“I’m not a racist, but…”

Muslims on a plane: Juan Williams gets the shakes? (Photo by Juan E De Cristofaro.)

I once heard a joke third-hand from a friend, a joke I’ve always thought encapsulated so many things about the way underhanded bigotry is expressed in contemporary America:

When someone says, “Look, I’m no racist, but …” what they really mean is, “I’m a racist. Here’s an example.”

Alas, I have not encountered an example yet where this sentence decoding doesn’t hold at least a little bit true. Take Juan Williams’s comments on The O’Reilly Factor, for instance, talking about GWOT, etc.

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

That statement and others got the journalist canned from NPR yesterday.

It’s a bit more complicated than the statement, though. Watch the clip. Williams is actually the liberal talking head and appears to have made his “Muslim garb” comment to gain credibility on O’Reilly’s reactionary show — ironcially, in order to make the argument that painting Muslims with a broad brush is undesirable and dangerous.

In other words, he’s effectively saying: Look, Bill, I’m prejudiced  just like you and your viewers. So trust me when I say that there’s still a need to be politically correct.

I take it as a misguided and unwise rhetorical gambit. It failed to make the confusing point Williams was apparently trying for, and legitimized prejudice against Muslims. Take a look.

Update 10/22: Fox has signed Juan Williams for a $2 million, three-year contract.

Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears. Continue reading

Another note on Awlaki

I have to admit, part of the reason I spent a few hours today coming up with my earlier post is that the Times’ account of Anwar al-Awlaki is one of the most frightening GWOT stories to date. The idea that there is this guy out there who fully understands American culture, and may have been at a sort of double agent for Al Qaeda for years, all the time fulfilling the role of reasonable, patriotic Muslim, is very disturbing.

That’s if you believe he’s helping to steer a huge conspiracy that’s responsible for the attempted attacks in the last few months. I don’t buy that. I think he — and his supposed disciples — are symptoms of other factors and forces (as I describe). But the other explanation is less complicated, and possesses that strange magnetism of dread. Interestingly, I think the cause of the crazies benefits from our GWOT-narrative interpretation of events — it gives them power.

Also, just to clarify: I think violence that these so-called mujahideen (strugglers) promote is awful, stupid and reprehensible. I hope my enumeration of things that people are angry about is not misread as an apology for the likes of Shahzad or Stack.

Finally, can you spot the Arabic errors in the Times article? First, there’s the persistent issue of why “Allah” is not translated to “God,” as makes sense. Then there’s the part that uses kuffar as a singular word when it’s actually plural. “Never, ever trust a kuffar,” Awlaki supposedly once said, meaning “unbeliever.” It’s more likely he said, “never, ever trust a kafir,” which is the singular form. A tiny thing, but one you’d think the Times would see, and makes you wonder about their language depth.

“It’s different when they’re Muslims”: the GWOT narrative is still alive

In many ways, the Sunday New York Times long article on Anwar al-Awlaki — the American Muslim cleric who they say inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber and Faisal Shahzad — is excellent journalism. It tells the complicated story of a man who was once considered a model, moderate Muslim after 9/11, decamped to Yemen as GWOT amped up, and is now said to be abetting Al Qaeda. The story is thorough and nuanced, and the breadth of sources is impressive.

But there’s something that concerns me about the whole premise of our collective inquiry into what drove Shahzad to try to bomb Times Square, and it’s encapsulated in this front-page story. There is an assumption that the driving force behind Shahzad and others’ turn to violence is powerful and poisonous rhetoric. This ignores the many other factors — many of them material, not ideological — that likely contribute to radicalization. We thus miss the full explanation for why so many angry men are attracted to the idea of waging random violence on Americans.

The Times story focuses on Awlaki as a man with a power of persuasion rooted in his total comfort with American culture (he was born in New Mexico) and his “beautiful tongue,” as one person described it. I have not watched the man’s sermons, but it seems probable this is an accurate assessment.

The interesting thing, though, is that law enforcement — and to some degree the newspaper — draw the conclusion that Awlaki’s charm and power as a speaker make him exceptionally dangerous, and a prime cause of individuals’ radicalization. His sermons alone are said to have the power to “brainwash.” The article suggests that there is a break — sometimes fuzzy, but very real — between Awlaki’s “benign” early sermons and his (malignant, I guess) later material.

The analysis of Awlaki’s character and influence is flawed for two reasons. One, it implicitly describes two versions of Islam in a special way that Western commentators reserve only for that religion. Two, it mostly ignores all the material and social pressures that are creating terrorists, and thus deceptively and erroneously elevates Awlaki’s power. Let me treat these two main flaws in turn. Continue reading

Multimedia: Eid al-Fitr in Zanzibar

U.K. and Kheiry

These young Zanzibari men go by the names of U.K. (left) and Kheiry. They’re dressed up for Eid al-Fitr festivities last week. Read, watch and listen to my multimedia report on GlobalPost.com.

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — The morning of Eid al-Fitr broke in the narrow streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar, with a few minutes of intense tropical downpour. It was a fitting start to a day that celebrates the closing of the holy month of Ramadan — a day when everything should be clean and refreshed.

Stone Town, or “Mji Mkongwe,” as it is known locally in Swahili, is the oldest section of the main city on the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. It has lain at the crossroads of vast Indian Ocean trading networks since ancient times. Today, it is a hub of Swahili culture, which thrives on the eastern coast of Africa, stretching from Somalia to Mozambique. With influences from mainland Africa, Arabia, Persia and India, the enclave’s people, architecture and customs capture the eclecticism of Islamic life. Continue reading…