Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norway, Islamaphobia, and us

So I'm going to say something about the horrible killings in Norway.

First off, this is going to be a political post. Maybe that's crass, but I don't think so. I don't begrudge people their tendency to view the Norway massacre through a political lens. It's an awful tragedy, shocking in scope. But there's no denying that, for Americans, a mass murder in Norway is primarily a political event. It doesn't touch most of us personally, but it certainly informs our politics. There's little sense in denying that, or in trying to pretend that, this time, we'll rise above our contentious natures. The implications of Norway will be debated on editorial shows and cable programs all the same, and the content of those debates won't change just because their participants prefaced everything with somber invocations of sympathy for the victims and their families. What use would it be to pretend otherwise? If we're going to have this conversation -- and we are -- let's have it out in the open.

And indeed, after glancing at the shooter's manifesto, it's very hard not to draw political conclusions from what happened in Norway. A very significant part of the 1500-page document is devoted to quoting and responding to American right-wing bloggers. Many pages contain postings from the right-wing website Free Republic, copied and pasted, with footnotes appended. He cites by name a half dozen or more prominent American anti-Islam demagogues. Anders Breivik was a man very well versed in the rhetoric and reasoning of the American right, particularly as it pertained to Islam.

I don't mean to suggest that Islamaphobes in America are prone to violence, not like this. But you'd have to be deluded not to see a connection between Breivik's beliefs and certain American mindsets. Remember just a year ago, when Republicans led half the nation into a frothing rage because a mosque was being built in the general vicinity of lower Manhattan? How about the last nine months, in which Representative Peter King has held no fewer than three separate sets of congressional hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims? Recall Oklahoma's bizarre recent law, banning the practice of sharia. Or just go back to yesterday, before we knew the perpetrator was white and Norwegian, when right-wing pundits rushed into the papers to remind us all that we're still at war with Islam. Just think about the term "Islamofascist" -- ignored by most, but embraced by the right -- a word that suggests that many religious Muslims are of a kind with violent tyrants, and implies that we would not be remiss to deal with them as such. Are we going to pretend that there's some qualitative difference between these conceptions of Islam and the one that drove Breivik into violence? Are we going to act like Breivik arrived at his ideology independently of the men and women who spewed it onto television screens -- albeit in a milder tenor -- for the last ten years?

I'm sure the usual suspects will find many, many ways to distinguish what they believe from what Breivik believes, and I'm sure that in some respects, they'll be right. But the roots of their beliefs are very similar. A shared conviction that Western culture is superior to other culture. A misconception that temperament is a feature of groups and religions as well as of people. The tendency to conflate ethnic identity with historical destiny, and ascribe special powers to a nation's cultural disposition. And beneath it all, a fundamental, irrational distrust of anything that evokes Islam too strongly.

In this politically correct age, these principles are rarely stated outright by those at the top of the political ecosystem. But they're still visible, especially if you hunt around the fissures from which Islamaphobia seeps into the mainstream. Right-wing politicians find their views on cable TV, and cable pundits find their views from right-wing blogs and radio shows. And nobody on the blogs and radio shows is trying very hard to disguise their real motives. Rush Limbaugh goes on his show and tells America that there's no such thing as moderate Islam. Can anyone deny that Rush Limbaugh drives the agenda of large chunks of the American right? Or go to the grassroots conservative blog Atlas Shrugs, which was cited by name in the Breivik's manifesto. You'll find five posts from the last two days claiming that there was no ideology behind the Norway attacks, and assailing anyone who suggests otherwise. You'll also find five bilious posts from the same span; they are unrelated, except that they all describe bad things for which a Muslim was somehow responsible. I'd be curious to know what point the author thinks she's making with these. This, by the way, is the blog that propelled the controversy around the so-called Ground Zero mosque into the American media. For its efforts it earned harsh denunciations of the project from dozens of prominent politicians. These are people who matter. These are people whose voices get heard and multiplied.

In the coming days, we're going to hear a lot about the rise of the right in Europe, and the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment. But I'm sure few commentators will dare compare what they see in Europe with anything happening across the Atlantic. Don't be fooled. If Islamaphobia is on the rise in Europe, it's on the rise here, too. If it's a danger in Europe, it's a danger here, too. Hateful words can breed hateful acts. And today, there many American politicians plying their trade by spreading the ideas that helped turn Anders Breivik into a monster.

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