Michael Meeropol : Islamophobia and the ‘Two Americas’

photograph of Muslim women waving American flags

Muslims in America. Image from KUED / University of Utah.

‘Islam in Two Americas’:
Times piece reflects pernicious xenophobia

The implication… is that when Americans display anti-Muslim bigotry — as in the past they had been anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-immigrant — it makes for a quick and more complete assimilation…

By Michael Meeropol / The Rag Blog / August 18, 2010

In The New York Times of Monday, August 16, 2010, op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has a particularly pernicious article entitled “Islam in Two Americas.”

You can read it here.

To cut to the chase, Mr. Douthat’s argument is that there are “two Americas” — one that respects the idea that we are a nation of many religions, cultures, ethnicities, and beliefs and the Constitution permits us all to enjoy the blessings of liberty without fear of persecution.

There is another America as well, one that, in his words, “…understands itself as a distinctive culture rather than just a set of political propositions… [that] speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism… It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms…”

He then goes on to admit that this second America persecuted Mormons and Catholics and shut the door on immigration in the 1920s. It is this second America that is offended by the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero.”

Rather than decry this second America, Douthat goes into all sorts of contortions to suggest that it is just this second America that creates the unity symbolized by our motto, “E pluribus unum.” He suggests that Mormon persecution helped force them to give up polygamy. He argues that suspicion of and persecution of Catholics forced them to give up their “illiberal tendencies” and made the church recognize “the virtues of democracy.”

Where can one begin to attack this incredible know-nothing-ism?

I tried with a sarcastic letter to The New York Times which I will share with Rag Blog readers if the Times doesn’t publish it.

Here, I want to treat Douthat’s “arguments” seriously — if only to give readers of this blog some ammunition if they ever get into a discussion with someone who was seduced by Douthat’s piece.

The implication of Douthat’s argument is that when Americans display anti-Muslim bigotry — as in the past they had been anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-immigrant — it makes for a quick and more complete assimilation of the group being targeted. In effect, in order to escape discrimination, the various groups become “more like” the Americans who are persecuting them – thereby earning “acceptance” as “real Americans.” (Read Douthat’s article and see if that’s not the clear implication.)

He then lectures Muslim Americans on how to be good Americans — telling them they need leaders “whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for interreligious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.”

By the way, note that Douthat, after originally accurately describing the proposed building as an Islamic cultural center, has returned to the misstatement that this is a mosque. Though it will have two floors devoted to prayer, it is only a mosque if a hotel with a prayer chapel is a church.

Note also that in asserting that America does not speak Spanish he is denying “Americanism” to Puerto Ricans and the Chicano descendants of Mexicans who became citizens when the U.S. conquered the Southwest from Mexico.

The problem with Douthat’s argument, of course, is that persecution and discrimination often lead to insularity, the opposite of assimilation, and resentful blowback. Decades of anti-Irish discrimination coupled with anti-Catholicism in the U.S. did not produce democratic assimilated Irish Americans for many generations. In fact, in the 1960s, some Irish Americans were raising money and running guns for the IRA.

Decades of anti-semitism produced strong character and great American contributions on the part of some American Jews — but it also produced a mistrust of the American government on the part of some others, who have sought to make American foreign policy conform to Israeli national security needs.

And of course Douthat studiously ignores racism and slides over the current wave of anti-immigrant xenophobia. Are we to assume that black Americans should be grateful for the second-class citizenship they endured after the Civil War ended de jure slavery? How did that make them “better” Americans? How did that create the “unum” out of many??

In fact, segregation and second-class citizenship created not only the forward-looking NAACP but the retrograde nationalism of Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam — a nationalism from which Malcolm X escaped only to be killed by members of that organization. The isolated hyper-ghettos created by the American system of Apartheid have led to a horrendous gap between poor, isolated, under-educated African Americans and both “average” white Americans and the rising achieving black middle class.

And how will demonizing and marginalizing “illegal immigrants” (who are all considered Latinos even though many are from Europe) make them better Americans? The isolation they experience due to persecution is a prescription for keeping them from becoming Americans.

And now, of course, some xenophobic nativists want to repeal the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to every baby born in the United States. Tell me, Mr. Douthat — how will that “encourage” them to assimilate?

The whole argument is crazy.

I urge everyone reading this to do everything they can to push back in favor of the First Amendment to the Constitution and against anti-Muslim bigotry. The only way to beat loud, disgusting hate speech is with louder, forthright GOOD speech.

