Lawrence Davidson: Islamophobia as a Form of Paranoid Politics
by Lawrence Davidson
I) The Historical Prevalence of Paranoid Thinking in America
It was forty six years ago, in the year 1964, that the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that “American politics has often been the arena of angry minds….Behind this, I believe, there is a style of mind that is far from new….I call it the paranoid style because simply no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind” (Richard Hofstadter, “Paranoid Style in American Politics” Harpers Magazine, November, 1964).
In his essay Hofstadter recounts the almost continuous presence of the paranoid style of thinking in American politics from colonial times right into the modern period. It is to be noted that Hofstadter covers only national or nearly national instances of American paranoia. Those local political “exaggerations, suspicions and conspiracy fantasies” must also certainly exist to complement the more widespread versions. Some of the instances Hofstadter covers, along with others I have added, include anti-Catholicism in the colonies and, in the first years of national independence, a fear of a French style political terror. Fear of Free Masons came next. Then followed waves of hysteria over various immigrant groups: Chinese, Irish, German, Italian, etc. Then came the Red Scares of the 1920s, followed by concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. After that there was fear of communism and McCarthyite persecution. Then followed the paranoid reaction to the civil rights movement, and on it goes. Every one of these episodes formed the basis for imagined enemies embedded in the homeland and seeking its ultimate destruction.
It would appear that people are most susceptible to these paranoid feelings and fears under conditions of cultural challenge and social uncertainty. In turn, such uneasiness is subject to manipulation by assorted demagogues, the media and politicians in general. This is particularly the case if outsiders are felt to be a source of trouble. According to Hofstadter, the claims that underlie paranoid politics are often cast in “apocalyptic terms….a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil.” This being so, the enemy must be “sinister, ubiquitous, cruel…seeking to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.” The espouser of such fantasies may or may not believe his or her own message. Nonetheless, they will surely present themselves as standing on the “barricades of civilization” fending off the barbarians. Under the circumstances, compromise is quite out of the question. “Total triumph” is what is called for.
II) Why Paranoid Politics May Be So Prevalent
There is something psychologically elemental about this situation. The tendency to fear outsiders, and to suspect that in the unknown lurks sinister dangers to one’s way of life as well as one’s person, seems to always to be a ready societal potential. This may be a consequence of what I term natural localness. That is, the natural preference of most human beings is to orient their lives locally and to be uneasy with that which is foreign. This can even be thought of in Darwinian terms. We know that in the course of its evolution the human mind became “equipped with faculties to master the local environment and outwit denizens” (Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, 1997, 352). Thus, we all pay particular attention to our local arena because it supplies us with knowledge necessary to make useful and usually successful decisions, secure sustenance and avoid danger. In other words, a concentration on the local environment has survival value. There are nature and nurture components to this. There are biological, hard wired imperatives that make us group oriented and fear and danger sensitive. On the other hand, how we manifest these imperatives is a function of what we learn from our personal experiences which, in turn, usually takes place within a localized cultural context, and is dependent on the quality of information available to us. In our immediate daily environment we can be responsible for gathering the necessary information. Beyond the horizon, however, the issue of information and its reliability becomes problematic.
Natural localness is not just a phenomenon experienced by the individual. It is also a group orientation. Culture is a community affair. For most community members it forms a bounded paradigm that flows from the customs and traditions of local and regional venues. Local culture (now customized so as to be compatible with national culture) not only defines acceptable behaviors but, to a large extent, the very parameters of thought. Therefore, the community’s culture establishes perceptual limits for the average person’s outlook. This happens in such a “natural” way that it is largely unconscious. The process of maintaining culture prioritizes group solidarity and that means differentiating the inside from the outside. If you will, our “global village” remains significantly segregated into self-centered neighborhoods.
While there are good reasons why most of us are this way, natural localness has its obvious shortcomings. It means that most of us live largely in ignorance about what is going on beyond the proverbial next hill. This ignorance can reinforce feelings of exclusiveness that reflect themselves in a suspicion of and dislike of outsiders. As the cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley has written, “Our [evolutionary] forebears had a tendency to treat members of out-groups…with contempt and sometimes murderous aggression” (Keith Oatley, Emotions, A Brief History, 2004, 29). This tendency has not disappeared. In a country as diverse as the United States, localness has helped create the Hofstadter paranoia that is constantly manifesting itself in phobic reactions occurring in proportion to our ignorance of one and other. In this environment accurate information about the lifestyle and intentions of our neighbors is important to the maintenance of inter-group peace. Yet, most often, we do not have such information and so the proclivity for negative feelings is subject to manipulation by those who present themselves as knowledgeable on these matters.
III) Islamophobia, The Latest Case of Hofstadter Paranoia
To understand popular susceptibility to Hofstadter’s paranoid style is one thing. To have actually done something about it is another. No really adequate effort has been made by American society to wean the population off these cyclical bouts of destructive trauma. Certainly the great potential of our educational system to deliver purposeful and consistent training in tolerance has not been realized. However, some positive ground has been gained through the use of the law. The legislation that brought us civil rights laws is a particularly bright example. However, without a purposeful follow-up as would be the case with nationwide tolerance training, the psychological impact of forty years of civil rights efforts has probably been no more than superficial. As the reaction to a range of subsequent events from busing policies to the election of President Obama has shown, there is a frighteningly high number of “angry minds” out there who have never reconciled themselves to the fact of differences, be they based on color, ethnicity or religion.
