Thursday, January 6, 2011

Clarifying why Arab and Muslim Americans should be smart rather than stupid


An Ibishblog reader, who I respect greatly, writes:

Hussein, I agreed with much of what you said in your recent Huffington Post column, but this really puzzled me:

"In our own country, the most vociferous proponents of the Arab and Muslim victimization narrative, those who blame the West, especially America or "the white man," for all the ills that befall the Arabs and Muslims, and those who most loudly advocate against the legal and societal harassment of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, take full advantage, as they are entitled to, of the American system and find shelter in the comfort and security of its freedoms. The damage they do in being the loudest and most anti-American voices emanating from the vulnerable Arab and Muslim immigrant communities, who already feel besieged, is to provide ammunition to the demagogues and profiteers of racism and peddlers of hate and fear of Arab and American Muslims, and to empower and encourage the worst racist and chauvinistic tendencies in this country."

Who, exactly, are these groups? And are you suggesting that our discourses here should be restrained by the risk that our criticisms of the US can be appropriated by al-Qa'ida to justify their terrorism?

I'm glad you asked. First of all, I can only speak for myself in this case because the commentary in question was co-authored by my colleague, ATFP Pres. Ziad Asali. Indeed, the passage you cite from our collaboration was originally drafted by him, although I agree with and stand by every single word of it. But let me give you my own personal view of what I think we mean in this important passage.

The groups we are referring to are many and various, which is why we were not specific in naming them. They run the gamut from the Islamic religious right to the Arab nationalist left, and therefore cannot be placed in a straightforward ideological category or box. It's more an attitudinal issue: a way of looking at our country from a jaundiced point of view, with an attitude of hostility, unjustified hyper-criticism, an obsession with its faults and disregard for its virtues, and the knee-jerk reaction that blames everything that is wrong with the Arab or Muslim world on Western intervention alone. The fact is there are very loud voices among the Arab and Muslim Americans that not only blame the West in general and the United States in particular for everything that goes wrong in the Middle East, including much of which is plainly and unmistakably self-inflicted by the Arabs and the Muslims without any help from anybody else, and that these are influential voices. They sing the siren song that it's not our fault, that someone else is to blame, and that all we have to do is sit back and complain loudly enough and everything will ultimately be all right. If you're not familiar with such voices, you don't read the Arab blogosphere at all, because that's mainly what's in it.

The irony were getting to in this passage, I think, is how easy it is to vilify the West from the comforts of the West; to hypocritically take advantage of the financial and professional opportunities afforded by a country like the United States and, even more hypocritically of the political freedoms it provides, and yet to maintain an attitude of utter hostility towards it at every level and blame it for anything and everything, including the bad weather. This is a discourse that holds that even bad actors in the Arab world, whether it is the oppressive regimes or the demented and violent extremist groups are all either respectively acting at the behest of, or simply producing an inevitable and natural reaction to the policies of, the West. It's a set of arguments that essentially alleviates Arabs and Muslims from any responsibility for their predicament, and that reduces the Arab and Muslim American role to one of being almost entirely critical of our own country in a very unhealthy and unrealistic way, and in a manner that ensures political self marginalization and total and utter irrelevancy.

In other words, there is a tremendous degree of hypocrisy in the radical chic anti-American attitude expressed in so many online forums by younger (and older, for that matter) activists who sit in the comfort of US universities or other American places and spaces and fulminate against the evils of the United States day and night. It's not a question of love it or leave it. That's preposterous. But it is a question of having the minimal integrity of recognizing that the country you choose to live in obviously has something to offer you that you're taking advantage of, not least a degree of political freedom to castigate it without any potential repercussions of any serious variety. The fact that some people hide behind pseudonyms or do so anonymously only underscores their hypocrisy. There is a striking lack of personal, political and professional integrity at work here that deserves to be pointed out. It's not courageous, although it might be tragically hip. From a political point of view, it's completely self-defeating and while it may gain one fans in the online echo chamber of social media and the blogosphere, insofar as it has any influence at all, it helps consign the entire community to the political margins, which is where some people openly say they are determined to stay because the American political system is inherently corrupt and/or corrupting.

