Fundamentalisms, media, and the new McCarthyism: how demagogues are hijacking Washington, DC

(A presentation delivered at the seventh annual “Common Terms: The Dialogue of Civilizations” conference sponsored by the Imam Musa Sadr Foundation, 13 December 2002, in Beirut, Lebanon.)

“Faiths strive for one objective: War against the self-appointed gods and tyrants of earth, and support for the oppressed and the unjustly treated, which are two versions of a single reality. Faiths achieve victory and the oppressed become triumphant, only to be shocked by the fact that tyrants have ruled in the name of faiths….Thus begins religions’ chaos.” — Imam Musa Sadr

As soon as we learned that jetliners had crashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington last year, my Lebanese husband and I felt a chill of fear and foreboding sweep over us. “God help us if this is from the Middle East!” he said. More than a year later, we are still worried about the implications and repercussions of the tragic events of September 11th on the Middle East, the religion of Islam—a religion of justice and compassion; our friends and family in Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere; and our Arab American and Muslim American friends and colleagues.

Although Muslim leaders throughout the United States immediately condemned the attacks of September 11th unequivocally, and despite President George W. Bush’s initial sensible and responsible pleas to all Americans not to judge their Muslim neighbors negatively in the aftermath of the attacks, the Dialogue of Civilizations—Islamic and Christian, Arab and American—has been put to some rigorous tests over the last year, and often found weak and fragile. In the last six months, President Bush and many of his closest advisors have been increasingly perceived as becoming closer to, and in accord with, Christian Fundamentalist Zionists. Perhaps Washington’s silence in the face of this voting bloc’s rhetorical excesses stemmed from the political necessities of a key election year—the mid-term congressional elections took place last month, after all. But ever since the elections, which saw more right-wing representatives winning seats in Congress, President Bush has not said anything to criticize or qualify the statements of Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson to the effect that the Prophet Muhammad was “the original terrorist” and that Islam is a religion of hate and violence.

“In God we trust”—but Allah we’re not so sure about

On October 6th, President Bush addressed a meeting of the extreme right-wing Christian Coalition by video link-up in Washington, DC, dangerously blurring the dividing lines between Church and State while also sending a disturbingly ambiguous message about his Administration’s views on inter-faith relations, the rights of American Muslims and Arabs to live free from fear, prejudice, and oppression; and the US Government’s stances toward the Arab Islamic world in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. The past three months have witnessed other worrisome developments: The launch of the McCarthyist CampusWatch website by Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, both of whom are vocal apologists for the worst excesses of the Israeli government and army. Pipes and Kramer are influential neo-conservative intellectuals who have the ear and attention of key policy makers in the Bush Administration, notably the new Director of Middle East Affairs in the National Security Council: Mr. Elliott Abrams.

Abrams’ past record of public service was besmirched with charges, easily proved, that he lied to Congress in order to execute the bizarre Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years. In a recent Washington posting, as Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Mr. Abrams was instrumental in directing the Commission’s attention overwhelmingly to abuses in Muslim countries while quashing a report criticizing discrimination against Christians and Muslims in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories submitted by an interdenominational team of fact-finders.

It is increasingly clear that Arabs and Muslims are the new enemy in Washington, DC, a national capital that many find reminiscent of the dark days of the McCarthy Era. Partly in response to understandable fears following the September 11th attacks, but perhaps more so as a crude attempt to stay in power through demagogic means, the Bush Administration and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media seem to find Muslims and Arabs suspicious, guilty until proven innocent, and the symbol of all that citizens of the US should fear, monitor, and consider utterly different, other, and incommensurable with the supposed “Judeo-Christian” values of US society and politics. Recently, a friend visiting from Washington, DC expressed his amazement at a lively public conversation, over Chinese food in a local Victoria, BC restaurant, criticizing US policy towards Islam and the Arab world. “In Washington, DC today,” he commented sadly, “you’d only have such a conversation in low, hushed tones. DC has become ‘Damascus on the Potomac’.”

Many of the key personnel in the Bush Administration are self-identified neo-conservatives who are unabashedly on the public record as stalwart supporters of Israel’s Likud Party and its maximalist aims of obtaining as much land, water, and resources from Palestine as possible while diminishing the numbers of non-Jews on that land by whatever means necessary. The neo-conservatives’ support base in the US electorate consists primarily of Christian Evangelical Zionists who subscribe to a very literal interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. This theological tendency in US society has always had a special regard for Israel, viewing its founding in 1948 as fulfillment of biblical prophesy and as a harbinger of the End Times and Armageddon.

