The scapegoating of Muslims

Published in Viewpoint, October 22, 2010

It is no secret that the right wing pundits and politicians in the United States have always used simplistic and reductive framing of issues to appeal to the emotions and fears of the American public. In his book Moral Politics (U of Chicago P, 2002), George Lakoff explains how this kind of public framing relies on mobilization of certain specific stereotypes. One strategy, often used by the right wing politicians and pundits in the United States, involves the use of a social stereotype “for making snap judgments—judgments without reflective thought—about an entire category, by virtue of suggesting that the stereotype is the typical case” (Lakoff 10). This is precisely what is being done to the American Muslims by some stalwarts of the Republican Party: labeling and judgments about Muslims without reflection being offered as simple statements of truth.

Another important aspect of the immediate history of the right wing American politics is that their policies and pronouncements are often made against the most powerless and weak social groups: gays and lesbians, minorities, single mothers, the homeless, and the immigrants. As the mid-term elections approach, it seems as if the Republicans have decided to frame the American Muslims—immigrants and citizens—as the ultimate threat to the interests of the United States. The statements being made about the Muslims and Islam in the recent few weeks should not be seen as random thoughts of a few whacko politicians: as political research shows, there is never anything random about the talking points of the American right. Listed below is a sample of what has been said and declared by various prominent figures from the American right:

Sharon Angle (Nevada Republican senatorial candidate)

We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn’t a widespread thing. But it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it. My thoughts are these. First of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States. (Cited from salon.com

Rex Duncan (Oklahoma State Senator)

In order to protect America from international law or the Sharia law, Rex Duncan. Another republican, wants to introduce a “Save our State” a ballot measure that is, in his words “is a pre-emptive strike to make sure that liberal judges don’t take to the bench in an effort to use their position to undermine” undermine the US laws by admitting interntional or sharia law. (Cited from The Reaction

Newt Gingrich, Republican Presidential hopeful in 2012

We should have a federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States,” Gingrich told an audience at the Values Voter Summit in D.C. last month. He wants the law to stipulate that, “no judge will remain in office [who] tried to use Sharia law. (Cited from The Daily Beast)

These are not just isolated statements by desperate politicians: this is, rather, a sophisticated framing of American Muslims—immigrant and citizen alike—as an internal threat offered in various guises at numerous right wing venues. While president Bush had at least made it a point to isolate the September eleven terrorists as individuals who had perpetuated a wrong against Americans, the current drive of the conservative media (Fox news, for example) and the extreme right wing of the Republican party have no problem in conflating the terrorists and the common Muslims. As a powerless group, forming only one percent of the US population, Muslims are probably the only demographic that can be easily demonized without much public resentment or political cost, especially if all Muslims are presented as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

This anti-Muslim turn in the US conservative circles should not be seen as an end in itself. We should read it through the insights provided by Lakoff about framing, for the purpose of these statements is to suggest that the Muslim stereotype is the real identity of Muslims in America as well as in the rest of the world. Framing, Lakoff also suggests, is not a random act. In fact, representatives of right wing pressure groups meet once a month to haggle and decide the issues of the month that need to be talked about. After certain issues are chosen, then all branches of the US conservative movement, Fox News being their main media outlet, start repeating the selected issues in a wider frame. The purpose, of course, is to create an issue out of a non-issue (like the Shriah law in the US) and to posit their opponents as weak on the chosen issue. The Muslims-as-a-threat frame is not just about the Muslims; in fact it is an isntrumentalization of Muslims for the short-term gains in the mid-term elections.

By presenting all Muslims as a problem, the Republicans hope to “create” an issue and then blame their opponents for not being strident, sanguine, or tough against the “Muslim threat.” Thus, even when the Democrats or other liberal groups attempt to separate the Muslim terrorist groups from common Muslims, they tend to sound weak and unclear, for a complex view of any situation tends to come across as wobbly in a climate of reductive opinions informed by media bite statements.

The American Muslims cannot respond to this conservative onslaught by pointing out the absurdity of these claims: those making these claims know that what they are saying is a lie. What the American Muslims need to do is to build a long-term political strategy that makes it impossible for anyone to issue blanket racist and bigoted statements about them. This strategy must involve an informed response in the semiotic arena by the Muslim scholars, critics, and journalists and mobilization of larger political solidarity amongst American Muslims. The devout Muslims in the US tend to vote Republican because of their conservative leanings; but this is a vote against their own interests. The American Muslims should build a strong coalition of voters who are well informed about the American party politics and then attempt to create lateral alliances with other disenfranchised groups so as to become a viable political block. In a time when Muslims are constantly put on the defensive by the vitriolic and bigoted claims of the conservative media and conservative politicians, the need to be politically active is far greater and silence is not an option.

The American Muslims cannot also just leave their own representation in the hands of a few misinformed Mullahs who neither have the training nor the cross-cultural expertise to really represent the diverse nature of Islam in America. Just as the attack on Muslims is orchestrated by the right and is continuous and persistent, the Muslim voice in the American public sphere must also be continuous and consistent and all acts of semiotic or political aggression against the Muslims must be countered with a balanced but persistent counter discourse.

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