Doug Saunders writes: The attacks on two of the most prominent Muslims in American public life last week seemed to have come out of the blue. It appeared as if five Republican Representatives had arbitrarily chosen this moment to lash out at Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and Representative Keith Ellison for no reason other than their religion, in a bid to discredit the entire concept of Muslims taking part in national politics and government.
A sequence of letters and public denunciations, led by Rep. Michele Bachman and backed by four other Representatives, accused the two of being somehow indirectly affiliated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The charges were so devoid of substance that senior Republican leaders and many members of Congress were quick to condemn them as bizarre and inappropriate. Still, even though they came from a marginal corner of Congress (albeit one representing millions of Americans), the language of the attacks was drawn from an increasingly mainstream set of claims about Muslims in the West. The letters from the Representatives argued that Muslims in the U.S. government are part of a wide plot involving numerous ordinary Muslim-Americans to “impose shariah worldwide,” to “undermine the U.S. Constitution,” and to advocate “that Muslims not integrate into the cultures of non-Muslim countries.” For a surprising number of Americans, these phrases represent commonsense thought about the Muslims in their midst.
These myths are strikingly similar to the set of charges that were commonly directed toward Roman Catholic and East European Jewish immigrants between the 1890s and the 1960s – that these groups are disloyal, supportive of violence, unwilling to integrate into Western values, driven by a religion that is actually an ideology of conquest, and poised to swamp our society through high reproduction rates. The people who hold these ideas, then as now, are not simply racists or xenophobes but often liberals who have come to believe – – based on misleading or distorted information – – that religious-minority outsiders are a threat to their freedoms and liberties.
In the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, these ideas came to be applied to Muslims in the West in a sequence of bestselling books, YouTube videos, websites, op-eds and activist campaigns organized by a small circle of anti-immigration authors and activists, increasingly often with funding from conservative foundations. The notion of a “Muslim tide” penetrated the American imagination. The millions of people who bought their books and watched their videos may not have subscribed to the movement’s full idea of an Islamic plot to take over Western civilization through immigration. In many cases they were simply trying to understand the different and sometimes strange-looking newcomers in their midst, and the simultaneous emergence of Islamic terrorism – – but the effect has been to popularize an interlocking set of myths about Muslim immigration.
In my book The Myth of the Muslim Tide, I explain the history of these ideas and trace their emergence in twenty-first century popular and political thought, and provide a detailed, research-based examination of the realities behind them. Luckily, the past five years have seen a number of very large-scale international studies and surveys that have revolutionized our understanding of the beliefs, views, behaviours and loyalties of Muslim immigrants and their offspring. What emerges is a picture of a set of communities undergoing the classic experience of immigration and integration – – with the same difficulties and challenges experienced by poor Catholics and Jews in their time – but burdened with a set of popular myths that are leading them increasingly to be rejected and marginalized by the wider population.
I have identified three nested groups of myths that together have created a widespread misunderstanding of Muslims in the West and poisoned our political environment. [Continue reading…]