Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fundamentalism, not faith

Passionate Detachment

Ian Williams, Middle East International 7 May 2010

When the Times Square bomber was first reported to be white, many liberal Americans, even atheists, muttered silent prayers that it was a ‘Tea Partier’ trying to make a point. The would-be bomber was in fact Pakistani, and many on the net don’t read past the first syllable, so that made him an honorary Palestinian.

Not that it made much difference, since looking through the prism of American Islamophobia, the distinction between terrorist, Muslim and Palestinian is infinitesimal. The same week, the state of Arizona gave its police force basically the right to demand proof of legal residence from anyone in the state. To be fair, they are more likely to be looking for a Miguel than a Muhammad, but heaven help anyone they stop with a double-whammy name like Omar, both Hispanic and Arabic.

It reminded me of the year after 9/11 when I was coming out of Newark airport and saw a South Asian man in a blazer and tie being led away by immigration officers as his white American wife ran after him shouting: “What’s up, Muhammad?” Comment was truly superfluous.

In an only slightly more sophisticated version of this red-neckery, right after the bomb was discovered, Senator Joseph Lieberman called for the immediate removal of citizenship from any suspected terrorist so that the allegedly guilty party could be deprived of any due process rights. Admittedly, there were also calls for the immediate removal of the senator’s Harvard law degree, since it did not take a great legal mind to see that there were serious flaws in the idea.

Just as in Arizona, Lieberman wants to grant to police and other officials not often renowned for their sensitivity the power to arrest anyone whose name or looks they do not like, and deprive them of due process rights.

Incidentally – showing that the likes of the senator do not really see themselves as others see them – Lieberman was asking for the existing laws that take away the passports of US citizens serving in foreign armies to be extended to terrorists. He is on shaky ground here. Each year, several hundred Americans volunteer for service with the Israel Defense Forces. Their passports could be forfeited – but that never happens. Which is just as well, since Lieberman could lose many voters and even more supporters if it did.

Faisal Shahzad seems to have confessed to both the bomb and to having been trained in Pakistan to make it. One can have no sympathy for someone who wanted to kill and maim hundreds of civilians thronging Times Square, but it is interesting that he was caught by old-fashioned police work, with no FBI paid informers inciting him. Nor was he tortured and incarcerated here or anywhere else. Indeed, it was so old-fashioned that the cavalry came to the rescue: it was a mounted policeman who saw the fizzing bomb and cleared the area.

In short, the system worked without any of the violations of human rights that Lieberman called for. However, the senator’s solution is based on a firm conviction that Muslims have a lesser regard for human life than so-called ‘Judeo-Christians’, even though the latter include the Stern Gang who blew up the King David Hotel, killing Jews, Christians and Muslims in a multi-faith bloodbath, and the deeply patriotic army veteran Timothy McVeigh, whose bomb in Kansas City did the same. McVeigh told a reporter before being executed: “Death and loss are an integral part of life everywhere. These people in Oklahoma that lost loved ones, I’m sorry. But you know what? We have to accept it and move on.”

Of course, we have to be careful not to do mirror-image stereotyping: just because McVeigh was a Christian gun-rights fanatic, Joe Stack (who flew his plane into the IRS building) opposed taxes, and Sen Lieberman seemingly has an implacable anti-Muslim and pro-Israeli attitude, does not mean that those who attend Tea Party rallies are all terrorists, even if they share so many principles. Indeed, this fact brings into focus the axis between far-right Christianity and far-right Zionism, which so many American Jews find disturbing.

However, all of those beliefs are identifiably home-grown, or at least naturalised through long domicile in the country. There is no doubt that for a significant number of Americans, Islam is still alien, even though there are probably more Muslims than Jews in the United States. The pairing of Muslim and fundamentalism comes more easily than Jewish (or Christian) and fundamentalism, even though the evidence clearly shows that it is the fundamentalism, not the faith, that moves people to horrendous acts.

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