Double standard on anti-Arab bigotry repeats old errors
Ever the innovator, Ralph Nader, the American political activist, has taken on a new challenge: to force open discussion about topics previously considered off-limits by mainstream media, legislative bodies or the electoral arena. His project, called Debating Taboos, sponsors televised debates bringing these controversial issues into the public square.
This past week, I participated in one of these on the question: "Is there a double standard in the response to anti-Semitism against Arab Americans compared with the response to anti-Semitism against Jewish Americans?"
Some who had been invited to participate in the discussion declined. They acknowledged that "anti-Arabism" and Islamophobia are a problem but dismissed Mr Nader's formulation of the topic as "utterly misconceived", and "misleading and even tendentious". They argued that the word "anti-Semitism" can only refer to Jews.
In truth, however, Mr Nader has a point since historically the animus that has inspired bigotry directed against Arabs and Muslims, on the one side, and Jews on the other has been cut out of the same cloth.
It was a largely western phenomenon that emerged in full force with the modern state system in Europe and was directed against two Semitic peoples - one that the West found living within its midst and which it identified as an internal threat; and the other which the West confronted as an external challenge, but which it similarly defined as a threat.
As a result, both groups suffered a history of vilification and dehumanisation, enduring persistent and systematic campaigns of intense violence. Jews were segregated, tormented, targeted and forced to endure repeated pogroms, leading to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The dehumanisation campaigns against Arabs, on the other hand, were used to justify imperial conquest, the colonisation of Arab lands, and efforts to eradicate their identity in the Maghreb and force their dispersal in the Levant.
Three decades ago, I collaborated in a study of political cartoons and other forms of popular culture that compared the depiction of Jews in Tsarist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany with those of Arabs in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. In both content and form, the treatments given to each of the two groups was similar.
The two most prevalent German and Russian depictions of Jews paralleled the two most common images of Arabs projected in US cartoons. The fat grotesque Jewish banker or merchant found its counterpart in the obese oil sheikh, while the image of the Jewish anarchist, communist, subversive terrorist morphed into the Arab and now Muslim terrorist. They differed only in attire.
Both were seen as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing western values, of being prone to violent conspiracies, of being lecherous usurpers of western wealth - and therefore threats to western civilisation.
As Mr Nader points out, while it has become unacceptable in the US to express bigotry against Jews, anti-Semitism against Arabs - and increasingly, by extension, against Muslims - remains a part of the West's popular culture and its political discourse. Hollywood, in particular, has an Arab and Muslim problem with negative stereotypes abounding.
But the West's political culture is no better. For more than a decade now, some political leaders in the US have been engaged in poisonous discourse targeting Arabs and Muslims - culminating in recent years in the mass movement to block the building of an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan, a rash of legislation to block the imposition of Sharia law in over two dozen states, and declarations by presidential candidates insisting that Muslims would have to take special loyalty oaths before allowing them into public service.
While this hate has had devastating consequences for Arabs and Muslims, the purveyors of the hate have received nary a slap on the wrist.
Racist books like Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind continued to be used to train the US military through the end of the Iraq war. Hate-mongers remain on the air and retain cult-like followings. Obsessed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim writers and bloggers are quoted by presidential candidates, law enforcement agencies and hate criminals alike.
And it is clear that there is a double standard at work in all of this. Ask yourself what the reaction would be if Arab Americans wrote books about Jews like those written by David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and Robert Spenser - what would we call them? And what if an Arab billionaire made and distributed millions of copies of movies charging that there was a massive and violent Jewish conspiracy to take over the West - would presidential candidates be lining their campaign coffers with his millions as they are with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson?
The bottom line is that Mr Nader is right to have encouraged this debate because there is a shameful double standard and it must end. The sooner Americans address this problem and correct it, the better off everyone will be.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa
Published: June 24, 2012 04:00 AM