Christian Fundamentalists believe that the End Time is near. According to their exegesis, the coming US military attack on Iraq is the holy war against the “Whore of Babylon” prophesied in the Book of Revelations. The perils of a potential nuclear war do not scare them. To the contrary: they have utter faith that when Armageddon comes, true believers will be directly raptured into heaven, all Jews will be converted to Christianity or perish in the fires, and as for Muslims, they will of course perish in the flames of Armageddon. Such Christians do not seem to know or understand that their God and Allah are one and the same God. Many seem to think that Muslims worship the Prophet Muhammad in an idolatrous fashion.

Ironically, this homegrown strain of American Christian Fundamentalism parallels and mirrors the worst excesses and toxic thinking of groups such as Al-Qaida. Indeed, a best-selling book, Tariq Ali’s Clash of Fundamentalisms recognizes this fact and analyzes the eerie parallels in rhetoric, political rationalizations, and worldviews between the Bush Administration’s most hard-line, evangelically tinged, jingoistic pronouncements and the ravings of Osama Bin Ladin. The cover of Ali’s book depicts a bearded George W. Bush wearing a Talibanesque turban. The back cover shows Osama Bin Ladin, minus his turban, wearing one of President Bush’s signature blue suits and giving a press conference at the White House. These images would be amusing if they were not so frightening.

In the wake of the horrors of 9/11, and as a result of the actual and manufactured fear, prejudice, and hysteria that have been a daily staple of mainstream news reporting ever since, such fundamentalists—Christian as well as Muslim—have more power and presence on the national and international political stage than ever before. Democracy, dialogue, tolerance, and human rights are the poorer for it. And no one knows this better than American Arabs and Muslims, who have been targeted for special investigations, house searches, arrests and detention without trial, often being held in solitary confinement, not to mention public statements made by powerful and influential people justifying and legitimating the unjust and abusive treatment Muslims have had to suffer since September 2001.

Last Christmas, the best-selling books focused on one of two topics: Islam or chemical and biological weapons. This year, a search of best-selling book titles on the popular on-line bookstore using the key word “Islam” brings up books such as American Jihad: The Muslim Threat to the US, by Stephen Emerson; The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa`ud from Tradition to Terror, by Stephen Schwarz; What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis; and Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, by Bat Yeor, not to mention a generous helping of Fouad Ajami’s and Daniel Pipe’s books. English translations or commentaries upon the Qur’an or the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad do not appear in the top-ten best sellers under these categories.

A search using the same key word of “Islam” on, the most popular search engine on the Internet, brings up over four million possible sites. The top 20 sites are newsgroups and websites for and by Muslims, not sites that attempt to introduce, explain, or interpret Islam to non-Muslims. These are not dialogue sites, though non-Muslims can and do visit to see what is being said and discussed there. And it is a given that the FBI and CIA are monitoring all that is said and transmitted there as part of the Homeland Defence campaign to identify and root out all possible sources of terrorism and anti-American acts.

Good News at the Grassroots

Moving from the macro-perspective of the Internet, nationwide book marketing and sales, and mainstream national television to the micro-perspective of grassroots responses, there is much to inspire hope: increased interfaith dialogue between Christians, Muslims, and Jews; public lectures, exhibits, and workshops that bridge the divides created by media-stoked fear and anger; and Christian churches that responded bravely and compassionately to reports of Muslim women being harassed for wearing hijab. Many Christian women decided that they, too, would wear hijab to show solidarity with and concern for their Muslim sisters.

Art exhibits, classroom presentations, special film showings, and public fora across the US and Canada have carried the message that hate, intolerance, stereotypes and fear are improper responses at a time of crisis and danger. If dialogues between civilizations are to take place, they will only happen when people listen to one another and share their thoughts, hopes, fears, and perspectives. Though not often reported in the mainstream news, this is indeed happening across the US and Canada.

