Sunday, May 8, 2011

The "Anti-Islam Backlash" That Wasn't There

Some regular readers of this blog may recall that I took a rather extended hiatus—three months, from November, 2010 until February, 2011—from writing here. There wasn’t a specific reason for what might as well be termed my writer’s block, and there was certainly no dearth of reasonable subjects to contemplate. It was just that nothing really seized me, and once I lost momentum, it became increasingly difficult to work up the ambition to write.

What gave me the jump-start was my felt need to respond to a piece by Jack Marshall on his Ethics Alarms blog, in which he described the New York Times as “perhaps the most egregious of the left-biased media.” I had been a regular reader of that site for some time, but had never commented. This time, I started to, but it soon became clear that I was writing a lot more than a comment. I was writing my own piece, and a rather lengthy one, at that. So that’s what it became, and it turns out to have been the first of over two dozen entries over the most recent three-month period.

The reason for this rather circuitous introduction is this: while Mr. Marshall and I may differ in ascribing motives—he is more likely to see creeping ideology, I to see sloth and garden variety incompetence—we share a contempt for bad journalism and an appreciation for those who show us what that profession can be at its finest (his excellent encomium in commemoration of World Journalist Day here).

Which brings me to this: a seemingly cutesy story from Jillian Rayfield of Talking Points Memo about Naqeeb Memon, who wore a shirt reading “I’m a Muslim—Don’t Panic” to the spontaneous Ground Zero celebration of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It is, to be sure, a story not much worth telling, but that’s a description of about 90% of what passes for news these days.

What really caught my attention was this:
Though the atmosphere at Ground Zero that night was positive, since the announcement there has still been some anti-Islam backlash. Right-wing blogger Erick Erickson tweeted Monday: "In honor of the death of Osama Bin Laden I'm eating bacon I cooked on the grill. Yummy." There was also an article on the Michigan View called "Payne: Bin Laden-loathing, Sharia-hating, flag-waving, horn-honking. . . Muslims?"—the implication being that it's a surprise that Muslims would be celebrating bin Laden's death. The link was tweeted by people like Saul Anuzis, who ran for RNC Chair this year.
Gentle Reader, how many examples of absolute incompetence can you find in this one paragraph? Here’s a short list of my observations. Your mileage may vary.

We start with the assertion, or at least the very strong implication, that Erick Erickson’s tweet qualifies as “anti-Islam backlash.” Horse pucky. It isn’t terribly clever (any more than Mr. Memon’s shirt was), but it hardly qualifies as anti- anything except bin Laden. Any Muslim who is truly offended by that line needs to try a more effective laxative.

More importantly, what is clearly intended to be a jibe at a terrorist leader is contorted into an affront against all of Islam. In other words, Rayfield is employing precisely the same logical fallacy—projecting to the general on the basis of the specific—that those of us who believe our country is under no threat from the American Muslim community oppose when it is advanced by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, or Peter King. There is, in other words, no substantive difference between suggesting that all Muslims are threats because bin Laden was and arguing that all Muslims will be offended because bin Laden was insulted.

The Michigan View article is especially interesting. Did Ms. Rayfield even bother to skim the piece she’s using as evidence? I actually read it, and indeed I did so before posting it to the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page several days ago. Interestingly, I found out about the article from the Facebook community Americans Against Islamophobia. For whatever reason, the post has subsequently disappeared both from that page and from the Islamophobia Today website.

Anyway, it’s extraordinarily clear to anyone who could pass high school English that what Henry Payne is doing is something radically different than espousing anti-Islamic sentiments. Rather, he writes that the Dearborn, MI, Muslim community’s expression of joy at the demise of Osama bin Laden “is proof (as if any were needed) that American Muslims are in the United States to escape Sharia law — not to import it.” The key words here are what Payne has offered only parenthetically: “as if any were needed.”

Payne’s point is not that he was surprised that residents of one of the most heavily Muslim areas in the United States would rejoice “just like their fellow Americans from New York to D.C.,” but precisely the opposite: that he wasn’t the slightest bit surprised, and neither should anyone else be, the grandstanding of Palin, Terry Jones, and “a train of opportunistic pols” notwithstanding. He grounds his point in the recognition that perception and reality are not interchangeable concepts, and that just because some right-wing ideologue says something doesn’t mean it’s true.

That there is Islamophobia in this country is undeniable. That it is almost entirely unwarranted, fanned by charlatan politicians (is that phrase redundant?) at the expense of the common weal, is equally demonstrable. That it is in any way manifested by the celebrations ensuing upon the death of bin Laden is at best unproven and more likely pure fantasy.

There is, of course, the further irony of Rayfield’s criticism of an article that (she claims) seems to suggest that Muslims might be expected to respond differently from the rest of us to the news of bin Laden’s death in her own piece which entirely lacks substance unless we buy into the premise that… um… Muslims might be expected to respond differently from the rest of us to the news of bin Laden’s death. Why else would anyone give a damn what a pedestrian thinker like Naqeeb Memon has to say about literally anything?

Ah, but in Rayfield’s world, Payne’s piece must have been anti-Islamic because, after all, a link to it was tweeted by a former candidate for chair of the RNC. That would be the Saul Anuzis who was accused by right-wing jabberer Debbie Schlussel of pandering to Hezbollah and Hamas. (Not that everyone this side of Bibi Netanyahu hasn’t been thus accused by Schlussel.) And, of course, we have no idea whether there was any approbation attached to Anuzis’s re-tweet of the story. More to the point, Rayfield seems incapable of comprehending that anyone in the GOP really believes that there’s an ideological difference between Islam and those who distort it to their own purposes (e.g., Osama bin Laden). Just wondering, Ms. Rayfield, does the name George W. Bush ring any bells?

I am not unaware of the rationale against spending time dismantling the argument presented in an entirely inconsequential article on a website that certainly cares more about its spin than it does about truly incisive analysis. (This isn’t to say I don’t read a fair amount of TPM’s content—I even “like” their Facebook page—but I’m always particularly careful about taking what I read there at face value.)

Here’s where we come back to Jack Marshall. He has argued a couple of times recently about the need to separate ethical and pragmatic arguments, with respect to releasing death photos of bin Laden and to the use of torture in interrogation of presumed terrorists. I agree with him in those terms, but he seems to be suggesting that one shouldn’t link together the two kinds of arguments in the same paragraph.

I disagree, as I shall proceed to demonstrate. Why should I distance myself from drivel like that written by Ms. Rayfield? Well, for one thing, it is drivel, and thinking people ought to avoid nonsensical allegations. Condemning this kind of sloppiness, then, is, to coin a phrase, the right thing to do. But I am not unaware that it serves me politically to behave this way. I’m not running for any political office (ever, I promise), but I do wish to be persuasive. And if I call out “my side” occasionally—and, let’s face it, TPM’s politics are generally pretty close to mine—then I have standing, a reputation for fairness, if you will, when I criticize the other side, which, of course, I do with considerable regularity. Being open-minded and being perceived as such are related but hardly identical ideas. Moreover, I don’t want “my side” represented by idiots. This is not, I confess, an altruistic position. So be it.

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