Nikolas D. Kristof is upset. The New York Times columnist is dismayed at ‘… how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become…’ More recently he even went so far as to offer a ‘collective’ apology on behalf of ‘us’ i.e. Americans to the ‘Islamic’ collective, saying that
I’m sickened when I hear such gentle souls lumped in with Qaeda terrorists, and when I hear the faith they hold sacred excoriated and mocked. To them and to others smeared, I apologize.
As always, Mr. Kristof has no sense of irony. Had he any he would have realized he is a columnist for a publication that has been consistently responsible for a shallow, narrow, derogatory, clichéd, sensationalist, reductive, and yes racist representation of Muslims and the broader Muslim world.
In fact, I find it odd that people are surprised that there is such vituperation, suspicion and hatred of things ‘Islamic’, Muslim and even Arabic in the United States of America. After all the simplistic representation of ‘Islam’, and its depiction as a violent, irrational, dangerous, terroristic, violent and deranged has a long and glorious history in our popular culture, media and mainstream press.
If we believe that ‘Islam’ is deranged, dangerous and a threat to ‘our way of life’, then we do so with good reason i.e. that is what we are told each and every day in most any newspaper we read, any television program we see and any movie we watch.
For example; some many months ago I did a quick review of The New York Times Sunday Magazine and its coverage of stories from the Muslim world. What I found was that every story that had anything to do with any Muslim nation was written from the perspective of ‘the war against terror’ or ‘Islamic terrorism. Every story. I wrote about this in a blog post called Only Interesting If Its Madness where even a quick and casual review of the magazine’s archive revealed a list of stories where the writer single-minded focused on the Muslim country from the point-of-view of ‘the war against terror’. Otherwise the country was simply not covered. For example, these were the stories I linked to:
And this is a partial list, and I am working to bring it up to date. But you get the idea.
The newspaper, along with others like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe or any number of major dailies, have obsessively, and narrowly covered and written about the Muslim world, about ‘Islam, and about matters Middle East nearly exclusively from the perspective of ‘terror’, ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’. Even magazines such as National Geographic have reverted to such narrow and sensationalist perspectives when reporting on countries like Pakistan, Yemen and others. We all know this, and we all experience it every day while sipping our overpriced lattes.
The New York Times is also one of a number of mainstream newspapers that has exclusively used the word ‘terrorist’ and ‘terror attack’ only in the instance that the perpetrators or accused have been of Muslim origin. Other attackers, other acts of ‘terror’ have been labeled differently by the New York Times, including when it covered the story of the overt terrorism intents of the Michigan militia where its writers was constantly referred to this terrorist organization as ‘right-wing militants’. In an another story about a disgruntled man who flew his private plane into an IRS offices, the same New York Times constantly refered to him as an amateur musician, a husband, a software engineer. Never as a ‘terrorist’. My friend Elizabeth Herman touched on this very question in a post she wrote called the words we use: terrorist.
When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist of Palestinian origin, opened fire on fellow soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 29, he is was immediately labelled a terrorist. In fact, not just him, but ‘respected’ columnists in otherwise ‘respected’ mainstream publications were able to come out and simply insist that ‘Muslims’ had a special penchant for irrational violence and that there should be a name for this ‘disease’. Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes Magazine – yes, The Forbes Magazine (can you get more mainstream), penned a piece called Going Muslim where he explained that:
“Going postal” is a piquant American phrase that describes the phenomenon of violent rage in which a worker–archetypically a postal worker–”snaps” and guns down his colleagues.
As the enormity of the actions of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sinks in, we must ask whether we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage, one we might dub–disconcertingly–”Going Muslim.” This phrase would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American–a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood–discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans. This would appear to be what happened in the case of Maj. Hasan.
My personal views on this piece were expressed in a piece I wrote called ‘Going Muslim’ At Fort Hood Or How Rabid Simplicities Masquerading As Insight Just Sell More Magazines
And this is not unusual – a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal – that other publication of acceptable, respected opinion, written by Sadanand Dhume, titled India’s Groupthink On Islam extolled and celebrated the fact that the fantastically comic and supremely ahistorical Ayaan Hirsi Ali was present at the Jaipur Literary Festival, which meant that:
… Jaipur marked a small step toward the slow but inexorable knitting of India into the mainstream of global discourse on a sensitive subject. A clutch of books by Indian authors that take a critical look at Islam and Islamism are also contributing to this trend. It’s easier to start using a cell phone than to change a mindset, but over time Indian audiences are likely to begin demanding the same sophistication from their intellectuals that they do from their phone service providers.
That is, the presence of comic book intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, Tunku Varadarajan (of ‘Going Muslim’ fame), Max Rodenbeck, and Lawrence Wright (of The Looming Tower fame), India was coming around to the ‘modern’ understanding of the pathology that is ‘Islam’. Oh, he did lament that the Hindu right, the very same responsible for massive violence against India’s minorities Muslim, Christian or any other, only mistake was…
..its inability to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islamism as an ideology, and its championing of causes important to the most orthodox Hindu believers shades into bigotry and religious chauvinism.
