c. 2008 Religion News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ American culture’s view of American Muslims and Islam is steadily deteriorating under an onslaught of “bigotry” on cable news shows, newspaper op-ed pages and in the blogosphere, an Arab-American activist told an audience at Tulane University here Tuesday.
That’s a significant shift, said Hussein Ibish, founder of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership in Washington, D.C.
Decades before 9/11, Hollywood handed Americans the perceived wisdom on Arabs as passionate, hyper-sexed, irrational and cruel. Movies such as Rudolph Valentino’s 1921 silent classic “The Sheik” and turn-of-the-century thrillers such as “The Rules of Engagement” portrayed Arabs only as terrorists, Ibish said.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, however, Hollywood has backed off. In the meantime, Ibish said, commentators and politicians on the right _ and a few on the left _ have replaced film stereotypes with hours of air time devoted to misrepresenting Islam and fueling suspicion about American Muslims.
Ibish, formally trained as a literature scholar at the University of Massachusetts, works in public policy now. He described his foundation as one that trains Arab-American leaders to describe their values to the broader culture in easily understood American terms. He appeared as part of a university symposium on relations between the U.S. and Muslims.
Ibish is an occasional guest on cable talk shows, often recruited to represent an Arab-American point of view in some cultural or civil liberties conflict. He has had at least a couple of sharp exchanges with the Fox News Network’s Michelle Malkin. One, in May, turned on whether the Kansas City International Airport was right to install a faucet so Muslim cab drivers could wash their feet before prayer.
Since 9/11, he said, commentators such as Malkin, Ann Coulter, Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz have transferred old anti-Arab stereotypes to Islam, in a stream of “incredibly bigoted commentary” that would not have been tolerated before then.
“This is what explains the collapse of the good name of Islam,” he said.
In this context, Ibish said, the West sees Islam as bent on its destruction and American Muslims as suspected allies who cannot credibly deny otherwise. Thus, ethnic profiling becomes reasonable and forced internment or mandatory identification of Muslims becomes a potential remedy, he said.
Moreover, any request for cultural accommodation, such as the water faucet in the airport, may be linked back to the memory of 9/11.
Ibish said he did not want to sound alarmist. “This is still a great country to live in,” he said. But a growing climate of suspicion toward Muslims _ and the automatic dismissal of Muslim denials _ make the situation steadily worse, he added.
“There are people who want to make it impossible for the American Muslim community to engage in dialogue,” Ibish said.
While most of the anti-Islamic rhetoric comes from the right, it occasionally comes from the left as well, he said.
Ibish noted that Eastern liberals, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., opposed Bush administration plans to let a Dubai company operate a number of American ports, saying it was too great a security risk.
Finally, a student of American popular culture would find that anti-Islamic rhetoric sounds vaguely familiar, Ibish said.
He said that’s because in tone and substance it almost exactly tracks the anti-Semitic messages that filled American culture between the world wars.
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
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A file photo of Hussein Ibish is available via https://religionnews.com.