Anyone who spends too much time reading about the Cold War (as I do) can be excused for feeling like we're in a time warp lately.
Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1950s atmosphere of conformist paranoia and "Are you now or were you ever..." seems ludicrous. At the time, however, the frenzy of loyalty checks, denunciations of others for their political beliefs, and hysterical warnings of the imminent demise of American democracy at the hands of these ruthless traitors was anything but funny.
I'm sorry, did I say 1950s? That last one was actually on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's website last month. In a July 28th press release, Gingrich helpfully warns us about an imminent threat:
Radical Islamism is more than simply a religious belief. It is a comprehensive political, economic, and religious movement that seeks to impose sharia--Islamic law--upon all aspects of global society.
Well, so far, so good. Gingrich is speaking out against radical Islam, surely something which anyone would agree with. Radical Muslims advocate violent acts of terror against innocent civilians, right?
Actually, no. According to Gingrich:
Some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia but others use non- violent methods--a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence. Thus, the term "war on terrorism" is far too narrow a framework in which to think about the war in which we are engaged against the radical Islamists.
Although Gingrich claims to be opposed to "radical Islamists," he is not using any definition of "radical" recognized by either a dictionary or sane people. Gingrich's radicals are not planning on blowing buildings up or using violence - no, they are much more sinister than that. They are subverting America from the inside with actions that are political, and even - gasp! - cultural. At least he's in character; right-wingers usually freak out about the presence of any non-white, non-Christian cultures in America.
Intentionally or not, Newt Gingrich and other far-right politicians (like Twitter crusader Sarah Palin) who espouse anti-Islam views are taking their rhetoric directly out of the history books. McCarthyism saw communism as a monolithic menace, one inextricably linked with subversion of the government and totalitarian control, and incompatible with American democracy. This is exactly the same way in which Mr. Gingrich and his ilk view Islam. Like the McCarthyists before them, who could not believe that all left-wing radicals were not Soviet agents, today's Islamophobes can't seem to get it through their heads that it is only a tiny minority of Muslims who espouse the abhorrent ideas of Al-Qaeda and truly radical Islam.
Arguments that Muslims are attempting a hostile takeover of America hold no water outside of Right-Wing Conservative Fantasyland. Here in the real world, it is actually the Muslim minority who are facing persecution by right-wing Islamophobes, who sadly appear to be credulously swallowing the rhetoric of Gingrich & co. Muslims across the nation have been faced with angry protests should they dare attempt to build a house of worship. I'm not even talking about the by now infamous "Ground Zero" mosque (which is NOT at Ground Zero), but about attempts to build mosques from Staten Island, New York to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to Wilson, Wisconsin, to Temecula, California.
American Islamophobes are displaying their truly brilliant strategy: we can prevent Muslims from taking over and denying our constitutional rights by...denying them their constitutional rights.
This would be hilarious if it weren't actually happening.
McCarthyists had an answer to claims of Constitutional violation - what we're doing is really, really important, so if you could just turn off the Bill of Rights for a little while, that would be great. Also, if you don't agree to suspend the Constitution, you're a traitor. The hilariously bad McCarthyist propaganda film Big Jim McLain chronicles the heroic exploits of two HUAC agents and ends with the musing:
There are a lot of wonderful things written into our Constitution that were meant for honest, decent citizens. I resent the fact that it can be used and abused by those who want to destroy it.
Likewise, Islamophobes are attempting to find creative ways around freedom of religion. Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey's response to the Murfreesboro protests was to say:
Now, I'm all about freedom of religion... But you crossed the line when, when they start trying to bring Sharia law here to the state of Tenn., in the United States... Now, you could argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality way of life, or cult whatever you want to call it.
Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, there was a special name for people who actually were Soviet agents out to undermine the US government. We called them "spies." Likewise, today we call Muslim extremists who want to bring down America "terrorists." America can show that it has learned from the national embarrassment of McCarthyism by proving that we can make the simple distinction between mainstream Muslims and Al Qaeda. Saying anything else - especially that Muslims are somehow denied freedom of worship because Islam is actually a scary dictatorial cult which is going to impose sharia law over all of America in our sleep one night - is xenophobia, plain and simple. And perhaps there is reason to hope; after all, no one's calling for another HUAC.
Oh wait. Michele Bachmann is way, way ahead of me.
If there really is any group out there which conspires to subvert American democracy from within, they had better hire the right wing as their PR machine. Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and friends have done a better job of destroying core American values than anyone since Joe McCarthy.
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