[Michael Meeropol is Visiting Professor of Economics, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.]

The Rag Blog

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9 Responses to Michael Meeropol : Islamophobia and the ‘Two Americas’

  1. ish says:

    Douthat’s notion that there is some sort of creative dialectic tension between bigotry and progress leaves me utterly speechless. Again and again rationalization seems to be his main interest.

  2. Anonymous says:

    When racists come out of the closet to spew their hate, ya gotta say “get back in there.” When they argue that prejudice is a good thing, we must respond with a resounding NOT!

  3. As a woman, and an atheist, I find the Islam religion extremely frightening, and I don’t really understand how anyone cannot.

    I don’t abrogate my freedom to not wear a burkha, to leave the house and drive a car, to work, to have relationships with men, to anybody.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thunder Child – it is extremely sad that you would generalize in that fashion. Fear is the tool that politicians use to control you. Many words are repeated over and over to ensure you become fearful of the religion of Islam. You waste your time in fear. Some say that 9-11 changed everything – the only thing that changed is the willingness of the masses to be manipulated using the tool of fear.

    Wake up and face life.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thunderchild these people are Sufi’s, the services are led by a woman, there is a LGBT non discrimination policy in place. For all I know the Saudi’s who own some of Fox News are pushing this excatly because they hate the Sufi’s moderate belief’s.No one is asking you to do anything. As a Christian and long time neighborhood resident of Lower Manhattan I feel sorry for you and your fears. We all live down here in peace at least before the same Teaparty people who bused around yelling that I didn’t deserve to be able to buy Health Insurance started this out of nowhere. This was a fake controversey brought to life to further the career of a woman named Pam Geller. The same laws that protect American Muslims of all kinds in this country protect what ever you wish to believe or not believe. We want to have this Center which is after all just another Community Center the same as the YMCA or the YHMA and will benefit everyone down here around this seemingly permantly blighted 16 acre hole in the ground. The thing to remember here is that in this country we have freedom religion and freedom from religion.

  6. Michael Meeropol says:

    Dear Rag Blog Readers:

    As promised, here’s the text of the letter the NY Times didn’t print.

    (I have to say, however, they did print a letter that said something similar — so I shouldn’t complain).

    RE: “Islam in Two Americas”

    So let me get this straight. Ross Douthat recognizes that there are two Americas – one that respects the Constitution and what makes our country great and another which attempts to instill religious and ethnic conformity and mis-treats “the other.” Then he celebrates both.

    He suggests that we should be grateful for the early American persecution of Mormons – that made them give up polygamy. We should celebrate the anti-Catholicism of 19th and 20th century Americans – that forced Catholics to become truly American. The nativism that led to immigration restrictions in the early 20th century gave our country “time” to assimilate all those newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe.

    What else? Blacks should be happy because the decades of racist oppression improved their character and called forth leaders like Martin Luther King? Japanese Americans should be pleased at the World War II experiences of the Concentration Camps because …?? … you get the picture.

    How about this alternative conclusion? There are two Americas. One respects the Constitution and struggles to help our country move towards the Preamble’s hopes for a “more perfect union.” Another tries to sanitize America to keep it white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. This second America promotes racism, nativist xenophobia, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and now stokes anti-Muslim bigotry. One America makes us proud. The other makes us ashamed.

    Michael Meeropol
    Visiting Professor of Economics
    John Jay College of Criminal Justice
    City University of New York

  7. Anonymous says:

    Prof Meeropol, thank you so very much for at least trying to respond. I greatly appreciated your letter. We have to keep trying to make sure voices of reason, inclusion, and justice are heard. This whole debate – and the ease with which racists have been able to dominate the press- has been disheartening, but at least it has allowed us to understand more clearly exactly where we are as a nation+ clearly nowhere near a ‘post-racial’ or ‘color blind’ society.Prof Jayaraman, Brooklyn College

  8. Dr. Puck says:

    Douhat’s argument about the efficiency of assimilation is about utility, and isn’t about morality. Or justice. Or Rights.

    Bigotry isn’t salutary. Douhat doesn’t know it, but he’s very close to the rationales for imperialism and colonialism in suggesting ‘our medicine is good you–you savages.’

  9. I greatly appreciated Michael Meeropol’s article, which I have just read. Here in France, Islamophobia is also a powerful ideological weapon in the hands of those woho want to promote a narrow, mono-culturalist vision of society.(Michael, if you read this, you may remember me as a fellow student at Cambridge back in the 60s)

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