Saturday, October 2, 2010

 Islamophobia --Fearing Muslims

The recent manifestations of fear and detestation of Muslims in the United States come at the end of a long history of European rejections of Islam. Think of the Crusades, and the expulsion of Arabs from Spain in the year that Columbus first came to the new world.

But the people who supported an unknown Florida pastor in his abortive plan to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11,  or the people who demonstrate passionately against the plan for an Islamic center near Ground Zero are motivated by more contemporary preoccupations.

Fear was a dominant emotion at the Manhattan demonstrations and may well be behind the project to burn the Koran or actual burnings of mosques in different parts of the country. The opponents of the Muslim community center were protesting what they called "the Islamization" of America. They are afraid, they said, that our legal system will be replaced by Islamic religious law, sharia.

We should notice two aspects of these outbursts of anti-Muslim feelings. In the first place, the fears are wildly exaggerated. America is not about to be "islamicized." Sharia law is not about to take over.

The second important point is that politicians on the right have, in the last year, made it their business to frighten voters. Remember the talk about "death panels." Remember all the talk that health care reform will take away peoples’ health insurance. Think of all the talk about Pres. Obama being a Muslim. Think of the talk about how we are on the point of losing all our freedoms, or how our Constitution is in imminent danger.

Or look at the uproar about the Islamic Center in Manhattan. At the present time, an Imam who likes big ideas is talking about building this tall edifice devoted to Islamic culture. Three people, one of them a native of Egypt, own three buildings. But the Egyptian native has said publicly that he will sell his building to the highest bidder. He is not firmly committed to the Islamic Center project. There is no fund-raising to pay for this building. So far there are no plans. The whole thing is just an idea.

Fear stalks the land and politicians are fomenting it.

But it is pretty easy to scare people these days. Some people are really afraid of Islam taking over. We need to ask ourselves why so many people are so fearful.

Unfortunately there are too many legitimate reasons for being fearful. Unemployment remains at 10%; people with jobs are afraid of losing them. Another 10% are underemployed. Winter is coming and many people do not know how they will pay for the heat, their rent and their food. Congress is unable and/or unwilling to help anyone except the largest banks and manufacturers.

But there are other reasons. We just passed the ninth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 but are still awaiting  a national discussion of what happened there. The immediate reaction was that we were innocent victims of "terrorists" and that usually means murderous thugs, mindless killers or religious fanatics. No one in government ever made any effort to provide an explanation for 9/11. No one has asked what these attacks had to do with the role the United States plays in the world -- especially in the world of Arabs and of Muslims.

In order to avoid asking these questions and to avoid the answers which may well be uncomfortable we talk about "terrorism." Terrorists are thought to be completely unreasonable, murderous people. It is useless to ask why they do what they do because they are utterly irrational.

Terrorist attacks have no rational explanation. If 9/11 was an attack by irrational people, we need not examine our role in the world and ask ourselves whether we are, to any extent, responsible for what happened that day.

But the thought that the world is full of crazy people who control really destructive weapons is indeed very frightening. If the terrorists are really completely unreasonable, their behavior is unpredictable, and short of killing them, there is no way of resolving the problem.

The United States is confronted by a dilemma. We can think seriously of why we are under attack and, perhaps, reconsider the  stance we assume in the world. But that may well compel us to give up our splendid self conception of being the leaders of the free world, and we are not willing to do that. The alternative is to think that our opponents, the people who threaten us, are wildly irrational, unpredictable, religious fanatics. But that is a frightening thought because there is no talking to them. Such people are completely unpredictable.

So many people are very fearful because we have chosen to frighten ourselves with the bogeyman of the terrorists because we refuse to think about who we are, how we present ourselves to the world, and whether, perhaps, we need to change our image and our conduct in relation to other countries.