We tell ourselves that America is a deeply moral nation, a nation on a hill. But in reality, we're global hypocrites who fail to live up to the image we hold out for ourselves. That's why, as a country, we can shame people who say racist, sexist, or homophobic things; and yet continue to cheer on Islamophobes.
Take Ben Carson's recent statements on Sunday's episode of Meet the Press. The serious presidential candidate— serious because of his polling, not because of his policies—told NBC host Chuck Todd that a Muslim was not fit to be President of the United States. How this is not a statement that disqualifies him from presidential legitimacy in our supposed tolerant nation is beyond me. In fact, Carson's campaign has argued that these crazy comments have actually helped him in his quest for the presidency. According to his campaign, in the 24 hours following his appearance on Meet the Press, he's experienced an uptick in fundraising and more than 100,000 new Facebook followers.
But then again, why should we expect anything different? This is a country where a 14-year-old Muslim kid like Ahmed Mohamed can get arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, because police perceive it as a "hoax bomb."
Since Ahmed's story has broken, a slew of public figures have gone out of their way to defend the police and their bigoted suspicions on the grounds that, as comedian Bill Maher [Executive Producer of Vice on HBO] said on last Friday, there are a lot of young Muslims out there "blowing shit up."
These kinds of responses are textbook stereotyping. The thinking goes: Since some members of Mohamed's demographic group have done something negative, it's reasonable to fear that Mohamed might also perform that same negative behavior. But this is wrong. Our country's fear of Muslim violence has overridden the increased acceptance we are showing around race, gender, and sexuality.
Unfortunately, most Americans who publicly make Islamophobic comments are not penalized in any significant way because somehow it's considered OK to be Islamophobic in this country. But why? Why is Islamophobia deemed reasonable by many Americans?
Islamophobia is a test of America's democratic soul.
At the basis of all of the –isms is fear. Fear of others who you perceive as different. Fear of groups who seem to want to change your world. The Islamophobia coursing through the modern American psyche is a direct result of the fear of terrorism from radical Islamists. 9/11 left a scar on the American mind, it changed all of us, it had to. Unfortunately, for many, 9/11 hasn't led us to start saying, How can we stop radical jihadists? Instead, we're asking, How can we stop Muslims? The difference between those two questions is massive. Radical jihadists are a tiny, fringe group of people who are currently acting to harm Americans and our allies. Like all serious criminals, they must be stopped. But many of these people aren't really serious Muslims—some who have been stopped on the way to joining ISIS have been found to have purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies on Amazon.
But –isms are powered by fear, not logic, and apparently there is enough fear to justify Islamophobia. There are the recent catastrophic incidents of violence that some Muslims have perpetrated against us. There is the sense that Muslims are fundamentally different than Judeo-Christians. There is the belief that Muslims are irrational and untrustworthy and monolithic and inferior and barbaric and sexist and strange. But all of this only works if you ignore people like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Malala Yousafzai, Casey Kasem, and Dr. Oz, and you just allow radical Jihadists to stand as an avatar for all Muslims.
There is also a sense that the Middle East is inherently violent and chaotic alphabet soup of nations and terror groups. It's a region we just can't tame which makes it a threat to the American sense of global supremacy. If seeing America as the world's toughest nation is critical to your sense of country and your sense of self, then the Middle East must be quite frightening because it challenges that notion. Few geopolitical problems bring out the John Wayne/Rambo impulse more than the Middle East. If only we just invaded more viciously, according to Republican Middle Eastern policy, then everything would be fine. But even that cannot seem to quell the problem. (It was amazing to hear Rand Paul say, at a Republican debate, that quite often interventions backfire.)
To me, our undercurrent of Islamophobia is often a primal roar against a region that is aggressive toward us and yet unable to be tamed by American military force. The primal roar is: Just attack 'em all. Don't think, just bomb 'till they're all gone. But does that sound like a belief a moral nation would hold dear?
Islamophobia combines so much of what we used to get from a slew of other –isms—it lets people feel superiority over brown, non-Christian foreigners. (It's like a new and improved –ism with a built-in justification—if anyone tries to call you a bigot, just shout 9/11 in their face!) But all of this is antithetical to who we are supposed to be as Americans. The concept of religious liberty was critical to the founding of this nation. Article VI of the Constitution forbids a religious test as a requirement for holding a governmental position, thus making Dr. Carson's assertions anti-Constitutional.
Islamophobia is a test of America's democratic soul, it asks if we as a nation can hold in the mind two ideas that aren't really contradictory—one, we were attacked by and remain under attack from some people who are Muslim but, two, we are not at war with Islam and there are millions of Muslim-Americans who are on our side.
If we cannot separate those concepts, then we have allowed the terrorists to change us into something more hateful than we were before 9/11. The day we realize that Islamophobia is counterproductive and ignorant and racist, we'll be one step closer towards becoming that nation on a hill we're supposed to be.
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