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

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.

Commentaries Education

The Incompatiblity of Conservatism and Humanities

I recently found myself stating in one of my classes that conservative thought was inherently incompatible with humanistic inquiry and praxis. Though I offered a brief explanation of my  statement to my class, I felt that there was a need to further expound my statement and to trace the very geneology of my desire to express it.

What I mean by conservatism, of course, needs a bit of an explanation. To me conservative mode of thinking relies heavily on metaphysical and religious explanations of the real and presupposes, to a certain degree, that certain ideas, thoughts, and practices are a priori wrong, forbidden, or unacceptable. Such an approach to critical inquiry, thus, can very easily foreclose certain fields and modes of inquiry.

Thus, in a conservative mode humanities and humanistic practice would cease to be an open-ended questioning of truth and would have to rely on certain exclusionary practices that predecide the permissibility and impermissibility of certain thoughts and practices. This foreclosure, caused by assumptions and practices dictated by one’s religious or political presuppositions, would eventually end up making the conservative humanist to be selective in what to include as an object of study.

Such predecided exclusions, I believe, are against the very practice of an open-ended inquiry and the inclusionary practices that encourage us to think at the very limit of thought. To be effective, humanistic inquiry must not prejudge or exclude any possible avenue of inquiry and only a progressive and inclusive politics can enable us to do that.

And since conservatism depends on stable boundaries and exclusionary practices to maintain that stability, it is, therefore, an unsuitable politics for an open and more complex humanistic philosophy and praxis.


The Myth of Individualism and American Conservatism of the Far Right

Having heard and watched various actions of the so-called Tea party Movement and the Republican leaders trying to tap into this movement for the next election, I could not help but notice some drastic inconsistencies in their self-presentation.

What we are being told is that these people are angry with big government and wary of the increasing influence of government over American individual freedoms. In their view the Democrats are socialists and thus represent a collective sense of identity.

First of all, if they all are so much about the individual freedom, how is it that most of their political beliefs manifest a different kind of government control: most of them are anti-gay, against abortion rights, and even against paying taxes. So, they want the government to be able to regulate the very private, and individual decisions of people, but do not want the government to aspire to provide healthcare for the people. Similarly, the same people are so adamant about protecting their privacy, but had nothing to say when the Bush administration was listening to the conversations of everyone living in the United States.

Similarly, the Republicans who see this group of people as a vote bank have displayed their own inconsistencies in the debates during the healthcare reform bill passage. Isn’t it strange that a party so invested in the Individual’s right to make his or her own decisions, and a party that consistently blames the other of collectivism, voted against the bill as a block. The so-called socialist party had more than thirty dissenters, but the party of individualism could not even offer just a couple of dissenters. How does this extreme form of conformism to the party leadership help bolster their claim to individualism?

Also, the same group of people who are enraged at government spending had no problem when Mr. Bush was bankrupting the nation by fighting two wars entirely on credit. Why weren’t they concerned about spending then? Or is it only when the government tries to make healthcare accessible to all that spending becomes an issue.

In a recent talk, Noam Chomsky, who has the uncanny ability to distill complex ideas, pointed out that there are quite a few similarities between the rhetoric of the extreme right and the historical statements of the fascists in pre-Nazi Germany. Now, I am not suggesting that these people are Nazis, but their rhetoric is increasingly becoming more fascist, uncompromising, racist, and irrational. And, to make matters worse, they have media anchors–a whole news network–shaping the debate and heating up the passions with the most irresponsible propaganda ever mobilized by a news organization.

So, my final question: how does a large group that votes en bloc and acts as a cohesive pressure group, still keep its individualistic values?