And even on television, credit must be given where it is due. All of the major news networks have featured special programmes about Ramadan, the Prophet Muhammad, and Islam since the events of last September. Most of these productions are highly professional, well presented, factual, interesting, and informative. CNN, BBC, MSNBC, PBS, NBC, CBC, and other media outlets also feature special interactive pages on their websites to help the average non-Muslim North American learn more about Islam, its history, tenets, principles, believers, and traditions.

Although this trend is to be commended, and probably has done much to dispel stereotypes, lies, slander, and misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims, it is problematic in the context of international news reporting. When the Israeli Defense Forces bomb an apartment building in Gaza, killing dozens of civilians—including children—in clear contravention of international humanitarian law not to mention US laws stipulating the acceptable use of military aid donations, no television network ever prepares a special feature on the history of Judaism or Jewish beliefs in response to such criminal actions. If any background is provided at all, it is usually that of the history of Israel, presented as a gutsy, small state of tough survivors, struggling against all odds as they confront the irrational, possibly evil, hostility of their neighbors and attempt to eke out a living in the Holy Land.

So, from the outset, the narratives—and more importantly, the contextualization of narratives—are different: Arab and Muslim actions are interpreted within a rather general and sweeping overview of Islam as a world religion followed by faceless, timeless masses, while Israeli actions are contextualized with greater specificity (as well as a large helping of sentimentalized media spin) within a particular though politically slanted historical context: that of the last sixty years.

Television programs, documentaries, newspaper features, and websites that attempt to place Arab and Muslim actions, beliefs, concerns, and goals in the same sort of specific historical, political, and moral context are not very common. Such presentations would require a deeper and more critical analysis of political history in the post-WWII era, including a rigorous accounting of US foreign policy, how it is shaped and executed, and what sorts of repercussions it has had. Since September 11, such critical, thoughtful, and rigorous reporting is not encouraged or welcomed in the mainstream US media. Those who attempt it are often considered lacking in patriotism.

Terror and its Rhetorical Uses in the “Clash of Fundamentalisms”

Annual statistical compilations by the US government about international terrorism for years presented a very different picture than that visible on television news reports or cinematic screens. Contrary to popular belief, for years most international terrorism, defined as attacks or threats of attacks on civilians in order to accomplish political goals, took place in such locales as Central and South America, Sri Lanka, Western Europe, and Africa. Middle Eastern or Islamic acts of terror had rarely if ever been in the top ten until 2001. Yet most Americans associate “terror” with Arabs and Islam. When my husband teaches his Middle East Politics course, he asks his students to honestly and spontaneously say whatever comes into their mind when he says “Islam” and “Arabs.” Though some students give neutral answers, many more say “terror,” “jihad,” “hatred of the US,” and “fundamentalism”.

As media analyst Jack Shaheen noted in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Americans’ views of the Arab and Islamic worlds are shaped subtlely but surely by a variety of media: comic books, feature films, music, fiction, soap operas, comedy programs, and the innuendo and implicit associations conveyed by mainstream news media. A recent example springs to mind: The Toronto Globe and Mail reported last week on a scandal involving Cherie Blair, wife of British PM Tony Blair, buying real estate from a convicted Australian felon and con-artist, whom she met through her new best friend, a former topless dancer-turned-lifestyle consultant. Mrs. Blair, though a respected and highly educated legal expert in Britain, was critiqued harshly for her lapse in judgment.

In attempting to discern a pattern of missteps and poor moral reasoning in her past, the article latched onto the fact that Mrs. Blair had expressed sympathy last April for the Palestinians, while voicing dismay with the Israeli government’s military “incursions,” going so far as to say that, unless people have hope and dignity, they will continue to conduct suicide bombings. She was immediately excoriated for this public comment at the time, and the newspaper article about her financial peccadilloes concluded with hope for her moral judgment and character by noting with approval that Mrs. Blair had eventually recanted her pro-Palestinian comment.

More hijackings than meet the eye

Over the last 15 months, it has become increasingly clear that much more has been hijacked in the US than those four doomed airliners on September 11, 2001. No one knows this better than American Arabs and Muslims. Other hijackings are still in progress, and may prove to be just as dangerous and nefarious as those perpetrated by 19 disturbed and misguided young Arab men last September. The tools used to perpetrate these less high-profile hijackings are more sophisticated and devious than box-cutters, though.

