I believe that the answer to the question in my headline is Yes, and the best evidence is a line in a recent piece in the New York Review saying that during the Arab spring, Islamists have “corrected history” by reviving “the era of musulmans sans frontières.” This is a more acceptable way of saying that Islamists want to restore the Caliphate and Sharia law, which of course is the allegation by the far-right Islamophobes Robert Spencer and David Yerushalmi. But imagine for a moment a piece in a leading intellectual magazine speaking of Jews “sans frontieres,” invoking the bugaboo of the international Jew, the Jew who cares nothing for patriotism to the country he lives in. That of course would be considered anti-Semitic.
But the New York Review of Books has no problem publishing an alarm about musulmans sans frontieres.
I make this claim against the New York Review slightly tentatively– because Islamophobia is widely shared throughout the American establishment, and that mitigates the offense. On this site we have focused on extremes of Islamophobia, but the secret truth is, Many Americans are suspicious of Muslims or afraid of Muslims. As Moustafa Bayoumi said recently, nearly two-thirds of Americans have never met a Muslim. So it is not their fault entirely that they have alien pictures of Muslims. Just as Jews were an alien group in the early 1900s, and anti-Semitism soared in the United States. Just as racism against blacks was pervasive in the segregated American establishment through the 1970s, and we routinely heard about the pathologies of ghetto culture. Americans didn’t know Catholics in the 1840s, and that fear of the stranger produced anti-Catholic riots.
But there’s a term for being prejudiced against a human family you don’t know: ignorance. And intellectuals should never valorize ignorance. It’s their job to combat ignorance.
I know about Islamophobia in American elites because I have been prey to it myself. I knew no Muslims until a few years ago. When I began going to Arab countries, I was very aware of cultural differences between the west and Muslim societies– and disturbed by the public role given women. This remains an important issue to me. On my last trip overseas, I went from occupied Palestine at Ramadan–where few were drinking and women wore tunics buttoned to the neck in fiendishly hot weather– to Greece, where everyone was drinking and everyone wore skimpy outfits on the beach. It was more fun in Greece. There are important cultural differences between east and west; and I must tell you that when liberal Americans decline to take up the Palestinian cause, one reason is that liberal feminists are wary of Islamism. The new correspondent for the New York Times in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, is someone who openly battled the “patriarchy” in the United States; and I would imagine that women’s freedom is a crucial criterion for her when she weighs Palestinian society against the Israeli society she lives in.
I have seen this wariness often in the New York Review of Books since the Egyptian revolution. Pieces in the magazine have emphasized the possible setbacks to women’s rights when Salafis are in the Parliament. (And yes I myself wrote about the persecution experienced by Coptic Christians when I was in Cairo.)
But this latest piece by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, called This Is Not a Revolution, goes beyond earlier pieces in its degree of fear about what is taking place in the Arab world. It is just chaos, the authors argue, and as likely a step backward in history as a step forward, with Islamists throwing a dark cloak over the whole region. The lack of thoughtfulness in the piece is indicated by the absurd title– as if what happened in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia was not revolution.
There is no charity in this piece, no marveling at the Arab achievement. There is no hopefulness or even open-endedness, no concession that all revolutions produce turmoil, as they did in France and America and Russia. There is little information in the piece about the important ways that Islamists have tempered their religious agenda now that they have power.
And of course there is nothing about the western-backed religious agenda that helped produce the clash of civilizations in the Middle East: the triumph of Zionism in Palestine.
As I have written here before, I believe in a clash of civilizations. There are real differences in tribe and religion and sect that are more important today than the former clash of empire and colony. Zionism is a more important factor in U.S. policy in the Middle East than the military-industrial complex.
But even if you believe in a clash of civilizations, that is no excuse for our elite, for the leading journal of American intellectual life, to succumb to common fears of the other. It is the job of intellectuals to analyze and to lead, to look at root causes, and in this case to survey the history of racial bigotry and try and rise above it. As Mustafa Bayoumi and Lizzy Ratner did so honorably in the Nation several weeks ago, with a special issue on Islamophobia that helped progressives to understand: if you opposed anti-Semitism, then you must oppose Islamophobia.
As I say, I have struggled with this prejudice myself. And what I have learned is that while Muslims may come out of more traditional societies than ours, they are engaged in the same struggles for freedom that we are engaged in. And their struggle for women’s rights and gay rights is inspiring because it is that much more difficult than the struggle is now in the west. Just take a walk through Nablus some day with the young feminist Beesan Ramadan, and see all that Beesan is up against. In Beesan’s eyes and words, I see the exact same desire for intellectual and social freedom I’ve seen in activists in the west.
Then step back and reflect that the greatest obstacle to Beesan’s freedom is apartheid, imposed by our close ally Israel, on a religious basis. And rationalized by American elites, because after all those people are Muslims— a rationale that the New York Review of Books is quietly feeding.
I have overcome my own prejudice by getting to know Muslims. I’ve found that I dislike some and like others, and some are highly intelligent and most aren’t, etc. And three or four are people I’ve become very close to because we share temperament and values. I have observed in myself the same transformation that Americans experienced with respect to Jews. They’re different, but they’re not. They’re part of our society, they enrich our society. It seems to me that this process is far easier for young people who take our generational battles for granted (on civil rights, feminism and gay rights) and are looking at the next ridge. But it is a progressive’s duty, whatever his or her age, to climb that ridge. And not succumb, as the New York Review has, into an unkind, generational fear.