Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Driving Islamophobia


By Lawrence Swaim, Columnist

In the 1950s, ultra-conservatives torpedoed their critics by calling them Communist. Today the same tactic is used against Muslim organizations by calling them apologists for terrorism. And like the 1950s, the intent of the ultra-conservatives today is to distract the public from their own undemocratic maledictions. As the French say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

It was a déjà vu all over again, too, when Republicans in the House of Representatives asked Nancy Pelosi to deny the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR) a capital conference room for a seminar. If religious McCarthyism is the intent of House Republicans, so is their ultimate political intent. They want to peel off Jewish voters from the Democratic base, moving them to the right by an appeal to Islamophobia. That was precisely the strategy behind Karl Rove’s gambit of putting Daniel Pipes on the Board of Directors at the Institute of Peace. This latest move also aims to expose the Democratic leadership as unprincipled flip-floppers by hassling Nancy Pelosi until she caves in to their demands. The Republicans want more votes and money from the pro-Israel lobby, while driving the Dems crazy by threatening their base.

So how does one react to terror-baiting? Go on the offensive. The more you try to explain that you’re not a terrorist, the more the Islamophobes will control the discussion. Single out your most vulnerable attackers by name and sue them for defamation. Then show how they and their friends are undermining religious liberty in America, and how their political posturing is based on religious bigotry. Show how they support authoritarian government, torture and the Iraq war. Root your arguments in religious and political pluralism, the American constitution, and the American way of life. Show how religious McCarthyism helps the terrorists and besmirches America’s good name in the Muslim and Arabic-speaking worlds. Insist that it endangers the lives of our young people in uniform. Fight back with everything in your legal and rhetorical arsenal.

Secondly, we need to find better ways of confronting the underlying problem that drives Islamophobia in America. It’s all about Israel, folks, and the way Jews and Muslims get defined by various contending parties to that issue. More than anything we need a frank and open national debate about Israel/Palestine and the future of American foreign policy, but we’ll never get there until we confront the pro-Israel lobby head-on.

What we need more than anything is at least one quality website and publication dedicated solely to monitoring the activities of "the lobby." Such a website/publication would recruit the best writers—Jewish, Christian and Muslim—as well as established experts on the Middle East. It would research and report on the activities of the pro-Israel lobby, with profiles of its major actors and public criticism of their position papers. This news outlet would recruit sources within "the lobby" to keep activists informed of internals power struggles. Above all it would track how money is distributed from the pro-Israel lobby and who receives it.

The problem, of course, is funding for such a watchdog group. Regular funding sources wouldn’t be caught dead helping such a project. Funding has to come from within the community most affected, which will be American Muslims. But many well-to-do Muslims haven’t yet figured out the importance of interest organizations in American politics. They’re good at making brick-and-mortar donations for houses of worship and community centers, and also fund quality educational programs about Islam, but may not yet see how important it is to carry on an aggressive daily struggle for Muslim civil rights. That struggle will be increasingly defined by how well we can open up the discussion about Israel/Palestine. Without that discussion, the Islamophobes will use money, influence and gutter politics to impose uncritical support of Israel. The first target in their sights is the organized Muslim community.

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. He taught for eight years at Pacific Union College, and his academic specialties are American Studies and American literature. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective.

No comments: