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Islamophobia

The continuing US history of institutionalised racism

In the great pantheon of aggrieved minorities in the US, no other has been open to such unrestrained media hostility and acts of violence against its people and property, as the nation’s Arab-American community. Muslims have been repeatedly singled-out by successive presidential administrations for attacks against civil liberties, covert surveillance by the sprawling intelligence apparatuses and heightened security checks on spurious national security grounds. This is despite the fact that the 54 fatalities caused by Muslim-American extremists in 2016 (123 since since 9/11) is dwarfed by the more than 240,000 Americans murdered over the same period. Between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists. President Trump is attempting indefinitely to suspend entry to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries. However, since 9/11, only 23 percent of Muslim-Americans involved with violent extremist plots had family backgrounds in these seven countries and in fact there has not been a single death caused by extremists with family backgrounds in any of them. Clearly the new regime is driven by something more than the need for a proportionate and necessary response.

Inherent racism towards Muslims is now such an ingrained feature of US life that any president need only mention the word “Islam” and the public mind convulses with images of bearded men and Kalashnikovs intent on destroying all that is beautiful in the world. Media outlets have spent the last 40 years subjecting people of Muslim faith to repeated attack, endlessly broadcasting, as Gore Vidal once put it, “images of monstrous figures from Hieronymus Bosch staring out at us, hellfire in their eyes”, thus laying the groundwork for a public bedrock of anti-Arab sentiment now firmly established. The path has always been littered with the rose petals of electoral success for any politician willing to espouse crude anti-Muslim rhetoric. The fact that Donald Trump has capitalised off the back of these now withered leaves is unsurprising given the history of religious racism in the country.

The core of Trump’s support comes, as it did with Reagan and Bush, from right-wing Evangelical Christians. These voters have enormous financial power, are overwhelmingly white and devoted to Israel, or rather what that State represents according to their religious beliefs. To such voters who take a literal interpretation of the bible, Armageddon is scheduled to take place in Israel at a date unspecified when the forces of good (white, Christian) will defeat the forces of evil (guess who?). In the eyes of the good book’s holy warriors, Israel, as bastion against evil, must be protected at all costs, thus explaining the fundamentalist Christian love of the Jewish State.

Religiosity is therefore key. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll 41% of all respondents in the US regarded themselves as ‘Born Again’. In the same poll 72% believed in Angels and 47% believed that the Bible was the “inspired word of God”, up from 45% in 1976. This voter class is highly suspicious of outsiders, especially foreigners from the Middle East whom they view as attempting to subvert their Christian country (happily renamed the ‘Homeland’ since Bush) through the utterly implausible tool of Sharia law. They are thus easy prey for the passive-aggressive racism of Trump. The absurd belief among many of Trump’s followers that Muslims are little more than a fifth column in the US, intent on destroying freedom’s land from within, resonates freely.

The roots of this anti-immigrant racism stretch back far to the nineteenth century and anti-Catholic bigotry that swept the country during the flood of immigration from Ireland after the Great Famine in the 1840s. Contemporary accounts reported shiploads of ragged, starving Irish disembarking onto the piers of Castle Clinton – forerunner to Ellis Island – to the hostility of the mainly Protestant merchant elites. Alarmed at the influx of Catholic Irish and German immigration which they perceived as undermining pure “Republican” ideals because such immigrants would owe loyalty not to the United States but to the Pope, native-born White Anglo-Saxon Americans formed the ‘Know-Nothing’ political party, devoted to extending the citizenship term to 20 years and deporting all immigrants with criminal convictions.

The hatred would not die easily. When Al Smith, the first Irish American Catholic to hold the position of Governor in the country, became the Democratic candidate for president in 1928, the anti-Catholic hatred was so violent that Smith’s campaign train, passing fiery crosses on the hills of Kansas and Oklahoma, was turned back in some Western and Midwestern stops for fear that the police could not protect him. The bigotry was so intense that Smith campaigner Simon Rifkind would later comment that “I had not been aware of the intense anti-Catholicism that prevailed in this country… When I came to mid-America, it really hit you in the face”. Smith, hero to the working man in New York, was crushed in the general election.

