March 22, 2006
Muslim-bashing has become socially acceptable in the United States.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Americans hold negative perceptions of Islam, 7 percentage points higher than after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The poll also discovered that a third of the respondents have recently heard prejudiced comments against Muslims. Even more depressing is that one in four openly admits to harboring prejudice toward Muslims.
Is this surprising? Unfortunately, it's not. The vilification of Islam and Muslims has been relentless among segments of the media and political classes for the last five years.
The dangerously popular right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, for example, routinely drums up racist diatribes against Muslims. She questioned the "personal hygiene and grooming" of Muslims in a recent column. What other group can be so openly and maliciously maligned in American mainstream discourse today without consequence to the author?
During the whole Dubai ports deal debacle, even Democratic leaders engaged in unfounded scare mongering to score political points.
And it continues. Colorado Rep. Jim Welker, a Republican, was recently discovered to have sent an email to his constituents titled: "Beware of Islam in America." The text of his email read, in part, "Can a devout Muslim be an American patriot and loyal citizen? Politically, no. Because he must submit to the mullah, who teaches annihilation of Israel and destruction of America, the great Satan."
This is rubbish, of course, but such bigoted ideas continue to thrive, leaving many American Muslims politically fatigued.
"In the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled, time and again, to apologize for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned and to openly profess loyalties that, for most U.S. citizens, is merely assumed." That is the conclusion of Sally Howell and Andrew Shyrock, two professors from the University of Michigan who have studied the Arab and Muslim communities of Detroit.
We need to tap into American traditions of tolerance to help us differentiate between a religion and its extremists. We can engage the philosophical school of American pragmatism to dismiss bigotry and opt for real analysis.
But in times of political turmoil, Americans have historically turned inward. Borders close, populism rises and demagoguery takes off.
"The goal of Islam, ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, is world domination," said televangelist Pat Robertson recently.
This is not just wrong. It's dangerous. And this kind of demagoguery must be resisted before it gains even more traction. Otherwise, the noble American tradition of tolerance will be the next casualty in the war on terror.
Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-editor of "The Edward Said Reader" (Vintage, 2000). He is also an editor at Middle East Report (www.merip.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.