Posted on July 12, 1993 in Washington Watch
A dangerous crusade against Islam is being waged by some in the U.S. press and it has created a serious problem for Arab Americans. This new crusade is a virtual campaign, reminiscent of one waged by pro-Israel forces and right-wing commentators in the late 1970s when they successfully established a link between “PLO” and “terrorism” in American popular culture.
The older campaign was a deliberate and organized affair. It was hatched at an international conference convened in Israel for the purpose of propagating the idea that a war against terrorism should replace the campaign for human rights as the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s. Sponsored by the Jonathan Institute (named after Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Jonathan who was killed during Israel’s raid on the Entebbe Airport in Uganda), the conference brought together many U.S. political leaders and media personalities.
Within months after the meeting in Israel, articles and then books that utilized the materials presented at the conference began to appear. They argued that the PLO was the world’s number one terrorist threat, and that terrorism was a greater danger to the U.S. than the violation of human rights. They called for a new U.S. policy to join with Israel to combat this “scourge” or “plague.”
Like any campaign, it employed constant repetition of a single theme until its logic had become so familiar that it was seen as real. One now-famous editorial in the pro-Israel magazine New Republic, used phrases like “murderous PLO,” “terrorist PLO,” “Palestinian terror” and variations on that theme 23 times on a single page.
What finally allowed this campaign to succeed was the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the fact that a number of Reagan’s inner circle of advisors had been participants at the Jonathan Institute conference.
The results of this campaign and resultant change in policy are all too familiar. The dehumanization of Palestinians reached a peak in the early 1980s as the Reagan Administration and the Begin government preached a common message. The stage was set for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the iron fist in the Occupied Territories.
The campaign against Islam being waged today is somewhat similar—but differs in some significant ways.
The goal of the current campaign seems to be to pose Islam as the mortal enemy of the West and, therefore, to replace the Cold War against communism with an equally threatening enemy called radical Islam.
While early writings on this theme began to appear in a number of publications as early as the late 1980s, and received a strong boost last December when Israel arrested several Arab Americans it accused of being “Hamas activists”, it was the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City that raised the campaign to its current fever pitch. In fact, several critics have displayed an almost smug satisfaction over the terrorist attack in the heart of New York City. The bombing, so they claimed, proved their point.
Recent arrests in New York of another group accused of planning other bombing attacks have only served to add fuel to an already raging fire.
The problem that Arab Americans are having in dealing with this entire campaign is that its proponents are hysterical, not concerned with rational arguments, and have extended the logic of their arguments to encompass far more than condemnation for the bombing or the attempted bombings. In several recent articles and political cartoons I have collected from such publications as the New Republic (a respected once-liberal but now somewhat conservative Democratically oriented magazine), the Washington Times (Washington’s conservative daily newspaper), the New York Post (that city’s second largest newspaper), one can identify a number of common themes.
1) There is a rush to judgment.
In the rhetoric of the articles, those accused of bombings have already been convicted.
The U.S. Constitution guarantee of “innocent until proven guilty” has been suspended in the minds of these writers. And not only are the accused treated as though they were already guilty, but the movement to which they allegedly belong and their religion itself seem also to have been found guilty.
2) There is a use of exaggeration and hyperbole to describe Islamic fundamentalism.
It is described as a “plague,” “the most ruthless fanaticism the West has ever seen,” a “creature.” The fact that all fundamentalists are not extremists or terrorists is ignored.
In fact, ever so slightly, many critics slide over from condemning the “accused” bombers to condemning fundamentalism and indicting Islam as a culture which they identify as one and the same with the fundamentalists.
Since most people in the West do not understand Islam or the complexities of modern Islamic movements, these articles reach a dangerously ignorant public. Since the writers, themselves, are also ignorant with regard to Islam, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous tool in their hands.
3) There is anti-immigrant hysteria.