Notice that the brutally violent, murderous Hindutva movement, known for its orchestrated Gujarat pogroms and recently embroiled in a series of terrorism cases is spoken about in words like ‘shades’ and ‘religious chauvinism’.
We just speak about anything Muslim, anything ‘Islam’, with completely different words and phrases.
Hollywood, the most influential of American opinion makers, has a long and fabulous history of depicting Arabs, Muslims and ‘Islam’ in a purely violent, irrational and deranged light. Dr. Shaheen’s sadly funny Reel Bad Arabs chronicles this history well and is worth a read. Or you can just see the video:
Every day, on every television screen across the nation – from our TV news channels to our entertainment channels, we are offered a view of anything ‘Islamic’ or Muslim from the perspective of ‘terrorism’, violence, paranoia, derangement. All Muslims are stereotypes – simple creatures with simple, binary responses to the world. In fact, even as Mr. Kristof of the New York Times attempts to paint himself into a ‘moral’ and ‘sensitive’ corner by offering pointless and useless apologies, he continues to indulge in this binary depiction when for example he states in his piece Is This America:
That kind of extremism undermines our democracy, risks violence and empowers jihadis.
Newsweek quoted a Taliban operative, Zabihullah, about opposition to the mosque near ground zero: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations and popular support.” Mr. Zabihullah added, “The more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.”
Mr Zabilluah is an illiterate and a propagandist. But he is not stupid. His infantile statement exploits an underlying bigotry that he knows pervades most Western thought: that anyone of a Muslim background can only choose life either as a flower child or a jihadi terrorist! And Mr. Kristol repeats this statement to offer the same argument; hey, be nice here because they will ‘turn’!
I find it incredible that reasonable people continue to speak as if anyone of Muslim background is nothing but a complete idiot who cannot make his/her own choices, weigh complex facts, arrive at judgements, evaluate his/her life’s conditions, and preserve her/her autonomy and ability to define and structure the nature of his/her life and make complex and multi-facet choices about life and living. These imagined Muslims seem only be able to confront a bipolar reality, seem to be completely intellectually and emotionally maleable to jihadi groups and can only choose between ‘peace’ or ‘violence’.
In fact, it was precisely such simplistic, bigoted thinking that had almost every single newspaper and magazine running stories about how the catastrophic floods in Pakistan were not a human catastrophe as much as they were an opportunity for the Taliban to exploit the suffering of the people and orchestrate a return. This pathetic simplicity is so well accepted that even Pakistan’s mindless and retarded leaders were running around Western capitals with their begging bowls mouthing the same inanities – they knew it would elicit a lot of money from deep Western pockets!
In fact, the New York Times once again was at the forefront of this depiction in a piece called Hardline Islam Fills Void In Flooded Pakistan. Even The Lede had a number of stories on this very perspective. In fact, a whole host of publications followed up with the same story and it was the constant focus of most any and all foreign reporters I met in Pakistan while working there to cover the floods.
The way Muslims are spoken about today has a long history in our society and it dates back to our involvement and engagement with the Middle East – an engagement whose intellectual prejudices and perspectives we inherited from the British as they left the region, and her intellectuals, academics and political advisors joined our academic, political and polemical communities. A complicated story that I will not go into here. Edward Said discussed some of this in his work Covering Islam: How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World - the book was written well before 9/11.
But suffice it to say that we should not at all be surprised at how Muslims are depicted and considered in America today. Given all the sources from which we receive our information and our ‘truths’ it should come as no surprise.
These apologies, these ‘we are better than this’ righteousness is hypocritical and misleading. When Mr. Kristof says:
I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you. The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you.
But there is dishonesty in this statement. His own newspaper has been at the forefront of perpetuating these equations and its journalists continue to do so from all across the globe. Perhaps a more serious apology would be in the form of a resignation from the paper, and a distancing from a publication that is very much involved in the creation of the ‘image’ of ‘Islam’ and Muslims that is now on display at Palin/Beck gatherings and other ‘nuttiness’ collectives.
They are not as ‘nutty’ or as ‘extreme’ as we would like to think.
Now where are my DVDs of ’24’?
UPDATE: A few days after writing this post I came a far more intelligent and interesting one that complemented the arguments that I made here. Garrett Baer of the Killing The Buddha penned a piece called Yes, Mr. Kristof, This Is America which argues, using a different but interesting set of historical and sociological arguments, that American bigotry has a history and it is our own. I quote:
We have to stop treating American bigotry as a series of exceptions—like silly season—and finally deal with it as a chronic condition. America, I have a diagnosis, and you do not look good. If it looks like racism, feels like racism, and sounds like racism, then I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. Let’s stop reacting with disbelief, as if someone pulled the multiculturalist rug out from beneath our feet, only for us to land on our surprised asses in an America we’d never seen before.
Its worth a read, and Killing The Buddha worth putting into your RSS readers.