Unsupported speculation on Islamophobia

There’s been a bunch of talk recently from surprised liberals who are caught off guard by the recent tidal wave of Muslim-hating. These folks are taking the relative lack of public anti-Muslim outcry immediately after 9/11/01 and extrapolating from it that America must have somehow got more anti-Muslim at some point in the intervening years. Some figure that the bad economy is just generally “inflaming people’s passions,” and Muslims just happen to be the scapegoat du jour (with Sarah Palin and Pam Geller just channeling this general anger in a way they find useful). Others point to George W. Bush’s immediate post-9/11 speech as if it succeeded at cooling down people’s hatred of Islam in general.

Most of these explanations strain credulity. I sure don’t seem to remember any softening of your average person’s attitude toward Islam, and it’s even harder to believe that George W. Bush managed to convince the average uninformed doink of just about anything using reason and logic in a public statement. I don’t buy it. I have a certain sympathy for the structuralist notion that high unemployment tends to sour the public mood about all kinds of things, but even that doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the lunacy we’ve been seeing.

What I think is that the premise is wrong: contrary to what shocked bloggers think, the level of Muslim-hatred in the US in 2010 is actually roughly what it’s always been. The people who are hardcore opponents of the Cordoba House complex are the same idiots we’ve had wanting to exterminate the brutes for the last 9 years, and those in the squishy middle are about as anti-Islam as they were before. To be sure, a lot of what we’re seeing has to do with the fact that a black guy they didn’t vote for is now running the country. But there’s more nuance than that to the situation’s underlying cause and it deserves to be unpacked a little.

I realize that I’m trying to understand the psychology of these people at the level of their irrational lizard brains. So take this for what it’s worth. But my best guess for explaining the suddenness of the outcry is that the same people who are flipping out now only did not do so in 2001-2008 because they trusted George W. Bush to enact the vengeance they demanded on their behalf for 9/11, and they subsequently got it with the invasions of Afghanistan and later, Iraq. A big factor behind the unprecedented policy insanity that was the runup to Iraq was that actually, popular support for the war was overdetermined. Ironically, Bush didn’t reallyneed a big lying marketing campaign to convince people that we should invade Iraq. After 9/11, many people were already more than thirsting for this kind of action somewhere in the land of the swarthy, and Iraq made as much sense as anywhere else. Arguably, to this blinkered view of the world, even more sense than going into Afghanistan, a place where we’d never fought before and without a readily identifiable, familiar villain (most hadn’t heard of bin Laden before 9/11, and anyway, he wasn’t the leader of the country).

Well, what about Muslims in the US? A lot of these people likely never meaningfully interacted with any American Muslims or even knew what they looked like. So for them, a speech appealing to people to be tolerant was completely meaningless. If anything, I think that it might have been counterproductive, because it’s the nature of these speeches to err toward generic boilerplate, presenting “Muslims” as depersonalized, invisible abstractions rather than illustrate how they were flesh-and-blood human beings no different from the rest of America. The message that was sent was that you should be tolerant of “Muslims”, but if these people had the temerity tobe Muslim and do Muslim things, well, that was another story entirely. It springs from the same well as the tendency among this crowd to celebrate a bowdlerized bourgeois version of Martin Luther King one minute and then the next go into a panic about hip-hop and teens who sag their pants. There’s nothing wrong with being “black,” they take pains to proclaim. It’s just the seeing real-life black people that sends them into a tizzy.

Certainly we shouldn’t let the demagogues off the hook. They know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re making things a lot worse. But ultimately we’re going to be better off if we can understand the hatred of the masses rather than just taking the easy way out and blaming elites for provoking them.

UPDATE: Here’s Bush’s speech on 9/17/01. It’s a bit stronger than I expected and does specifically call out headscarves as something that should be tolerated. But I still think that this kind of thing was mostly a band-aid that didn’t have the lasting effect that a real campaign to educate Americans about Islam would have had.

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