Stanford Progressive

Why the Dialogue of Us and Them Will Turn Us Into Them: Extremism in America

By Shadi Bushra, Editor-in-Chief, published October, 2010


“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such a twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwilling victims of the darkness.”

Justice William Douglas


It is no exaggeration to state that today, there is a stirring in the air. There are some who are so struck with fear that they would trade away their civil liberties and the rights of other Americans for a false sense of security. There are some who would so blatantly break one of the great promises of our nation, that all should be granted equal right to worship in the manner that they choose. Initially, this seems to be a knee-jerk response to a highly sensitive subject, and the passions surrounding September 11th can be understood. But buried only skin-deep is an underlying belief that all Muslims should be punished for the crimes of a handful. This logic is as terrifying as it is false, for in our atmosphere of weak political leadership and fearful hysteria it has the power to lead to the violence that we saw last month. By excluding Muslims from “Us”  while sullying our coveted constitutional rights, we risk becoming the intolerant, hateful, violent “Them” that many have painted Muslims.

“They Hate Us For Our Freedoms”

The last month offers much news for analysis. Take, for example, the stabbing of a Bengali Muslim cab driver in New York City on August 25th.  Much of Michael Enright’s stabbing of Ahmed Sharif remains shrouded in mystery, and we should take care not to jump to unfounded conclusions as the investigation and psychiatric evaluation progress. But one part of the story seems shockingly clear: Enright stabbed Sharif because he was Muslim. The simple fact that he asked about Sharif’s faith before attacking him should raise eyebrows. Enright’s last words before attacking the driver – a drunken cry of “Alsalam alaikum”  (meaning “peace be unto you”) – add an element of malicious irony which makes it hard to think the stabbing was anything but faith-based.

Those that bellow that it is too soon to draw such a conclusion are apologists for hate. On the same day as the stabbing, a drunken man stumbled into a Queens mosque and urinated on prayer rugs. Earlier in the day and across the country, worshippers arrived at a Fresno mosque to find it vandalized with signs reading, among other things, “No temple for the god of terrorism.” With one day hosting so many incidents of intimidation, desecration, and outright violence, why are some still so hesitant to call these acts what they are?

The answer is deceptively simple: we as Americans are loathe to think of ourselves as anything but tolerant and accepting. Freedom for all is, after all, our claim to fame. President Bush made it a point to drive home the idea that an indeterminate “They” hate us because of our freedoms.

In January 2002, Bush claimed that “they are defined by their hatreds; they hate … Jews and Christians and all Muslims who disagree with them,” going on to say that they act “in the name of a false religious purity.” In another instance, he gave specific examples: “They hate our freedoms. Our freedom of religion. Our freedom of speech.”  And, of course, he asserted our role  in the struggle against terror by reminding us that “America will lead by defending liberty and justice.”

But today, it does not seem as though we are capable of defending liberty and justice on our own soil, let alone in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, it seems as though the “Us,” the freedom-loving Americans, are resembling the hateful and intolerant “Them” more and more.

The Failure of Our Media, Our Leaders, and Ourselves

The Fresno Bee, which reported the third hate crime on August 25th above, notes that some believe radio broadcasters in the city “live to insult Muslims and rile people against them.” Indeed, the flippant comments of radio broadcasters and their cousins on television seem to disregard the potential for inciting hate. Former Fresno Mayor and current morning radio personality Alan Autry embodies this refusal of responsibility: “Knuckleheads to things like that. They don’t need [us] to  be stirred up.”

Nobody particularly expects the media to do what is right over what is profitable. But our political leadership has been similarly disappointing. Leaders of the right have been silent or dismissive of such incidences, afraid of alienating voters by cozying up too close to Muslims, moderate or extremist, American or otherwise. The runaway train that is the Tea Party has forced more Republicans even further to the right.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has compared Imam Faisal, who seeks to promote interfaith dialogue, with Pastor Jones, who planned to burn Qurans on 9/11. Conservative commentator Jeffrey Kuhner goes so far as to say that the “equation of patriotism with xenophobic bigotry lies at the heart of modern liberalism. It is why our political and media class despises Middle America… Charges of racism and intolerance are the hammer and sickle of cultural liberalism. They are used to beat the rebellious heartland into submission.” The rhetoric of Kuhner and other apologists for racism exemplify the emotions in what should be a level-headed discussion on our rights as Americans, and what limitations on those rights exist.

