Muslim Rage, American Anxiety

Muslim Rage

You’ve seen the Newsweek cover, and laughed at the mocking twitter and gawker responses. But admit it. You’ve not actually read the article.

In lieu of reporting – the kind done by actual journalists – Newsweek opted for a personal essay to explicate the photo on last week’s Muslim Rage cover. Ayaan Hirsi Ali took the job. It was a rush job, and it showed.

Hirsi Ali’s is a short piece, starting with this premise:

The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support—whether actively or passively—the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam….In the age of globalization and mass immigration, such intolerance has crossed borders and become the defining characteristic of Islam.

And here is her sneering criticism of “the Western response”:

And the defining characteristic of the Western response? As Rushdie’s memoir makes clear, it is the utterly incoherent tendency to simultaneously defend free speech—and to condemn its results.

Hirsi Ali then spends most of the remaining space writing about her own experiences, and Salmon Rushdie’s life under fatwa. As a Somali born Dutch politician and writer, Hirsi Ali has lived under a death threat since 2004 for writing Submission, a short 2004 film that dramatized misogynistic interpretations of the Koran.  The director Theo van Gogh was publicly murdered in a knife attack, the assailant using the knife to affix a note to his body calling for the death of Hirsi Ali.

Let’s put aside for a moment any snarkiness about Hirsi Ali that might arise from the fact that she is now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a darling of the hard right.  Whatever her current political affiliation (the Economist has taken note of Ali’s “talent for reinvention”), a note calling for your death knifed into the body of your colleague is scary as f*ck.

Knowing this about Hirsi Ali gives some much needed context, if not to Newsweek’s ridiculous “Muslim Rage” headline, at least to its subheading: “How I survived it. How we can end it.”

How to end it

So Hirsi Ali has something to say about the first person How-I-survived-it bit. What about the How-we-can-end-it part? Here, she runs into some trouble. A few years ago, in an interview in Reason magazine, Hirsi Ali’s solution was…total war.  The interviewer asked whether Islam can bring about positive social changes.  Hirsi Ali answered “Only if Islam is defeated.” The interviewer, trying to give her a way out, gently nudged her: “Don’t you mean radical Islam?” Hirsi Ali’s response is astounding in its candor. In her own words:

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?

Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Reason: Militarily?

Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

Reason: Are we really heading toward anything so ominous?

Hirsi Ali: I think that’s where we’re heading. We’re heading there because the West has been in denial for a long time. It did not respond to the signals that were smaller and easier to take care of. Now we have some choices to make. This is a dilemma: Western civilization is a celebration of life—everybody’s life, even your enemy’s life. So how can you be true to that morality and at the same time defend yourself against a very powerful enemy that seeks to destroy you?

Reason: George Bush, not the most conciliatory person in the world, has said on plenty of occasions that we are not at war with Islam.

Hirsi Ali: If the most powerful man in the West talks like that, then, without intending to, he’s making radical Muslims think they’ve already won. There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.

Reason: So when even a hard-line critic of Islam such as Daniel Pipes says, “Radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution,” he’s wrong?

Hirsi Ali: He’s wrong. Sorry about that.

Oh, wow.

That was in November 2007, in a niche magazine read by the handful of libertarians who read. Fast forward to September 2012, when the editors of a more mainstream magazine asked Hirsi Ali to tell her story and then give some kind of solution.  Here is the How-we-can-end-it part of Hirsi Ali’s essay in Newsweek:

We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative. At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation.

It was Voltaire who once said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As Salman Rushdie discovered, as we are reminded again as the Arab street burns, that sentiment is seldom heard in our time. Once I was ready to burn The Satanic Verses. Now I know that his right to publish it was a more sacred thing than any religion.

Hirsi Ali is apparently no longer advocating the military destruction of Islam. Rather, she seems to be advocating the “Western response” she had ridiculed just two pages back: to embrace “the utterly incoherent tendency to simultaneously defend free speech—and to condemn its results.”

A young Flannery O’Conner once described her writing habits to a friend thusly: “I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.”

Hirsi Ali may have discovered, in the course of trying to write a coherent essay for a mainstream audience, that she doesn’t actually want to advocate crushing 1.5 billion Muslims under the American military boot. Maybe she still thinks that, but would rather not say. More likely, she is as Flannery O’Conner was, and didn’t know so well what she thought until she wrote it out.  Either way, she failed to rewrite her piece to make it coherent.

Maybe she was rushed, and ran out of time. Or maybe there’s something deeper revealed by the disjointedness of Hirsi Ali’s essay.

American Anxiety

After “The Innocence of Muslims” went viral and riots popped off in Cairo, Benghazi, Tunis, Sana, and elsewhere, Newsweek editor Tina Brown was probably being intentionally provocative when she OK’d the “Muslim Rage” cover.