The damage such voices do to the Arab and Muslim American communities is almost incalculable, because not only do they encourage self-marginalization and determined, calculated irrelevancy, leaving an open field for our adversaries (something they have enjoyed for decades and continue to take full advantage of), but because by being reflexively, irrationally and unfairly anti-American they feed into the narrative that Arabs and Muslims in the United States are a potential fifth column. None of this is to say that principled opposition to misguided US foreign policies is not important or essential. Anyone who's followed my career over the past couple of decades will know that I have not hesitated to voice strong, passionate and sustained critiques of policies I thought were indefensible and damaging to the national interest such as the misguided, and indeed I think disastrous, invasion of Iraq. But the only attitude worth taking if one is in the least bit interested in political viability is that of the loyal opposition. It's one thing to make a patriotic critique of a policy on the grounds that it will not in fact strengthen the country or achieve consensus policy goals. It is another to denounce the entire political system of the country, imply that it needs to be overthrown, attempt to influence foreign policy by simply vilifying policymakers and the entire system of policymaking and stand militantly outside it waving real or virtual impotent placards, or to give our fellow citizens every reason to feel that we might be, as the anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes like to suggest, fundamentally disloyal.

Principled, patriotic, measured and sensible criticism of US foreign policy or other aspects of American behavior, conduct or culture is not only a useful thing: it's a patriotic duty. And I don't think there is the least danger that any such discourse can be “appropriated by Al Qaeda” to justify their violence. This certainly isn't what I think we were trying to suggest. But I do think it is essential for Arab and Muslim Americans to shed their tin ear -- their apparently chronic inability to hear how our words will sound to our fellow Americans -- and begin to pay serious attention to crafting a message that conveys our fundamental interests and concerns in a receivable manner that can have a positive impact rather than reinforcing the worst stereotypes and stoking the deepest fears of disloyalty. Angry people will probably regard such a suggestion as an appeal to kowtow to chauvinistic American attitudes or unreasonable expectations. I don't think that's the case at all.

All that is required is to embrace one's position as a loyal American with as much seriousness of purpose and sincerity as possible, and begin first and foremost always with the national interest at heart. From then it is a fairly simple matter to craft arguments centered around the national interest (and I mean as commonly understood, and not the alternative Dennis Kucinich left wing alternative version or the Ron Paul right-wing one) that advance issues we believe in such as the urgent need to end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Or, for that matter, to have advocated against the Iraq war and in favor of its rapid drawdown. Or to advocate in favor of an intelligent and fast-tracked drawdown in Afghanistan. Or to oppose irrational and counterproductive “national security” measures that unfairly target Arab and Muslim Americans based on their identity. And so on and so forth. It's not terribly complicated, once you accept the proposition that we are Americans, that our first duty is to our own country, and that there is nothing we legitimately want that is incompatible with our American national interest.

But the truth is that the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States ARE vulnerable on many fronts, especially to charges of disloyalty. It's totally unfair and irrational, but it is the reality and we ignore it at our peril. Our point was that irresponsible, juvenile and unthinking rhetoric that plays into the hands of the anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes is something our community just can't afford, and yet many of the loudest voices on social media, the blogosphere and other decentralized forms of communication produce exactly that. This is a definite danger, because it gives ammunition to the worst of the racists and bigots. And, of course, politically it not only doesn't achieve anything, it makes matters worse. It's not a matter of declining to say something that really needs to be said out of fear of the reaction of others. It's a question of having a healthy respect for the sensitivities and sensibilities of our fellow Americans -- something we frequently and correctly demand Westerners and especially Americans show to Arabs and Muslims -- and trying to understand the difference between a receivable message that can have a positive impact as opposed to venting, preaching to the choir and providing the likes of Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller with more ammunition to spread their fear and hatred. It's just a question of being smart rather than stupid.

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