The recent controversy over Terry Jones, the Florida minister who intended to burn some copies of the Koran to commemorate 9/11, points up an aspect of victimary thinking that we tend to neglect, and that sheds light on the contrast within the postwar-postmodern era between the generally positive Civil Rights period and the more dubious era of Affirmative Action that followed. In a word, the first stage is motivated by a historically justified guilt that stimulates a predominantly generous and disinterested concern for morality; in the second, this concern becomes dominated by moralistic posturing and moral narcissism that is significantly if not predominantly motivated by fear of the Other’s resentment. In this regard, the term “minority” is significant. We all know that women outnumber men overall; the “minority” status that feminists protested referred to the privileged circles they aspired to enter, and where today they have in some areas (in college attendance, for example) become a dominant majority. But this point is even more relevant for other ethnic and racial groups; minorities in “white” America, they constitute clear majorities worldwide. Although this global element has not always been emphasized, it has certainly been the main attraction, for example, of the Black Muslim movement (whose fidelity to Islamic traditions is more fantasy than reality) and has remained a background force throughout the era. Tom Wolfe’s archetypal 1970 Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers not coincidentally reminded us forty years ago of the more than metaphoric connection between pre-Sharpton black shakedown artists and violent Kenyan revolutionaries.
The origin of the whole victimary trend in the postwar era was the Holocaust, the murder of millions of helpless Jews and other equally helpless groups such as “Gypsies” and homosexuals. The first group of postwar victims to benefit from this new consciousness included colonials, whose greater numbers were never in doubt but whose power over their colonial masters was generally limited even in their own territory and certainly did not threaten the former colonial lands themselves, except by their desire to emigrate to them. Nor were American blacks in a position to terrorize the sponsors of Jim Crow. The blacks of South Africa alone posed a genuine threat, since their white masters had no metropolis to return to. In this context, after many years of struggle, the forbearance of both Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk gave hope in their country and the entire world that a balance might be found between the old granting of concessions from superior to inferior and the new blackmail of the outnumbered masters by their former “subalterns.”
The growth of radical Islam responds to the “third world” majority’s resentful self-assertion against the superiority of the former colonial or quasi-colonial “first world,” catalyzed by the humiliating presence of Israel in the center of the Islamic universe. I have discussed elsewhere the inversion of the Holocaust power balance that has led to a recrudescence of antisemitism and outlandish comparisons between the IDF and the SS. But the context goes beyond that of the Middle East and even of the Jews.
In the post-millennial era since 9/11 the fear of the majoritary Other has become an all but explicit element of the presumably disinterested moral discourse of victimary thought. The Western Left today appears to be in the process of abandoning its last glimmers of self-awareness in its combination of an unseemly haste to go along with what it perceives as the trend of the world majority’s resentment and a categorical refusal to admit the fear that motivates its decision. It is almost refreshing to read the candid declaration of Jens Orback, former Cabinet Minister for Sweden’s Social Democrats, who said during a radio debate in 2007 that: “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because [sic] when we become a minority, they will be so towards us.” Muslims are not likely to become a majority in the US for quite a while, but the world out there is a big place with a lot more of Them than of Us. The result of this tension between local minority status and global majority or quasi-majority status is the hypocrisy that attends the term Islamophobia, and which reflects a phenomenon we may call Islamovictimism, the tendency to bend over backward to avoid offending Muslims out of fear of their embodiment of the Other’s resentment.
To listen to the prophets of Islamophobia, we are always on the brink of massacring Muslims right and left, yet virtually no violent incidents are reported. In contrast, when Muslims massacre or attempt to massacre others, as happens with reasonable frequency, their Islamic identity is played down or ignored, and only after the particularly egregious murder of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood has there been any tendency to relate the motivation of these incidents to Islam. We may recall Army Chief of Staff General Casey’s statement that “what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.”
The Islamovictimary era has gone through different stages since 9/11. President Bush is now belatedly receiving credit for the nobility of his effort, begun immediately after the attacks, to reassure Muslims, in the US and throughout the world, that the actions of Al Qaeda did not reflect on Islam generally, that the hijackers had in fact “hijacked” their religion in carrying out their act of terrorism. Bush’s words no doubt had a strategic aim, but behind them was genuine concern for American Muslims lest they be tarred with the same brush as the terrorists.
