by Rich Rubenstein on September 23, 2010 · 2 comments

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Mosque!  No mosque!  After months of heated controversy, the debate over plans to build an Islamic cultural center two blocks from New York’s City’s Ground Zero has finally provoked some commentators to recall the long story of American intolerance.  But, having evoked that sad and revealing history, the commentators do not know what to do with it other than lecture Americans on their bad character.

Yes, there are important similarities between earlier movements of prejudice against American religious and ethnic minorities and the current Islamophobia.  Without a critical theory of social conflict, however — a theory that discovers the sources of conflict in social structures, not just in states of mind —  historical arguments of this sort do little but furnish one party or the other with debating points.  By presenting the popular tendency to demonize minorities as a fault of national character, they obscure the structural sources of this behavior and close the road to a deeper understanding of the conflict and the possible ways of resolving it.

Until quite recently, the dispute over the cultural center proceeded without much reference to America history.  It was the usual punch/counterpunch.  Punch: The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom protects the right of Muslims to build a mosque and school anywhere they like, so long as they comply with relevant local laws.  Counterpunch: the structure would insult the memory of the victims of 9/11.  Punch: innocent Muslims were also killed on 9/11.   A few al-Qaeda extremists, not Muslims in general, were responsible for those attacks. CP: The real issue is the sensitivities of the victims’ families, friends, and others whose wounds would be reopened by situating a symbol of Islam so close to Ground Zero. P: No, since al- Qaeda does not represent the vast majority of Muslims, the real issue is the critics’ anti-Muslim prejudices.

And so it went, and still goes, with each side effectively talking past the other.  Compromises have been suggested, some of them fairly grotesque.  For example, President Obama defends the Muslims’ legal right to build the Center, while refusing to call their decision wise or morally justified.  More interestingly, some of my students suggest if many Americans are still traumatized by the events of September 11, something should be done, and soon, to help heal that trauma.  For example, if the proposed memorial museum to be constructed at Ground Zero can be completed quickly, it could provide facilities for the kind of contemplation, analysis, and dialogue that have made the National Holocaust Museum and the Vietnam War Memorial places of healing for many visitors. ( On the other hand, if the level of anti-Muslim hostility remains high, the museum itself is likely to become a conflict site.)

Finally, as the extent of public opposition to the “Ground Zero mosque” becomes clear (68% of Americans disapprove, according to an August 2010 CNN/Opinion Research survey), historical references have made an appearance in the debate.

Under the headline, “America’s History of Fear,” the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof recalls the “waves of intolerance” directed by the American majority against immigrant minorities: Irish Catholics, Italians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and others.  He recalls the burning down of Catholic convents by nineteenth century mobs, the anti-Chinese riots and legislation a few decades later, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the long tradition of ant-Semitism, and concludes that

All that is part of America’s heritage, and typically as each group has assimilated, it has participated in the torment of newer arrivals —  as in Father Charles Coughlin’s ferociously anti-Semitic radio broadcastsin the 1930s. Today’s recrudescence is the lies about President Obama’s faith, and the fear-mongering about the proposed Islamic

According to Kristof, the starting point for such episodes “isn’t hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.”  These fears are traditionally exploited by local demagogues, the latest of whom are certain Tea-Partiers and Glenn Beck.  But, not to worry.  For if fear-driven intolerance is part of the American heritage, so is “a more glorious tradition . . . one of tolerance, amity and religious freedom.  Each time, this has ultimately prevailed over the Know Nothing impulse. “[1]

Mass movements of intolerance, as Kristof presents them, reflect a sort of national moodiness.  A form of bipolarity, perhaps?  No — nothing so serious.  As the Times columnist sees it, they are products of current fears and suspicions that can be trusted to disappear when newcomers become culturally “assimilated” and earlier worries prove unfounded.

I don’t think so.  This optimism, it seems to me, rests on a dubious analogy and an even more dubious metaphor.  The analogy is that between American Muslims and prior immigrant groups like the Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews.  The metaphor is that of the wave, which rhythmically rises and falls.  But, where the European immigrants were concerned, racialist prejudice, discrimination, and violence took far longer to fade than the wave metaphor suggests.[2] This is because the antagonism was not just the result of identity anxiety or the alleged tendency to glorify one’s own identity group and disparage others studied by “social identity” theorists.[3] It had structural as well as psychological sources.

