Michael Wolraich's picture

    The Future of Islamophobia

    The furor over the Islamic center near Ground Zero has led many to conclude that the right wing has rediscovered its passion for Muslim-bashing, and some predict more to come. But what strikes me most about the recent outburst of Islamophobia is its exceptionality. Nine years after 9/11, the once preeminent obsession of American foreign policy and Republican politics had been all but forgotten. Even the attempted bombing of Times Square failed to generate much rage from the right.

    The nativist issue of the day is not terrorism but immigration, which has dominated the right wing media for several years. The Republican politicians who have spoken most outrageously about renewed terrorism threats have even done so within the context of the immigration. For instance, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) warned that Arab terrorists are learning Spanish in Venezuela in order to disguise themselves as Mexican immigrants. And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that terrorists are sending women to have babies in the U.S.--"And then one day, twenty...thirty years down the road, they can be sent in to help destroy our way of life." These warnings seem designed primarily to raise the immigration fear factor by citing Islamic terrorism, much as other nativist demagogues have cited disease and Mexican conquest in the Southwest to make immigration seem especially scary.

    In fact, immigration has always been a much more resonant topic than Islam among American nativists, and fearmongering over illegal immigration had been on the rise in the 1990s. That trend was suddenly interrupted by tragedy of 9/11, and the nation's gaze switched from south to east. Following Bush's lead, conservative demagogues exploited the fear generated by the attacks and went to war, leaving old nativists like Pat Buchanan to shuffle about in the political wilderness muttering about Jewish neo-cons leading the nation into a war that was not in the nation's interest.

    But without fresh terrorism threats, the right slipped back into its more familiar routine during the past few years. Though illegal immigration levels have been declining, hysteria over immigration has been exploding. Right-wing complaints about Hispanic immigrants have been far more frequent and strident than concern over Islam. Of course, the Islamic center near Ground Zero reopened the old wounds, and Republicans have gleefully exploited it using the extremist language that has become popular in the immigration dialogue. But barring a resurgent threat from the Islamic terrorists, I see the recent outburst of Islamophobia as a temporary  digression from the main thrust of conservative demagoguery.

    I'm currently writing a book about right-wing paranoia, Blowing Smoke, to be published in October. For updates, click the I Like button on the book's fan page.



    Interesting take, Genghis. But I think you're parsing things a bit too finely in treating hatred of Muslims and hatred of immigrants as separate things, one of which trumps the other in importance. It's all of a piece, as evidenced by the terror-anchor-baby insanity that you yourself cite.

    Remember back to the election and nomination campaigns of 2008? Ancient history, it seems now. A kinder, gentler time when it was tacitly agreed that overt racism was a no-no. (The Obama campaign fiercely punished even the most accidental violations.) Instead, we got a surrogate: birtherism, which combined both anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim elements under the veneer of a constitutional issue. Orly-Taitz-style birtherism has run its course, but left its slimy residue: one-quarter to one-fifth of Americans now believe their president is a secret Muslim.

    More important, for the discussion we're having here, by focusing on Obama all those haters learned how much they had in common; they've come to share a vocabulary and -- in the tea party -- a crude organization. There are tensions within the movement, of course. Some stress one priority over another. But these people have a goal: They are working toward a Grand Unified Theory of Otherness.

    Along with illegal foreigners and unbelievers, there are gays and lesbians. Scientists (not the creationist kind -- the global-warming bunch). Liberal bloggers. Net neutralists. People who vacation on Martha's Vineyard. People who post on dagblog. All of them enemies. All un-American. All conspiring to drive change, when everyone was so content with the way things were. And, of course -- as always -- there are the blacks, still griping about the way they were treated for a couple of hundred years.

    I almost sympathize. No, not really. Like Nietzsche said, the best thing some people can do is to know when to die. (Apologies to any right-wing crackerheads I've offended. Wine talking.)

    Ac, I agree with you that the current tempest of Islamophobia is akin to the other brands of Tea Party xenophobia. And if there were a perceived influx of Muslims into the U.S., you would see a major, long-running trend of anti-Islamic hysteria. The only reason that Islamophobia is less central to American nativism than anti-Mexican sentiment is that we don't have a history of large Muslim immigration. In Europe, it's the reverse.

    The primary driver behind American Islamophobia is not immigration but terrorism. If there were continuous acts of terror on American soil by Muslim extremists, Isamophobia would become a really big deal here. But absent new acts of terror (or reminders of old acts of terror), it fades.

    I don't normally suggest that anyone (even bad, stupid, ill-educated and ill-intentioned people) should die. I definitely blame the wine.

    I disagree. Nativism and Islamophobia are separate phenomena. As Ghengis pointed out, the U.S. has always had xenophobic social movements directed against immigrants, and their strength is directly tied to the general economy. Islamophobia is driven by politics, and is an indirect attack on Barack Obama, in the same way that the 9/11 Truth Movement was an indirect attack on George Bush.

    I wouldn't put it quite the same way. Islamophobia is a form of nativism--as European countries often demonstrate--and all forms of nativism are frequently driven by politics. But Islamophobia is a rare form of nativism in the U.S. that was driven into prominence by terrorism, not immigration. I think it's similar in some ways to anti-Japanese bias during WWII. Thus, if the terrorist attacks subside (as they have so far), so will the Islamophobia.

    Latest Comments