The left, in a tough political season has been just as apprehensive of taking a principled stand – most Democrats are simply not trying to draw attention to themselves. Others will not stick their necks out for a politically unimportant constituency. And they certainly will not do anything which would allow Republican and primary contenders to question their patriotism. Notable exceptions include President Obama (at least initially) and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg.

But ultimately, the blame must rest with us. Despite the Center for American-Islamic Relations expressing “cautious optimism” that the post-9/11 backlash was “leveling off” earlier this year, a spokesman believes that anti-Muslim sentiment is skyrocketing.  While the FBI’s hate crime data for 2008 showed a decrease from the all-time high in 2001, there is no way to know this year’s numbers for some time. But according to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “anecdotally there is no question we are seeing a spate of anti-Muslim hate crimes.”

“We Have Seen Their Kind Before”

As President Bush said, “We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before.” While his original speech was talking about extremists overseas, here it references American extremists. That the same exact words can be used to describe the most destructive terrorists the United States has known, and a pyromaniac Florida pastor is both telling and disturbing.

The common argument is that these are small, outlying groups of Americans that hold these racist views. I can attest to this – most Americans are not overtly Islamophobic (at least not to the extent of burning Qurans and stabbing Muslim-Americans). But this minority of Americans is unfortunately becoming the face of America. As Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, points out, much of the damage has already been done simply by this religious “hate merchant” threatening to burn the Quran, and the media jumping right along for the ride. Copycats are already springing up nationwide, this time making good on the threat.

Indian Protests of American Islamophobia (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The governments of many Muslim countries issued warnings that such open and well-publicized desecrations of Islam were dangerous for Americans all over the world, echoed by Imam Faisal of the Cordoba Initiative. Until General Patraeus and Secretary of Defense Gates came to the same conclusion, many on the right interpreted these warnings as veiled threats. Far from it, they were friendly reminders from moderate Muslims who know what their radical brethren are capable of. The take-home message: If Americans did not at the very least contain their fear and hatred of Islam, the war against Islamist extremism would be impossible to win.

Even if the war were winnable with Islamophobia rampant at home, after a certain point, it is simply not worth winning. Al Qaeda is aware that it cannot win militarily. The organization’s goals are to bankrupt us financially and morally. Our attempt to fight two wars at once has cost the United States $1.7 trillion so far. We have played into al Qaeda’s hand on that front. We are now well on our way to bankrupting our moral legitimacy by repeatedly confirming that our “victory” (still undefined in this amorphous war) is more important than our founding principles.

“We Were Never As Tolerant As We Thought We Were”

Something to remember is that just as the government could not force Pastor Jones to not burn the Quran, the government cannot hinder Muslims from constructing a mosque on privately owned property. Both Jones’ freedom of expression, and Muslims’ freedom of worship are protected.

Nevertheless, polls as of September 9th show that over 70% of Americans are opposed to a mosque being built in the general vicinity of Ground Zero. As mentioned earlier, given the justifiable (if not always reasonable) emotions surrounding September 11th, this isn’t terribly surprising. What is worse is that polls also show that a full quarter of Americans believe that local communities should be able to veto plans to build mosques. One can see how this can be a slippery slope, a twilight of acceptable but still uneasy curtailment of rights. Some are no longer content with restricting worship on the hallowed ground of Upper Manhattan, but now want government to restrict freedom of worship anywhere in the United States.

Reverend Lynn offers apt analysis of our penchant for selective memory when it comes to others’ rights. “We were never as tolerant as we thought we were,” he says. “The rock on which tolerance is built is often more like sandstone than it is granite.” It is easy to erode at any time when problems in the culture develop.”

