From Red-baiting to Islamophobia
I’m all about freedom of religion. I value the First Amendment as much as I value the Second Amendment as much as I value the Tenth Amendment and on and on and on...We are a law - we live under our Constitution and they live under our Constitution. But it’s scary if we get there...I’ve been trying to learn about Sharia law, I’ve been trying to learn about what going on - it is not good if that’s what’s going on. Now, you could argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality way of life, or cult whatever you want to call it. But certainly, we do want to protect our religions, but at the same time, this is something that we are gonna have to face.
Ramsey's argument has been advanced rather more elegantly by a number of high-profile Western politicians in recent years, including most notably Geert Wilders, a man tipped by some commentators as a future Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Wilders, whose Party of Freedom holds nine seats in the Dutch parliament, considers the Koran a 'fascist book', which ought to be banned from his country, in the same way that Mein Kampf is banned. Wilders wants to pay the Muslim community of the Netherlands to emigrate.
For Wilders and his co-thinkers, Islam is distinguished from religions like Christianity and Judaism by its supposed insistence that all its followers adhere to the same rigid, inhumane code of beliefs and practices, and by its alleged insistence that the rest of world be converted, by foul means or fair, to these beliefs and practices. Where Christianity and Judaism allow believers to interpret their holy books, disregarding passages that have become irrelevant and sometimes even dangerous with the passage of time, Islam supposedly insists that all of its brainwashed followers live in the seventh century, and that they try to make the rest of us live there, too. Wilders has become a hero to right-wingers around the world, and Ramsey seems to be winning similar acclaim this week.
Critics of Wilders and Ramsey have pointed out the long and fractious history of Islamic theology, the many varieties of Islam that exist today, and the lack of interest of the vast majority of Western Muslims in forcibly converting their fellow citizens. Wilders' critics have quite correctly likened his demonisation of Muslims to the anti-semitic propaganda campaigns of the European far right in the 1930s. Although Wilders holds liberal views on certain subjects, like women's rights and gay rights, his desire to portray Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of fanatics bent on controlling the rest of humanity echoes Nazi presentations of 'der ewige Jew'. Contemporary Islamophobia seems like a new strain of an old and deadly virus.
But there is another precursor to anti-Muslim ideology which has gone largely unrecognised by commentators. During the decades after World War Two an hysterical anti-communism was part of the daily life of the United States and many of its Western allies. Newspapers and other media warned continually about the sinister designs of the Soviet Union and its supporters, politicians denounced the 'red menace' in a manner that was both fervent and ritualistic, and both alleged and actual communists lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, their liberty. If anybody wants to understand the ideological underpinnings of postwar anti-communism, they could do worse than study the film My Son John, which emerged from Hollywood in 1952, when the Korean War was raging and Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero. The movie shows how the youngest son of an all-American family is exploited by a cell of evil communists. Unlike his two brothers, who are former football stars and military heroes, John is bookish, introverted, and a little arrogant. He lacks a girlfriend, and makes fun of his mother's wholesome Christianity. An unbalanced youth like John is easy prey for the commies, who brainwash him and set him to work as a spy. Before he is arrested by the FBI John is persuaded of the error of his ways by his parents, and tape records a warning of the perils of communist mind-control, which is played to an assembly at his old school. My Brother John reflects the widespread belief in 1950s America that communism was a cultish ideology which took over the minds of its adherents, prevented them from thinking and acting rationally and humanely, and made them into tools of a vast conspiracy.
A couple of years before My Brother John appeared, the philosopher Sidney Hook published an article in the New York Times called 'Heresy, Yes - Conspiracy, No'. Hook had been a communist in the 1930s, and had published a lucid study of the connections between the thought of Marx and that of American pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey. After becoming a critic of Stalin and a supporter of Trotsky in the late '30s, Hook had travelled rightwards, and ended up as a determined Cold Warrior. 'Heresy, Yes - Conspiracy, No', which was expanded into a short book in 1953, can be considered a highbrow rendition of the view of communism expressed in My Brother John. Hook argues that, because American society thrives on the 'free trade of ideas', all forms of intellectual 'heresy' ought to be tolerated. But communism cannot be tolerated in America, because it is a 'conspiracy' based upon secret organisation, manipulation of gullible minds with untruths, and the undermining of democratic institutions. If they are not shut out of public life and discourse, Marxists will inevitably make America resemble Stalin's Russia.
Portraying himself as a 'realistic liberal', in contrast to outdated 'ritualistic liberals' like his old mentor Dewey, Hook calls for universities and similar institutions to purge themselves of communists, and of anyone who sympathises with communists. (In one passage of the full-length version of his text, Hook seems to call for the exclusion of all opponents of the Korean War from university teaching positions.)
It is easy to see why 'Heresy, Yes - Conspiracy, No' became a Cold War classic. For university administrators and senior civil servants wanting to rid themselves of politically 'unreliable' staff, Hook furnished the perfect set of excuses. Because all Marxists, everywhere, in any age, inevitably engage in the same dishonest, dangerous tactics, it was not necessary for bosses to consider the actual practices of individual employees who were communists. The mere fact that an employee was sympathetic to Marxism ensured that he or she would inevitably engage in evil activities.
The Communist Party of the United States and its Kremlin bosses unwittingly helped the likes of Hook to construct an image of Marxism as a monolithic, teleological ideology. Like Hook, the Kremlin and its satellite parties in the West were keen to emphasise that Marx had produced a single, consistent body of ideas, that Lenin had developed these ideas in a logical manner, that Stalin had continued in Lenin's footsteps, and that around the world communists were a united force. Like Hook, the dogmatists of the Kremlin and its satellites relied on a few decontextualised quotes from Marx and Lenin to make their case, and ignored both the complexity of the vast bodies of texts Marx and Lenin had left behind and the divisions between different groups of Marxists, some of whom worshipped Stalin and some of whom despised the man and all his works.
Unlike communism, Islam is not, for the vast majority of its adherents, a political ideology. There are conservative Muslims, centrist Muslims, liberal Muslims, social democratic Muslims, even Marxist Muslims. An analogy can be drawn, though, between the method at work in Sidney Hook's famous attack on communists and the method used by Islamophobes like Geert Wilders. Like Hook, Wilders creates a narrow, essentialist, and highly negative definition of what is in reality a complex, changing set of ideas and practices. Like Hook, he claims that the ideology he has defined will inevitably lead its adherents to act in certain negative ways. And on the basis of his definition and the prediction contained within it, Wilders calls for the removal of the rights of a vulnerable minority. We should all hope that the Islamophobes of today do not gain the sort of influence that Red-baiters like Sidney Hook enjoyed in the 1950s.