For some, Barack Obama’s stature as a man of the Left has fallen precipitously, like late autumn leaves shed by branches bowing to the will of winter.
Disappointment has often been self-inflicted. Supporters have dipped their pens deeply into the inkwell of Obama’s inspiring story and written their own lines on Afghanistan, oil drilling, or the death penalty — only to see these wishful words unceremoniously erased by presidential politics or the senator’s own views.
But, for American Muslims and progressive allies, both eager to see an end to the vilification of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, Obama’s mantra of hope and change barely set in before it expired.
First we witnessed the embarrassing spectacle of micro-level ethnic cleansing when two Arab women with headscarves were whisked offstage ahead of a campaign photo-op in Detroit. Then we heard Obama call false claims about his purportedly Muslim identity “smears” — as if he was accused not of belonging to an Abrahamic faith observed by more than 1.2 billion people, but of slinking out of Congress to visit a brothel. Soon after we saw the senator genuflect before AIPAC and call for a permanently Israeli Jerusalem — a vision the Jewish state has assiduously tried to realize by macro-level ethnic cleansing, purging its Arab residents.
A more recent political maneuver also turned out to be a purge: the Obama campaign’s Muslim outreach coordinator, Mazen Asbahi, “resigned” this month after a brief stint of several days. The event went almost unnoticed.
But two sharply different responses to this episode — and the standing afforded to the authors of these responses — reveal that the senator is not alone in failing to stanch America’s anti-Islamic miasma. Rather, the shortcoming is a collective one, shared by many liberals whose prejudice against Muslims and Arab-Americans is surpassed only by an apparent disinterest in correcting it.
One response to the resignation came from James Zogby. An Arab-American Christian, Zogby’s credentials as a man rooted in his community are matchless. He helped found the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He led non-sectarian campaigns to assist war victims in Palestine and Lebanon. And he serves as president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
Yet despite 30 years of community advocacy and experience, his views on Arab and Muslim issues appear in just two popular non-ethnic publications. One is the Huffington Post. The other is in Egypt.
Commenting on Asbahi’s short tenure, Zogby writes, “In the brief time he held his position we spoke almost daily. He learned so much and did so much to make Arab Americans and American Muslims feel included in the campaign.”
“Then,” Zogby observes, “it happened.” One of the many websites “monitoring” Muslims in America discovered that eight years ago Asbahi served on a board which included a controversial imam. Asbahi resigned from the board after two weeks.
Like vultures eyeing a wounded gazelle, the usual assortment of right-wing bloggers descended on Asbahi. They vilified him as a closet fundamentalist for once belonging to the Muslim Student Association, a well-established mainstream group with branches on dozens of college campuses across the U.S. and Canada.
Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal threatened to amplify the echo chamber, the walls of which reverberate with the hysterics of its associates in the right-wing “blogosphere.”
Faced with mounting pressure and bereft of support from any quarter, Asbahi and the campaign “agreed” he would relinquish his post.
This sequence of events comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with neoconservative methods. It is but a reenactment of previous attacks: the mendacious 2005 campaign to oust Columbia University professors who used Israel’s own archives to dismantle pleasant fictions about its history; the dissemination of e-mails containing crude anti-Semitic nonsense sent out in professors’ names to destroy their credibility; and the ongoing efforts to publicly intimidate universities into denying academics employment or tenure.
But amid the past few years of attacks, outrages, and, yes, smears, hurled at Muslims and Arabs in this country, one Muslim figure stands curiously unsullied: Irshad Manji. She, too, wrote about Asbahi’s dismissal, though we would do well to acquaint ourselves with the author first.
Unlike most of her coreligionists, Manji has been lavished with attention and awards by mainstream and liberal America. She garnered Oprah Winfrey’s first “Chutzpah” award, Ms. Magazine‘s “Feminist for the 21st Century” seal of approval, New York University’s Wagner School “Moral Courage Project,” a column in the Huffington Post, production of a PBS documentary, and the list goes on.
In an era when Muslims find themselves boxed in by political attacks here and military assaults abroad, one wonders: what is Manji’s secret to success?
She wrote a book — and not just any book. Titled The Trouble With Islam Today, hers won applause not only from liberals but other, more interesting quarters. The Wall Street Journal praised it as “refreshingly provocative” and “deserv[ing] of the attention it is receiving.” Daniel Pipes declared, “Manji — a practicing Muslim — brings real insight to her subject.” Phyillis Chesler beamed, “Manji has written a bold, sane, passionate, compelling book.” And Alan Dershowitz announced, “Manji is a fresh, new and intriguing voice of Islamic reform.”
A fine example of damning with loud praise.
What could a Muslim have written that would delight supporters of bombing and torturing Muslims? What sweet words could have moved Daniel Pipes — who specializes in hyping anti-Islamic hysteria on Fox News and elsewhere — to welcome into his generous bosom the ideas of a “practicing Muslim?” What might motivate Alan Dershowitz, better known for backing the torture of Muslims than for reading their books, to plug Manji’s effort?
The answer lies in the content. The Trouble With Islam Today is an unhinged polemic that derides Muslims and demeans their faith. Examining a few of the book’s points should reveal what has caught the fancy of neoconservatives and liberals alike.