In a number of important articles in the New Republic and in a recent piece by the leading conservative voice, William Buckley, the campaign against radical Islam has been extended to a call to either stop immigration from Muslim and Arab countries or to at least be very wary and suspicious of these immigrants.
The editorial writer in the New Republic wrote:
”...one cannot deny that there is also an Arab culture in Brooklyn and Jersey City and Detroit off which the criminals feed and which gets a grim thrill from them. Ours is not a country with which they identify of whose values they share.”
And Buckley adds:
“We are going to have to take explicit notice of the incompatibility of our own culture and that of the fundamentalist Mohammedan, and we need to organize our immigration laws with some reference to this problem.”
4) There is a vilification of Arab Americans.
Many Arab Americans have spoken out in an effort to combat this anti-immigrant hysteria. When I appeared on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” after the arrest of the group in New York accused of plotting more bombing attacks in the city, I said:
“As despicable as the action that these individuals are accused of is, equally despicable is the racist hysteria that threatens the lives and security of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans and future immigrants to this country.”
Since then, at least four writers have deliberately and blatantly distorted my views in an effort to convey the impression that Arab Americans have not opposed terrorism or extremism. Referring to my comments as “demagogic,” Steven Emerson wrote in theNew York Post:
“If any political group should be in the forefront of isolating Islamic fundamentalism, it is the Arab American advocacy groups…. But less than 36 hours after Thursday’s arrests…James Zogby, widely respected for his effective championing of Palestinian rights, charged that critics of Islamic fundamentalism were “hysterical,” “inflammatory” and anti-Arab.”
In fact, Emerson was completely distorting my views not only about the hysteria, but also about our condemnation of terrorism. In fact, in my organization’s monthly publication and in a press release issued the day after the bombing of the World Trade Center I wrote:
“The bombing of the World Trade Center was, by any measure, a cowardly and condemnable act in which innocent New Yorkers were killed, maimed, and terrorized.”
I then added:
“It also could have devastating long-term political consequences, not only for U.S. policy in the Middle East but on the civil and political rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. Those predisposed to fan hysteria over “the Islamic threat” found all the justification they needed to intensify their crusade when several New Jersey Muslim Arabs were arrested in connection with the bombing.”
In the same piece I specifically noted that while some fundamentalist groups in the Middle East present some “legitimate issues of debate”
What is not legitimate is using terror and murder to further a political agenda…the handful of extremists hiding behind Islam is an affront to decent Muslims and a hardship on those who are actively trying to foster greater freedom and democracy.
5) There are calls for a Western “Jihad” against Islamic fundamentalism.
As the writers behind this campaign deliberately slide back and forth between attacks on fundamentalism and Islam itself—failing to differentiate between them—they reveal their underlying goal: a call for a U.S. policy that confronts the “new danger” in the world, namely Islam.
Several respected authors have written about this subject now casually referred to as “the West against the rest.” They argue that the West is now engaged in a world-wide struggle against alien cultures that are opposed to its goals and its values. And while some pay lip service to the idea that “Islam is not the enemy, only the terrorists are” they, in fact, declare that the roots of extremism and desire for world domination are found in Islam itself.
One other similarity between this campaign against “fundamentalist Islam” and the earlier campaign against the “Palestinian terror” are the agents behind it. By and large, all the writers cited and the publications involved in pushing the current theme are hard-line pro-Israel advocates, neo-conservatives and traditional right wing thinkers.
For them, this new campaign is a rehash of the last great campaign they waged.
But there are also some critical differences between this and the last campaign. Most importantly, the group now waging this effort are out of power or on the fringes of power. Until now the Administration and those in crucial policy roles have resisted the arguments of the present campaign.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher and numerous other State Department and White House officials have maintained a more moderate attitude toward Islam and toward the Arab and Islamic worlds. Even important local and state officials, such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor David Dinkins have issued strong denunciations of the hysterical rush-to-judgment view.
Cuomo, for example, said
“To condemn all Arabs and Muslims for the alleged actions of a few makes as much sense as condemning all Protestant European-Americans for the actions of David Koresh in Waco, Texas.”