The major waves of immigration to the United States were permitted, encouraged, and subsidized by native businessmen and entrepreneurs responding to America’s congenital labor shortage and the need to depress wage levels.  This had two predictable effects:  while providing the newcomers with work, it intensified competition between them and earlier-arrived workers, who formed labor unions (among other reasons) to try to defend existing wage rates against pressure from cheap immigrant labor.  The struggle for decent jobs and wages was inter-linked with struggles for political power and cultural influence – a cross-boundary conflict that generated violence all across the line.  Indeed, the bitter antagonism was not mitigated until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition expanded to include the newer groups, and until it committed itself to a program of structural reforms.

“Waves” of intolerance or hysteria hardly provides an adequate description of this sort of conflict.  The wave metaphor becomes entirely meaningless when one considers the three centuries of racist prejudice, oppression, and violence directed against Native Americans and African-Americans, and the successive Red Scares that resulted in the deportation, jailing, firing, or assaulting of workers preaching socialism or anarchism.  Not only were these conflicts long-lasting, their duration was related to their revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) nature.  That is, they were not simply about groups competing for relative economic,  political, or social advantage, but about the nature of the social system and who would control it.  It seems clear that the scale, intensity, and duration of inter-group conflicts increases with the increase in salience of structural issues.

Back to the “Ground Zero” mosque.  With American history in mind, the first thing one notices is that American Muslims have generally been treated more tolerantly than were the Irish, Italians, Chinese, or Jews.  Muslim immigration to the United States has increased markedly over the past three decades, but that community, for the most part, is not in intense competition with earlier-arrived workers for jobs, living space, or cultural influence, and is more prosperous than most other immigrant groups.  In one respect, the analogy with earlier immigrants remains relevant.   Periods of very heavy immigration, interacting with economic crises and other sources of insecurity, have often generated neurotic doubts among Americans as to the purity and viability of their culture and contributed to what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.”[5] The period of greatest Muslim immigration into the United States also saw the largest influx of other immigrants (in particular, Latinos and Asians) since the explosive era of 1880-1920 — a situation that put all of them in some jeopardy.

But a more important structural issue, at least where Muslims are concerned,  intersects and influences this insecurity: the fact that the group shares important cultural characteristics with a foreign enemy.  This is what makes Nicholas Kristof’s faith that America’s traditions of tolerance and amity will triumph over her fear-ridden Dark Side seem superficial.  That belief is similar to the faith that American traditions of peace and “civilianism” will triumph over the tendency to glorify military force and to accept the normality of continuous war.

In fact, the two faiths are not just similar, they are related, since anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. was triggered by a military event — the attacks of 9/11 — and is continuously fed by Washington’s War on Terrorism.  If the WOT is merely a temporary policy without deep structural roots, we may expect it to yield before long to more peaceful and enlightened policies which, among other things, should reduce popular hostility towards the Muslim minority.  But if the WOT is a  structurally determined policy, Kristof’s faith in a return to reason will very likely prove utopian.

The relevant comparison here is not so much with Irish or Italian immigrants as with the Germans and Japanese.  During World War I, German-Americans, at the time the nation’s largest ethnic minority, were legally persecuted and socially terrorized.  During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese, including many families long established in America, were summarily evicted from their homes and interned in relocation camps in the West for the duration of the war, as well as being subjected to other punitive measures.  These periods of persecution and ostracism faded after each war ended, although it took another generation for them to disappear.   (In 1988, Congress finally passed a law providing $20,000 in compensation to the Japanese internees of 1941-45.)

Compared with these groups, American Muslims have not yet been seriously mistreated, despite an increase in reported incidents of violence or discrimination against them and the hostility revealed by the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.  This may be attributable, in part, to the insistence by both the Bush and Obama administrations that Muslims in general were not responsible for the al-Qaeda attacks and that the “War on Terrorism” was not a war on Islam.  But if America’s overt or covert wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere are structurally generated, they will last a very long time, blurring the distinction between anti-terrorist and anti-Islamic warfare, and increasing the intensity of anti-Muslim feeling in the U.S. [6]

I have argued elsewhere, as have other analysts, that these wars are generated by the desire of U.S. economic and political elites to preserve America’s status as the world’s sole superpower and to sustain an unstable economic system based on subsidized military-industrial production (“military Keynesianism”).[7] I have also maintained that American patriotism, mobilized to support the so-called War on Terrorism, “does not reflect so much as create a clash of civilizations.”[8] If so — that is, if the war tends over time to become a war against Islam — the wave metaphor provides little hope or consolation to a minority that finds itself culturally linked to America’s permanent enemy.  At least the two world wars ended, relieving pressure on Americans of German or Japanese descent.  The “forever war” puts American Muslims at an increasingly grave risk of persecution and violence.

The punchline: resolving structurally-generated conflicts requires structural change.  In the case of American Muslims confronted by growing popular hostility, this really means ending the War on Terrorism in its military form.  But if ending the WOT means altering the system that generates permanent war, this defines the task confronting those who wish to resolve this conflict.  Not just the war but the war system must be the target of analysis and action.

