History: (his-tə-rē) A chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes. As defined by Merriam-Webster, history sounds like a singular, isolated event. However, as official definitions often do, this definition fails to take into account the effect that history has over a longer period of time than that defined in the “significant events” themselves. For example, “history” may define the Cold War as “the ideological conflict between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the second half of the 20th century.” (Webster) In reality, the Cold War has not ended, and it was not solely between the US and USSR. Today’s society strongly reflects this sentiment, shown blatantly in post-September 11th America. Americans’ current attitudes toward Islamic radicalism are strikingly similar to those expressed against communism during the Red Scare. Similar to the Cold War, this current ideological showdown has become a major part of everyday American life. Many Americans have found it tough to accept Muslims as Americans.
Often, it is difficult to affix a starting point on such a far-reaching phenomenon as countrywide paranoia. However, in the case of both the Red Scare and post-September 11th Islamic anxiety, each has a somewhat explicit point of origin. The first Soviet atomic bomb test in August 1949 brought the Red Scare into the living rooms of Americans. Merely four years after the end of WWII, America was still caught in the whirlwinds that were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country was torn between feeling euphoric over winning the war, and realizing the implications that nuclear warfare could have on the world’s future. The arrival of the Soviet atomic bomb essentially rendered this argument moot at the time, because the fact remained that another world power had emerged, a power that was the polar opposite of America. The Soviet test was a wakeup call to Americans, one that reminded them that they were not untouchable. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US dozed back off for ten years, until a sharp knock on the door woke America up into a nightmare.
On September 10th, Islamic fundamentalism was largely invisible to most Americans. Islam was considerably less significant as a topic than who was looking good for the World Series that fall. However, the morning of September 11th, 2001 began a paradigm shift in the place that Muslims held in US society. The attacks on the World Trade Center, deadlier than Pearl Harbor were the spark that brought Islam into mainstream American culture. (Craig) Like the Red Scare, the effects of September 11th went deeper than just the living room. For the first time ever, the US had been outsmarted, attacked on their own soil with their own resources. For a country with the individualist pedigree of an America, immediate fear turned to astonishment. Much like in the post-WWII era, Americans were asking “How? How could a country as great as the US possibly have a rival in the world?” Adding to Americans’ discomfort was the manner in which the attacks occurred. The Soviet atomic test was just that, a military-sanctioned test of a militaristic weapon, the atomic bomb. This served to somehow keep a measure of distance between the American people and the actual event. The September 11th attacks showcased a completely new fighting tactic to the American public. Not only were they not militaristic, but they were also an invasion of an everyday facet of American life: aviation. Beginning with Kitty Hawk in 1903, Americans have viewed the airplane as an All-American invention. (Wright) The fact that September 11th was not merely a military attack, but a civilian attack using our prized invention as a weapon confounded most Americans in its aftermath. Films like Atomic Café depict the effect that the Cold War nuclear age had on everyday life by placing nuclear situations in elementary schools, ballparks, and other staples of American domestic life that seemed previously invincible. September 11th took this concept to an entirely different level, using a staple of American life to destroy American lives. Americans saw their way of life attacked, and instead of investigating themselves, the initial fear of being exposed as vulnerable turned to resentment against the Islamic fundamentalist attackers.
Overreacting is as American as apple pie, a fact comically evidenced by the Y2K debacle and many of today’s trivial “breaking news” headlines. Paranoia is born when enough people overreact to the same situation. With September 11th, this transformation happened almost overnight, and Muslim Americans became suicide bombers. In the Cold War, communists were gradually transformed into morally-deficient robots. In both cases, a group of people who had been nearly indistinguishable were thrust into the spotlight of cultural investigation. The resulting attitudes are nothing short of astonishing, and indicative of paranoia. From the blacklisting of playwright Arthur Miller to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, well-documented cases during the Red Scare showcase explicitly how Americans reacted to what became labeled as an invasion of American values by communism. The reaction after the September 11th, an actual attack on America, elicited very similar attitudes. In a Gallup Poll conducted in 2006, 31 percent of respondents said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim man on their airplane flight. (Newsmax) The fact that this response comes five years after the attack proves that this feeling of resentment towards Muslim Americans did not fade with time.
