It seems that the Republican presidential aspirants’ fervor to confront Islam has receded a bit with the decline and fall of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, but one can likely still count on Rick Santorum to come up with some bon mots on the threat posed by Shariah law. Those who fear that hands will soon be lopped off shoplifters caught in Cleveland appear to be making much ado about nothing, but there is a much broader and more insidious agenda that is really playing out behind the scenes. Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum are all smart enough to know that Islamic law is hardly poised to dominate the U.S. legal system, but they are using it as the wedge issue to deny the patriotism of Muslims in general and fuel the demands to exercise a military option against Iran.
Promoting fear of Shariah law is essentially a red herring. There are more than 50 predominantly Muslim countries in the world, and, while most have elements of Shariah in their civil and family law, only two have it as their criminal codes. They are Saudi Arabia and Iran, one a close ally of the United States and the West and the other currently playing the cameo role of a threat to the entire world, to borrow a phrase from the eminent Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. The countries that do not have Shariah as their criminal codes have modeled their laws on European and American models, some borrowing from Roman law and others from British common law.
Depicting Islam as manifestly medieval, backward, and cruel is not new, as it has been going on in one form or another since the Israelis and Palestinians first locked horns. Recognizing that the propaganda that is being ground out in the mainstream media derives from that conflict, it is easy to understand why Muslims are persistently portrayed in negative terms. And it should be equally unsurprising to learn that those who are denigrating Muslims and Islam are almost invariably among the most uncritical supporters of Likudist Israel and all its works.
The list of those who are passionate about how bad Islam is has a familiar ring to it. It is led by the truly vicious and fanatical like Pamela Geller and includes John Bolton, David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Charles Krauthammer. Geller has written that there is “a systematic campaign to impose Shariah on the secular marketplace” and to pervert the justice system in favor of Islamic exemptions, a theme that has been picked up by Gingrich and Santorum, both of whom favor pointless laws banning Shariah in any form. In a milder form, the same viewpoint is reflected in both the news coverage and the editorial pages of newspapers like The New York Post, The Washington Post, and even The New York Times. The arguments being made are not necessarily intended to convince anyone other than those who are already more than half onboard, but they are designed to keep the issue of how Muslims are not quite like the rest of us on the back burner to so that the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and other Arabs will somehow always seem suspect. It also fuels other narratives that the neoconservatives and their friends support, like perpetual warfare against Islamic countries to bring about regime changes, suggesting that there is something that is not quite right in the way that Muslim countries govern themselves. The real objective is, however, spelled out in the paper that the neocons presented to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, “A Clean Break,” advocating the breakup of Arab countries into smaller components that would be perpetually at war with themselves, thereby assuring Israeli predominance in the region. As is so often the case, the conversation in the United States is really all about Israel.
The broader agenda of Islamophobia also fuels arguments to continue to stay the course in places like Afghanistan. Urinating on corpses, hunting and killing local farmers for sport, shooting women and children in the middle of the night, and burning Qurans are all justified because American soldiers find themselves in a difficult and stress-filled environment where the enemies are everywhere and are manifestly not quite real people in the same sense that boys from Kansas are. Muslims become abstractions, and there is the undercurrent of “Don’t they know we are there to help them?” The rarely spelled-out subtext in all the narratives that seek to explain or mitigate the barbaric behavior on the part of America’s finest is that the Afghans are not quite like us and they are not being grateful enough. Their otherness comes partly from the perception that they are primitive but even more from the fact that they are Muslims.
Moving beyond Shariah, those who wish to marginalize Muslims in American life point to the terrorism arrests of Muslims who are American citizens or legal residents of this country. There have indeed been such cases, but a careful reading of the court records suggests that the arrests are mostly what once would have been considered entrapment. A disgruntled young man toys with jihadist websites, is identified, and suddenly finds himself with a new friend who presents him with an unusable bomb to blow himself up in Times Square. He is then arrested and finds himself facing 20 years in prison. The reality, however, is that of 14,000 murders in the United States in 2010, not a single one was attributed to a Muslim terrorist.
So why should Americans hate or fear Muslims? If it were only the idiosyncrasies of their culture that were an irritant, one would reasonably observe that the United States has absorbed plenty of cultures and lifestyles equally outside of the Western European mainstream. The fact is that the Islamophobia we are currently seeing really has two objectives. First and foremost it is to protect Israeli interests, making Muslims appear to be a threat and a group that is irredeemably un-American, while Israelis are presented as people who are more or less just like us. That means that only one voice will be heard on the Middle East, which is precisely what has taken place. The second objective is to justify the seemingly unending series of wars in Asia, presenting the local people as lacking in the civilized moral and political values that we all hold dear. Ironically, this latter argument is self-defeating, as it is the foreign wars of the past 11 years that have stripped Americans of many of their liberties and constitutional rights. What we choose to fear in Islam and deplore in Muslim regimes — the lack of individual rights — has come home to us.