Demagoguery in the Political Discourse and the Alienation of American Muslims
By Ahmed E. Souaiaia,٭ March 2008
A student recently asked for my reaction to the phrase “Radical Islamic Extremism” coined by some Republican politicians and pundits; I provided a short answer and did not think much about it for a while. However, as I listened to John McCain outlining his agenda to fight “radical Islamic extremism” and help the majority of “moderate Muslims” defeat them, I felt offended, disrespected, and alienated. I am sure many other American Muslims do not appreciate this new terminology that has roots in the debunked theory of clash of civilizations.
Muslims and many other Americans refuse to use this language not because they are soft on terrorists as suggested by Rudolph W. Giuliani and his “friends,” but because they understand that, first, this phraseology “ideologizes” the battle with war criminals and abusers of human dignity. Second, the use of this new phrase suggests a shift in mission from fighting terrorism to fighting “radical Islamic extremism.” Third, this phrase unfairly bestows a religious affiliation on people who do not exclusively represent it.
When one says that something is “Islamic,” that description automatically ascribes Islam to the described; that is a blatant condemnation of the religion itself not of people or a group of persons who claim that they are believers.
The problem with this connotation is that it is pure demagoguery; one of the bad genes of democracy employed to short-circuit the system and win elections. It is negative politics for it creates criminals when there are none, it creates otherness when there is no need for one, and it polarizes when there is no wisdom in doing so.
Despite this broad-brush stroke of “genius” that creates perpetual enemies, here are the facts: In a country (and sanguinely a world) where freedom of expression and freedom of thought are constitutionally protected and morally honored, radicalism is not a crime, being “Islamic” is not a crime, and extremism is not a crime; putting all three together still will not create a new category of crimes either; as long as extremists, radicals, and "Islamic" do not commit or incite criminal acts. Moreover, there is no organic connection between radicalism, Islam, and extremism. To be sure, there are radical Democrats, radical Republicans, radical communists, radical Christians, radical Jews, radical Hindus, radical Buddhists, radical whites, radical blacks, radical Arabs, radical Kurds, radical Persians, radical doctors, radical philosophers, radical politicians, and… yes… radical Muslims. The same applies to extremism. But not all these radicals and extremists are criminals and certainly not all radical extremist Muslims are terrorists; after all, we know many radical extremist Christians and extremist White Supremacists in our midst and no one is advocating a war on them. Insisting on criminalizing "radical Islamic extremism" suggests that Islam is the problem. For these reasons, this language that demonizes Muslims ought to stop.
Finally, one should not get the impression that only some Republican politicians and their handlers are contributing to the alienation of Muslim-Americans. Some Democrats are just as insensitive in handling issues of race and religious inclusion. The release of the picture of Barack Obama wearing traditional Somali clothes unleashed a wave of accusations and media requests for clarifications. The often fair- and independent-minded Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball stubbornly criticized Hillary Clinton for not coming out strong against the implied accusation that Barack Obama is Muslim. Even when Senator Clinton indicated that she was satisfied with Senator Obama’s answer that he is not Muslim, Mr. Matthews still insisted that she should be more explicit in setting the record straight; as if Senator Obama was accused of an unforgivable crime; at least that is one of the implications. Mr. Matthews should have at least prefaced his outrage with Senator Clinton by stating that he means no disrespect to Muslims while attempting to correct a factual error about Senator Obama’s religious affiliation.
It is unfortunate to know that this attitude is prevalent in a country that is constitutionally and legally duty-bound to protect the rights of its citizens regardless of their religious affiliation; including the right to “Run for President While Muslim.” I suppose this fact escaped the media and politicians, which made them focus to absolve Mr. Obama from being “accused of a crime” when there is none. To be sure, if some photo of Mr. Obama wearing a British crown suggesting that he may have links to the British royal family was leaked out, I don’t think he will be asked to come clean.
The media and many people here in the West who are interested in seeing a world free of exclusion on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender rightly criticize the Muslim world for having laws that bar qualified women and non-Muslims from running for certain political offices. But too many of them overlook or tolerate the society-based discrimination that has imposed de-facto exclusion policies on Muslim-Americans. Here is a soul-searching question: If Mr. Obama were to be who he is now: the person who inspired Americans to live up to their values, dream their hopes, and believe in the transformative power of being fear-free human beings; but he was a Muslim; would his being a Muslim cancel out all that he is and disqualify him from running for office?
Be as it may, the politics of fear is radical, it is extremist, and it is arrogant; it incites division and it encourages hate. The media have the obligation and the responsibility to expose prejudice, racism, and bigotry not to perpetuate and proliferate them.
٭Professor AHMED SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa; he is the author of Contesting Justice.