Actually, Chase Morrison and Kathleen Moore of the Law and Society Association contend that the feelings have expanded to groups that merely look like Muslims.
As the image of the supposed adversaries has been manipulated to reinforce the “clash of civilizations” thesis of Islam versus the West, the impact of the official anti-terror campaign has been felt by the communities of Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslims, such as Sikhs, Hindus and others of Middle Eastern descent) in the US. (Moore)
Even full blooded Americans cannot escape the paranoia towards perceived Muslims. Mark Corriher, a farmer/teacher/pilot born and raised in North Carolina, experienced racial profiling checks even going through security in his pilot’s uniform, merely because of his tanned skin color. One reason for this type of attitude towards perceived Muslims is directly from both WWII and the Cold War. Japanese, Soviets, and Muslims are very different from Americans, not only in physical appearances, but ideologically. Therefore, is it very difficult for Americans to fully understand any of those three groups of people. The response, though unfortunate, has been the same throughout history. As with both the Japanese and Soviets, American Muslims have been relegated to enemy status, merely because they cannot be fully understood. Hollywood has taken advantage of America’s willingness to accept Muslims as natural suicide bombers, and this compartmentalization has provided producers with nearly endless possibilities.
Serving almost like a crucifix to ward off evil spirits, the name Jack Bauer is synonymous with America’s quashing of another nuclear threat. Though not always the case, many of the episodes pit Jack (played by Kiefer Sutherland) against an enemy of Middle Eastern descent. Consequently, over the last six seasons Bauer’s show, 24 has averaged over ten million viewers. While not the only reason, the evidence seems to point to the fact that Americans are satisfied, even entertained, by a stereotypical Muslim portrayed as an enemy. Another TV show, CBS’s TheUnit, focus on counter-terrorism missions, often involving Middle Eastern enemies. Hollywood has translated this relationship between America and Muslim-ish people onto the big screen as well. Three of the top grossing movies since 2002 have centered on a plot involving Middle Eastern terrorism. (IMDB) Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies give viewers a fictional look inside the world of counter-terrorism, set almost entirely in the Middle East. For the average American, movies like this provide a way for the viewer to feel involved in a dangerous situation. For example, most moviegoers are not willing to sign up for the military, but they enjoy watching their stereotyped sentiments acted out in front of million, and Hollywood has obliged. However influential the attitude towards Muslims has become in Hollywood, it pales in comparison to the stage on which the issue exploded only months ago: the Presidential election.
The President of the United States is arguably the most important person in the country. Therefore, any issues that involve the President can be deemed equally important. In 2008, terrorism became the main topic of Republican John McCain’s campaign. Barack Obama, the Democratic hopeful for the Presidency, endured attacks from the onset of his campaign. Playing off of very real sentiments, the Republican Party tried to take advantage of Obama’s middle name, Hussein. In this statement from Pennsylvania GOP chair William Platt, “Imagine if you woke up on November 5th and Barack Obama – Barack Hussein Obama – was our new president, and you knew you could have volunteered to prevent it, the message is clear: How could a person live with himself after voting for someone with a Muslim sounding name? (Platt) Furthermore, Republicans charged that Obama himself was a Muslim, and a picture of Obama in a Kenyan turban sped around the internet. (Clinton) The fact that this charge was used in a smear campaign completely cements the status of Muslims as an enemy in American society. Negative attitudes towards Muslims have truly reached the pinnacle of American society, the White House, and if statistics mean anything, these attitudes won’t be changing anytime soon. Less than fifty percent of Americans feel that Muslims living in the U.S. are loyal to this country. (Newsmax)
James Bond, played by actor Daniel Craig, outlined one possible way to look at the plight of the American Muslims in the recent blockbuster, 007: Quantum of Solace. Responding to an attack on his character, Bond replied, “You’re judged by the strength of your enemies.” (IMDB) If American Muslims can take solace in anything, it can only be this statement. One fact that cannot be overlooked is oil. The Middle East contains the majority of the remaining oil reserves in the world, which makes the niche that Muslims have settled into within US society seem counterproductive. While the result of shunning communists during the Cold War eventually brought down the Berlin Wall, a similar attitude towards American Muslims could lead to a world devoid of oil. For many Americans who participate in this compartmentalization, it may be inconvient to accept American Muslims, but the truth is that it is necessary.
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