The cyclical nature of our paranoid episodes suggests that the conditions that provoke paranoid politics from theory into practice are always just under the surface of our national affairs. And so we now come face to face with the latest manifestation of American paranoia, the phenomenon of Islamophobia. The history of how American Muslims became the latest target of Hofstadter’s form of malicious politics is the story of peaceful citizens brought into an unwanted spotlight by circumstances over which they had no control.
Muslims have been in what is now the United States since colonial times. Many of them were brought here as African slaves. It is estimated that between 15 and 30% of the men brought to British North America as slaves were Muslims (Edward Curtis, Muslims in America, 2009, chapter 1). There were also free Muslims in residence and at least one of them fought on the American side during the War of Independence. (http://www.middle-east-studies.net/?p=2755)
The presence of these early American Muslims was recognized by the inclusion of the religion of Islam in the discussion on religious freedom in the early years of the nation’s history. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all mentioned Islam in their arguments supporting the broadest possible religious freedom and tolerance. This was the position of almost all those supporting the adoption of the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Thus, from the very founding of the nation, a friendly regard toward individual Muslims was part of the American outlook.
Light levels of Muslim immigration into the U.S. kept this minority under the radar screen of paranoid politics through the 19th century. It was also the fact that Muslim immigration was ethnically varied: Albanians, Arabs, Bosnians, Turks, Syrians and even Chinese Muslims were in the mix. Thus, while ethnic associations might cause some of these immigrants problems, religion usually did not.
Immigration picked up after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire. After World War II and the breakup of the European Colonial Empires, another immigrant wave of Muslims took place. This meant that as the end of the 20th century approached there was a small but noticeable Muslim minority in the United States of between five and seven million people. (Tom W. Smith, “Estimating the Muslim population in the United States,” The American Jewish Committee, 2001).
Most of this community was socially and politically conservative. They lived quietly and were by any standards loyal and appreciative citizens. Unfortunately, their compatriots in the Middle East were suffering quite another side of the American experience. U.S. foreign policy in that area consistently supported dictatorships, some of which were quite oppressive toward politically active Muslim organizations. In Lebanon the U.S. supported Christians against Muslims and with its support of Israel, the United States has abetted the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. This sort of behavior had gone on since 1945 right up to the present yet, being far from their local lives, it was largely unknown to the American public. It was omitted from the media news or distorted to appear something that it was not, policies protecting the “free world.”
In the end, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was bound to result in an open conflict with indigenous Muslim groups seeking to reform the situation in their countries. That in turn would change the perceptual landscape for most Americans in terms of Islam and Muslims. This was because their ignorance of foreign policy opened the average American to the manipulation of a media and government that would now focus on the hostility of Muslims toward the U.S. while omitting mention of the American actions that brought that hostility forth. If things turned bad enough American Muslims would become, in the eyes of their fellow citizens, guilty by association of anti-Americanism and thus candidates for Hofstadter’s paranoid politics. On September 11, 2001 things got bad enough.
The September 11 attacks allowed those either prone to paranoid politics or possessing ulterior motives to imagine an Islamic conspiracy to subvert the United States. Alleged Muslim intentions were seen as similar to communist aims during the Cold War. Both groups were pictured as perpetrating vast conspiracies to take over the world. Both were thought to have secret agents and sleeper cells in the U.S. And both were pictured as hostile the American way of life. Two particular groups in the U.S. quickly took advantage of this paranoid potential relative to Islam in order to push their agendas: American Zionists and American Christian fundamentalists.
The Zionists saw the potential of focusing paranoid politics on American Muslims as a way to marginalize a group that was often critical of Israel and its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Thus, the Zionist extremist Daniel Pipes has repeatedly called into question the loyalty of American Muslims and singled them out as somehow anti-American because, “a substantial” number of them “share with suicide hijackers a hatred of the United States.” (Paul Campos, A Dangerous Argument, Rocky Mountain News Jan. 4, 2005). The Christian fundamentalists have a fear and loathing of Islam even older than that of the Zionists. For the fundamentalists September 11 opened the door to a new crusade, to the renewal of the age old battle between Christendom and Islam now brought into the heartland of America. Thus, Christian fundamentalist organizations in the state of Oklahoma, led by State Representative Rex Duncan, have pushed legislation that would prohibit the state’s courts from using Sharia law to decide any cases. This nonsensical gesture (American courts are bound to use American law) was “passed overwhelmingly in both the house and senate” of Oklahoma. (Hailey Branson-Potts, OkGazette.com, “State Question 755,” October 6, 2010). At the foreign policy level, both groups lobbied for the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.
All of this means bad times for America’s Muslim citizens and residents. Take the case of Safaa Fathy, a physiotherapist by trade and mother of three. She is a resident of the small town of Murfreesboro in Tennessee. “There is something around the whole United States, something different” she says. “I was here since 1982. I have three kids here and I never had any trouble. My kids, they go to the girl scouts, they play basketball, they did all the normal activities. It just started this year. It’s strange, because after 9/11 there was no problem.” (Chris McGreal, “Muslims in America Increasingly Alienated,” Guardian.co.uk, September 23, 2010). So what is the present problem? It happens that Safaa Fathy is on the board of the local Islamic center which rumor now says is a “front for Islamic Jihad.” She is also accused of plotting to force Sharia law on her neighbors, thus “threatening the existence of Christianity in the state of Tennessee.” Why the time delay from 9/11? Perhaps the process was slowed by George Bush Jr. publicly separating al-Qaeda and Islam proper. Perhaps it just took this long to turn attacks on Muslims and those who appeared Muslim (such as the Sikhs) into a full scale, nationwide hate campaign. Perhaps the trigger was the recent announcement by the 250 Muslims in Murfreesboro that they planned to expand the size of their mosque.
Another more national focus of the present paranoid campaign against American Muslims is the proposed Islamic center to be placed in an abandoned clothing store two blocks from “ground zero” in Manhattan. The opposition to the center has brought together all of the paranoid political minds of America. Publicity seeking Quran burners and Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israel now travel comfortably with right wing Republicans, Tea Party Democrats and extremist Jewish Zionists as they claim that the Manhattan project is really a “training facility” for Muslims who want to take over America.
A particularly colorful character in this paranoid campaign is the American Zionist Pamela Geller. She is one of America’s up and coming purveyors of Islamophobia (Anne Barnard and Alan Feuer, “Outraged and Outrageous” New York Times, October 8, 2010). Ms Geller has, almost single handedly, turned the debate over the proposed New York Islamic center into a clash of civilizations. Along with air time on Fox News, Geller accomplished this through her blogg, Atlas Shrugs. This achievement must stand as a milestone in web history, though not a particularly wholesome one.
Geller is also co-founder of the Freedom Defense Initiative which is dedicated to stopping “Islamic supremacist initiatives in American cities” and identifying “infiltrators of our federal agencies.” She is also a founder of the organizationStop Islamization of America which, in the finest Orwellian fashion, describes itself as a “human rights organization.” It recently raised enough money to place advertisements on the sides of New York City buses identifying the Islam with the 9/11 attacks. The organization’s motto is “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.” She is an ally of any number of right wing politicians known for their anti-Islamic positions such as Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Gary Berntsen, and the Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders. And, she is a right-wing Zionist with connections to the West Bank settler movement. This may be the real root of her anti-Islamic sentiments.
Geller is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much anti-Islamic rhetoric to be heard in the November 2010 political campaigning particularly in America’s Bible Belt, which U.S. fundamentalists describe as the center of America’s crusade against Islam. That is why Lou Ann Zelnick, running for Congress in Tennessee as a Republican can claim that there is a secret conspiracy among Muslims to “fracture the moral and political foundations of middle Tennessee.” (Chris McGreal, Guardian.co.uk,). After all, as her friend Lourie Cordoza-Moore, the founder of a group of Christian supporters of Israel explains, Tennessee is integral part of the Bible Belt and the Muslims see that area as the “capital of the crusades.” (Chris McGreal, Guardian.co.uk,) It is a neat, if quite crazy, picture where all the parts seem to fit.
There are millions of Americans who find the Islamophobic message convincing (See Reza Aslan’s “America’s Anti-Islam Hysteria,” The Daily Beast, October 12, 2010). For example, most of the followers of Glenn Beck, Franklin Graham, Michael Evans, Rob Grant and the late Jerry Falwell are probably on the same page as Pamela Geller and Lou Ann Zelnick. Taken altogether they might account for about 10% of the adult American population (that is over 20 million people). These are the sort of people who think that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim leading an Islamic plot to take over the country and institute Sharia law. You may think that this notion is just too fantastic, but it probably helped cause the Texas State Board of Education to believe that there is a plot by Muslim Americans to take over the textbook publishing industry. As a response to this fear, the Texas State Board is now proposing to “curtail references to Islam in Texas textbooks” (April Castro, “Texas ed Board Considers Resolution Limiting Islam,” Associated Press, September 24, 2010).
Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Murfreesboro mosque, has grasped the historically cyclical nature of the problems that now confront him and his fellow Muslim Americans. He notes that “others have been here before. A generation ago in Tennessee black activists were burned out of their homes for fighting against segregation and civil rights….It’s a cycle of life.” (Chris McGreal, Guardian.co.uk,).
Well, it certainly is a cycle of American political life and, ironically, one completely opposed to the post civil rights era ideal of the American ethos. That being so, we can properly describe as unAmerican those Christian fundamentalists, American Zionists and others who denigrate Muslims living in the United States. They are the purveyors of paranoid politics and as such the least civilized of our citizens–the ones who omit “and justice for all” whenever they pledge allegiance to the flag.