The Pendulum Swings Further to the Right
by Javeed Akhter
If 2010 was a bad year for Muslim Americans 2011 could be worse. The Congress, for example has many more Islamophobes in it including Peter King the head of the House Homeland Security Committee whose first priority is to examine the radicalization of the Muslim community in this country. Arguably the greater need is to examine the strong current of Islamophobia sweeping the nation; Kofi Anan recognized it as a major problem and convened a conference on it. But in our nation other than an occasional statesman like Colin Powell asking the rhetorical question “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” there has been little attention given to take corrective actions to combat Islamophobia. Islamophobia is recognized as a form of intolerance alongside anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the visceral reaction against anything Muslim or Islamic in was understandable. But once the shock dissipated there would a period of introspection and nuanced analysis of not only how it happened but also why. The negative effects of empire building as described persuasively by the likes of Chalmers Johnson would be studied by policy makers. The double standard of promoting democracy selectively while turning a blind eye to the practices of autocrats considered friends, like most regimes in the Middle East, would be understood. Much of what was done as a reflexive action like the “Patriot Act” and other measures would be undone.
The pendulum, I thought, will surely swing back to the middle; that is the nature of the pendulum. But nine years later the arc of the swing is further to the right. Sadly little has changed in any of those areas. Attitudes have hardened, and as a reaction to a steady stream of would be terrorists, Muslim Americans are the subject of increasing stereotyping.
Muslim ears and eyes area constantly assaulted by the word terror. Robert Fisk summed it up in nicely in recent rant. He said in part, “Islamic Terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, Activist terror, War on Terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror” the use of the term goes on ad infinitum. He went on to add “The lexicon is this: terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.———————We are in love with the word, we are seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, and committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double vowel word. The opening of every television symphony, the primetime theme song, the headline of every page. A punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop- terror terror terror terror terror. —————terror most of all its about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable, and we journalists have let this happen.”
And yet the interface of most Muslim Americans with their colleagues or neighbors is not hostile. That is a paradox. Neither prejudice nor discrimination is part of my daily experience or that of children or family or friends. In fact the daily interactions are full of mutual respect, understanding and humor. I could not have a more productive career anywhere else in the world, including India where I was born and lived till almost age thirty. If I stopped reading the dailies and listen to TV then life would be wonderful as a alrva in a cocoon.
It is the prejudices that comes bubbling to the surface when Muslims try and build a community hall, prayer center or school that and makes me wonder “am I misreading my colleague and neighbor?”
2010 saw those bizarre and overblown incidents like the mutton chop mustache Qur’an burning guy from Texas or the anti-Sharia law in Arkansas and even the park 51 mosque controversy in lower Manhattan; these are freak shows that have their fifteen minutes of notoriety and fade away. What worries me more is the “Top Secret America” detailed by Dana Priest and William Arkin in their report in the Washington Post. It started as a necessary effort to deal with the real risk of other 9/11 type attack but has now reached a level that is truly gargantuan. The most remarkable part of this “Top Secret America” is that is mostly occult and appears to have little or no oversight.
In brief Priest and Arkin report that “‘Top Secret America’ includes hundreds of federal departments and agencies operating out of 1300 facilities around this country. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet-the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built-at a cost of $3.4 billion-to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs; the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people. With nearly 2,000 private companies that are sub contracted in all, there are now 850,000 Americans with top secret clearance.”
It has created a new intelligence-economic complex rivaling the old military-industrial complex. The amount of money spent on this secret intelligence effort, Priest and Arkin’s article state has “has risen to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which may be a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. This new system produces 50,000 reports a year-136 a day!-which of course means few ever get read. Some 30,000 people are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and email chats and other communications in the United States and abroad.”
There are informants in many mosques and places where Muslims gather and Muslims are fearful that these informants as well those who are peaking in to their e-mails or listening in on their phone calls may misunderstand what they are saying.
Few are aware of the magnitude of this secret intel. It is legitimate worry that parts of an operation this large and diverse and secret may get out of hand and start affecting civil liberties of all Americans. I am not aware of any congressional hearings on it. Also no moral authority in or out of office has taken on the media for their reckless stereotyping of Muslim Americans.
Like pornography Muslim loathing is easy to recognize when you see it. Free speech should not be allowed to cloak hate. We as a nation need to get galvanized to resist the steady erosion of our civil liberties and find a balance between national security and civil liberties; Obama the candidate spoke eloquently about it but Obama the President has been quite.
The pendulum will not swing back on its own. All of us who value civil society need to grab it with both hands and pull it back to the middle.
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is founding member of a Chicago based Muslim American think tank “The International Strategy and Policy Institute.” http://www.ispi-usa.org