On Cordoba House

My new column at Masri al-Youm, on Obama's communication problem, is out. It argues that despite the recent polls showing disappointment with Obama in the Arab world, the real communication problem with regards to Islam that the administration has is with the American people. I've been following with horrified fascination the development of the "controversy" over Cordoba House, which has been cathartic in that it had revealed the strong unease — far beyond the lunatic fringes, the professionals manipulators and the populist opportunists — have with the project. This is America's Danish cartoon crisis.

The key here is to recognize that a large number of ordinary people have a problem with the mosque project as inappropriate or insensitive. This means that they are implicitly making the link between Islam and al-Qaeda in some respects, despite the exhortations of Bush and Obama that the two are different. If that weren't the case, after all, why would people think the mosque is a problem? It's not enough just to cry out about Islamophobia, enough people have strong feelings about this that it's worth rethinking the poor leadership Americans have had (in politics and the media) in thinking about Islam and what its place might be in American life.

Not just conservatives, nativists and full-blown racists are to blame for this. After 9/11, an insidious meme was allowed to prosper in the mainstream media: the question "why do they hate us?", where the "they" is loose enough to apply not only to the 9/11 hijackers, but was also extended to Arabs or Muslims indiscriminately. I wrote about this in the introduction to a review of Lee Smith's terrible book, which is out in the current issue of Bidoun magazine but unfortunately not online. Here's the relevant excerpt:

On 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. The speech was structured around a series of questions about the terrorist attacks that had occurred nine days earlier  — who had conducted them, why they had done so, how the United States would retaliate and what was expected of Americans. The second of these questions was phrased by Bush as follows: “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’” 

The “they” in that interrogation, in Bush’s speech, was in reference to “the terrorists.” But it soon took on another meaning as it was re-appropriated by newspaper columnists. In a 6,791-word essay that appeared  in Newsweek’s 15 October 2001 edition, titled “The politics of rage: Why do they hate us?”, Fareed Zakariya gave that question a broader answer, looking beyond the motives of the 9/11 hijackers and delving into sociological analysis of the countries they came from. Zakariya is one of America’s most influential middle-brow public intellectuals, through his editorship of Newsweek’s international edition, his CNN world affairs show GPS, and his numerous books. In his essay he planted the seed of one of the most pernicious ideas of the last decade’s “war on terror,” the idea of the collective responsibility — of a pseudo-civilizational sort — of Arabs (and often, also Iranians) for the actions of al-Qaeda’s 19 hijackers. 

Zakariya focused not on al-Qaeda, but the Arab world and Iran, whose dysfunction — the product of failed ideological projects, Western-backed authoritarianism and resurgent religious millennialism — had created a culture of visceral anti-Americanism that culminated in the events of 9/11. “Arabs, however, feel that they are under siege from the modern world and that the United States symbolizes this world….  This is the culture from which the suicide bombers have come,” Zakariya wrote.

“Why do they hate us?”, as it sublimated into a standard meme in American media, has become not a question but an indictment of nearly 300 million people and an affirmation that “they” are the problem behind Islamist terrorism. Like another closely related bromide, “They hate our freedom”, it presents a stark, black-and-white clash of cultures in which the “they” is both hostile and victimized, an enemy that needs to be rescued fron itself. As Zakariya concluded his essay, “If the West can help Islam enter modernity in dignity and peace, it will have done more than achieved security. It will have changed the world.”

"Why do they hate us?" is what some may now be asking in the Muslim world — particularly after Cordoba House, Switzerland's minaret ban and France's very loaded discourse on national identity, which after all are the product of state policies and mainstream politics, not a fringe group.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.