Of course, one can work to convince the American public that U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are actually making us less secure, and that there are viable, conflict-resolving alternatives to these costly, essentially unwinnable campaigns.  But there is a pressing need for analysis of the ways in which our current system generates war and, in particular, for alternatives to a social order dependent upon the prosperity of giant military-industrial enterprises and their bankers.

Perhaps the formation of a National Commission on Conversion to a Peacetime Economy is in order.  America’s conversion to a post-imperial politics and post-capitalist culture is also a prime topic for conversation and analysis.  In any case, a creative response to the conflict over the New York cultural center must lead beyond an analysis of American “national character” to an exploration of the underlying structural issues.

[1] Kristof in The New York Times, September 4, 2010, kristof ground zero mosque&st=cse.  A similar argument is made by R. Scott Appleby and John T.McGreevy in “Catholics, Muslims, and the Mosque,” New York Review of Books, 57:14 (September 30, 2010), p. 48

[2] For example, it took the Kennedy family more than one century to rise from the status of despised Irish “Micks” in the 1850s to the family of the president in 1960 – and even then, John F. Kennedy’s Irish heritage was a live issue despite his family’s great fortune.  See Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).

[3] See Henri Tajfel, Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).  Tajfel’s theory is often presented as a description of innate human tendencies disassociated from historical-structural development.

[4] See Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 111-157

[5] Richard Hoftstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).  Hofstadter’s essay focused particularly on the paranoia of the petty bourgeoisie, farmers, and others whose individual effort was threatened by mysterious “forces.”  I discuss the impact of American cultural insecurity on World War I propaganda in Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War (New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2010), pp. 99 et seq.

[6] American direct military interventions in the Islamic world now date from 1990, when President George H.W. Bush initiated “Operation Desert Shield,” allegedly to protect Saudi Arabia from attack by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces.  As Andrew Bacevich and others point out, this represents the longest period of continuous warfare in American history.  See Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).

[7] See Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War, op. cit. See also David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Chalmers Johnson, Blowback, Second Edition: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Holt, 2004).

[8] Reasons to Kill, p. 105

[NOTE: A slightly longer version of this article was published in Unrest magazine’s Issue # 1, September 2010, at  The editor’s permission to publish this version is gratefully acknowledged.]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sara September 28, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Rich, I thank you for this analysis—it gives us a rope to get out of the quicksand of “identity politics”—-explaining our conflicts in terms of identity differences. Not only does this fail to explain the given issue in a way that gets at underlying structure, but it operates, like to GWOT, to create the very differences that then are harnessed to explain the conflict—a kind of shell game that leaves us all flat-footed in the face of the politics of conflict, not as a politics of difference, but as the dynamics of maintaining the marginal/dominant frameworks for sense-making itself.

And the question can arise, when we move toward a structural analysis of systems-of-meaning, which ways of making sense cannot gain a foothold as a legitimate story about the circumstances:
a) what are the stories of those that kill, a la the theme of your book, including those that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks; the dominant story is the one that Bush told—-“they hate our freedom.” From a narrative perspective, this is a very truncated narrative—it fails to develop a plot sequence (when did they start to think like that, what were the events that led to that experience, what did they try to do about it, prior to choosing to do violence, what happened when they tried to advance their story, how do they explain the US response to their attempts to be interlocutors, how do they see the US values, how to they characterize themselves in relation to their own communities, are there portions of their own communities who are more aligned with this truncated narrative and those that are less aligned? In order words, what do we know about the structure of their narrative, and the structure of their interaction with their Others. Thinking systemically, how are these narrative kept truncated? In Bateson’s language, this would be a “negative explanation” looking at the restraints on the narrative system itself.
b) How could we open up the narrative dynamics, using the siting of this Mosque perhaps, to collectively interrogate the dominant truncated narrative within the US?

There is no doubt a chicken and egg problem—we can change the nature of the military and diplomatic establishments -AND we can move on interrogating the dominant narrative we have about the wars, as indeed there is a path dependency to these narratives that have a force, a momentum that will continue to propel the US engagmenet in the GWOT.

I argue for this sensemaking, in line with the theme of your book, as I fear that contesting the wars themselves just leads to the punch/counterpunch cycle that you lay out so well.

Thank you for sharing your analysis.


Rich Rubenstein October 22, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Sara, your call for a narrative analysis of this issue is very compelling, especially because your view of narrative connects discourse with specific communities rather than abstracting it. The Juan Williams dispute (on which I recently blogged) raises some similar issues. We have our work cut out for us — and I have much to learn from you.


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