Vassar Today

Curious Times

By Andrew Davison

The fact that the United States’ enemies in the first round of the war on terror are nearly all Muslims has led to enormous curiosity in this country about Islam — a curiosity whose manifestations contain both appreciable and troubling effects. Ever since the horrific attacks of September 11, books and news specials about Islam and the politics of Islamist movements like al-Qaeda fill the spaces of popular culture in ways that appear to be enhancing understanding of the various interpretations and practices that comprise Islam.

Yet, in the present political climate (12/01), the unprecedented interest in Islam also manifests itself as fear and suspicion of Islam — a fear and suspicion that many non-Muslim Americans consistently read onto the bodies and identities of persons believed to be Muslims (whether they are or not, and despite the various ways in which one can understand oneself as a Muslim), in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

These dynamics are not new, but their intensified existence and immediate implications led President Bush to make several well-publicized statements shortly after the attacks in which he called for relations of tolerance and respect. A study of these statements (along with others) reveals President Bush’s — and hence the administration’s official — conception of the relation between Islam and "America," and furthermore suggests that, despite its apparent hopes, the White House has not fully countered the tension between appreciation and suspicion. The President has sought to foster respect for Islam and Muslims both for their own sake and as part of the administration’s efforts to demonstrate that neither Americans nor the American government bear ill will towards Islam. But the President’s messages have been mixed. His most important speeches on the topic contain expressions of exclusiveness as well as inclusiveness, and these have had the effect of promoting and reproducing, rather than fully undercutting and relieving, the underlying uneasy relations between non-Muslims and Muslims in America.

In the President’s frequent statements of respect, he has described Islam as "a peaceful faith" "practiced by millions of Americans," called explicitly for "tolerance" and "respect" for "my" and "our fellow Americans," "Americans who are Muslim by faith." He has stressed that "America is made better by millions of Muslim citizens" (11/19/01) who contribute to "our country" as "doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads" (9/17); all of us are "brothers and sisters" (9/17). The President has stressed unity — that, "regardless of our religious beliefs, we’re all, first and foremost, Americans" (12/6).

Simultaneously, however, he has made other statements with contrasting, exclusion-generating effects, such as those uttered in his very first comments about these matters, made at the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, on Sept. 17th. Surrounded by several members of the Center, President Bush turned to the podium (and cameras), expressed gratitude for his hosts’ hospitality, and then said, "Like the good folks standing with me, the American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks. And so were Muslims all across the world. Both Americans and Muslim friends and citizens, tax-paying citizens, and Muslims in [different] nations were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our television sets." Note the use and force of the words "like" and "both:" The President’s conception of "the American people" and "Americans" implicitly excludes those standing with him. He’s comparing two, actually three, groupings: those "folks," "Americans," and "Muslims all across the world," all of whom, according to Mr. Bush, saw and reacted to the attacks similarly; but the groupings are implicitly conceptualized as separate. Both the "good folks standing with him" and "Muslims all across the world" are excluded from "the American people," and vice versa. The statement does not appear disparaging in the slightest, and it seems to suggest what the President would have all "good folks" do during the war (stand with him), but it also provides insight on the place of "Muslims" in the President’s conception of "the American people" and "Americans." "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith," the President continued. "And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that." It seems legitimate to ask whether, in the President’s thinking, those "fellow Americans" who need to understand the fundamental tenets of Islam include Muslims?

There is a subtlety here that many in the President’s audience may not consider, but it seems that President Bush’s conception of America sometimes incorporates Muslims, and sometimes it does not. It is not hard to imagine that some listening to the President may say these were very effective messages (e.g., "The President has acted responsibly."); while others could, legitimately, I believe, say something else (e.g., "He’s sending mixed signals."). "I want to assure my fellow Americans that when you pledge allegiance to the flag with your hand on your heart," Mr. Bush said in what the White House describes as "a meeting with Muslim Community leaders" on Sept. 26, "you pledge just as hard to the flag as I do" (9/26). Who is the President assuring? Muslim Americans? Or others? And if it’s others, then who are his "fellow Americans"?

The gist of Bush’s message has been that "Muslims" (excluding "extremists") are with "us," sometimes they are of "us" (as "fellow Americans"), but not always so (though they may act in ways that "we" do, like pledge allegiance to the flag). His earliest statements about "tolerance" thus perpetuate suspicious sensibilities, reinforcing a climate of mutual concern and distrust between non-Muslims and Muslims in the United States. With this official view in sight, perhaps it is easier to understand the apparent widespread support for existing law-enforcement policies that make distinctions between Muslim citizens and non-citizens on the one hand, and other citizens, on the other, and why the latter generally give the Bush administration high approval ratings, while the former fear it (and are made constantly to prove their loyalty, or worse). The attacks in September generated legitimate, if belated, curiosity about Islam; but these days serious scrutiny should be directed at various dominant interpretations of "America" — especially those that put the ideals of a democratic polity at risk — as well.

Davison is associate professor of political science at Vassar College. He teaches courses in political theory and Middle East politics, and his publications include The Philosophic Roots of Modern Ideology: Liberalism, Communism, Fascism, Islamism, third edition (Prentice Hall, 2001, co-authored with David E. Ingersoll and Richard K. Matthews), and Secularism and Revivalism in Turkey: A Hermeneutic Reconsideration (Yale, 1998).