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January 1, 2016

American politics of fear: The Muslim chapter

By Arthur Scott

Unfortunately, American political culture revolves around what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoidof fear.”What the “politics of fear” does is to identify a nationality/ethnicity, a gender/color/race, a political party/movement/group,or an economic classes: super-rich to middle-class to poor, and demonizes them with the claim that they have the power to alter or destroy the American way of life.

Historically, America has been susceptible to cultural paranoia because of its immense diversity, a by-product of its immigrant history. Diversity lends to easier manipulation according to race, religion, gender and class.Similarly, fear management has been endemicwithin its political history as a way of scaring and manipulating the electorate going back to John Adams /Thomas Jefferson.  It’s particularly virulent today among the Republican field of candidates who are largely targeting Muslims and Latinos.

Fear mongering started with thehard-working/frugalPuritans, who saw in thepagan Indigenous lifestyle, grounded in nature,a threat to their European-Protestant property based economy.  Puritan paranoia led to a policy of ethnic cleansing and reservation marginalization based on color,alleged native backwardness, and inherent “savagery.”  Blacks, too,have been historically discriminated against and terrorized for racial and economic reasons since1619.Even today Blacks continue to struggle as evidenced by “Black lives matter” movement to achieve equality one hundred and forty-two years after their Emancipation.  It is estimated that every 28 hours a black person is killed in America.

American twentieth century history is replete with nativist demonization episodes:

  • The first Red Scare in 1919, targeted socialist, communists, unions, and Eastern Europeans on the grounds they were unable to assimilate into the general populace at the time.  They were a threat to American democracy:  they spoke funny, practiced different religions, lived in ethnic neighborhoods, were politically unreliable, profligateand could be turned by the Moscow Bolsheviks into revolutionaries determined to overthrow and destroy America.  This fear shifted the cultureto the “Right” leading to the Palmer Raids in which many innocent thousands were arrested, and exiled primarily on the grounds of xenophobia and political gain. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer saw in the growing fear/antipathy of the Italian/Slavicoutsider an opportunity to strike and gain the Democratic nomination for President. A major instrument of the Palmer terror was J. Edgar Hoover. Palmer quickly fell out of favor when the 1920 May Day uprising he predicted never materialized.  Nonetheless, sufficiently frightened America closed its doors to foreigners with the passage of the1924 Immigration Act which limited entry to whites from the British Isles and Scandinavia.
  • The Monkey Scopes Trial in 1925, took place in Dayton, Tennessee.  It was a continuation of the post-World War I conservative backlash that pitted religion againstscience, the old against the new, the buggy against the Model T. Somewhat reminiscent of the clash today in Congress over climate change and carbon emissions.  It was triggered by the fear over modernity, and the science of Einstein/Heisenberg/Freud, which pictured a physical/psychological world much more complex and unpredictable than that of the Old Testament and even of Newton.  White rural Protestants were suspiciousof the skyscraper, the women’s right to vote, and of course Darwin. John Scopes, a science high school teacher, was accused of teaching evolution to his students. It quickly became a global press event with Clarence Darrow arguing for Darwin and William Jennings Bryant for traditional Christian values. Although Darrow won and most southern states reluctantly allowed the teachings of evolution, the fearremained palpable and still pursuits in the collective unconscious.
  •  In the 1920s, the fear of modernity morphed into the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan.  It constituted a powerful expression of Nativism and xenophobia by white Christian Americans who saw their rural world crumbling as America citified and industrialized.  They resented people of color, especially Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Roman Catholics, and of course Darwin.  The 1915, D. W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, set racial attitudes in American for generations by portraying Blacks as sexual/political predators.  It was used by the KKK as a powerful recruitment tool. Membership swelled in the mid-20s with Klan governorsbeing elected inTexas, Oklahoma, Oregon and Indiana. However, by the end of the decade Klan appeal collapsed because of corrupt practices among its leadership who failed to walk their truth, and the economic impact of the Depression.
  • In 1942,paranoia reared its head again with the internment of 127,000 Japanese.  The Japanese were seen by many as a Trojan horse that would sabotage the American war effort.  Many Americans called for their extermination.  Key governmental players believed that American Japanese had conspired at Pearl Harbor.  Most lived in the West Coast and in the process of being rounded up and incarcerated lost their businesses, property, homes and status.  Ironically,two-thirds were born in America.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which transferred the Japanese to remote and desolate internment camps located in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming and Arkansas.  Their arrest and incarcerationrepresented another terrible violation of civil rights and respect for diversity.  In 1988, The United States Congress tried to assuage the injustice by awarding a twenty thousand dollar restitution for their survivors which fell far short of compensation for the terrible humiliation Japanese-Americans had experienced during World War II.
  • Senator Joe McCarthy’s 1950s “Red Scare” was another powerful example of how governmentalhearings based on fear/innuendo can destroy the lives of thousands leading to shredding of civil liberties in the name of National Security.The McCarthy Hearings werea by-product of the Cold War and the belief that America was in the throes of a life/death struggle with the Soviet Union for civilization.  The Mc McCarthy hearings focused on alleged treasonable behavior throughout government even the Pentagon.  It was triggered by the loss of China and the Soviet detonation of its atomic bomb by which America lost its nuclear monopoly and her military pre-eminence. This second Red Scare gave rise to a Military-Industrial-Intelligence State best represented by the Central Intelligence Agency under Allen Dulles, whichsoonbecame involved in numerous nefarious coup d’états.Likewise it led to the establishment of the House Committee on Un- American in which Hollywood was targeted as being over-ran with socialist, homosexuals and commies.  The film Trumbo captures the conservativeanimus and fear that gripped the nation by such “Cold War” warriors as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Hedda Hopper and J Edgar Hoover.  It was during the Eisenhower Presidency that the national government initiated the practice of lying to the American public in the name of National Security.
  •  During the 80s, the conservative right, notably evangelicals, rallied to Ronald Regan seeing in him a hero who would restore Christian values to America.  This so-called “white revolution” or conservative reaction,was particularly directedagainstwomen.  “Liberation” was viewed as a threat to male patriarchy/economic dominance.  The “Right” sought to reassert control over women’s mind/body by making abortion/divorce/education major cultural issues.  A woman’s place was at home caring for the family.  Educationwas corrupting youth making them druggies, sexually promiscuous, and leading young people to question authority, the flag, and even patriotism.  Likewise the conservative right disliked gays and saw the gay movement as another major challenge to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) dominance.  The Aids epidemic was interpreted by many as God’s punishment for wholesale sodomy.  San Francisco was anathema. Many rallied to the support of the Jews in the Middle East seeing in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict the coming“end of days”or Armageddon marking the return of Jesus and rapture.  They applauded Reagan’s decision to characterize the Soviet Empire as the “evil empire” grounded as it was in atheism.  Nancy Reagan’s simplistic mantra of “saying no to drugs” was greeted wildly by the conservative chorus at the very time the Central Intelligence Agency was selling crack to Blacks in Los Angeles in order to raise money for the Contras to over-throw Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.  The Wall Street white power establishmentof course was enthralled by Reagan “supply side/trickle-down economics” which undermined unions, devastated the middle–class, and whichwitnessed blatant transference of wealth to the one percentleaving the rest of the country broke.  Other addictive buzz words were privatization, free enterprise, profit, non-regulation. One of the worst examples of privatization are prisons, a multi–billion dollar enterprise that fall heaviest on peoples of color and had little to do with justice.
  •  Finally, comes ISIS, San Bernardino, Syrian migration, Presidential election 2016, and the onslaught of the “Green Terror” beginning with 9/11.  The fear politics aroundMuslims has crystalizedwithe Donald Trump and the conservative right: talk radio, Fox News and the religious right.  American Muslims are targeted on the grounds that they are just too different in their religion, culture, dress and community to ever be fully assimilated into the American mainstream.  Not only are they strangers,worse,like Native Americans, Japanese, women, and Latinos, they are potential terrorists.  A popular mantra is that “although all Muslims are not terrorists; all terrorists are Muslims.” Even 14 year old Ahmed Mohammed was scrutinized and arrested when he brought a homemade clock to show his teacher.  Since San Bernardino, Islamophobia hate crimes have skyrocketed running the gamut from defacing mosques, harassing worshipers,toincreased verbal abuse at work or in schools, as well as frequent attacks on women wearing the hijab or even abuses of the Quran.  One of the challenges confronted by Muslim community is that they are viewed exclusively by religion and not by nationality/ethnicity.  The Middle East mosaic is quitevaried and complex: Arabs, Egyptians, Iraqis, Turks, Iranians, Palestinians, Afghans, Kurds, Lebanese, Jordanians and many subsets of the above.  Even religiously, great complexity and variability exist among Muslims in-part driven by Sunna-Shia and other groups: Alawites, Druze’s, and Ismaili’s.  Moreover, not all Muslims are practicing: many are secular or atheistic or agnostic and do not even follow the prescripts of the Five Pillars, but they are caught in the same tidal wave of fear. Couldn’t the media lower the hate rhetoric by identifying Middle Easterners by their ethnicity rather than religion?
  • In conclusion, the “Green Terror,” like the “Red Terror,” and various shifts to right known as “white Terror” have less to do with those who are being targeted than about America, about who we are as a people.  It is America who is on trial here, whether or not we truly embrace the revolutionary word to be found in the Declaration that “we hold these truths to be self- evident that all men are created equal”, or as Lincoln expressed it at Gettysburg where he transformed the Civil War into a moral imperative so that “we as a nation will experience a new birth of freedom,” or by renewing ourselves to the promises carved on the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” For many in the world, America is the promised land of freedom, and as its watchmen we need to be vigilant for the Muslim community who are presently most vulnerable to the politics of fear.  Rather than closing borders by entering into another isolationist period, American should open its arms to Syrian/Middle East refugees whose lives have been so disruptive with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Let’s never experience another internment.  Martin Luther King warned: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.