13 May 2011
21st Century Know-Nothingism
As America comes down from the euphoria over Osama bin Laden's destruction, we should probably expect more entrapments of Islamic thoughtcrime suspects, as in the latest arrest of two men who were goaded into declaring their intention to attack a New York City synagogue. We should not expect a decline in Islamophobia. This report reveals this latest expression of American xenophobia to be still going strong. In some ways, 21st century Islamophobia is more mild than its 19th century Catholiphobic counterpart, popularly known as the "Know-Nothing" movement. No one I know of, for instance, is proposing that Muslims should have to undergo a longer naturalization process than non-Muslims, while it was widely believed in the 1850s that Catholic immigrants had to undergo such discriminatory treatment. On the other hand, while Know-Nothings accused Catholics of seeking to bring America under the rule of the Vatican, they did not, to my knowledge, accuse American Catholics of attempting to advance that agenda through violent means. In each case, a group is singled out as having cultural characteristics incompatible with democracy or civilization in general. In the case of the Catholic Irish, it was their supposed subservience to priests and their presumed proclivity to violence on a personal level, as understood by Protestants who claimed to know how Catholics think. In the case of Muslims it's an alleged scriptural mandate to lie (see also anti-semitism) and a presumed proclivity to violence on every level, as understood by Christians, Jews, etc. who claim to know how Muslims interpret the Qur'an. In both cases we find a native population avowedly committed to freedom and tolerance acting on the assumption that any other belief system (see also marxism/socialism) is a conspiracy against freedom and tolerance. There's a paradox for you: apparently there's only one real way to be free, and if you choose to live another way you have to be an enemy of freedom. It may be true that, on some level, Islam and Catholicism are enemies of freedom. But on some level -- arguably the same level -- Protestantism and Christianity in general are enemies of freedom. In a pluralistic setting, freedom is in the eyes of the beholder, and the beholder is usually looking in the mirror. I choose to limit my freedom in one particular way, and that makes me free, but if you choose a different way you're not free, because that's not freedom to me. Consider the collective image of Muslim women to see what I mean. We don't trust them to have chosen modesty freely; we assume them to be slaves of their fathers, husbands and imams. But how much of our own vaunted freedom would look like mindless slavery to an outside observer? But Protestants, Catholics and Muslims alike all think themselves free, or so I assume, and they are all equally jealous of their freedom. The freedom of which they're most jealous, of course, is the freedom of not having to change. That freedom may be the most illusory of all such freedoms, but it may also be the freedom most of us fight for the hardest. "Know-Nothingism" referred to members' vow of secrecy -- they were to tell nosy outsiders that they knew nothing -- but rarely has a historical habit of mind been better named.