The first hijacking began nearly a year before 9/11, during the last presidential elections. The electoral process was commandeered at the polls by old-fashioned means in Florida, where an anti-Semite, Patrick Buchanan, picked up a surprising number of Jewish votes while African Americans were turned away from polling places in suspiciously high numbers. But the unique horror and deviousness of this electoral hijacking only became fully apparent two months later in Washington, as a Supreme Court of dubious impartiality decided who won the election. (And given that the choice between the two leading candidates, whom some jokingly dubbed “Gush and Bore”, left much to be desired, it’s easy to argue that the electoral process was hijacked months if not years before election day 2000, the victim of a dire need for campaign finance reform.)

That hijacking easily accomplished—and with surprisingly few protests or complaints from the passengers of the wayward airliner America had metaphorically become—a whole series of other hijackings were undertaken by a new US administration obsessed with an unrealistically unilateralist view of the world and America’s place in it. International processes and frameworks addressing crises such as global warming, the arms race, and international justice and human rights were hijacked and virtually dismantled by the world’s sole superpower, as the US repudiated the Kyoto Protocols, cancelled the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and withdrew from the Rome Treaty establishing an International Criminal Court.

Perversely, proudly, and shamelessly, the US has presented a new and pugnacious face to the world, that of an arrogant taskmaster and bully uninterested in the will of the people, be they American citizens or citizens of an increasingly interdependent world. “Fuck with us and we’ll fuck with you!” is how many Americans proclaim their brash new patriotism on t-shirts and bumper stickers.

The harrowing events of 9/11 has only exacerbated this ugly tendency in American politics, domestically and internationally. US allies, old and new, have taken their cue from President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Attorney General Ashcroft and Senators Trent Lott and Dick Armey that human rights, the rule of law, democracy, the Geneva Conventions, respect for minorities, due process, and just principles can be jettisoned, disregarded, and trampled with even less fear of long-term consequences than before 9/11. Thus, fascistic policies and practices have been aided and abetted in Israel, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, to name just a few places where international humanitarian law has recently taken a serious beating. War criminals are warmly welcomed in the White House as “men of peace”; arms deals are clinched with regimes whose hands are soaked in blood, all in contravention of the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

Even more distressing, the UN has allowed itself to be hijacked to suit the wishes of the powerful rather than safeguarding the needs of the powerless. Who still has faith in that world body’s ability to mediate conflicts, halt bloodshed, enforce the will of the international community, or take a stand for international law after the UN’s cave-in to Israel’s refusal to allow any investigations of events in Jenin last April?

A full year after 19 hate-poisoned young Arab men hijacked the complex, subtle, and noble Islamic principle of jihad—which demands a spiritual battle with one’s own inner demons—to kill thousands of innocents, the democratic process, the rule of law, and respect for the principles of justice are still being commandeered daily—domestically and internationally—by much more sophisticated hijackers. They use media spin, lobbyists’ charm offensives, p.r. campaigns, fear and demagoguery to rob Americans of their critical thought and political will. They are taking America to destinations as yet unknown, most likely bleak. They are spiteful, angry, selfish, and lacking in maturity, wisdom, and common sense.

These hijackers promise us a “war without end”—today in Afghanistan, tomorrow in Iraq, next year in Southeast Asia. They are about to launch a war without borders, goals, or resolution, a war guaranteed to produce only victims without names, more collateral damage—along with big profits for defense contractors. Theirs will be a war justified by media-generated fears about Arabs and Muslims—a demogogues’ war.

Who are these hijackers? Do they truly represent the will of the people of the United States of America? Do they reflect the dearest goals, the noblest hopes, of 300 million American citizens? Probably no more than 19 deranged hijackers truly represented the ultimate desires of the vast majority of the world’s one billion Muslims last September 11th.

In the interests of human rights, democracy, dignity, peace and civilization, it is imperative that Christians, Muslims, and Jews alarmed by the fundamentalist turn in the leadership and rhetoric of their faith communities reach out beyond the hatred, fear, and arrogance propagated by media that endorse rulers who consider themselves gods on earth. Real communication and deep reflection are the best antidotes to demogoguery, and the only way to advance and sustain a dialogue of civilizations, rather than continuing this dangerous clash of fundamentalisms.

Laurie King-Irani, former editor of Middle East Report, is one of the four founders of the Electronic Intifada and is North American Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra & Shatila. She currently teaches Social Anthropology in British Columbia.