing is back and bigger than ever

From Trump to Fox News to Bill Maher, the forces of anti-Muslim panic and paranoia are having a glorious year

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 5, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

  (HBO/Janet Van Ham/AP/Carolyn Kaster/Salon)
(HBO/Janet Van Ham/AP/Carolyn Kaster/Salon)

There was a deeply unfortunate, if predictable, period of national debate in the middle of the 19th century that was summed up in a memorable New York Times headline from December 1862, just before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation: “What shall we do with the Negro?” Even at the time, a handful of people on the outer fringes of politics understood that it was a fallacious question whose true subject was concealed. Frederick Douglass, for one, repeatedly observed that the central question was less about “the Negro” than about the United States of America and what sort of country it would turn out to be. As white abolitionist Leonard Marsh put it, what his fellow citizens really wanted to know about black people was “How will their freedom affect us?”

White Americans have arguably never gotten past those questions; I keep waiting for somebody on Fox News to revert to the various “colonization” schemes of the 19th century, aka “Send them back to Africa.” (Lincoln himself believed, for most of his political career, that white racism could never be overcome and that African-Americans, once freed from slavery, would be better off somewhere else.) But the question we’re stuck on in 2015 is a different, albeit related one. All day long, on every news site and every cable TV talk show, we get endless iterations of “What shall we do with the Muslim?”

Donald Trump’s campaign was viewed, a few short weeks ago, as having gone into a terminal nosedive. Now Trump has risen to a glorious new apogee, thanks largely to the Paris attacks, the Syrian refugee crisis and most recently the theoretical terrorist links of the San Bernardino shooters. Trump has relentlessly flogged the Republican Party toward the most extreme version of the “Muslim question,” and the most extreme answers. Trump has only halfway retracted his bold suggestions that mosques should be closed down and American Muslims should be compelled to register in a national database; he has refused to retreat from his claims that “thousands of Muslims” in America celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, despite a total absence of evidence. The only reasons he has not proposed that Muslims should wear identifying emblems on their clothing are A) in the age of microchip technology and universal surveillance that really isn’t necessary and B) somebody informed him at some point that that idea has an unsavory history. But, you know – the trains ran on time!

To be a viable Republican candidate at all in 2016, you have to go most of the way toward the Trumpian position of limitless and full-throated paranoia, as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have done. We must seal ourselves off against the hordes of Muslim invaders purely as a matter of survival, and given the sleeper cells no doubt embedded in every American village and town, not to mention the eagerness of Barack Hussein Obama and the entire Democratic Party to surrender the nation to Sharia rule, unlimited (if undisclosed) budget increases for the military-intelligence matrix are the least we can do. But Cruz and Rubio judiciously decline to support 24/7 Muslim-monitoring, or a coast-to-coast re-enactment of Kristallnacht. Because: Small government! We have reached a truly pathetic state when Jeb Bush, the sad clown of the 2016 race, and unreconstructed neocon warmonger Lindsey Graham (the happy clown, I guess) come off like vaguely reasonable human beings.

Justifiable as it is to blame the white-rage contact high of the Republican presidential campaign for our national game of “What shall we do with the Muslim?” the contagion has spread more widely than that. Even before this week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino had any clear link to Islamic extremism – which is not to say the nature of that link is clear now – we heard Sean Hannity darkly murmuring that the suspects did not have “normal-sounding” names. Hannity spouts bigotry and spreads intolerance for a living, to be sure. But even by Fox News standards, that offhand remark revealed complicated layers of assumption and prejudice that I suspect are widely shared by the general public, at least out in Fox-viewing Whitelandia.

Certain names are by definition not “normal,” even in an era when the United States has absorbed all kinds of unpronounceable surnames in Hmong or Kurdish or Bengali, and when there are at least 3 million Muslim citizens. Furthermore, the specific nature of the non-normal name altered the essential character of the crime. If the San Bernardino shootings had been carried out by a white man named John Smith, he would be considered a lone nut even if he were a whacked-out evangelical Christian who thought he was doing the Lord’s work. But if Syed Farook is a crazy Muslim dude who looked at crazy Muslim websites, then he winds up on the front page of the New York Post as a "MUSLIM KILLER" who represents the tip of a deadly iceberg of terror, and cannot possibly be a lone nut.

Fourteen years after George W. Bush assured us that we were not at war with Islam, it has become entirely normal for mainstream politicians and media commentators to suggest that, in effect, we are. Hannity’s Fox colleague Jeanine Pirro, a New York suburbanite who identifies as a moderate Republican, said on Thursday that since Farook and his wife “looked like Muslims” and were seen carrying boxes into their house, the only possible reason the neighbors didn’t call the cops was a desire to avoid being “politically incorrect.” Pirro has been a judge and a district attorney; she is supposed to know the law. Her clear implication is that Muslims, or people who look like Muslims, are not entitled to the same zone of privacy as the rest of us, and are inherently more likely to be carrying boxes full of bomb-making materials than, say, bowling balls or KitchenAid mixers. (I don’t even know what to say about the fact that Pirro is of Lebanese ancestry, and presumably knows that Muslims come in all colors and dress in different ways.)

But honestly, how far is the blatant fear-mongering of Pirro and Hannity and Trump – the assumption that Muslims are guilty of terrorism or terrorist sympathies until proven innocent, and the corollary assumption that they cannot really be innocent, because they are Muslims – from the more sensible-sounding, “liberal” species of fear-mongering promulgated by Bill Maher and Sam Harris? Before the blood was dry or the killers had been identified in San Bernardino, Maher was sternly tweeting that we must not compare mass shooters with terrorists because the latter were far more dangerous, for reasons he declined to elucidate.

