March 09, 2006

The Trouble with Propaganda

The trouble is that it works:
As the war in Iraq grinds into its fourth year, a growing proportion of Americans are expressing unfavorable views of Islam, and a majority now say that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The poll found that nearly half of Americans -- 46 percent -- have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.

The survey comes at a time of increasing tension; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show little sign of ending, and members of Congress are seeking to block the Bush administration's attempt to hire an Arab company to manage operations at six of the nation's ports. Also, Americans are reading news of deadly protests by Muslims over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Conservative and liberal experts said Americans' attitudes about Islam are fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.

According to the poll, the proportion of Americans who believe that Islam helps to stoke violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled since the attacks, from 14 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent today.

The survey also found that one in three Americans have heard prejudiced comments about Muslims lately. In a separate question, slightly more (43 percent) reported having heard negative remarks about Arabs. One in four Americans admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims, the same proportion that expressed some personal bias against Arabs.

Though the two groups are often linked in popular discourse, most of the world's Muslims are not of Arab descent. For example, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia.


Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, [said] Americans "have been given the message to respond this way by the American political elite, mass media and by select special interests."
As deeply troubling as these poll results are, they are not at all surprising. And it must be acknowledged that the fundamental failure even to distinguish between Muslims and Arabs is symptomatic of the worst and most primitive kind of racism. Such racism has a long and reprehensible history in America, and it manifests itself both in our international relations and here at home.

The demonization of Muslims and Arabs has grown significantly in recent months, with two stories in particular being the catalysts for these racist attitudes. First, we had the phony cartoon controversy, which I discussed here and here. From beginning to end, that story was propaganda of the most transparent and contemptible kind, but it was no less effective for that. And then we had (and have) the UAE ports deal story. I've discussed this story in two entries (here and here), and I will probably have more to say about it in the coming week or so.

For the moment, I will note that I've received the nastiest emails in response to those two entries that I've seen in more than three years of blogging. It appears I need to repeat a point that I made very clearly in my first post on this subject: I stated explicitly that I did not think that all those who questioned the UAE deal were motivated by racism. There are certainly legitimate grounds to question the advisability of this proposed arrangement. But many people appreciate the relevant point in other contexts, and this is particularly true of many liberals who often make this argument themselves about sexist or anti-feminist comments: comments or judgments need not arise from racist (or sexist) motives -- that is, they need not be racist (or sexist) in intent -- but they may nonetheless be racist (or sexist) in effect. This awareness seems to have deserted many commentators with regard to the UAE controversy. The impact of our national discussion about this story cannot be divorced from the overall context in which it arises, including most obviously our current foreign policy and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or from a stream of stories like the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

(I will also note that I've heard a few liberal radio talk show hosts engage in precisely the kind of demagoguery for which they criticize Bush and his supporters so severely. I've heard a few of them say, for instance, that the UAE "funded" the 9/11 attacks, and that the UAE "sent two of its sons" to attack us on that day. These distortions, addressed in my earlier posts about this deal, are propaganda worthy of Cheney or Rumsfeld -- but now the shoe is on the other foot, so some liberals enthusiastically throw themselves into the same gutter.)

Given the kind of unreflective, unthinking racism of which far too many Americans are guilty and the preexisting cultural atmosphere, it is incumbent on critics of the UAE deal to be especially careful about the kinds of arguments they offer. And I would have hoped that Democrats and liberals generally would be especially reluctant to take comfort in polls that show widespread opposition to the UAE deal:
Most Americans oppose allowing a Dubai company to run some U.S. ports, even as a majority understands the U.S. would continue to control port security, according to a new FOX News poll. One in four sees the United Arab Emirates as a strong ally, but most either disagree or are unsure. The poll found that 69 percent of Americans oppose the deal — four times as many as support the deal (17 percent).
Do those Democrats who are now out-hawking the Bush administration honestly think such views reflect a knowledge and careful consideration of the various factors involved -- or that this opposition arises from dangerously racist attitudes of the kind revealed in the Washington Post story? But many of them see only the political advantage involved. And since many Democrats are just as or more eager than the administration for confrontation with Iran, it works out fine for everyone -- except for the many people who might die, and except for the fact that all of us will be in even greater danger.

And one final, more general note. This entire perspective -- one which relies on a certain notion of "Western exceptionalism" -- has a very long record of making Enemies of Our Own Creation. As James Carroll summarizes the main point in a column excerpted in that entry:
The point is that this conflict has its origins more in "the West" than in the House of Islam. The image of Muslims as prone to violence by virtue of their religion was mainly constructed across centuries by Europeans seeking to bolster their own purposes, a habit of politicized paranoia that is masterfully continued by freaked-out leaders of post-9/11 America. They, too, like prelates, crusaders, conquistadors, and colonizers, have turned fear of Islam into a source of power. This history teaches that such self-serving projection can indeed result in the creation of an enemy ready and willing to make the nightmare real.
And so we continue to approach a moment of still greater danger. Almost daily, the administration does everything in its power to make it appear that a military confrontation with Iran is "inevitable." Given the widespread and increasingly negative views of Islam and of Arabs, if and when we attack Iran, many Americans will accept it without protest -- and many will view our attack as a positive good.

So the propaganda campaign goes on, fueled by many people in all parts of the political spectrum -- and the prospects for peace dim to the point of invisibility.