As readers of this site surely know, FOX News repeatedly embarrassed itself last month by describing large swaths of Paris as “no-go” zones that were subject to sharia law and unsafe for non-Muslims. And as if that weren’t imbecilic enough, a FOX “expert” said things were even worse in England.
Steve Emerson, who touts himself as a leading authority on Islamic extremism and claims he often briefs U.S. government officials, told FOX listeners, “In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones. There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in. And parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.”
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, was so unnerved by the discovery that a major English city had become entirely Muslim and that parts of London had grown ungovernable that he reportedly “choked on his porridge.” Regaining his composure, he quickly came to the more sensible conclusion that Emerson was simply “a complete idiot.”
The FOX reports were quickly ridiculed. The French version of the Jon Stewart show, for instance, did a hilarious send up of the report about Paris. FOX eventually apologized for its reporting, which is all well and good, though we should recall that FOX elicited these statements with no sense at all for their lunacy.
Emerson may indeed be an idiot. But while we are right to mock him and his ilk for their alarming stupidity, we should not dismiss their ranting quite so casually. After all, millions of Americans are apparently inclined to accept their foolishness, or so the polls suggest. For that reason, we should take a lesson from the public humiliation they have endured, both on this occasion and previously, since that drubbing reveals what happens when the toxic attacks of the anti-Islamic right are exposed to the broader public.
Those of us who study these matters have long recognized the cultural isolation of the anti-Islamic narrative; it enjoys a deep but narrow appeal within an isolated segment of the GOP. This isolation became clear to the rest of the country in the summer of 2012, when former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), a darling of the Islamophobic right, sent letters to the inspectors general at five federal offices. The letters expressed alarm about the supposed infiltration and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the national government and cast particular suspicion on Huma Abedin, a close aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Like the charges about European “no-go” zones, Bachmann’s attack backfired horribly and elicited a furious response, especially among fellow Republicans. Arizona Senator John McCain, for instance, took to the Senate floor to defend Abedin, describing her as “an intelligent, upstanding, hardworking, and loyal servant of our country and our government.” Calling the allegations against her “an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen,” McCain said they “have no logic, no basis, and no merit,” and “they need to stop now.” “To say that the accusations” were “not substantiated by the evidence,” McCain said, “is to be overly polite and diplomatic about it.”
McCain’s comments, though remarkable for their bluntness, were not the worst Bachmann received. Ed Rollins, her former campaign manager in her run for the presidency, published a piece (ironically, for FOX News), in which he excoriated his former boss for leveling charges that were “outrageous and false,” “unsubstantiated,” and “downright vicious.” “The Republican Party,” he said, “is going to become irrelevant if we become the party of intolerance and hate. . . . Shame on you, Michele!”
Yet Bachmann’s allegations, like the claims about European “no-go” zones, were nothing new. Indeed, Emerson probably felt so comfortable repeating these stories for FOX News because he and other anti-Islamic radicals had been rehashing much the same thing in the echo chamber of the anti-Islamic right for years.
In 2006, for instance, a writer in Commentary decried the growing “Islamification of Europe” and claimed there were “dozens of ‘ungovernable’ areas in France.” These were “Muslim-dominated suburbs . . . where the writ of French law does not run and into which the French police do not go.” But this was not simply a French phenomenon; the writer insisted that similar “extraterritorial enclaves, in which sharia law is enforced by local Muslim clerics, can be found in other European countries.”
The anti-Islamic narrative is propagated by a nucleus of news magazines, media outlets, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations, many of which receive funding from the same small pool of wealthy conservative donors. Within this community, a core group of activists repeat the same message over and over, reinforcing one another but almost never preaching beyond the choir.
One spokesperson for the narrative makes a guest appearance on another’s radio program or television show; a second writes for a cluster of conservative journals, rehashing the same points; a third is asked to speak at a symposium sponsored by the first one’s think tank.
This churning allows the narrative to maintain a certain visibility but confines it to a fairly isolated corner of the public square. But as the response to Emerson and Bachmann clearly show, the narrative dies once it steps outside the safety of its paranoid, insular world. The narrative thrives, in other words, but only within a very particular atmosphere.
There is a reason for this limited appeal. Most Americans have embraced the religious diversity of modern life. They reject the theocratic dogmatism of the religious right and welcome the secular trends that make so many social conservatives profoundly uncomfortable, as demonstrated, for instance, by the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
To be sure, a certain fraction of the population emphatically rejects these trends. This includes most prominently the religious right and the authoritarians who react so strongly to the “Other,” whoever he may be at the moment. The anti-Islamic narrative has certainly won over this fraction, and the importance of that victory should not be minimized.
But neither should it be overstated, as this is an increasingly isolated minority of the population. The lesson of the FOX News fiasco is that when the champions of the anti-Islamic narrative stick their head out of the cave, they are—and should continue to be—mocked and ridiculed. Their message cannot be defeated entirely; American history makes clear that it will be with us always. But like earlier attacks on Catholicism and Judaism, the assaults on Islam can be consigned to the forgotten margins of the public square, where they belong.