There’s a lot to say about how ideology and partisanship can prevent one from a fair analysis of events and contemporary issues.
It’s bizarre to see Charles Cooke telling Joy Reid that her point about slavery and by extension indentured servitude, Jim Crow (and much more) was a “cheap” point to make–he is just plain wrong that these “imperfections” were only 18th century problems.
I also wonder if Cooke recalls how European imperialism, including it’s British variant, conquered and colonized much of the world and did so with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other?
On the “Arab Spring” and Islam Maher sounds like the neo-fascist Geert Wilders (maybe he agrees with his pal Sam Harris that ‘unfortunately the fascists speak most sensibly about Islam’) or the extremist Christian right-wing he is all too happy to berate as “intellectual inferiors.”
Where is the nuanced discussion regarding “Islamism?” Is Islamism the same in places such as Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt?
The show that Bill Maher himself produces, VICE, aired a segment showing the intense and daily opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) led government in Egypt by groups such as the “Black Bloc,” a group devoted to sabotaging what they view as the fascist right-wing MB, claiming as its adherents, “liberals, secularists and moderate Islamists.” The revolutionary situation is plainly more complicated than a simple Islamists vs. democrats dichotomy.
Finally, Glenn Greenwald came through as he usually does, not letting Bill Maher get away with his silly, blinkered boogeyman narrative that it’s all PC liberalism to not say Islam is an inherently and uniquely violent religion causing the most horror and violence in the world. Greenwald gave the example of the West Bank and the extremist Jewish settlers who justify land theft and persecution of Palestinians based on a perceived divine mandate. Greenwald also pointed towards the Crusade against Iraq that George W. Bush stated as having been the directive of God.
There are other examples that Greenwald could have added as well: the Serbian genocide against Bosnians, the intense Islamophobia of fundamentalist Hindu nationalism that accompanies the occupation of Kashmir and other areas of India, the horrific campaign against Burmese and Sri Lankan Muslims by Buddhists, etc.
It is an open question however if Greenwald will be asked to return to the show again. In the past when individuals have intelligently and effectively pushed back against Maher’s Islamophobia they usually haven’t been called back.
The Western press and social media often seem to exercise two options for dealing with the Muslim population of the world: overt, unabashed Islamophobia or slightly subtler Islamophobia.
As Georgetown University’s John L Esposito writes in the foreword to Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, 9/11 and other terror attacks “have exacerbated the growth of Islamophobia exponentially” and resulted in a situation in which “Islam and the Middle East often dominate the negative headlines”, thanks in part to the calculated machinations of “a number of journalists and scholars”.
Needless to say, the aftermath of 9/11 did not yield much thoughtful consideration on the part of the mainstream punditry as to the context for such events. According to one prominent narrative, 9/11 was simply evidence of an inherent and unfounded Muslim hatred of the West.
A notable exception was veteran British journalist Robert Fisk. In an article published in The Nation immediately following the attacks, Fisk issued the following prescient warning:
“[T]his is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”
Outlets such as Fox News took advantage of the opportunity to impute mass savagery to select Arab populations via de-contextualised post-9/11 headlines like, ”Arafat Horrified by Attacks, but Thousands of Palestinians Celebrate; Rest of World Outraged”.
The demonisation of Muslims by certified sociopaths such as Pamela Geller comes, of course, as no surprise. However, the subtler dissemination of similar sentiments in Western mainstream discourse underscores the fundamental utility of the sociopathic sector in making institutionalised prejudice appear more rationally benign.
For example, according to Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in the UK:
“[a] study commissioned by the Greater London Authority of 352 articles over a randomly selected one week period in 2007, found that 91 percent of articles about Muslims were ‘negative’.”
As it turns out, a little journalistic trick called “the invention of information” may come in handy in the proliferation of negativity. A 2008 article by Peter Osborne in the British Independent – titled “The shameful Islamophobia at the heart of Britain’s press” – catalogues some of the news industry’s more egregious deviations from the truth, such as a front-page story in The Sunannouncing that a “Muslim hate mob” had vandalised a home and left a “Fuck off” message in the driveway.
As Osborne notes, The Sun quoted MP Philip Davies’ opinion that “[i]f there’s anybody who should fuck off, it’s the Muslims who are doing this kind of thing”. Osborne adds:
“But there was one very big problem with The Sun story. There was no Muslim involvement of any kind.”
Other instances of scaremongering discrimination and deceit cited in the Independent report include:
1. A front-page newspaper headline implying that “Muslim Sickos” were to blame for the disappearance of a young girl. The corresponding text reportedly revealed that the so-called “Muslim Sickos” merely suggested on the internet that the girl’s parents were involved in her kidnapping.
2. A Daily Express article “claim[ing] that NatWest and Halifax had removed images of piggy banks from their promotional material in an effort to avoid offending Muslim customers”.
3. A story about a Muslim bus driver commanding passengers to disembark at prayer time.
Beards and civilisation
John L Esposito highlights some of the disconcerting repercussions of pervasive Islamophobic rhetoric in the US in his foreword to The Islamophobia Industry. According to a 2006 USA Today-Gallup Poll of non-Muslim Americans, Esposito writes:
“[f]ewer than half the respondents believed that US Muslims are loyal to the United States. Nearly one-quarter of Americans – 22 percent – said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbour; 31 percent said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim man on their flight, and 18 percent said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim woman on their flight. About 4 in 10 Americans favour more rigorous security measures for Muslims than those used for other US citizens: requiring Muslims who are US citizens to carry a special ID and undergo special, more intensive, security checks before boarding airplanes.”
The de facto criminalisation of certain types of facial hair and other signifiers of Islamic piety is meanwhile aided and abetted by certain journalistic manoeuvers such as references to “bearded savages” and the like in the mainstream press.
“Think of the Persian Gulf and what do you see? Gulf war soldiers, burning oil, bearded fanatics, polluted seas and flat, bleak desert.”
Luckily for the author-vacationer, Judith Miller, “exotic” Oman defies stereotypes and proves itself to be an “exquisitely civilised country”. As for less fortunate Persian Gulf locales, the same Miller subsequently expanded her talents from providing the Times‘ readership with detailed descriptions of the turtle egg-laying process on the Omani coast to falsified reports of an Iraqi WMD programme.
In the end, media characterisations of Muslims kill two birds with one stone, justifying oppression at home and imperial devastation abroad.
Tribal fighters loyal to Sadiq al-Ahmar, the leader of the Hashed tribe, walk in front of a bullet-riddled building in Sanaa 10 April 2012. (Photo: REUTERS – Mohamed al-Sayaghi)
“If you want to live under sharia law, go back to the hellhole country you came from, or go to another hellhole country that lives under sharia law.” ~ Mahfooz Kanwar, professor emeritus of sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, and a member of the Muslim [sic] Canadian Congress.
Ah yes, the “Islamic” hellhole meme. Islamophobes never tire of bashing Muslim-majority countries for their supposed backwardness.
After one year of the Arab uprisings that initially exploded in Tunisia and swept like wildfire throughout the Arab world, it became very clear that the spark, which has resulted in the removal of three oppressors so far, was spontaneous. That does not mean that the explosion had no preludes. On the contrary, the people were squeezed with each passing day, but those uprisings clearly showed that even in the absence of an organized catalyzing formation (revolutionary party, revolutionary class), an explosion takes place when a certain threshold is reached, a critical mass.
Uprisings in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet-bloc states came about through the work of organized opposition groups and parties (like Solidarity in Poland), and by decades of calm covert undermining, infiltration, and propaganda undertaken by the West. By contrast, the Arab uprising was not led by an organized opposition. Instead, it came as a surprise to the imperialist circles that historically backed their client oppressor regimes.
The Failure of the Post-Colonial Arab “State”
Following the British-French-Italian colonialism of the Arab region, the Europeans left behind an area that they deliberately divided into “states”. These were designed so as to leave no possibility for their becoming truly independent and sovereign. They also left a watchdog and an easy solution to assuage their anti-Semitic-burdened consciousness: “Israel,” a colonial-settler state that would maintain the imperialist design in the wake of the physical withdrawal of its patrons.
The post-colonial states were subordinate by design, by their innate nature of being divided and incomplete, and by the ruling class that followed colonialism. The homogeneous collective of people that included many religions, sects, and ethnicities was also broken down. Colonialism fueled internal conflicts, and the subsequent Arab regimes maintained that tradition and kept in close alliance with the former colonizers. Alliance here is an overstatement. A subordinate structure cannot build alliances. It is always subordinate.
Thus, the post-colonial Arab “state” was everything but a state. Concepts like “the rule of law” or “governing institutions” or “citizenship rights” did not apply. Countries were run with a gangster mentality. There were no “traditions” or clear sets of rules that applied to all. Unlike the model of a bourgeois democracy where rules, laws, and traditions maintain and preserve the capitalist system and apply to all its components, this form was not present in the post-colonial Arab “state.” The ruling class were free to issue laws, revoke laws, not implement laws, not implement constitutions, amend constitutions, forge fraudulent elections, embezzle, torture, massacre, confiscate basic rights, indulge in blatant corruption, fabricate identities, and pass on the presidency from father to son.
The example closest to the modern post-colonial Arab state is the Free Congo State (1885-1908) which was the private property of the Belgian king Leopold II, along with all its people, resources, and 2.3 million square kilometers territory. The post-colonial Arab state is nothing but an expanded feudality. Its head answers to imperialist powers that pay certain amounts of “foreign aid” and finance and train armies and police, all to keep people beyond the explosion point using a composition of fear and the fulfillment of very basic needs that are portrayed as grants and the accomplishments of the ruler. The same imperialist powers that paid their bribes in “aid,” worked hard through IMF economic-restructuring schemes and World Bank loans to dismantle any possible internal independent growth, and worked hard to privatize the public sector.
The Arab regimes, reigning over a further subdivided space that is economically and politically destroyed, extracted their authority from external delegation and internal terror, and succeeded in transforming themselves into a buffer, a guarantor for all the divided segments. They succeeded in absorbing almost all opposition frameworks into their structure, and in producing coreless governing institutions, thus giving themselves much longer life spans than one would expect for such a system.
The failure of the Arab “organized” opposition
Just as the imperialist centers and Arab regimes failed to predict the time of the onset and the magnitude of the Arab uprisings, so did opposition organizations. The latter were not part of it. Nor did they work toward it. Nor did they add any value to it after its onset.
With a few exceptions (like the Kifaya movement in Egypt, the Islamic al-Nahda Party and The Workers’ Communist Party in Tunisia, and some intellectuals in Syria), the organized Arab opposition (political parties, unions and other organizations) seldom challenged the Arab regime and its system. While the interwar period saw the emergence of a number of ideological movements that sought to rectify the colonialist design for the region, many such groups were either tamed or became absorbed in the status quo. The opposition regularly sought acknowledgement and legitimacy from the Arab regimes. The opposition wanted to be “legal,” and it followed the “rules” set by the regimes and accepted their reign.
Thus, the organized Arab opposition was actually a factor of stability for the Arab regimes, adding to their longevity. It was not until people took things into their own hands, rejecting the legitimacy of the Arab regimes and acting autonomously, away from the established opposition via more creative forms, that things started to move.
A quick review of how the organized opposition behaviour following the uprisings can provide a clue as to how they acted during the uprisings and in the period that led up to them. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt never challenged the Mubarak regime. On the contrary, it periodically sent comforting signs showing that they wanted the Mubarak regime to continue. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not participate in the early days of the uprising, and after the uprising it backed the Military Council and its oppression of the demonstrations of January 2012. Many of the so-called leftist and nationalist organizations in Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon are currently backing the Bashar Assad regime and its massacre in Syria.
The organized opposition often dreamt of a moment when the people would rise up against their oppressors. Rightfully, they diagnosed the Arab regimes as tools of imperialist intervention and the main obstacles to any liberation project. Now they ally themselves against the people and with the regimes. They do so because they are empty. Over the years they failed to present any alternative, neither in theory or in practice. They are empty and they are afraid of a future outside they are unable to control, comprehend, or contribute to. Like Israel, they “know” the current regimes. What will happen next is something they don’t know, and they lack the capacity to influence it. So – just like Israel – they’re willing to stand against it.
The Unity of the Oppressed in the Arab World
Pan–Arabism often dreamed about a unified Arab homeland, but other than military coups that ultimately transformed into local oppressive regimes, it lacked any tools to fulfill that dream. Some independent Arab Marxists worked for some sort of “union of the oppressed.” The people of the Arab world are diverse and were fragmented by different factors along sectarian, religious, and ethnic divides. It is only when the oppressed realize that they are united by their own miserable status that people tend to mobilize en masse and achieve their common goals. This was what actually happened in 2011.
The mobilization in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen fulfilled that requirement, so it was partially successful. By contrast, the mobilization in Jordan was made along the local pathogenic divide (those of Palestinian origin vs. those of East Jordanian origin), so it was doomed to failure and can be understood as a movement within the regime rather than one from outside it.
Another key lesson was proven by the immediate contagion of the uprising phenomena throughout the Arab world. What started in Tunisia echoed with different volume levels from Morocco in the West to Bahrain in the East. There is a material integration of people’s interests. For example, continuity can be seen in the almost automatic demonstrations across the Arab world against Israel when it regularly and bloodily attacks Palestinians. This was further stressed by the same continuity when confronting the Arab regimes. The people of the Arab world find depth, support, and power in one other, and they tend to be inspired by each other, and they still think that their cause is one. No wonder, then, that the colonialist powers and their successor dependant Arab regimes fought hard to maintain the isolationist division of the post-colonial states.
It is no surprise then that Arab uprisings are finding it difficult to proceed beyond the conditions of colonially-fabricated states. The uprisings must seek solutions beyond the crippling designs in order to break from subordination and become a true revolution.
Hisham Bustani is a writer and activist from Jordan. He has published three volumes of short fiction in Arabic.
The trial of mass murderer Anders Breivik has confirmed one thing so far: He seems quite mad. Looking plump and dumb, with a slightly receding hairline, the Norwegian gave a right-wing salute as he entered the courtroom and smirked his way through CCTV footage of his handiwork.
Breivik claims that he killed 77 people as an act of self-defense against the Islamification of Norway, that he is a member of the Knights Templar and part of an “anticommunist” resistance to multiculturalism. Reading his insane manifesto, it is tempting to dismiss him as a nut with a gun.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying the political context to what Breivik did. Since 9/11, fringe and mainstream politicians in Europe and America have spoken of Islam as incompatible with Western values. Breivik quoted many of them in his manifesto. This is not to say that he took direct inspiration from those public figures, or that they bear personal responsibility for his crimes. But Breivik’s paranoia does conform to a popular — wholly negative — view of the twin problems of Islam and multiculturalism. Tragically, it is a view that few mainstream politicians have been willing to challenge.
Breivik makes two false claims. The first is that Islam is ethically inferior to Christianity and cannot exist peacefully within the secular democracies of the post-Enlightenment West. That is the open view of the Dutch Party for Freedom, the French National Front, the English Defense League and the Finnish True Finns. It was implicit in Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s aversion to the building of mosques. We might also infer it from much of the testimony presented at Rep. Peter King’s congressional hearings into the radicalization of American Muslim youth. King has opined that there are “too many mosques” in the United States and that roughly 80% of American Muslims are radical.
The mistake being made by all these people is to conflate a tiny minority of political Islamists — whose precise ideology has only really emerged in the last 30 years — with the entire global and historical community of Muslims. It is true that Islam has never undergone a total Reformation, but it has experienced mini-enlightenments. The most celebrated is the Islamic Golden Age (750- 1258), centered in Baghdad, in which the arts and sciences flourished in a manner that left Dark Ages Europe far behind. (You can also find humanist poetry and art in Persia and even a small amount of erotica in Northern Africa.)
Islam never outright rejected scientific empiricism but instead tried to reconcile and integrate it into its religious beliefs, with a surprising amount of debate about the primacy of either faith or reason. It preached that divine revelation could be found in other religions and so practiced tolerance in the lands that it conquered — a kind of Islamic multiculturalism. One of the giants of the European Enlightenment, Voltaire, favorably opined that Islam was more tolerant in its treatment of minorities than Christianity (consider the comparative persecution of Catholics in Ireland or of Jews in Spain).
Today, Islamic society looks different in every region where it is found. The royal families of Saudi Arabia have promoted ultra-conservative Wahhabism, which discourages personal vice, idolatry, veneration of saints, etc. The Bangladeshis prefer the more mystical Sufism, which places greater emphasis upon a subjective experience of Allah and is traditionally more tolerant of human foibles and dissent.
Almost every part of the Islamic world has produced progressive movements, some headed by women. Pakistan gave the world Benazir Bhutto and Indonesia Megawati Soekarnoputri. In all cases, the political development of Muslim countries has been as much shaped by poverty and the legacy of colonialism as it has Islam. Iran might have continued on a course toward liberalism had the West not sponsored an anti-democratic coup in 1953.
In short, there is no monolithic Islamic history or experience, which makes it hard or even disingenuous to talk about the challenge that Islam as a whole poses to the West. Put another way, no American would want anyone to think that the Westboro Baptist Church spoke for all of Christianity.
Breivik’s second, equally fallacious claim is that Islam’s growth in the West has been encouraged by liberal elites as a means to destroy traditional Christian culture. Indeed, multiculturalism has been strongly critiqued by two British prime ministers – Tony Blair and David Cameron. Cameron said that it had “failed” because it did not demand submission to the liberal principles of gender and sexual equality.
But multiculturalism is not a Marxist ideology carefully plotted by the “Saul Alinksy radicals” so loathed by Newt Gingrich. Rather, it was free-market economics and globalization that caused the mass migration of Muslims from East to West — and multiculturalism was simply a policy response. The aim was to protect the cultural integrity of both host and guest populations by allowing them separate spaces in which to develop.
Far from intending to threaten the religious or civil liberties of the majority Christian population (which remains vastly superior in numbers), the goal was to create a common framework of laws but otherwise leave everyone to their own devices. If Christianity has declined in the West, it’s the fault of the Christians who stopped going to church — not the small groups of Muslims quietly attending their local mosque.
And yet Muslims in Western countries now live under the pressures of anti-terrorist surveillance and social ostracism. They are forced to defend their Britishness, their Frenchness or their Americaness — even if they are third- or fourth-generation citizens of those countries. Breivik’s attack has raised the threat level against the West’s Muslims: They are now the target of our politically engaged sociopaths.
Given how widespread the condemnation of both Islam and multiculturalism is across the West, perhaps it is apt to describe Breivik as a symptom of Western psychological angst. It is a condition of neurosis about decline and paranoia about foreign invasion that is in desperate need of remedy.
I’m writing a much longer piece on Orientalism and its ramifications on our society today, but I found this article in TIME magazine from 1979 very interesting. It is essentially a long review of Edward Said’s historic work “Orientalism,” less than a year after its initial publication.
One piece of information that struck out was the fact that between 1800 and 1950 some 60,000 works on “Islam and the Orient” were published:
As writing about Islam and the Orient burgeoned—60,000 books between 1800 and 1950—European powers occupied large swatches of “Islamic” territory, arguing that since Orientals knew nothing about democracy and were essentially passive, it was the “civilizing mission” of the Occident, expressed in the strict programs of despotic modernization, to finally transform the Orient into a nice replica of the West.
Post 9/11, with the Iraq and Afghan invasions and the rise of Islamophobia to endemic levels I think its a safe bet that there have been thousands of publications about ‘Islam and Muslims in the Orient and the Occident.’
In an angry, provocative new book called Orientalism (Pantheon; $15), Edward Said, 43, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues that the West has tended to define Islam in terms of the alien categories imposed on it by Orientalist scholars. Professor Said is a member of the Palestine National Council, a broadly based, informal parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He summarized the thesis of Orientalism in this article for TIME.
One of the strangest, least examined and most persistent of human habits is the absolute division made between East and West, Orient and Occident. Almost entirely “Western” in origin, this imaginative geography that splits the world into two unequal, fundamentally opposite spheres has brought forth more myths, more detailed ignorance and more ambitions than any other perception of difference. For centuries Europeans and Americans have spellbound themselves with Oriental mysticism, Oriental passivity, Oriental mentalities. Translated into policy, displayed as knowledge, presented as entertainment in travelers’ reports, novels, paintings, music or films, this “Orientalism” has existed virtually unchanged as a kind of daydream that could often justify Western colonial adventures or military conquest. On the “Marvels of the East” (as the Orient was known in the Middle Ages) a fantastic edifice was constructed, invested heavily with Western fear, desire, dreams of power and, of course, a very partial knowledge. And placed in this structure has been “Islam,” a great religion and a culture certainly, but also an Occidental myth, part of what Disraeli once called “the great Asiatic mystery.”
As represented for Europe by Muhammad and his followers, Islam appeared out of Arabia in the 7th century and rapidly spread in all directions. For almost a millennium Christian Europe felt itself challenged (as indeed it was) by this last monotheistic religion, which claimed to complete its two predecessors. Perplexingly grand and “Oriental,” incorporating elements of Judeo-Christianity, Islam never fully submitted to the West’s power. Its various states and empires always provided the West with formidable political and cultural contestants—and with opportunities to affirm a “superior” Occidental identity. Thus, for the West, to understand Islam has meant trying to convert its variety into a monolithic undeveloping essence, its originality into a debased copy of Christian culture, its people into fearsome caricatures.
Early Christian polemicists against Islam used the Prophet’s human person as their butt, accusing him of whoring, sedition, charlatanry. As writing about Islam and the Orient burgeoned—60,000 books between 1800 and 1950—European powers occupied large swatches of “Islamic” territory, arguing that since Orientals knew nothing about democracy and were essentially passive, it was the “civilizing mission” of the Occident, expressed in the strict programs of despotic modernization, to finally transform the Orient into a nice replica of the West. Even Marx seems to have believed this. Read more
If you told someone that there was an American Muslim Cowboy Ambassador, they would laugh and not think for one second you were telling the truth, but there is, his name is Kareem Salama and he is being sponsored by the State Department for an “outreach” trip to the Middle East.
There are some points in the article below that may give us pause. Such as, why is America engaged in throwing so much money into the coffers of a PR campaign in the Muslim world to fix its image? Why doesn’t America extricate itself from the wars it is involved in, or review its policy of support for apartheid regimes and despots instead?
Salama says he doesn’t care too much about “politics” and attempts to avoid it, but is he undermining his cause, a noble one, to show that America is not a monolith by allowing himself to be bankrolled by the State Department?
Cynical Arabs and Muslims may view this as a mere PR stunt while bombs are being dropped on their heads despite the good intentions.
One cause of worry is encapsulated in this line,
Another $1.3 billion has been allocated to the Muslim World Outreach Program—this multi-year federal initiative, launched in 2003 by the National Security Council, aims to“transform Islam from within” by supporting secular, liberal Arab organizations as well as the work of secular, liberal Muslim scholars.
This rings like loud bells in the ears of Muslims and Arabs. Such a venture feeds into the narrative of extremists such as Anwar al-Awlaki who wish to say that America has an agenda when it comes to “Islam.” Instead of helping liberal or progressive Muslim and Arab thinkers and scholars it undermines and sabotages their work and smacks of the old imperial and colonial efforts.
To push the point further, this National Security Council effort should be reviewed in light of the recent “Arab Spring” and more attention should finally be paid to the clarion calls of Robert Pape, Scott Atran and others who tell us that our lowly image in the world is due to occupation, war and support for autocratic and corrupt regimes and movements that stifle freedom and progress.
When Andrew Mitchell, the cultural affairs officer at the US Embassy in Egypt, heard that a Muslim dude was making a go of it as a country star, he thought it was “the funniest thing I’d ever heard.”
So Mitchell began checking out Kareem Salama’s stuff—his two self-released albums, Generous Peace and This Life of Mine, and his 2007 hit song “Generous Peace,” whose video is as wholesome as an ABC After-School Special. “Gentlemen, I’m like incense; the more you burn me, the more I’m fragrant,” Salama sings, echoing the writings of the eight century Islamic scholar Muhammed Al-Shafi’ee.
“That is a concept,” Mitchell recalls thinking, “that if I could broadcast anything to this part of the world, that’s what I would say.”
Salama is an American, born of Egyptian parents—engineers both—who came to the US for college and ultimately settled down here. They raised Kareem and his three siblings in the rural town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. The town had no mosque, and only one other Muslim family lived there, but the children learned Islamic traditions at home. Salama, now 33, considers himself devout; he prays regularly, and doesn’t drink or date.
Culturally, though, he identifies as a rodeo-going, country music-loving southerner. “I grew up in a place where country music is kinda like crickets,” Salama explains in his heavy drawl. “You just hear it everywhere you go.”
The more Mitchell learned about Salama, the more excited he became about the stereotype-busting potential of his story. Egyptians (and Americans) tend to associate country music—and the American South—with conservatism. And they tend to associate conservatives with Islamophobia. Egyptians will say, “‘Oh, he’s a cowboy. He’s a conservative. He hates all Muslims,’” Mitchell says. “We can show them: Here’s an Oklahoma cowboy who not only doesn’t hate Muslims, he is a Muslim!”
In US diplomacy terms, Salama was a “total winner all around,” Mitchell says. So he pulled some strings. Last summer, Salama was invited to participate in a six-week, US government-sponsored tour of the Middle East. The program included both concerts and group discussions at schools and community centers. Salama jumped at the opportunity. “I like to focus on a message of reconciliation and bringing people together,” he says.
Everywhere he went—Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Morocco, Kuwait, and Syria—there were droves of people at his appearances, especially children. “A lot of times when we talked about things like respecting people who are different than you and being tolerant, it was clear that they had already discussed those things in school,” Salama recalls. (He included some tour footage in the video for his pop song, “Makes Me Crazy.”)
But Salama refused to engage Middle Easterners on controversial topics. If, for example, an audience member asked why the US government was sponsoring his tour while simultaneously providing billions of dollars in military aid to repressive Arab regimes, Salama dodged the question. “I’m not a politician and I don’t like to talk about politics,” he explains. “I told them that I don’t answer political questions. And the press corps was like: Why? And I said because, at the end of the day, I think it’s a waste of your time. Most of you have never voted in your lives or effected any change in the government whatsoever. And the intelligent person always focuses in their lives on the things that they can actually do something about.”
Sometimes, Salama would simply redirect the conversation. “There was a moment when we were in Jordan when a kid who was of Palestinian descent asked me something about America’s foreign policy. I looked at JJ [an American friend], and I put my hand on his shoulder, and I said, ‘Did JJ ever do anything to you?’ And his face completely changed. He softened in that moment and just goes, ‘No he hasn’t.’ And that was it.”
Salama’s songs can be spiritual, but they’re not overtly Islamic. Nor do his lyrics criticize American foreign policy. One song, “Baby I’m a Soldier,” tells the fictional story of two dying soldiers from opposing sides, emphasizing their common humanity—but it takes no jabs at US military actions.
In Bahrain, Salama performed at schools that primarily served the country’s more-affluent Sunni community. At the time, he was unaware of religious tensions in Bahrain, or that the Western-backed government, which has close ties with Saudi Arabia, systematically represses and discriminates against the country’s Shiite majority. “I’m pretty woefully ignorant of Bahrain in general,” Salama acknowledges.
But he did tell audiences in Bahrain and elsewhere about his idyllic childhood in Oklahoma. “I didn’t experience much” discrimination, he told me, adding that he even played the lead in his sixth-grade Christmas play. “There’s an old Arabic poem that says, ‘It’s sad to see a man who has 100 good days, and he always complains about the one bad day.’ Even if there was something bad that happened, I’ve had such a beautiful life and a beautiful experience growing up where I did.”
Salama is pretty patriotic. Even so, he sometimes encounters bigotry online. In 2007, after he appeared on Fox News to talk about racial profiling, some anonymous Fox commenters claimed he was a “terrorist hiding in the open,” and not a “real” American.
The 2010 tour was part of a larger “public diplomacy” program that costs US taxpayers more than $100 million each year in the Middle East alone, according to a State Department official. Every embassy in the world has a public diplomacy division that engages in various outreach activities, hoping to nurture person-to-person relationships between Americans and foreigners. That’s in addition to the Peace Corps, a federal program whose budget was $400 million last year. Another $1.3 billion has been allocated to the Muslim World Outreach Program—this multi-year federal initiative, launched in 2003 by the National Security Council, aims to“transform Islam from within” by supporting secular, liberal Arab organizations as well as the work of secular, liberal Muslim scholars.
Mitchell believes cultural-exchange programs help combat extremism, and implies that many Arab civilians are simply unaware that most Americans are decent human beings. He offers a hypothetical scenario where a kid meets Salama and is later approached by a jihadist who insists that America is “the Great Satan.” That kid, Mitchell says, “is going to say, ‘Wait a minute. I met an American. And he was a Muslim. And he was nice. They are not all the Great Satan.’”
In March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Middle East, Salama released a new song and video called “Be Free Now.” But out of respect for pro-democracy activists, he’s postponed the release of his latest album, City of Lights, until May 24. The new album is a mix of country-western and catchy pop tunes. “I guess it’s just a gut feeling,” he says of the postponement. Releasing it now “might appear like, ‘He’s over there in America busy with his music and stuff, and we are going through this much more important thing.’”
Here’s the “Generous Peace” video, which tackles bias against Muslims and advocates turning the other cheek…