Recruiting for Al Qaeda

Make no mistake about it; we will not end terrorism from the Muslim world by ourselves. So long as it only takes one disgruntled individual to set off a bomb in a crowded mall, an end to Islamist-fueled violence can only come from Muslims themselves.  The vast majority of extremists haven not resorted to such blindly violent means because they “hate our freedoms,” as the Bush-era rhetoric goes. In fact, most extremists have chosen that route because they hate our decades of self-interested and imperious policies in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, and Egypt, to name a few. American hubris has affected many Muslims’ (and Americans’) lives for the worse. We can no longer intimidate our way to victory, as Pastor Jones would have us do.

American-born Qaeda propagandist al-Awlaki (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

One need not even leave our shores to find the Islamic extremism the right fears so much. Take, for example, Anwar al-Awlaki. He regularly gives vehemently hateful speeches on the internet, and is one of al-Qaeda’s most valuable recruiting tools (three of the 9/11 hijackers and December’s underwear-bomber were regular listeners). And, he is American born, having just moved to Yemen to continue his hate speech unchecked, where he now lives with a CIA targeted killing request looming over his head.

In my home state of Minnesota, there have also been young Somali-Americans leaving their lives and joining the Qaeda-affiliated al Shabab group in Somalia. Omar Hamami is another American serving as a commander with al Shabab. While there is no conclusive answer to why, it is clear that when Muslim-Americans do not feel at home here, they will react accordingly.

If Muslim-Americans are treated as second-class citizens – if the erection of new mosques are restricted, if their businesses are vandalized, if they fear for their safety – then we are suffocating their love for this country with our own intolerance. We are not only making it easier for Islamist extremists to recruit; we are essentially doing the recruiting for them.

Twilight

The solution, if not intimidation and unnecessary confrontation, must be cooperation. We must convince Muslims that we are not their enemy through acts of interfaith friendship – exactly what Imam Faisal’s initiative meant to do. And America must value moderate Muslims like Imam Faisal as intermediaries and emissaries to the Islamic world. Until we can control the thoughts and actions of every individual in the world, there is no way to guarantee the United States’ security other than to open up a dialogue with moderate Muslims. Doing so takes the power away from the radicals and underscores for the next generation of Muslims that there is another path. If we continue to paint all Muslims as terrorists, we should not be surprised when some become terrorists.

At the same time, we must convince Americans that Muslims are not their enemy. There is indeed a small fraction of the Muslim world that would do harm to the United States’ citizens and interests. But in my own experience, the vast majority of Muslims have greater concerns than American policy or violent Islamist jihad. Muslims are regular people with regular concerns: feeding their families, getting their children an education, and enjoying their lives as best they can.

Because the media has given Pastor Jones so much attention, he is currently the face of America’s relations with the Muslim world: fearful, arrogant, and violent. Kuhner’s words that supporters of the mosque in Manhattan are insisting that “American exceptionalism and love of country must be smashed” are terribly misdirected. For it is because America is exceptional that we are tolerant of others. And it is because we love America that we should defend this to the death. To do or say otherwise proves that “We” are not so different from “Them” after all.

Minority religious centers should not need to hire security in Fresno like it is Fallujah and cab drivers should not fear death in New York as if it is Najaf. Contrary to what some fearmongers on the right state, America is not dealing with an insurgency like Iraq and she is not a theocracy like Iran. America is neither splitting at the seams like Sudan nor a rich and repressive monarchy like Saudi Arabia. That is not the bar America sets for herself, and it is not the bar her citizens should set for themselves. We are a democracy that respects the rights of the majority and the minority alike, and our way of life requires the majority to not only respect, but to defend the rights of the minority. For we don’t know when we will be in the minority, and when that twilight of uncertainty and convenient forgetfulness will turn into the darkness of certain oppression.


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  1.    Why the Dialogue of Us and Them Will Turn Us Into Them: Extremism in America – Stanford Progressive by Colocation Data Center Hosting Costs, November 1, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

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