WHAT SURPRISES me most about much of the discussion that has swirled around The Learning Channel's "All-American Muslim" program is how surprised many seem to be about it.
The shameful anti-Muslim fervor that tripped the wire of wall-to-wall coverage this time is part of a troubling and growing pattern, and it was not, as some of the discussion seems to imply, the work of a lone perpetrator. Lone perpetrators don't get this much traction unless the conditions are right in the first place. And they were.
The program (which I have never watched) reportedly portrayed Muslims in Michigan as, well, all-American -- which is to say, not especially unusual Americans. They carried on their lives -- as most Muslims in America do -- rather prosaically.
Indeed, as one Muslim American wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay, "The plotlines featured in the previews -- a young couple preparing to wed, another planning the arrival of a baby, a high school football coach putting his athletes through grueling practice -- seemed high on sweetness and low on drama. Since the ordinariness of a Muslim life is something I experience everyday, I felt no need to have it demonstrated for me on television."
That banality may have been bad TV (a criterion that hasn't kept other such reality shows from getting good ratings), but it was a red flag for the Florida Family Association, which has a reputation for dangerous intolerance. The all-American Muslims on the show just didn't square with FFA's central assumption "that Islam and those who practice some of it’s [sic] deviant rules have been doing so for thousands of years and are a threat world wide including in America."
Enough has been said, I think, about how businesses by Lowe's and Kayak faltered morally by caving in (only "in part", they say) to FFA's campaign to gin up a false threat about Islam and the Muslims among us. These businesses and the many other people who bought into this bigotry should really be ashamed, and I'm pleased to see there's been a big groundswell of condemnation for their views. Their behavior is about as un-American as it gets.
Before someone tries to take this discussion in direction that is beside my point, let me stipulate, as I have in previous posts that, yes, there are Muslims who are truly a violent threat to Americans and other "infidels". They scare the shit out of me, and the world must stop them. End of disclaimer.
(But I'm also convinced (based on empirical research and lots of anecdotal evidence of my own) that the vast majority of Muslims do not buy this extremist notion of Islam. In fact, for good reason, many despise these miltants more than even the FFA.)
One of the nutrients that enriches soil for the sort of bigotry FFA cultivates is the noise we hear from advocates against sharia law. These folks have convinced themselves that Muslims have an agenda to replace secular U.S. law with Islamic (sharia) law. They have conjured this completely out of thin air by pointing to (real) Islamically based theocracies such as Iran as the model of what most Muslims want to do in America. They leave aside that, unlike the Irans of the world, the U.S. has a strong and resilient legal tradition that prohibits this very possibility. (I don't think it's a stretch to assume, by the way, that most of these same people would be untroubled if Christian theology replaced much of American civil law. These details get in the way.)
As far as I can tell, the anti-sharia-ists still represent a minority view in the U.S. According to a recent opinion study, a substantial majority of Americans reject the notion that American Muslims ultimately want to establish sharia as the law of the land in the U.S (61 percent disagree, 30 percent agree).
But, wait: why don't a much higher number of Americans see the anti-sharia crusade as snake oil? I'd like to see more than 90 percent, but I guess that's dreaming.
And if anti-sharia-ists are in the minority, how is that, as the New York Times reported, "Since last year, more than two dozen states have considered measures to restrict judges from consulting Shariah, or foreign and religious laws more generally. The statutes have been enacted in three states so far." All of these are likely to be struck down, even by sensible conservative jurists, as unconstitutional.
One of the most visible (but far from only) evangelists for the dangerous lie about sharia in the U.S. is none other than Newt Gingrich. Because he is such a profilic dispenser of so many whacky views (even the danger of electromagnetic pulses!), I probably shouldn't be surprised that his espousal of anti-sharia nonsense over the last 18 months or so got a lot less attention than it deserved. Until recently, that is, when his candidacy.for the Republican presidential nomination began to surge and heightened scrutiny followed.
Back in July 2010, Gingrich delivered a speech in which he defiantly declared that no court anywhere in the United States should be "allowed to consider sharia as a replacement for American law. Period." He claimed that:
"radical Islamists want to impose sharia on all of us - for legitimate reasons. Let me be clear: you can respect your adversary without agreeing or giving in. They have profound and deeply held beliefs, and one of the great challenges for securalists is they can't understand the level of passion that a belief, which is derived from an underlying religious form, leads one to have, which is why, frankly, deeply believing Christian and Jewish Americans have a much better understanding of what's going on than do secular intellectuals from deracinated unversities looking out of their ivory tower trying to wonder what it is that would lead people to kill themselves and having no comprehension of the emotions and the depth of passion.
