This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Immediately following the January attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the liberal hawk George Packer wrote a screed on The New Yorker’s website, proclaiming that “Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance…a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique.” Also in January, Dissent posted “Islamism and the Left,” a long essay by the liberal philosopher Michael Walzer, composed before the Paris attacks, in which he wrote: “Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf.” And last October, self-proclaimed liberal Bill Maher told the guests on his HBO show Real Time, which included the writer and militant atheist Sam Harris, that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles.” Harris agreed: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas,” he said. “Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.”
Oh, no—the liberals are gunning for “Islam.” Again.
Over the last several years, we’ve become accustomed to associating the anti-Islam crowd with conservative populism. An anti-Sharia movement pops up across the country in full nativist regalia; a loony Florida pastor with a cartoon mustache burns the Koran; well-organized demonstrators chant against a proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan (the “Ground Zero mosque” debacle); and Republican candidates pander to right-wing voters’ fears of Islam itself—remember when Herman Cain vowed not to appoint Muslims to his future cabinet? It all looks a little crazy from the left.
The 2015 version of this anti-Islam rabble-rousing saw Steven Emerson, a so-called terrorism expert, proclaiming on Fox News that Birmingham—the second-most-populous city in Britain—had become a “no-go zone” for non-Muslims. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal repeated and later doubled down on this claim that no-go zones existed—even after it was made clear that Emerson’s precious factoid was pure fabrication.
The right’s Islamophobia is troubling—but, let’s be honest, often consoling to the left. Why? Because it not only demonstrates an allergy to things like evidence, but also brings clarity to the ways that right-wingers are instrumentalizing the discussion of Islam for their own political purposes. Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar, must have known that what he repeated was a lie, but he repeated it nevertheless, because it’s a lie worth telling to shore up his base.