In February, Bill Cosby endorsed Katie Couric’s call to model a television show about a Muslim American family after The Cosby Show. On March 10, Representative Peter King opened Congressional hearings about radicalization in the Muslim American community. Which narrative will win out—one based on the true story that ordinary Muslims are simply trying to go about their daily lives as US citizens or the other, fabulous story that American Muslims are radical terrorist sympathizers bent on a “stealth jihad” to usurp the Constitution and impose Islamic law on the land?
The supposed widespread radicalization of American Muslims and their “stealth jihad” are paranoid fantasies. But because they are now being paraded about as political truths, it’s important to respond to these myths and the King hearings not defensively but judiciously and historically. A study last year by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that the number of Muslim Americans involved in terrorist activities is minuscule compared with the size of the community, labeling Muslim American homegrown terrorism “a serious, but limited, problem." Forty percent of Muslim domestic terrorism suspects since 2001 have been turned in by fellow Muslims, and law enforcement officials from across the country are vocal in contradicting King’s claim of Muslim noncooperation.
But still the story of a “stealth jihad” in particular continues to gain ground, fueling last summer’s opposition to Park51 (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque) and pushing voters in Oklahoma, with its tiny Muslim community, to vote overwhelmingly in November in favor of a state constitutional amendment that would ban the use of Sharia law in their courts. One Oklahoman Republican state representative called the vote “a war for the survival of the United States.” (A federal judge has temporarily blocked Oklahoma’s amendment as unconstitutional.) A dozen other states have since followed suit.
Meanwhile, the Pew Center on Religion published a report in September that found that at least thirty-five mosques across the country have faced opposition over the past two years. In Temecula, California, mosque opponents were advised to bring dogs to their demonstration because, as the leader of their group stated, Muslims “hate dogs.” A fringe religious leader in Florida garnered international coverage for his plans to burn Korans on September 11 last year and was talked out of the idea by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, no less. Conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly appeared on the popular daytime television show The View on October 14, where he stated that “Muslims killed us on 9/11” (causing two of the hosts, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, to walk offstage in anger). And during the 2010 election season, the Tea Party Nation called on its supporters to oust African-American Congressman Keith Ellison from his seat because he is Muslim. (Ellison has offered powerful testimony refuting the King hearings.)
It would seem that the fear of terrorism, commonly (and regrettably) associated with Islam, is being usurped by a very popular fear of Muslims generally. Acceptance of Muslim Americans, a counterweight to these suspicions for many years, may also be receding. The question is not just why has this happened but why has it taken nine years for this dramatic change to occur, and will it remain?
King’s answer seems to be that the Muslim American community has itself become increasingly radical. The lunatic ravings of Yemeni-American firebrand Anwar Awlaki, telling Muslim Americans to rise up against their government, certainly don’t help, and popular suspicion may also be stoked by a few high-profile arrests of “homegrown” terrorists.
But there may be better places to search for explanations, including American traditions of nativism. As John Higham’s classic work Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925 makes abundantly clear, Catholics, Germans, Reds, blacks, Jews and Asians, and immigrants of all sorts, have all been vilified by a doctrine known by various names as Know-Nothingism, 100 Percent Americanism or the Anglo-Saxon Ideal. “Nativism,” Higham writes, “was a defensive type of nationalism, but the defense varied as the nativist lashed out sometimes against a religious peril, sometimes against a revolutionary peril, sometimes against a racial peril.”
Muslim Americans today are cast as the latest villains in the grand nativist epic about the downfall of the United States. And while nativism offers a clue into explaining this anti-Muslim feeling, a related phenomenon that Richard Hofstadter identified in 1964 may offer better explanations. In his classic essay on political paranoia, Hofstadter argues that a recurring motif in American conservative discourse is a “paranoid style” of politics. He uses the term “paranoid” because he believes it best describes “the heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasies” of right-wing conservatives. As Higham does, Hofstadter reaches back to the nineteenth century to provide a genealogy of his subject, but he is most interested in the cold war politics of his age. The paranoid style was evident everywhere Hofstadter turned. In his essay, he quotes Joseph McCarthy, who believed he was surrounded by “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” The paranoid disposition is driven by “catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe,” which “is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric.”
The paranoid style of politics propels the fear and loathing of American Muslims today. The irrational panic that Sharia law is on the cusp of conquering the nation has its roots in the cold war conservative belief that the minions of the Soviet Union were deeply entrenched in the American ruling class and ready to turn on a ruble.
The modern anti-Muslim crusaders in the United States believe that Islam is on the march in the country, and that they are its last resistance. Just as immigration in the past left the nation nearly defenseless to the true and existential threats of the hour, so too does politically correct multiculturalism today. They believe that the conspiracy reaches high into the upper echelons of the ruling class, sometimes including President Obama. This may help explain why 24 percent of the electorate (and 46 percent of the GOP), according to Time, believe that the president is Muslim. There is certainly a kind of implied racial coding going on here—being Muslim also means that Obama is simply not one of “us”—but the feeling that a cabal of international socialists and Muslims have taken over or are ready to take over the country is implicit in much right-wing rhetoric, from Sarah Palin’s exhortation to “take our country back” (from whom, one might ask?) to Glenn Beck’s warnings of a “coming insurrection" (which sees communists and Islamists working hand-in-hand to overthrow liberal democracies around the world) to the frequently heard demands to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
Today’s paranoid style is a resurgence of a past phenomenon heaped on the backs of Muslim Americans. Indeed, Hofstadter’s words sometimes sound eerily contemporary. “The modern right wing feels dispossessed,” Hofstadter writes,
America has been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modern radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.
With the election of Obama, the paranoid style resurged in conservative discourse with a vengeance and now has Congressional hearings on its side. Muslim Americans are shaking their heads in consternation at the accusations. Many of us are angry not just at being collectively labeled a national security threat but also because our constitutional rights to practice our faith in private and away from government intrusion could wither away and die.