...[S]tealth jihadists use political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools and violent jihadists use violence. But in fact they're both engaged in jihad, and they are both seeking to oppose the same end state, which is to replace Western Civilization with a radical imposition of sharia.... Sharia in its natural form has principles and punishments totally abhorrant to the Western world and the underlying basic belief, which is that law comes directly from God and is therefore imposed upon humans and no human can change the law without it being an act of apostasy is a fundamental violation of a tradition in the Western traditiion, which goes back to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem and which has evolved and given us freedom across the planet on a scale we can hardly imagine and which is now directly threatened by those who oppose it.... The principle of sharia is painful execution, not just death.... [It] is a direct, mortal threat to virtually every value that the Left has.
Whew. Sorry to bog down the discussion here, but I think it's instructive to see how much Gingrich mixes up a bunch of ideas that sound really smart but have no relation to one another when you look closely. It's what gives him the appearance of being an intellectual. In this short space he includes: irrelevant attacks on "secularists" in their "deracinated" "ivory towers (but wait, by opposing the threat of sharia, isn't he playing a "secularist" himself?); chastisements of those who belive that "law comes directly from God" (but won't that offend many folks, like those at FFA, who think the same thing about their own bibles?); and "respect" for the very adversaries who are such a threat to Western civlization.
Imagine the justified hue and cry that would follow a speech from a similar prominent figure who made the same sort of statements about Christian theology or Jewish law. But it's striking that Gingrich can say things like this and get only a shrug from most, if that.
But the worst problem is his use of truly trivial examples that offer no proof whatsoever of a concerted effort to impose sharia law on America. Later in the speech, Gingrich talked about a legal case in New Jersey in which (according to Gingrich) a judge excused the violent acts by a man against his wife because they were an extension of the religious law (Islam) the man follows.
No, Professor Gingrich, as terrible as that ruling may have been (a higher court rightly overturned it), that's not an example of how Muslims are trying to impose sharia on American law. It's a misapplication of important U.S. laws that allow reasonable accommodation of a person's religious beliefs. (For example, in some states Jews can be exempted from laws that require autopsies, which are prohibited under Jewish law.)
It's telling, too, that Gingrich appeared to have jumped on this bandwagon last year (and, at the same time, contributed to it) when he was openly entertaining the idea of running for President. Similarly, 2010 was the time when his views appeared to moving toward the extremist outlook of many Tea Partiers, and he was effusive in his praise of them. Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, but, if I'm right, it's sickening to think that he's fanning flames of bigotry just to win votes. His only other defense is that he doesn't realize he's doing it. Either way, that's not what I call presidential material.
What's scary is that these are the sorts of examples Gingrich and like-minded zealots have relied on to generate the rage against Muslims. In other words, like the FFA's critique of "All-American Muslims", the fury is based on a made-up threat, a straw man. Indeed, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that most Muslims support America's tradition of separation of religion. This means the controversry is really about pure ethnic hostility, not about a clash over the "big ideas" and "values" guys like Gingrich pretend to stand for.
I'm not pinning all the anti-Muslim fervor in the U.S. on Gingrich or even on the others who peddle the anti-sharia gospel. There are plenty of other sources of the misinformation and hostility about Muslims in America, to name a few: the guy in Florida last year who threatened to burn Korans; the people who turned the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan into a sinister symbol; Herman Cain's ominous declaration earlier this year that he would never have a Muslim in his cabinet, and so on.
So while there is no excuse for how Lowe's and Kayak panicked when they heard that there was something subversive happening at TLC, one can almost understand why they reacted the way they did. They can probably feel the way the wind seems to be blowing. It's reminiscent of how the entertainment industry responded to Joseph McCarthy's bluster in the 1950s.
It is dangerous and, if I may borrow a sentiment, a sin, to traffick in lies that one religious minority is a mortal threat to the rest of society. As a Jew, I find that chillingly familiar and scary. As an American, I'm ashamed and worried about the future of this country and the ideals that have made it great.