The most disturbing story to come out of the news of late has not been the Michael Pfelger videos (although, unlike Wright, he has managed to issue a somewhat sincere apology). Lost in the Politico’s election analysis and the media’s echo chamber has been a little-noticed story about Dunkin’ Donuts, who just pulled an ad from the air which included Rachel Ray wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabic scarf.
Facing severe criticism that the wearing of the scarf was symbolic support for Islamic terrorism, Dunkin’ Donuts, as the BBC reports, issued a statement that the scarf was not intended to offend and that “given the possibility of misperception the commercial was no longer being used.”
What misperception? The wearing of a traditional dress, cultural dress, is somehow a support of Islamic extremism? Conservative bloggers have pointed out, correctly, that the scarf was worn by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian liberation movement until his death in 2004, and is routinely worn by Islamic extremists and Palestinian nationalists.
True. But the scarf is also worn by millions of Arabs, and non-Arabs, around the world, and an overwhelming majority of them would rather not perform extreme and violent acts of terror, thank you very much. Most people who wear the keffiyeh are not extremists, and are certainly not terrorists (and I’m sure Rachel Ray would agree).
Not only do Arabs wear the keffiyeh, but Urban Outfitters sold the scarves until January 2007, when, responding to public pressure, they pulled it from the shelves. In their statement: ”We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.”
What’s next? The pulling of Middle East products off store shelves? The sacking of Arab journalists?
This is symbolic of a much larger undercurrent of American Islamophobia that has swept the United States (and much of Europe) since before September 11. Indicators of this movement have been rampant: Brigitte Bardot’s incendiary anti-Muslim comments that recently got her fined, riots in the streets of Paris, the Danish cartoon fiasco and of course, conservative commentators’ incessant ranting about the “Muslim problem.” Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are especially to blame.
Of course, now that Barack Obama, a black man with the middle name Hussein, is running for president, the ugliest of the hatred of Muslims in America has come out in full force. In all the talk about racism in this Democratic primary season, the mainstream commentary has forgotten about the real issue of race in this election—not whether Obama is “too black” to be President, but whether or not he is a Muslim.
It was Barack Hussein Obama’s connection to Islam—through his father—that led to the Fox report, later proved to be false, that Obama had attended a radical Islamic school as a schoolboy in Indonesia. It was this false religiosity that led to the famous “Madrassa Hoax” email, which circulated the internet widely in the early months of the primary and has since emerged again. The email implored Americans “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential candidacy,” and that “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level – through the President of the United States, one of their own!”
Remember Hillary Clinton’s famous “3AM” ad, in which she asked who would best be able to answer a 3AM phone call to the White House in the midst of a catastrophe? Orlando Patterson wrote for the New York Times that the ad played on subtle racism and the classic white fear of “the outsider within”—the criminal black man infiltrating the safe neighborhood: “The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.” However, the more subtle sub-message, the one that did not have to be stated, was the fact that “Something is happening in the world,” and the terrorists behind that “something”—well, you get the picture. The very idea that a Muslim—a guy who shares a name with the late Iraqi dictator—could be the one answering that call in the White House came across clear enough. Clinton’s margin of victory in Ohio, much larger than the pre-election polls, suggest that late-deciding voters broke for her, and whether the subtlety of the “3AM” ad had something to do with this final push will never be known for sure.
A Pew poll taken in late March found that one in ten Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. The number is telling in part because 10% of Democrats—most of whom already were Clinton supporters—believed this fact, and because 8% of Independents—a group who Obama needs to depend on to win the election in November—believes it as well. Furthermore, a whopping 19% of rural voters—that’s one in five—believed this to be true.
The fact that the son of a Muslim Kenyan joined a radical black Chicago church, and then stayed in that church for 20 years, does not help diminish the rumor that he is a Muslim. America is familiar with images of radical black Muslims like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, and should now be equally familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s praise of Farrakhan. The tendency to equate Islam with radicalism of course has been swollen since 9/11. But the underlying assumption is that it is Islam that implies radicalism—not blackness. The fear of Islam “penetrating” American society cannot be understated.
It is disturbing that I have received these emails about “Barack Hussein Obama” being a “secret muslim” who “joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.” These claims are not only outright false, but they force Obama to sink to the level of divisiveness by having to respond. “No, I’m not a Muslim!” he has had to say, as if being a Muslim were somehow like being a bunny eater. Such stringent, politicized denial only reinforces the claims, not diminishes them. It reminds me of the high schooler who insists “I’m not gay!” when he is hit with the G-word in a routine downsizing of his character by his peers. (Harry Truman, when we was running for a judicial seat in Missouri, was rumored to be Jewish due to his close ties with a Jewish childhood friend and business partner. “I’m not Jewish,” he is reported to have said, “and if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”)
This is a major problem, and one that shows no sign of letting up. Let the keffiyeh remind us that hatred of Muslims has increased in recent years. How would America respond if, tomorrow, a skullcap-toting news anchor stepped down because “given the possibility of misperception Mr. ____ will no longer be working with us,” because, after all, “we don’t want anyone to think that we work with Jews.” It’s unacceptable.
Milton Friedman wrote that in the long run, the free market will work against discrimination. It’s in the best interest of industry economically, he said, for employers to seek the most qualified people regardless of race, religion, gender, etc. However, the free market in this case has spoken in another direction: ”Don’t sell this item because people associate it with terrorism, and thus we will lose business if we keep it on the shelves”–this might be good business, but morally it stinks of bigotry. The underlining assumption is fed, not starved, and thus the evil wheel of bigotry continues to turn, turn, turn.