Those guys are complicated public figures, and their views are not identical, on Islam or anything else. They would hasten to assure us that they know most Muslims are not terrorists, and they steer well clear of Trump’s brand of National Socialism Lite. They don’t want concentration camps, or a national registry. They are practical-minded, hardheaded citizens who see the need for prudence and vigilance in defense of democracy. They are saddened by the fact that their fellow liberals don’t understand the gravity of the danger.

I think we have to take Islamophobic fellow travelers like Maher and Harris (and the late Christopher Hitchens) at their word. They don’t agree with the Muslim-bashing right on most other stuff, and in the old-fashioned American sense of the word, they absolutely qualify as liberals. To be specific, they are Cold War liberals without a Cold War to fight; if this were 1965 instead of 2015, they’d be berating the left for its reluctance to take on the Communist menace in Vietnam instead of facing it in Dubuque and Santa Rosa. They are also Enlightenment liberals who see religion as the great enemy of reason and who see Islam, the youngest and most fervent of the world’s major faiths, as the most dangerous enemy of all.

This verges on an enormous cultural, historical and theological debate that we definitely won’t settle here and now (and most likely won’t settle anywhere, ever). I would say that the New Atheist movement’s understanding of religion in general is ahistorical and reductive, and that its understanding of Islam is even more so. But Sam Harris, at least, is a thoughtful and erudite person who has devoted years of reading and writing to these subjects (which is not a description you could apply to Bill Maher). I can only conclude that Harris genuinely believes in the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis: Islamic radicalism is the Nazism of our time, and since all of Islam has been contaminated by its most extreme forms, the faith as a whole presents an existential threat to the most essential rights and liberties of Western civilization.

I believe that argument rests upon multiply flawed premises, but at least it possesses some intellectual rigor and clarity, whereas the incoherent cavalcade of Republican Muslim-bashers either don’t believe in anything at all (beyond what the Koch brothers tell them to believe) or believe numerous impossible things before breakfast, like the White Queen in “Through the Looking-Glass.” But I’m not sure the outcome is any better. Harris’ passion for Enlightenment values leads him, gravely and reluctantly, to ponder ditching the ones that interfere with waging permanent war against Islam, and drive him toward Ben Carson’s position that a Muslim could only be elected president if he or she effectively stopped being a Muslim.

As I wrote two weeks ago, the hotly debated question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy only becomes answerable if we can figure out what democracy is, and whether we have ever had it or ever will. But the insidious power of the “What shall we do with the Muslim?” moment lies in the fact that ISIS is a specter specifically created to provoke that question, and to scare us into not noticing that the most urgent threats to Western democracy come from within, not without.

It does not help matters, to be sure, when deranged Muslims in France or California decide, for obscure reasons, to ally themselves with the apocalyptic and suicidal fantasies of ISIS or other extremist groups. But I am convinced that those disordered and disaffected people are largely driven by cultural and economic forces in the West, not by a blatantly incoherent ideology that most Muslims despise and reject. As with the 19th-century beliefs that fueled “What shall we do with the Negro?” – people of African descent were seen as depraved savages, liable to run amok and rape white women at the first opportunity – the urge to demonize and scapegoat Muslims as the greatest threat our civilization has ever known has very little to do with the attitudes or behavior of Muslims themselves.

This is not a matter of liberal piety, although I fully expect the hyper-patriots on Twitter to barrage me with semi-literate diatribes about how Democrats and Muslims and terrorists are all pretty much the same thing and must be wiped out. I am neither pious nor a liberal, but more to the point I don’t know any liberals who have said or implied that violent crimes committed by Islamic extremists are excusable or ignorable or a good thing. I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to say that Islam is experiencing an internal schism in which a small group of dangerous fanatics is trying to hijack the entire faith.

There are two things to say about that, which ought to be obvious even to relatively clueless Westerners, but evidently are not. First, this is hardly a new phenomenon in religious history, and parallels can be found in every other major denomination. Second, as Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis (no squishy-hearted liberal) observed decades ago, the principal targets and principal victims of ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalists are the other Muslims they regard as traitors and apostates.

It cannot be said often enough that ISIS has murdered many times more Muslims than Westerners and goes on doing it every day, without bothering to post the evidence on YouTube. But that’s not the central issue. Beheading Western captives and murdering Parisian clubgoers are good things in themselves, from the ISIS point of view, and entitle their martyrs to eternity in an especially small-minded version of Paradise. (As far as I can tell, the ISIS/al-Qaida heaven resembles a Nevada brothel with no liquor license, on a hot night in 1986.) But for all the rhetorical ranting about a worldwide caliphate or whatever, such actions are best understood as means toward an end.

That end includes convincing as many Muslims as possible to join their moronic jihad and, perhaps more important, convincing as many Westerners as possible that most or all Muslims already support their moronic jihad. Those two goals feed into each other in a hurricane-like spiral of noxious ideology and also, as I argued after the Paris attacks, dovetail perfectly with the goals of the Islamophobic right. The more acts of violence ISIS can inspire in the West, the more Westerners will whip themselves up into anti-Muslim hysteria. The more Western nations wage indiscriminate war in the Islamic world and treat their Muslim residents as alien invaders, the more Muslims in the West become an isolated and disenfranchised group ripe for the nihilism of ISIS. You get the point. Or maybe you don’t, because Muslim fever has spread through our national bloodstream and replaced all thought.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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