The author devotes two pages to comparing Osama bin Laden to Prophet Muhammad. “Is it mere happenstance,” Manji rhetorically asks, “that bin Laden spends so much time in caves, like the meditating [Prophet] did?” With penetrating and piercing logic — in the sense that one must penetrate one’s skull and pierce the cortex to succumb to it — she goes on in this vein, declaring “camel saddles” and “online transactions” twin evils. The “parallels” between Osama, the man who blesses the murder of innocent people, and Muhammad, the man who forgave the murderers of his closest companions, “continue to proliferate,” Manji insists, much to the delight of the Muslim-haters behind the curtains.
A good portion of the book is also dedicated to attacking the Quran (and the Quran alone), which the intrepid author does without any background in religious studies or a single footnote. But no matter. This book, Manji intones, is “profoundly at war with itself.” Religious texts should apparently read like do-it-yourself plumbing guides, bereft of subtlety or layers of meaning, particularly if you are trying to flush the whole thing down the toilet to boost your celebrity status among Islamophobes.
Manji’s fans must especially enjoy her excoriation of Muslims as fake victims. Muslims wallow in their “screaming self-pity,” she snickers, as though one ought to see the fuselage of cruise missiles as half-full rather than half-empty as they fly en route to the nearest wedding celebration or apartment building.
Manji’s attacks on Muslims appear almost kind next to the beating she doles out to logic itself. She surmises that since Muslims have been more harmed by Muslims than non-Muslims (based on what data or criteria, we dare not guess), there is little reason to complain about atrocities authored under the “war on terror.” She does not add whether she also ordered families of Sept. 11th victims to get over themselves when the casualties were surpassed by that year’s domestic homicides — a case of “Americans having been more harmed by Americans than non-Americans.”
Finally, Manji enjoys ridiculing dispossessed Palestinians. Ignoring over two decades of work by Jewish scholars and human rights groups on Israeli ethnic cleansing and massacres, she neatly eliminates the Palestinians altogether by dubbing them Jordanians and hails Israel for its “compassion.” It must have been precisely this “compassion” that moved 23 ANC veterans, several of them Jewish, to compare the Israeli occupation with South African apartheid during a recent visit.
Now well-acquainted with America’s favorite Muslim, let us turn to her article on the departure of Obama’s former coordinator, Mazen Asbahi.
In a Huffington Post piece, she demonstrates no concern about the vilification that enabled Asbahi’s dismissal. Indeed, she fails to mention it even once. Is this because Manji is too busy contributing to the problem to pause and reflect? Or is it because this would upset her core base — the neoconservatives who mount these smear campaigns?
Whatever the case, Manji performs her predictable pre-programmed attack routine, observing contemptuously: “. . . Mazen Asbahi has just resigned. I can’t say I’m disheartened. He’d been embraced by groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, renowned for their conservative politics and ‘moderate’ double-speak.”
Writing a piece occasioned by attacks on one Muslim, Manji manages to magnify the insult by attacking thousands of other Muslims.
According to her politics, anyone who does not dance to the detonation of cluster bombs is already suspect. So her invective aimed at groups representing thousands of American Muslims, which she never bothers to back up with arguments, is understandable.
Not yet satisfied with herself, she goes on to pant about “most” American Muslims being stuck in a 7th century — or perhaps 10th century, depending on her mood — “time warp.” Serving as 21st century America’s doctors, teachers, engineers, shopkeepers, and plant workers, Muslims have been too busy to notice this worrisome defect.
Concluding with a few shopworn words about “moral courage” and “revolutionary ethos,” Manji polishes off her attacks on the community by invoking vague platitudes about Muslim “reform.”
This is Manji’s sole gimmick: disingenuous calls for Muslims to move forward belied by support for those pulling America backward.
What does the liberal adulation of a professional Islamophobe — one openly adored by neoconservatives, no less — say about the state of American liberalism? Will liberals come to respect and support genuine Muslim and Arab voices, like Zogby and countless unrecognized figures? Or will they continue to lazily rely on self-professed stand-ins like Irshad Manji?
If liberalism persists on its present path, it will not only alienate a targeted community in America but pave the way for further persecution.
Perfectly illustrating this point is the New York Times‘ fawning characterization of Manji as “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” This is very far from the truth.
For years, many Muslim and non-Muslim voices have said bin Laden’s ideology is a freak phenomenon, fashioned in the ghoulish laboratory of Cold War politics and fed on a steady diet of American-Israeli assaults in the Middle East. At odds with more than 1,300 years of Muslim thought and history, these voices have insisted, bin Laden is a perversion of genuine Islam.
But Manji argues the opposite: bin Laden is a genuine product of Islam, which is itself perverted. Osama, we will recall, is for Manji the new Muhammad.
In showering attention and accolades on Manji, many liberals thus validate and promote the idea that extremist Islam is Islam itself. Could bin Laden dream of a greater gift? Could the neoconservatives?
Perhaps liberals find Manji’s message appealing because ascribing extremism to some innate feature of Islam “disappears” from view the consequences of American foreign policy. Invasion and occupation disappear. Torture and abuse disappear. Corpses of slaughtered civilians and carrions of neutralized nations disappear.
The desire to own a clear conscience, even one obtained through the muddiest logic, should never be underestimated.
There may be other answers: a fear of questioning the dominant narrative; of criticizing Israel; of discovering Islamic perspectives; of engaging the Other, who is often harangued but rarely heard.
Whatever the reason, American liberals would do well to stop glorifying anti-Muslim celebrities and start building relationships with honest Arab and Muslim voices.
We are waiting.
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent (www.crossingthecrescent.com) and writes about American Muslim identity for WireTap magazine. Co-founder of Left Hook, a youth journal that ran from Nov. 2003 to March 2006, he works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area. He can be reached at: