In the New York Times last week, writing about the eruption of hatred for Muslims in the US, Frank Rich asked what seems an increasingly pertinent question: “How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?”
Americans who are shocked by what the columnist Maureen Dowd calls a “weird mass nervous breakdown” accuse the usual suspects — right-wingers whose “fear and disinformation” is “amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment”. But anti-Muslim toxins were injected into the mainstream well before August 2010, and not by right-wingers alone.
Bestselling authors like Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be the “new heroes”, as the writer Peter Beinart puts it, of the Republican party’s crusade against Muslims. But “professional” former Muslims have long provided respectable cover for the bigotry and, more often, plain ignorance of mainstream western commentators on Islam. On Monday Germany’s Hirsi Ali, the Turkish writer Necla Kelek, stood shoulder to shoulder with the German central banker and Social Democratic party (SPD) member Thilo Sarrazin as he asserted that Muslims are out-breeding white, presumably “Aryan” Germans and that “all Jews share the same gene”.
Most of these ex-Muslim “dissidents” lucratively raging against Islam in the West wouldn’t be able to flourish without the imprimatur of influential institutions and individuals in the US and Europe.
Hirsi Ali, who wishes to be the Voltaire of Islam, commands rapturous endorsements from not only right-wing crazies like Pamela Geller and Glenn Beck but also Tina Brown.
Certainly, the story of Hirsi Ali’s life attests powerfully to the degradations suffered by many women in patriarchal cultures. There is no question that she should feel free to say that some Muslims are programmed to kill infidels and mutilate female bodies, however much these opinions may offend some people. There is little reason, however, for most of her opinions to claim serious intellectual attention.
Yet the mildest criticism of Hirsi Ali’s naivety triggers a tsunami of vitriol from her army of prominent supporters. In recent months columnists and critics such as Clive James and Melanie Phillips have rebuked Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for not joining the chorus of praise for Hirsi Ali, a defender of the western Enlightenment.
As it turns out, millions of angry Americans have opened up an equally unedifying “debate” on Islam. “You look them [Muslims] in the eye and flex your muscles,” Hirsi Ali exhorted the West recently, “there comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”
Well, that much-awaited moment is here. Populist sentiment, which Democrats as well as Republicans clamour to represent, fully endorses the scapegoating of a religious minority for America’s recent military and economic failures.
The writer is author of Temptations of the West
—The Guardian, London