Move out of the way, Red Scare, we’re on to a new enemy. Communism is no longer a threat to American freedom and democracy. The real threat now is Islamic terrorism. We might call this new threat the Black Scare due to the ubiquity of the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh flag that is black with the shahada emblazoned on it in white letters in discussions of this new threat. If non-terrorist Muslims get caught up in our Freedom Net, so be it. At least, this appears to be the message among Republican presidential contenders. Comments by Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and even John Kasich, who many liberals thought was the sensible GOP candidate, take us back to the glory days of yesteryear. John Kasich called for a new agency to promote “Judeo-Christian” values worldwide. Ted Cruz is focusing on Syrian refugees and advocating for letting in Christian Syrian refugees but not Muslim Syrian refugees. Trump is dancing around calling for a nationwide database of Muslims and is standing by his claim that thousands of Muslims were celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey, a claim for which he has offered no proof and which no independent source can collaborate. Ben Carson is not shy about advocating for monitoring churches, mosques, and other organizations “where there was a lot of radicalization and things that were anti-American.”
It has become politically acceptable to single out Muslims for suspicion, discrimination, and surveillance on the grounds of their religion alone. This is partly in response to the very real fears, unfounded as they may be, that many Americans have of Muslims in general and partly the result of Muslims being a politically inconsequential bloc as far as elections are concerned. The rhetoric coming out of some Republicans these past few weeks has reminded many of the two Red Scares we endured, our internment of Japanese-Americans during World Ward II, and yes even of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, with “fascist” being used to describe Donald Trump by a number of conservatives. Isn’t is just a lot more fun when we can turn our own xenophobia on our fellow citizens?
In some ways, inciting nativist fears was long overdue in this country. Far from such rhetoric being “un-American,” as many are claiming, nativism and xenophobia have been regular players in the great American story. We’ve aimed our fears at Native Americans, Catholics, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Hispanics, and Jews. It was only a matter of time until Muslims found their way into the crosshairs of America’s xenophobia. This xenophobia, however arbitrary and indiscriminate, is brought to life by justificatory narratives. The act of devising and implementing such narratives, we call mythmaking.
And this new Black Scare is a wonderful example of the mythmaking that we have become so good at. But no mythmaking project can be successful without selective privileging. One version of Islam must be set up as The Real Islam with complete disregard for competing interpretations. We see this at work in Ben Carson’s comments that in order for a Muslim to be President, that person would “have to reject the tenets of Islam.” Carson here is selectively privileging certain parts of the Qur’an over other parts of the Qur’an and agreeing with groups like ISIS/ISIL/Daesh that their version of Islam is the most correct version. That the majority of those who identify as Muslims disavow this version is Islam is beside the point. For the narrative in question to succeed, they must be ignored. If ISIS/ISIL/Daesh can successfully stand in for “Muslims” and “Islam” in popular discourse, then a general fear of Muslims and Islam is to be expected. It is not a far step then from fear of Muslim Syrian refugees who might secretly be terrorists to a fear of Muslim Americans who also might secretly be terrorists. That these fears are founded on ignorance and take as their objects minority groups with little ability for political or economic recourse, is to be expected.
Successful mythmaking is always done in the service of something else. In this and most cases, that something else is power. Because American Muslims make up only about 1% of the American electorate and because negatives views of Muslims are widespread among Republican voters, Trump, Carson, and Cruz are calculating that their fear-inducing rhetoric about Muslims will only help them with Republican primary voters. And that seems to be exactly what is happening. Ben Carson’s comment that he would not advocate for a Muslim president, for instance, got him 100,000 new Facebook friends within 24 hours. Cruz is able to rally Christians in the Republican base by simultaneously inciting fear of Muslims and presenting himself as the defender of persecuted Christians.
This particular mythmaking endeavor seems to be a wise investment for Republican presidential candidates. The chances of it having negative consequences on their election campaigns is minuscule and the upside potential is enormous. And besides that, any criticism of this project would fit perfectly into another popular Republican narrative, namely, that Republicans are a persecuted minority (despite the fact that they control the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and 62% of the governorships in this country). Scoff at Republican myth making if you like, but remember that Democrats are not immune. Indeed, just as all religion is politics, so all politics is mythmaking.
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