Islamophobia Will Poison This Country

The U.S. media is once again presenting the vicious dehumanizing caricatures that make it easier to oppress and wage war on people.

This article was adapted from an item in the Current Affairs Biweekly News Briefing. Subscribe today!

One of the most disturbing things about our society—we’re not alone in this—is how easily our culture slips quickly into promoting violent bigotry. Usually what happens is this: a tiny number of people who are members of a particular demographic group carry out some outrageous act, and then the group as a whole is stigmatized and made to be feared even though nearly everyone in the group had nothing to do with the outrageous act whatsoever. 

After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, for instance, anti-Japanese bigotry exploded. The Democratic president, known for his compassionate social democratic politics, rounded up around 125,000 Japanese Americans, the vast majority of the population living on the U.S. mainland at the time, and put them into internment camps. The Japanese were treated as subhumans—even Dr. Seuss started drawing grotesque racist caricatures of them—and the U.S. military had no hesitation in vaporizing Japanese civilian populations. (“There are no civilians in Japan,” declared an Air Force intelligence officer, who deemed the entire population a “legitimate military target,” a view that is defended by some to this day.) As John Dower writes in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

They were perceived as a race apart, even a species apart—and an overpoweringly monolithic one at that. There was no Japanese counterpart to the “good German” in the popular consciousness of the Western Allies…. The racist code words and imagery that accompanied the war in Asia were often exceedingly graphic and contemptuous. The Western Allies, for example, consistently emphasized the “subhuman” nature of the Japanese, routinely turning to images of apes and vermin to convey this. With more tempered disdain, they portrayed the Japanese as inherently inferior men and women who had to be understood in terms of primitivism, childishness, and collective mental and emotional deficiency. Cartoonists, songwriters, filmmakers, war correspondents, and the mass media in general all seized on these images…. An endless stream of evidence ranging from atrocities to suicidal tactics could be cited…. to substantiate the belief that the Japanese were a uniquely contemptible and formidable foe who deserved no mercy and virtually demanded extermination.  

Japanese nationalists dehumanized their own enemies in the same way, of course, perpetuating myths of Japanese racial superiority. These kinds of stories about the big scary Other are ubiquitous in times of war. George Orwell observed in 1937 that “Every war is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.” Given this fact, Orwell said that our “essential job is to get people to recognize war propaganda when they see it, especially when it is disguised as peace propaganda.” Looking back we can recognize it in the way Germans were portrayed during World War I—one infamous U.S. Army poster depicted Germany as an ape wielding a bloodstained club, with the caption “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE”—and in the treatment of Muslims after 9/11. 

Khaled Beydoun, a scholar who studies Islamophobia around the world, spoke to Current Affairs last year about how the hatred and suspicion of Muslims spread along with the U.S. “war on terror.” He spoke, for instance, to a U.S. soldier who signed up to fight in Iraq because he believed he was going to fight a terrible enemy that had attacked the country. Instead, he found himself destroying a country whose people had never attacked the U.S. at all. Afterwards, he felt betrayed by his country, and Beydoun reflected on how effective propaganda can be: 

“It’s really frightening how very good men, like the man I spoke to in the book, can be made into monsters with a scintilla of propaganda. When I sat across from this guy, he and I could be friends. We liked the same things. We live 10 miles away from one another. He was sort of an alpha male, and I say that in a benign way, where his objective was to just take care of his family and his community, and he had a love for his country. Those are beautiful things to be commended. But the way in which the media was disseminating this violent, vile information about Muslims—people like me, somebody who sat across him at the table—mobilized him to want to enlist in a war in a place that he had no knowledge of. He just knew that he wanted to defend his country and wanted vengeance, and that these Muslims, these Arabs, who were a world away, were the culprits of the 9/11 terror attacks…. [Afterward] he realized how the war had broken people like him, and how it told lies about people like me.”

By now, we have seen the same processes enough times to understand how they work, and we should be on our guard. We know that war drives people crazy. They see the body counts on their own side, and they want revenge, and empathy for the “other side” is in short supply. They see the enemy as monstrous and their own actions as purely defensive. They aren’t in the mood to make too many distinctions between civilians and soldiers on the other side.

Since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 of last year, these familiar processes have consumed Israel completely. Even as Israel starves Gaza to death and blows thousands of children to pieces, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis believe their government is either using the right amount of force or (!) not enough force. (The opinions of Arab Israelis are very different.) For these Israelis, the suffering of their own people is much more significant than the suffering of Palestinians.

That’s true in U.S. media, too. We know that Palestinian deaths are given a lot less weight than Israeli deaths in the American media, and even the liberal Washington Post ran (before deleting, under pressure) a nasty propaganda cartoon showing a swarthy Hamas terrorist strapping babies to his body. This past week, the major newspapers and TV networks hit a new low, with three especially egregious cases. 