What Newsweek wanted from Hirsi Ali, I think, was something equally provocative. A rant, maybe. Something more along in line with her earlier “smash them all.” They were probably a mite disappointed when she turned in a piece that started out all blustery and hardnosed, but then ended with a plea for patience and a quote by Voltaire. Voltaire was provocative in his day, but now? Meh.

All this effort to be provocative begs the question, provocative of what? What emotion was the Muslim Rage cover trying to arouse?

Consider this – celeb editor Tina Brown understands that Newsweek may never regain actual readers, but it can still generate buzz.  To survive, Newsweek has become more entertainment than news, and “the most basic feature of entertainment in popular culture,” notes sociologist David Altheide, is fear. See, e.g., Law & Order, CSI, 24, Bones, Cops, Breaking Bad, Southland, Sleeper Cell, Criminal Minds.  We can go on, but let’s not.

This relentless exposure to fear-based tv shows, movies, political stump speeches, and newscasts creates what Altheide calls a “discourse of fear: the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of everyday life.”  For the thirty years before 9/11, the central drama producing this fear discourse was crime. After 9/11, terrorism has shared the spotlight.

When it comes to criminal justice and antiterrorism, it’s fear that drives political decisions, trumping facts every time. Rational decisions based on actual risks and costs? Fuhgeddaboutit. Risk analysis has been subsumed into a more general culture of insecurity and victimization, where even Sean Hannity et al can play the victim role.  What the editors at Newsweek wanted out of Hirsi Ali, and didn’t quite get, was an essay telling its readers that all of Islam is hell bent on destroying you, your way of life, and your dog’s way of life.

The policies that have come out of fear-driven decisions – more prison time, more criminal offenses, more police, more surveillance – have, in turn, produced more fear. This cycle works not only in times of crisis, as Naomi Klein has argued in Shock Doctrine, but as fear and anxiety becomes more pervasive, it works in ordinary times as well.  Spending on policing, punishment, and homeland security have continued to grow while other sector of government shrink. Perhaps more important in the long run, the culture that has grown up around criminal justice and antiterrorism to justify the profligate spending has flourished.

The result? Fear and anxiety have become the dominant emotions of America’s present age.

We are starting to recognize the enormous impact of emotions on political life, even though we still tend to come at it sideways.  George Lakoff, for example, popularized a linguistics frame to show how “rational reason” is an outdated notion, and how political decisions are in fact emotional judgments. Other commentators have pointed to studies of brain chemistry to prove that conservatives and liberals have different emotional norms. To wit, conservatives are a more fearful lot, with overactive amygdalas that are super-quick to fire up a fear response.

Coming at emotions sideways is a fine start, especially when dealing with the most powerful emotions that seem to be driving public life. Fear, anger, disgust, and contempt scare the hell out of me too, and I’d prefer to continue pretending we are making our most important political decisions in the manner of Voltaire: rationally, calmly, while sipping a nice cup of tea.

But Newsweek’s Muslim Rage cover, calculated to gin up fear and anxiety, suggests that we need to more directly confront the role of emotion in general and fear in particular in this country’s social and political life. Just pointing out the underlying fears and dismissing them as irrational won’t work. Maybe we need to ask for help, from people – psychologists, sociologists, self-help gurus, anyone – who have experience helping fearful individuals overcome their fears. Are there any lessons, any 7-step programs, any Wiccan spells that can be applied to a fearful society at large?

Richard Nixon, in launching the war on drugs as a way to appeal to southern whites, put it most bluntly.  “People react to fear, not love,” he said. “They don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.” Forty years of this fear-based strategy around criminal justice has produced an obscenely bloated system that has become a sucking chest wound, diverting huge gobs[1] of  tax dollars away from innovation, schools, and a basic safety net into grasping, ineffectual criminal justice bureaucracies.  The first decade post-9/11  suggests we are on a similar path with national security. It is a path cut open by fear, and one can not afford- whether calculated in dollars or lives – to continue down.

Additional reading:

  • WH Auden’s final epic poem was Age of Anxiety. No need to read the whole thing, but in Part 1, he has Rosetta in a bar with three strangers.  Auden has her thinking, with great prophecy to our current age: He smiles well, he smells of the future/Odourless ages, an ordered world/Of planned pleasures and passport-control,/Sentry-go sedatives, soft drinks and/Managed money, a moral planet/Tamed by terror…
  • Phil Hubbarb, Fear and Loathing at the Multiplex: Everyday Anxiety in the Post-Industrial City, 27 Capital & Class 51 (2003).
  • Brian Massumi, Politics of Everyday Fear (1993).
  • Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (2002)
  • David Altheide, Mass Media, Crime, and the Discourse of Fear and Creating Fear, Hedgehog Review  (2003).

[1] States spent $228 billion in direct expenditures on prisons, courts, and police in 2007, according to the latest data from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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