The threefold rise in hate crimes against Muslims since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and the acceptance of hate speech as a legitimate form of political discourse signal the morbidity of our civil society. The body politic is coughing up blood. The daily amplification of this hate speech by a commercial media whose sole concern is ratings and advertising dollars rather than serving as a bulwark to protect society presages a descent into the protofascist nightmare of racism, indiscriminate violence against the marginalized, and a blind celebration of American chauvinism, militarism and bigotry.
The mounting attacks on Muslims, which will become a contagion when there is another catastrophic terrorist attack, are only the beginning. There is a long list to be targeted, including undocumented workers, African-Americans, homosexuals, liberals, feminists, intellectuals and artists. We are entering a new dark age, an age of idiocy and blood. These hatreds, encoded in American DNA but understood as politically toxic by the liberal wing of the capitalist class, have been embraced by an enraged and disenfranchised white underclass. Our failure to curb this hate speech will haunt us. Once a civil society tolerates the intolerant, as Karl Popper wrote, “the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
The anti-Muslim virus begins slowly. Step by step the hate talk moves from insults, stereotyping and untruths to incendiary calls for vigilantes to attack women wearing the hijab, men wearing kufis, mosques, Islamic centers and schools, and Muslim-owned businesses. It makes sense to many in the white underclass—especially because they have been sold out by the liberals who preach tolerance—that the violent purging of a demonized group from U.S. society can cure the society’s malaise and restore safety and American “greatness.” But soon all marginalized groups will be at risk. Such a process is what happened in the Weimar Republic. It is what happened in Yugoslavia. It is what happened in Israel.
“What is dangerous about the creeping villainy is that it takes considerable imagination and considerable dialectical abilities to be able to detect it at the moment and see what it is,” the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his “Journals and Notebooks.” “Well, neither of these features [imagination and dialectical ability] are prominent in most people—and so the villainy creeps forward just a little bit each day, unnoticed.”
Glenn Beck’s best-selling book “It Is About Islam: Exposing the Truth About ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran, and the Caliphate” posits that a quarter of American Muslims, 300,000 to 500,000 in his estimate, believe that violence should be used to overthrow the state and annul the Constitution in order to replace our judicial system with Sharia law. He says Islam keeps followers living in “the stone age.” His rant against Muslims parallels his rants against undocumented workers. He once, for example, said there are only three reasons Mexicans come to the United States: “One, they’re terrorists; two, they’re escaping the law; or three, they’re hungry. They can’t make a living in their own dirtbag country.” This extremism, expressed by Beck and many others, is moving with terrifying speed to the center of American political debate. And the mainstream press, which prizes sensationalism over news and truth, has abrogated its role as an arbiter of fact and rational discourse to peddle spectacle and sensationalism.
Kierkegaard was as scathing about the press as he was about the public. He noted:
The daily press is the evil principle of the modern world, and time will only serve to disclose this fact with greater and greater clearness. The capacity of the newspaper for degeneration is sophistically without limit, since it can always sink lower and lower in its choice of readers. At last it will stir up all those dregs of humanity which no state or government can control.
The ideological war began in earnest immediately after the attacks of 9/11. Hatemongers and racists, before then primarily relegated to the margins of society, laid the foundations for the collapse of civil discourse.
“The Muslims sat aside for the last 15 years and allowed a complete reframing of this issue by highly funded groups such as the extreme Christian right or people like Glenn Beck,” said the Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, whom I reached by phone in Berkeley, Calif. “Beck argues that the problem is Islam itself. But this is also true on programs such as the ‘700 Club.’ They attack Islam as a religion. They call it a demonic force. We have had 15 years of an incredible propaganda machine that has presented Muslims as a fifth column and Islam as an anti-Christian force, as the greatest threat to Western civilization. For too many people, Islam is now conflated with Nazism.”
Extremist groups, embodied by the Christian right and Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), have distorted Christianity and Islam to sanctify their mutual hatreds and bloodlusts. These groups prey upon the legions of the disenfranchised, most of whom do not come out of religious households or religious communities, but who find in thin clichés and slogans a simplistic and self-aggrandizing worldview. New converts are catapulted from despair and hopelessness into a Manichean world of good and evil. They are told their rage and lust for violence are sanctified. They are authorized by demagogues and warlords to persecute and kill in the name of God.
“Groups such as ISIS, especially in the West, draw from uneducated, disenfranchised, alienated and very often oppressed minority groups,” said Yusuf, who is the president and co-founder of Zaytuna College, in Berkeley. “When you see pictures of converts, you often see tattoos on their necks. Many have had run-ins with the law or have prison records. They have a lot of anger towards the society, much of it justified.”