Above: a sixteenth century British woman wearing a wimple. Source: Wikipedia Commons. The wimple appears in the King James Version of the Bible as one of the civilizing garments that women wear (Isaiah 3:22). Isaiah suggests that it would be a sign of a woman’s degradation to have it seized from her.
And this brings us to Islam.
There are two things that tend to make Islam visible to non-Muslims in an American community:
- you might see traditional clothing markers; or
- you might see a mosque or Islamic center.
Muslims are a very small minority in the United States, and demographers don’t see them ever ballooning to large numbers here. At most, over the next fifty years, they’ll represent no more than 1-3% of the American population.
Still, if you think of a Muslim American, not as a complicated citizen individual with universal human reason and inalienable rights, but as a one-dimensional member of an ethnic group that bears collective guilt for 9-11, then the very sight of a Muslim might feel, well, jarring.
And the presence of a mosque in your city might feel downright scary. You might even think of Muslims in your culture, not as immigrants, but as colonizers.
We all recall Adolf Hitler’s visceral revulsion, recounted in Mein Kampf, on seeing an Orthodox Jew in the streets of Vienna:
There were very few Jews in Linz. In the course of centuries the Jews who lived there had become Europeanised in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans. The reason why I did not then perceive the absurdity of such an illusion was that the only external mark which I recognized as distinguishing them from us was the practice of their strange religion. As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic antisemitism. Once, when passing through the inner City, I suddenly encountered a phenomenon in a long caftan and wearing black side-locks. My first thought was: Is this a Jew? They certainly did not have this appearance in Linz. I carefully watched the man stealthily and cautiously but the longer I gazed at the strange countenance and examined it feature by feature, the more the question shaped itself in my brain: Is this a German?
Hitler presents this moment as a pivotal one in his right-wing political “awakening.” But note the complete lack of argumentation involved: Hitler was persuaded by a look: Jews had to be a problem to German national identity. Just open your eyes.
Hitler then combined this visual “evidence” with his belief that a subset of them—conspiratorial international Jewish elites and financiers—had ruined Germany and its war effort during World War I. Putting together national decline with Jewish visual alieness, he arrived at this: German Jews are collectively guilty for German calamity and cannot possibly be real Germans.
And there are Americans, as we speak, who have become similarly persuaded about the nature of Muslim Americans. They think that the very term has to be an oxymoron, a perverse joke. They look at a mosque going up a few blocks down from ground zero and cannot fathom it; they see a woman at the local Walmart dressed more like a nun than like a Christian (nevermind that nuns are Christians) and say to themselves:
Is this an American?
And so here we are.
In Jacksonville this past spring, a man pipe bombed an Islamic Center. Did you catch the story? I missed it as well. But here’s Joshua Holland, an editor at Alternet, recounting it:
In May, a man walked into the Jacksonville Islamic Center in Northeast Florida during evening prayers and detonated a pipebomb. Fortunately, there were no injuries. (If the man had been Muslim and the House of worship a Christian church, the incident would have garnered wall-to-wall coverage, but while the story got plenty of local press it was ignored by CBS News, Fox, CNN and MSNBC.)
Individual assaults on Muslim Americans also seem to be flaring up. Here’s Joshua Holland again:
In May, an Arab man was brutally beaten in broad daylight in New York by four young men. According to the victim’s nephew, “They used the bad word. ‘The mother bleeping Muslim, go back to your country.’ They started beating him and after that he don’t know what happened.” A Muslim woman in Chicago was assaulted by another woman who took offense at her headscarf. A Muslim teacher in Florida was sent a white powdery substance in the mail. In San Diego, a man in his 50s became so incensed by the sight of an American of Afghan descent praying that he assaulted him after screaming, “You idiot, you mother f**ker, go back to where you came from.”
This isn’t Vienna in the 1920s. This is America. Today.
And now Sarah Palin, a candidate for the American presidency, in her characteristically strained syntax and atrocious grammar, is indulging in dolchstoss allusions directed at Muslim Americans. Here’s what she said in a recent interview with Greta Van Susteren:
“It’s sounds cliché to say that he just doesn’t get it. This is an insensitive move on the part of those Muslims who want to build that mosque in this location. It feels like a stab in the heart of collectively American who still have that lingering pain from 9/11.”
The “he” who “doesn’t get it” is, of course, Barack Obama (whom we all know is a secret Muslim), and the heart stabbers who don’t feel “that lingering pain from 9/11” that every true American does, are, of course, the enemies within, German Jews Muslim Americans.
Welcome to the new antisemitism.