And David Dinkins cautioned against jumping to conclusions about implicating all Muslims for the actions of a few when he noted, “We must remember that these are individuals acting on their own” and warning New Yorkers against “directing fear and anger at Middle Easterners or Muslims as a group.”
Secondly, while the Jonathan Institute was able to draw a wide group of intellectuals and media personalities into their net, there was no corresponding event to launch the current campaign. And the major and more liberal media outlets have on most occasions behaved quite responsibly
Although The New York Times has a number of columnists who betray an extreme hostility toward Islam who have been a part of this campaign, the editorial policy of the Times has been somewhat sympathetic to concerns of Muslims in America. An extraordinary and lengthy series on “Islam in America” appeared in the Times on May 2-7, and was one of the more educated and sympathetic treatments of American Muslims ever to appear in the U.S. press.
The respected Christian Science Monitor likewise ran an important and sensitive six part series on Islam, and many of the television and national radio networks have also done their part to educate and not to propagandize.
Although they have not won this battle, the proponents of the campaign against Islam are still making waves and are not resting. Those of us who are concerned about this effort are confronted by a number of serious challenges that must be met.
One must recognize this campaign for the danger that it is. To combat it effectively will require a combined Arab and Arab American effort. We can not tolerate or excuse any acts of terror. Wrong-doers must be punished—but we must at the same time examine and work to resolve the root causes that allow these movements to fester and gain new adherents.
Some of these root causes are the result of fundamental problems in U.S. policy toward the region. We are resolved to inform policy-makers that this critical juncture in the peace process and in the U.S.-Arab relationship requires an urgent redressing of grievances. No one can afford to pretend that the region can wait for peace, or that peace can ever be built on injustice.
At the same time, some root causes that are endemic to the region itself must also be addressed and resolved. The young of the Arab world must have hope in their future. For them to identify with positive and evolutionary change, they must feel that their needs will be addressed. What must be projected is a vision of a future that can win more adherents than the hazy vision of revolution that is being presented by the extremists.
Secondly, we must collectively engage in the battle of ideas now taking place in the U.S. Not only Arab Americans, but Arab intellectuals and Arab governmental leaders must also engage U.S. public opinion in an effort to present a true picture of both Islam as a religion and Arab society as it is and what it hopes to become.
We cannot be afraid of our flaws. Rather, “we should keep a lantern on them” so that Arabs become the definers of their accomplishments and their problems. If we do not, others will define them for us, as indeed they already are. If we acknowledge our problems and engage in public discussion as to how we seek to address them, we and not our enemies will set the terms of debate over our future.
In this context, it is also important that Arab writers and intellectuals come to better understand the U.S., its people and its government. In some of the articles I read in the Arab press about U.S. policy or society I find stereotypes as wrong and myths as dangerous as those written about Islam and the Arabs in the U.S. press. Arabs engaging in discussions with the U.S. must realize they are on a two-way street. If Arabs want the U.S. to know Arab society as it really is, a similar effort must be made to understand American society as it really is.
Finally, and I speak here personally, while Arab Americans should continue to defend the civil and political rights of all who come to the U.S., and must not join with those who rush to judgment to convict those who have been accused before they have has their trials; if those who have been accused are found guilty, they must know that their crimes not only murdered innocent Americans but that they have also endangered the civil rights of millions of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. And more than that, they have given the enemies of the Arabs and Islam powerful weapons to use in battle against them.
And while Arab Americans will also defend free speech, since it is a cornerstone of our American democracy, we must also make clear to those who use their freedom to preach violence and hatred that they are not only wrong, but they are also using our freedom to damage our rights and to tarnish our image as a community.
I believe that the current debate can be won by Arabs and Muslims. Unlike the last crusade, we are well-organized and are operating in a hospitable climate. But in order to win, our resolve must be as strong as the resolve of those who oppose us.
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