On John McCain and Anti-Arab Fear Mongering

The recent death of John McCain brought accolades from liberals and conservatives alike, even some so-called progressives joined in the whitewashing of his warmongering and Islamophobia. Many wrote approvingly of his defense of Barack Obama when Obama was accused of being an Arab. In this short essay from 2008, MECA Development Director Deborah Agre notes that McCain’s “defense” was itself Islamophobic and describes other instances of anti-Arab fear mongering, the likes of which are still going on today.

Enough is Enough! Anti-Arab Fear-Mongering Today
From MECA News 2008

During the recent presidential election campaign, Barack Obama’s opponents made unceasing efforts to smear him by saying he is Muslim or Arab and therefore a “threat to America.” The Obama campaign responded by denying that he is Muslim, but consistently failed to challenge the idea that being Muslim is bad and somehow related to terrorism. On one occasion Obama even declined to be photographed with women supporters wearing headscarves.

When a McCain supporter called Barak Obama “an Arab,” McCain replied, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen…” There are so many things wrong with this response it’s hard to know where to start. But Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, put it well when he said, “Enough is enough! From the beginning of this campaign there have been those who have used ‘Muslim’ and ‘Arab’ in an effort to smear Barack Obama. This exploitation of bigotry and the stoking of racist fires to forward an agenda is reprehensible… As any ethnic group who has ever been used to scare the electorate knows, this is a dangerous game that, tragically, can get innocent people hurt.” Just a few weeks earlier 28 million swing voters throughout the US received with their newspapers the fear-mongering video “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West,” full of the worst, most violent stereotypes of the Arab world.

For those of us who have been working with people in the Middle East, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry is nothing new. A few years ago, when my young son was caught with something that belonged to a classmate, a neighbor remarked, “Well, I guess you could do what the Arabs do and cut off his hand.” I mention my friend Jehad and hear, “I can’t believe that’s someone’s actual name,” and I have to explain that Jehad means “struggle” or “effort,” usually in the spiritual sense. Often, when talking about Palestine, I’m asked (rhetorically) “Why don’t the Arabs have any democracies?” The implication is that Arabs are somehow incapable or unworthy of democracy?

I’m not a huge fan of religion, especially the orthodox variety, so I was eager to see Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous.” Maher, the country’s leading left/libertarian satirist, makes fun of evangelical Christians, their ostentatious ministers, and their anti-scientific beliefs, but it’s all pretty good-natured. Orthodox Jews get a little (very little) ribbing for the arduous contraptions they’ve invented to get around the Sabbath prohibitions on doing almost anything. Regrettably, a rabbi from the ultra-orthodox sect Neturei Karta is taken to task, not for any of the group’s nutty beliefs or practices, but only for its faith-based anti-Zionism.

By comparison, Maher goes for the laughs repeatedly by juxtaposing Muslim clerics explaining Muslim beliefs with images of terrorists and acts of terror. This is a cheap shot—and a dangerous one in today’s climate. If he’s going to take the gloves off in this way he should at least be even-handed. Show us the Christians who bomb women’s health clinics and plot murder of doctors who perform abortions Show us the Jewish settlers in the West bank who stone children on their way to and from school, shouting “Death to the Arabs,” or the settler who opened fire in Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, killing twenty-nine people.

There have been protests against this unabashed defaming of a culture and a religion. Prominent people have spoken out and written about it, Petitions and articles have circulated in print and around the Internet, Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of people on Facebook suddenly adopted the middle name “Hussein” as a seemingly spontaneous effort to stand up to the Islamophobia of the McCain campaign. Now among the Sana Husseins and the Khalid Husseins, you can see Miko Hussein Lee, Avi Hussein Finkelstein, Matt Hussein Olson, and Marga Hussein Gomez, among many others. Ironically, it was George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State Colin Powell who made the one of the strongest public statements, when he endorsed Barack Obama. Citing the McCain campaign’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as one reason, he said, “The correct answer [to questions about Obama’s religion] is, ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’ But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’

Well, there is something wrong with the way Muslims, Arabs, and Arab-Americans are treated in this country, especially in recent years. They’ve been subjected to discrimination, bigotry and violence. Now they’re being declared unfit to hold office. It’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. It’s racism and we must all stand up to it.