To be sure, Arabs broadly identify with the humiliated Palestinians, readily identify Israel as an enemy, and resent the American alliance with Israel, but something different is unfolding now. When the United States vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the very thick of February's revolutionary protests, to flag one signal, the issue was largely ignored by Arab protesters. In Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza, the spirit of Arab revolt showed itself mainly in a youth-driven and resolutely non-violent movement to overcome the intra-Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas. Again and again, that is, the Arab Muslim population has refused to behave as Americans have been conditioned to expect.
The Mainstreaming of Anti-Muslim Prejudice
Conditioned by whom? Prejudice against Arabs generally and Islam in particular is an old, old story. A few months ago, the widespread nature of the knee-jerk suspicion that all Muslims are potentially violent was confirmed by National Public Radio commentator Juan Williams, who said, "I get worried. I get nervous" around those "in Muslim garb," those who identify themselves "first and foremost as Muslims."
Williams was fired by NPR, but the commentariat rallied to him for simply speaking a universal truth, one which, as Williams himself acknowledged, was to be regretted: Muslims are scary. When NPR then effectively reversed itself by forcing the resignation of the executive who had fired him, anti-Muslim bigotry was resoundingly vindicated in America, no matter the intentions of the various players.
Scary, indeed -- but no surprise. Such prejudice had been woven into every fiber of American foreign and military policy across the previous decade, a period when the overheated watchword was "Islamofascism." In 2002, scholar Bernard Lewis's book What Went Wrong? draped a cloak of intellectual respectability around anti-Muslim contempt. It seemed not to have occurred to Lewis that, if such an insulting question in a book title deserves an answer at all, in the Arab context it should be: "we" did -- with that "we" defined as Western civilization.
Whether the historical marker is 1099 for Crusader mayhem; 1417 for the Portuguese capture of Ceuta, the first permanent European outpost in North Africa; 1492 for the expulsion from Spain of Muslims (along with Jews); 1798 for Napoleon's arrival as a would-be conqueror in Cairo; 1869 for the opening of the Suez Canal by the French Empress Eugenie; 1917 for the British conquest of Palestine, which would start a British-spawned contest between Jews and Arabs; or the 1930s, when vast oil reserves were discovered in the Arabian peninsula --- all such Western antecedents for trouble in Arab lands are routinely ignored or downplayed in our world in favor of a preoccupation with a religion deemed to be irrational, anti-modern, and inherently hostile to democracy.
How deep-seated is such a prejudice? European Christians made expert pronouncements about the built-in violence of Islam almost from the start, although the seventh century Qur'an was not translated into Latin until the twelfth century. When a relatively objective European account of Islam's origins and meaning finally appeared in the eighteenth century, it was quickly added to the Roman Catholic Index of forbidden books. Western culture is still at the mercy of such self-elevating ignorance. That's readily apparent in the fact that a fourteenth century slander against Islam -- that it was only "spread by the sword" -- was reiterated in 2006 (on the fifth anniversary of 9/11) by Pope Benedict XVI. He did apologize, but by then the Muslim-haters had been encouraged.
Western contempt for Islam is related to a post-Enlightenment distrust of all religion. In modern historiography, for instance, the brutal violence that killed millions during paroxysms of conflict across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is remembered as the "religious wars," even though religion was only part of a history that included the birth of nations and nationalism, as well as of industrial capitalism, and the opening of the "age of exploration," also known as the age of colonial exploitation.
"Secular" sources of violence have always been played down in favor of sacred causes, whether the Reformation, Puritan fanaticism, or Catholic anti-modernism. "Enlightened" nation-states were all-too-ready to smugly denounce primitive and irrational religious violence as a way of asserting that their own expressly non-religious campaigns against rival states and aboriginal peoples were necessary and therefore just. In this tale, secular violence is as rational as religious violence is irrational. That schema holds to this day and is operative in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and its NATO allies pursue dogmatically ideological and oil-driven wars that are nonetheless virtuous simply by not being "religious."
No fatwas for us. Never mind that these wars were declared to be "against evil," with God "not neutral," as George W. Bush blithely put it. And never mind that U.S. forces (both the military and the private contractors) are strongly influenced by a certain kind of fervent Christian evangelicalism that defines the American enemy as the "infidel" -- the Muslim monster unleashed. In any case, ask the families of the countless dead of America's wars if ancient rites of human sacrifice are not being re-enacted in them? The drone airplane and its Hellfire missile are weapons out of the Book of the Apocalypse.
The Revolution of Hope
The new Arab revolution, with its Muslim underpinnings, is an occasion of great hope. At the very least, "we" in the West must reckon with this overturning of the premises of our prejudice.
Yes, dangers remain, as Arab regimes resist and revolutionaries prepare to erect new political structures. Fanatics wait in the wings for the democrats to falter, while violence, even undertaken in self-defense, can open onto vistas of vengeance and cyclic retribution. Old hatreds can reignite, and the never-vanquished forces of white supremacist colonial dominance can reemerge. But that one of the world's great religions is essential to what is unfolding across North Africa and the Middle East offers the promise that this momentous change can lead, despite the dangers, to humane new structures of justice and mercy, which remain pillars of the Islamic faith. For us, in our world, this means we, too, will have been purged of something malicious -- an ancient hatred of Muslims and Arabs that now lies exposed for what it always was.
James Carroll, bestselling author of Constantine's Sword , is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University in Boston. His newest book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Carroll discusses just how the Arab revolutions, the last acts of the post-colonial drama, punctured American myths, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 James Carroll