Friday, March 11, 2011

James Zogby: Islamophobia and Radicalization

Islamophobia and Radicalization: How Bigotry Creates Radicals

Let me state quite directly: Islamophobia and those who promote it are a greater threat to the United States than Anwar Al-Awlaqi and his rag-tag team of terrorists.

On one level, Al-Awlaqi, from his cave hide out in Yemen, can only prey off alienation where it exists. Adopting the persona of a latter-day Malcolm X (though he seems not to have read the last chapters of the "Autobiography" or learned the lessons of Malcolm's ultimate conversion), he appears street-smart, brash, self- assured and assertive -- all of the assets needed to attract lost or wounded souls looking for certainty and an outlet for their rage. Like some parasites, Al-Awlaqi cannot create his own prey. He must wait for others to create his opportunities, which until now have been isolated and limited: a disturbed young man here, an increasingly deranged soldier there.

Islamophobia, on the other hand, if left unchecked, may serve to erect barriers to Muslim inclusion in America, increasing alienation, especially among young Muslims. Not only would such a situation do grave damage to one of the fundamental cornerstones of America's unique democracy, it would simultaneously and rapidly expand the pool of recruits for future radicalisation.

I have often remarked that America is different, in concept and reality, from our European allies. Third generation Kurds in Germany, Pakistanis in the UK, or Algerians in France, for example, may succeed and obtain citizenship, but they do not become German, British or French. Last year, I debated a German government official on this issue. She kept referring to "migrants" -- a term she used to describe all those of Turkish descent living in her country -- regardless of the number of generations they had been there. Similarly, following their last election, a leading British newspaper commented on the "number of immigrants" who won seats, without noting that many of those "immigrants" were third generation citizens.

America has prided itself on being different. Being "American" is not the possession of a single ethnic group, nor does any group define "America". Not only do new immigrants become citizens, they also secure a new identity. More than that, as new groups become American and are transformed, the idea of "America" itself has also changed to embrace these new cultures.

Within a generation, diverse ethnic and religious groups from every corner or the globe have become Americans, dramatically changing America in the process. Problems remain and intolerant bigots, in every age, have reared up against new groups, but history demonstrates that, in the end, the newcomers have been accepted, incorporated and absorbed into the American mainstream.

This defines not only our national experience, but our defining narrative as well. When immigrant school children in Europe learn French, German or British history, they are learning their host's history. In the US, from the outset, we are taught that this is "our new story" -- that it includes all of us, and has included us all, from the beginning.

It is because new immigrants and diverse ethnic and religious communities have found their place and acceptance in the American mainstream that the country, during the last century, survived and prospered despite being sorely tested with world wars, economic upheaval and bouts with internal strife. During this time we had to contend with anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-Japanese movements. In the end, after creating their moment of pain, these efforts have always lost.

They lose, but they don't always go away. The Islamophobia we are witnessing today is the latest campaign by bigots to tear apart the very fabric of America. We know the groups promoting it. First, there is the well-funded "cottage industry", on the right, of groups and individuals with a long history of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim activity. Some of the individuals associated with these efforts have been given legitimacy as commentators on "terrorism", "radicalisation" or "national security concerns", despite their obvious bias and even obsession with all things Arab or Muslim (in this, they remind me of good old-fashioned anti-Semites who never tired of warning of Jewish threats or conspiracies or who while always claiming to like individual Jews rallied against any and all Jewish organisations).

If these "professional bigots" have provided the grist, the mill itself was run by the vast network of right-wing talk radio and TV shows and websites, and prominent preachers who have combined to amplify the anti-Muslim message nationwide. Their efforts have done real damage. They have tormented decent public servants, created protests that have shuttered legitimate institutions, fomented hate crimes, and produced fear in the Muslim community.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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