But this first phase has now clearly morphed into a second, more abject one, marked by the “Park51” controversy over the mosque planned near Ground Zero and the Koran-burning stunt in Florida. The spectacle of the (nominally Jewish) mayor of New York City declaring that those who oppose the mosque project “ought to be ashamed of themselves” demonstrates that we are no longer in what might be called the “civil rights” era of Islamovictimism but have progressed to its “affirmative action” stage. Except of course that the essentially symbolic solidarity between Harlem scammers and the Mau Mau has now been translated into the overt presence on our political scene of “the Islamic street.” If a small-time pastor in Florida holds a publicity stunt to burn some Korans, far from being deservedly ignored, its impact on “the street” becomes of sufficient importance to warrant an intervention by the leading general in the US Army, one hardly tainted with Islamovictimism yet forced to deal with its effects, followed by that of the President himself. No one admits to outright fear, but it is clear that it is fear more than “concern for our democratic institutions” that motivates the current concern with Islamophobia. The condemnation of Rev. Jones’ act of intolerance is not that of disinterested guardians of the nation’s morality, but of persons fearful lest the international repercussions of the incident lead to violence. On this point, one can only agree with the preacher that those disturbed by the threat of violence shouldn’t blame him.
We need not endorse the idea of burning the Koran to be struck by its sheer power in the current configuration of forces as a kind of jiu-jitsu reductio ad absurdum, turning the “asymmetric” warfare of the terrorist against itself. After all, flying planes into buildings involves a good deal of planning, not to speak of the loss of 19 skilled operatives. Even planting roadside bombs requires skill and materiel, and the cost of suicide bombing is obvious. That one can produce equally momentous results merely by purchasing a book and burning it is fascinating. Anyone could do this, even you or I; in today’s Internet-centered communication system, a few tweets and the whole world would soon be aware of our plans; the usual footage of rampaging mobs would appear on TV screens; another few hours and the President would be on the line pleading with us to put down that match… No doubt burning holy books is an ugly action that no right-thinking person can endorse. But the potential deed does make, with an infinitesimal cost/benefit ratio, the asymmetrical point that while we condemn such acts of intolerance in the US, we seem to tolerate them quite well among our allies, for example, in the Muslim land of Saudi Arabia, where any bible or other non-Islamic holy book found would not only be destroyed but its owner would be subject to a severe penalty, including, I believe, the threat of execution if he or she happens to be a Saudi citizen (and no non-Muslim citizens are of course permitted).
We may recall the Muhammad cartoon incident, which has led to many signal acts of cowardice in the West, most notably Yale University Press’s refusal to reprint the cartoons in a book devoted to the subject, a decision unambiguously motivated by fear of Islamist violence. This cowardice is no doubt a little too easy for third parties to condemn; I too would hesitate to publish anything likely to get me or my associates assassinated. And no doubt the hypocrisy surrounding such decisions is also a necessity; expressions of overt fear only create more of it, whereas calling it “tolerance” and “respect for the American tradition of religious liberty” seems to succeed in convincing the Left that it is acting out of the same noble generosity that led Washington to leave a will freeing his slaves. It is nonetheless useful to point out that we have reached a new stage and that Islamovictimism can no longer be contained within the old post-civil rights categories of White Guilt and Otherness. Mark Steyn has been saying this for a while, and it’s about time those of us who theorize “generatively” about the human begin working out its implications.
What I called some time ago the “final conflict” divides the advanced economies of the “West,” including the Asian market economies, from the relatively unsuccessful post-colonial lands of Africa, West-Central Asia, and much of Latin America, where resentment is a stronger force than global integration. Islam is the dominant religion in many of these countries, and the foundation of the most virulent anti-Western ideology. Western fear of jihadism is not merely fear of a specific group of terrorists but a fear of an Other whose economic inferiority only makes him more a fearsome adversary. (The financing of much of this activity by the oil wealth of the Middle East, derived from a natural resource whose exploitation is hardly proof of the locals’ entrepreneurial talents, is an ironic joke that our “Abrahamic” God must surely be enjoying at everyone’s expense).
There is clearly no contest between the two sides in military terms, but this doesn’t tell us how the “asymmetric” war is bound to turn out in the long term. Our side can surely justify a certain level of prudence, perhaps even of cowardice. But I don’t think it can tolerate a general obliviousness to the nature of the motivations involved in Islamovictimism. One of the most serious of these is the rebound effect on antisemitism, new and more patent examples of which, such as the Rosh Hashanah Time cover “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace,” surface almost daily. Meanwhile, we bend over backward to avoid any appearance of Islamophobia, even going so far as to call it the “new antisemitism,” as though anything comparable to the massacre of one third of the world’s Jewish population in the Hitler era were in the offing. Hostility to Israel may be based on many things, but we should always be suspicious of those who insist that criticizing Israel has nothing to do with antisemitism, since most although surely not all such criticism, at the UN and elsewhere, falls squarely in that category. Israel’s actions and policies are subject to a scrutiny in obvious contrast to the unconcern that meets ethnic cleansing and religious intolerance of all kinds elsewhere, including in both parts of Palestine, the real point being to brand the very notion of a “Jewish state” as illegitimate. The old Bush I style hostility to Israel out of “friendship” with the oil-rich Arab states has morphed into a much more visceral, street-oriented hatred that is in effect a fear-driven wager on the most reactionary forces in the world today. The alliance of the Western Left with Islamist extremists, along with assorted neo-Nazi fellow travelers, is not something that mere moral indignation can either explain or remedy. It must be exposed both for its nihilist opposition to the Western and global market-system, the realization of which merely on an economic level would lead the world to chaos, and for its willingness to ally itself with the most benighted forms of “traditional” society—a fact most Western feminists, gay activists, etc., choose to ignore—in its resentful hostility to “capitalism.”