Perhaps most blatantly infamous was the racist incarceration during World War II of 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the Pacific coast. Sixty-two percent of the internees were United States citizens. These actions were ordered by President Franklin D Roosevelt shortly after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Citizens who were as little as 1/16 Japanese and orphaned infants with “one drop of Japanese blood” could be placed in internment camps.

Spiro Agnew once sagely noted that “the United States, for all its faults, is still the greatest nation in the country”. After Martin Luther King was assassinated Agnew berated Baltimore’s black leaders, in person, for the riots that followed. He once called an Asian American reporter a “fat Jap”. Fabulously corrupt and someone for whom books were only ever used to remedy uneven table legs, Agnew was of course Vice-President under Richard Nixon and it was Nixon, ever fascinated with secrecy, who initiated Operation Boulder, a visa-screening programme targeted against Arabs entering the US in the wake of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September, 1972. Ever since Arabs would prove to be an easy target for successive administrations, a target made especially vulnerable by a media portrayal almost universally negative.

The racism extends to the military, or rather coverage by the media of the military. According to Chalmers Johnson in ‘The Sorrows of Empire’, criminality follows in the wake of each of the “761 active military” bases around the world, a criminality which barely registers among media outlets in the United States. This is not the case however when it comes to members of the armed forces of Muslim faith. So, while the Fort Hood Shootings of 2009 which involved an American soldier of Muslim faith who shot and killed 13 soldiers received extensive print and TV coverage with a particular emphasis on the religion of the killer (thus underlining the ‘fifth-columnist’ threat posed by Muslims) comparatively little media attention has been paid to the equally repugnant crimes of non-Muslim soldiers at bases abroad.

In 1995 three US marines were convicted of having abducted and raped a twelve-year-old girl on the island of Okinawa, Japan. During court testimony of the rape the court interpreter broke down after hearing accounts of the lewd jokes which the rapist “and his companions made about their unconscious and bleeding victim”. The marines had sped back to their barracks and the US high command initially refused to hand them over to the Japanese police. The incident sparked such a furore that 85,000 Okinawans marched in protest at the almost 38 US military bases on their island. In a display of crass insensitivity Admiral Richard Macke then told the press that “I think that [the rape] was absolutely stupid. For the price they paid to rent the car [with which to abduct their child victim] they could have had a girl”. At the time, sexually violent crimes perpetrated by US soldiers against Okinawans were running at two per month and have not abated up to the present. While this story was covered briefly in the New York Times it was, so far as can be determined, given no coverage on any of the cable TV networks across the country. In the interim Okinawans have had to endure repeated robberies, drunk-driving, assaults, muggings and hundreds of rapes perpetrated by US servicemen, events virtually ignored in the United States.

As to the present. Islam is frequently portrayed as a vengeful, violent screed whose adherents are irrationally barbarous and dream only of harems of virgins and the slaughter of innocent Christian women and children for no sane reason. The conventional view is that Muslims, once angered, immediately become violent in their speech and actions. The people need to be civilised goes the thinking, in the ways of Christian forgiveness and love, especially during moments of national dilemma.

In the aftermath of 9-11, Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart took to the air and called the prophet Mohammed a “sex deviant” and “a pervert” and demanded that “all Muslim students in the US be expelled”. Swaggart is, according to Time Magazine, much admired by President Trump. Meanwhile the real centre of power in the country, the Pentagon, deployed one of its most restrained and judicious operatives to dampen the religious flames sweeping the country. In his book ‘Nemesis’ Chalmers Johnson quotes army lieutenant-general William Boykin, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, who declared in full uniform in 2002 that “they” hate us “because we are a Christian nation”, that Bush “was appointed by God”, that “our enemy is a guy named Satan”, and that “we defeat Islamic terrorists only if we come at them in the name of Jesus”. Boykin was never reprimanded for these remarks.

Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart

Not to be outdone in the exercise of Anglo-Saxon civility, the executive and legislative branches also took to making doveish noises. In an address to the joint session of Congress and the nation on 20 September, 2001 President Bush asked rhetorically, “Why do they hate us?”. Nodding somberly at the nation’s elected representatives Bush opined: “They hate what they see right here in this chamber”. Given that Bush lost the popular election to Al Gore and was foisted into power by a Republican-orientated Supreme Court, a great number of Americans may have concurred.
According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, twenty-four US citizens were killed abroad in 2014 due to terrorism. This figure is less than the number of people killed yearly due to lightning strikes (48) or by dogs (30). In 2009, the Harvard Gazette reported that 45,000 Americans were dying annually due to a lack of medical insurance, yet, as Deepa Kumar points out in ‘Islamophobia’, when it comes to this infinitely greater killer of US citizens, “there is no war on the for-profit health care industry”.

The real reason behind the War on Islam? Kumar, associate professor of Middle East studies at Rutgers University, does not demur. Like so many tangled strings of history Islamophobia, once unpicked, is revealed as America’s evil secret, the malignant twin of all that purports to be advanced and humane. Kumar equates the War on Terror to a culture of fear, with its routine terror alerts, media hysteria and hyper-armed law-enforcement personnel kicking in front doors. And that is the nub of the matter: fear, relentless fear. Once more history to the rescue.

“During the Cold War” she writes, “schools routinely conducted ‘duck and cover’ drills in which students and teachers hid under tables” in case the despicable Soviets lobbed a nuclear weapon at us when we weren’t looking.

“Whatever the marginal benefits of ducking under a table” Kumar adds, “the ability to survive a nuclear bomb depends on one’s distance from the blast, not on the furniture. The goal of such activities was to keep the threat of attack alive and to foster fear and paranoia”.

Who are the beneficiaries of this culture of fear stoked by the ‘threat’ of Islamic terror? The same entities that benefited during the Cold War: the Pentagon and defence contractors. In 1947 Harry Truman, one of the most limited men ever to pitch his tent in the White House was bluntly informed that the US, now at peace, risked slipping back into the recession that Franklin Roosevelt, despite eight years of the New Deal between 1933-1940, was never able to extricate America from. War had blessedly intervened in 1941 and the US economy soared out of recession. By the time Truman dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima (an act which Dwight Eisenhower strongly urged against) the US owned 50% of the world’s wealth.

Even to a mediocre former haberdasher like Truman, the conclusion was evident. The only way to keep the economy humming along was to spend like the nation was still at war. There was only one problem: the nation was not at war in 1947. Arthur Vandenberg, senior Republican senator told the president bluntly that if he wanted Congress to appropriate money for defence spending on the scale Truman wanted, the president would have to “make a speech and scare the hell out of the country”. Thus was the ‘Russian threat’ born, hordes of atheistic baby-eating Communists were building an armada to storm freedom’s land. It didn’t matter that Hitler had killed 27 million Russians and partially destroyed 17,000 of their towns and villages or that the Soviets had no navy to speak of, America was gripped by doom. Income taxes levied at a rate higher than wartime were passed without argument. Dissent was muted. Loyalty oaths were introduced, as was the practice of pledging allegiance to the flag in schools. The Pentagon and defence contractors started laughing and have never stopped.

After the Soviet stabbed the US in the back by folding their empire and going home, a new national security threat was needed to justify continued defence spending, now estimated at over $700bn annually. Islamic terrorism became the new enemy, lurking here, there, everywhere. It was perfect, being everywhere and nowhere. The nation had to be constantly vigilant. To those Neocons who fantasised about war, 9-11 represented every dream come through. But the public was inconveniently reluctant to go to war in strange lands again; it had seen enough of that in Vietnam. The public needed to be persuaded.

In a stream of memos written after 9-11 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanded that his staff “keep elevating the threat” by creating “bumper-sticker statements” that would boost public approval for the global war on terror. It was essential “to make the American people realise that they are surrounded by violent extremists”. It is easy to imagine Rumsfeld behind some darkened door in the Pentagon, feverishly shaping and magnifying public fears, scribbling bizarre notes about how Muslims “dislike physical labor”, the ghost of Harry Truman would have smiled approvingly at the creation of this new enemy-of-the-month. What a fine enemy indeed.

by Patrick Horan