Posted on August 18, 2003 in Washington Watch
The anti-Arab campaign being waged today in the United States is an organized multi-pronged effort targeting a variety of Arab leaders, institutions and the religion of Islam. This campaign has preyed on the fear generated by 9/11 and the preexisting ignorance about Arabs and Islam. It first asked the question “why do they hate us?” and then rushed to provide its own answers like “Because Islam is a violent religion” or because “Arabs hate.”
In the absence of an effective Arab response, this anti-Arab campaign is winning and, if not checked, can have devastating consequences in the years to come, laying the groundwork for more widespread hate crimes than occurred in the aftermath of 9/11. Or it can create an even deeper U.S.-Arab divide pushing U.S. policy-makers to take even more negative positions towards Arab nations.
In an effort to begin an examination into the roots and practices at work in this campaign, I offer two observations:
1. This is an organized campaign.
A decade ago a group of Democratic Party analysts were grappling with what appeared to be an unending political and media assault on then President Bill Clinton. As a result of their research they produced a 331-page study entitled “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” in which they detailed how a network of right-wing think tanks, journalists, politicians and media outlets could manufacture a series of scandals and elevate them into a full-blown national media frenzy.
The story came to be known by then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s description “the vast right-wing media conspiracy.” Although Mrs. Clinton and the study were subject to ridicule, the effort was, in fact, a serious and thoughtful examination of a real problem.
The anti-Arab attack now underway brings together some of the same cast of characters who, once again, are engaging in a campaign of hate, albeit now directed against an entire nation and religion. The participants are representatives of a number of far-right organizations: leaders of fundamentalist religious groups, a collection of so-called “terrorism” and Islam experts (who more often than not are old-line anti-Arab polemicists dressed in new garb), a bipartisan group of pro-Likud politicians and the same assortment of right-wing TV, radio and print media outlets that campaigned against the White House a decade ago. Through their combined efforts, a story lacking evidence or substance can become magnified into a major news event.
In the world created by this cast of characters, for example, the donations made by Saudi Princess Haifa to “needy Saudi women” had been transformed into a scandal threatening to implicate her in the 9/11 Al Qaeda network. And the contribution of the UAE’s Sheikh Zayed to Harvard Divinity School has been vilified and become the subject of a national media debate with a campaign pressuring Harvard to reject the donation.
Their ability to dominate the policy debate is near complete. They are networked together and function to support and reinforce each other. This same network of anti-Arab polemicists are now publishing books, organizing public forums, appearing in the media, and even testifying before Congress as newly minted experts on Islam and the Arabs. A recent congressional hearing on Saudi Arabia, for example, featured as the invited expert none other than Dore Gold, an Israeli Ambassador who formerly served as a spokesperson for the Netanyahu government. Gold, who has never been to Saudi Arabia and who has, in his writings, reduced the country to a crude caricature, recently authored “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism,” and he is featured in right-wing publications as an “expert Saudi watcher.” Other recent congressional hearings have included equally reprehensible “experts” whose only knowledge of Islam and the Arab world is the result of their life long work as anti-Arab (and not coincidentally, pro-Israel) advocates.
2. This campaign fosters dangerous anti-Arab incitement.
In some ways this campaign is quite similar to traditional anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish incitement.
I once noted in an essay, “The Other Anti-Semitism,” written more than two decades ago, that historically, the animus of anti-Semitism directed against Jews and Arabs has been one phenomenon.
In its origins, it was a by-product of the Western struggle against the two Semitic civilizations which were identified as threats–the one which Europe found living within its midst and perceived as an internal threat and the other, which Europe confronted as an external challenge.
In this way both Jews and Arabs were identified as threats and their wealth, their power, and even their very corporate identities were seen as potentially damaging to the West. Both were defined as “other,” “not like us,” and were vilified and caricatured as evil and counter to civilization. About Arab and Jews, it was said, “They did not share our values and could not be trusted.”
I studied political harangues against Jews and cartoons portraying them in pre-Nazi Germany and Tsarist Russia and compared them to what was being said about Arabs and how they were being depicted in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. In both content and form the treatments were identical. The fat grotesque Jewish banker and merchant and the subversive and violent Jewish revolutionary (whether identified as communist, anarchist or socialist) found their counterparts in the portraits of the obese oil sheikh or the Arab or Muslim terrorist.
Both groups were portrayed as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing western values and were viewed as prone to conspiracy. They were both seen as usurpers of Western wealth and threats to Western civilization.
This systematic demonization and dehumanization of Arabs and Jews laid the groundwork for violence against them. And tragic consequences ensued in the form of the brutal colonial conquest of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the anti-Jewish pogroms, and the horrors of the Holocaust.
It is, therefore, especially disturbing to see that today some of the major proponents of these evil stereotypes against Arabs are those who ought to have learned the lessons of what can happen when a people are systematically vilified and dehumanized.
The lame defense offered by these anti-Arab polemicists argues that while there are “good Arabs and Muslims,” none of the organizations, leaders and states currently representing them are acceptable. In this context, I am reminded of a conversation I had with the late I.F. Stone, a remarkable American journalist. He told me that in his view the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism came from “the fear of Jews claiming their rights and operating as an organized group. It was after all, he noted, “the anti-Semite who would say, ‘some of my best friends are Jews,’ but then go on to denounce organized Jewry.” This, in fact, resembles the argument used by the anti-Arab campaigns of today.
In short, Arabs are being targeted by a well-organized campaign of bigotry. It is taking a toll and must be confronted seriously. If it is left unchecked, this effort can have dramatic and tragic consequences. Piecemeal responses are inadequate. The challenge is there and awaits a thoughtful and equally well-organized response.
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