Although I dislike the term Islamophobia as much as homophobia, I hold no brief for concerted hostility to Islam. Despite its dangerous features, which both reflect and contribute to its role as the main ideological resource of those hostile to the evolving global economy, I do not believe Islam as a religion should be attacked or disrespected. Religions evolve and adapt, and the soft-focus image of medieval Islam as tolerant and generous in the face of fanatical and cruel Christianity does contain a grain of truth. The core of Islamic monotheism is the universal brotherhood of man, and Islam can shed its hateful elements and adapt to the modern world as soon as this world begins to show genuine promise to its populations. Although many Islamic customs pose obstacles to modernization, they reflect cultural equilibria that can evolve, and can be helped to evolve, without putting into question the fundamental beliefs that underlie them—and which, as many have pointed out, by no means coincide with the harsh Wahhabi doctrines so widely promoted by our Saudi friends.
But the fact is that “Islamophobia” is not happening. Isolated incidents do not make a trend. In contrast, the growing number of antisemitic incidents on campuses and off, almost inevitably centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are reflections of Islamovictimism. The natural effect of this situation risks pushing American Muslims into the false choice between appearing to be complicit in their own victimization and taking a stand, which most of them would not normally be inclined to take, in support of such “symbolic” issues as maintaining the Ground Zero mosque. Although unlike France, the US is not inclined to offend Muslims by asserting Western values through such policies as banning the burka, once the victimary spiral is engaged, new issues can always be made to arise where the Islamic “street” will appear to impose its will on the American public, and where opposing this will can be presented as one more example of Islamophobia.
One can if one likes compare Islamophobia and antisemitism, in the face of the cruel irony that antisemitism is nowhere more virulent than in the Muslim world, where no one visibly condemns (and the West declines to notice) its most stupidly repulsive forms such as the “blood libel.” But the really important difference is all too obvious. Although Israel is a regional power with a strong military, and there are many influential Jews in various Western countries, everyone knows, particularly the Mearsheimer-Walt neo-Protocolists, that the “international Jewish conspiracy” will never damage them in any way and certainly never send anyone to assassinate them; the same cannot be said for even the crudest Islamist terror groups. Imagine a “piss Mohammed” exhibit in an art gallery! Now if it were a matter of publishing caricatures of Jesus or of Jews… but the whole Muslim world is full of such materials. We can’t prevent the “street” from burning various hated symbols, such as all those Danish flags that suddenly materialized when it was deemed appropriate to riot over the caricatures—an illustration of market aptitudes sometimes denied to Middle Eastern populations—but we can stop being their accomplice by showing these rent-a-riots on TV, as in the present case where they were already burning various effigies, and killing a few of their own, before Pastor Jones was supposed to burn his first Koran.
These two “Islamophobic” activities are commonly compared, as though opposition to the mosque were the moral equivalent of Koran-burning. The real point, however, would be to compare the respective impact of the two proposed acts of religious self-assertion, the burning and the building. The former is a tasteless stunt but one that in itself will do no real damage to anyone. In contrast, building a mosque-Islamic center close to Ground Zero will stir up tensions and provide a focus for them for as long as the center exists. We can well imagine that some opponents might seek to sabotage it during and after construction, but also that agents provocateurs in the best Reichstag fire tradition will be inspired by so salient an opportunity to demonstrate Islamophobia in action.
Opposition to constructing the mosque at this location is an act of prudence as well as of respect for the sensitivities of the 9/11 victims, the Muslims among them included. It’s a shame that the Koran-burning stunt, now receding into oblivion, has been the only way of demonstrating to the public—if not to Imam Rauf who is still refusing to even discuss moving from the Park51 site—that Islamovictimism has gone too far. The fact that Mayor Bloomberg has confined his exercise of judgment in this delicate situation to affirming the legal rights of the protagonists in both cases is a sign of how much of our political intelligence we have let be eaten away by the acid bath of victimary thinking. Let’s hope that both Muslims of good faith and everyone else can step back from the brink for some rational reflection before the “decline of the West” becomes a reality.