First was the Wall Street Journal, which ran an op-ed on February 2 calling Dearborn, Michigan, “America’s Jihad Capital.” Given the inflammatory title, you might think the author—one Steven Stalinsky—had uncovered evidence that some kind of political violence or “holy war,” as the word “jihad” is often interpreted in the West, was going on in Dearborn. But that’s not the case. Instead, Stalinsky spent 800 words clutching his pearls about the fact that—shockingly enough—some Muslims in Michigan don’t like Israel very much. The editorial is a masterpiece of dishonesty and Islamophobic fearmongering. It cherrypicks isolated expressions of anger, like when one imam said that Israel’s actions have filled his congregation with “fire in our hearts that will burn that state” and pretends they’re representative of the Michigan Muslim community as a whole, spinning them as evidence of “local enthusiasm for jihad.” It conflates simple political statements such as “America is a terrorist state”—which is straightforwardly true, if we apply the dictionary definition of “terrorism” consistently—with “open support for Hamas.” The Wall Street Journal has been on a roll lately, using the headline “Chicago Votes for Hamas” when that city called for a ceasefire in Gaza at the end of January. But Stalinsky’s rhetoric is irresponsible even by the Journal’s standards. The Detroit Free Press reports that, since the article was published, “swarms of online hate” have been directed toward Dearborn’s Muslim community, leading Mayor Abdullah Hammoud to ramp up security around mosques and other places of worship. (Not that more police will necessarily help, since U.S. law enforcement has a well-documented Islamophobia problem of its own.) All of this is a predictable consequence of publishing what amounts to a racist incitement, and any editor with even the slightest professional competence or ethics would have known better. 

Meanwhile, a handful of whistleblowers at CNN have confirmed what was already fairly obvious: that the network has a systematic anti-Palestinian bias in its coverage. Summing up the testimonies of six anonymous staffers, The Guardian reports that CNN has “tight restrictions on quoting Hamas and reporting other Palestinian perspectives” at an institutional level, while “Israeli official statements are often quickly cleared and make it on air on the principle that they are to be trusted at face value, seemingly rubber-stamped for broadcast….” The principle of journalistic neutrality in reporting on a conflict, it seems, has been disregarded. In particular, CNN journalists say they’ve been instructed to include the words “Hamas-controlled” any time they cite statistics from the Gaza Ministry of Health, implicitly casting doubt on the legitimacy of civilian death tolls from the region, even though the Ministry’s figures have held up to scrutiny from numerous outside observers, including Israel itself. (Israel has sometimes even suggested that Israeli bombs have been flattening bakeries and apartment blocks without killing any innocent children at all.) They also report that memos have been circulated around the newsroom instructing them to always emphasize Hamas as the “cause of this current conflict,” ignoring the decades of Israeli occupation and violence in Palestine before October 7. At the same time, prominent anchors like Anderson Cooper have allowed current and former Israeli officials, like ex-Mossad leader Rami Igra, to say blatantly inflammatory things like “the non-combatant population in the Gaza Strip is really a nonexistent term” without pushback during interviews. At this point, unless dramatic changes are made, there’s little choice but to regard CNN’s Gaza coverage as ethically compromised and unreliable and to treat it accordingly.

Finally, in a column called “Understanding the Middle East Through the Animal Kingdom,” notorious New York Times writer and Iraq War booster Thomas Friedman has decided it’s a good idea to compare a variety of Muslim and Arab people to parasitic insects. The column is so breathtakingly racist, it seems like something out of a Victorian newspaper—but don’t take our word for it, read Friedman in his own words:

Iran is to geopolitics what a recently discovered species of parasitoid wasp is to nature. What does this parasitoid wasp do? According to Science Daily, the wasp “injects its eggs into live caterpillars, and the baby wasp larvae slowly eat the caterpillar from the inside out, bursting out once they have eaten their fill.” Is there a better description of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq today? They are the caterpillars. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the wasp. The Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Kataib Hezbollah are the eggs that hatch inside the host—Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq—and eat it from the inside out. We have no counterstrategy that safely and efficiently kills the wasp without setting fire to the whole jungle.

What can you even say to something like this? It’s well-known that comparing your political enemies to rats and insects is a dehumanizing tactic, just as it was in the lead-up to Japanese internment. Certainly Friedman, who was educated at Brandeis and the University of Oxford, knows it—and yet here he is, spewing this rhetoric anyway. The late Edward Said had him dead to rights in 1989, when he described Friedman’s writing as a “threadbare repertoire of often racist clichés.” Nothing has changed. If anything, the New York Times has gotten worse, seemingly not bothering to edit the excretions of its tenured staff whatsoever. Just like in Dearborn, there are real-world consequences to promoting this kind of imagery in the paper of record. Friedman’s argument that “setting fire to the whole jungle” is the only way to kill the Iranian “wasp” is an argument for unrestrained war in the Middle East, and unfortunately many political leaders still read the New York Times. 

History shows that dehumanization takes hold easily, and its effects are deadly. At its worst, it is the road to concentration camps, gas chambers, and mass executions. We have to always be on guard against it, especially during times when war is causing a suspension of people’s usual critical faculties. It’s disgusting, but not surprising, to see even liberal papers printing, without a second thought, analysis that treats Iranians as insects. But one of the crucial lessons that history offers is that societies don’t notice themselves heading into this kind of moral abyss. Only the victims do. But their cries can’t be heard because they’re treated as menacing oppressors. Islamophobia, like all forms of bigotry, is poison to the soul of this country and portends terrible consequences for Muslims around the world. We have to fight against it—and remember that it won’t be the last time. 

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