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Fear and loathing, history and hysteria in surreal America

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

That was the surreal week that was. Thirty percent of Republican voters and 19% of Democrats support the bombing of the fictional city-state of Agrabah, depicted in Disney’s animated movie Aladdin. A county school district in the state of Virginia closed all of its schools on Friday because of intense furor over a class assignment about Islam and Arabic calligraphy, with angry parents and others alleging that the homework assigned by a high school geography teacher asking students to try their hand at writing the Shahada in Arabic calligraphy amounts to indoctrination.

The famed Harvard University, in its zeal for political correctness, instructed and lectured its students about how they should lecture their less fortunate and less educated relatives about how to explain the pressing issues of our times. The University issued laminated cards regarding potential issues raised at the dinner table during the holidays break and the suggested answers to such complex questions about racial justice, Islamophobia, Syrian refugees and police brutality. Harvard was so condescending to its students that it instructed them to ‘breath’ and ‘calmly’ explain the thorny issues after listening ‘mindfully’.

Meanwhile, in another strike at freedom of speech at institutes of higher education, the administrators of Wheaton College, an evangelical school in the state of Illinois, suspended a professor because she dared to post on her Facebook wall that Muslims and Christians ‘worship the same God.’ The week ended with an unabashed and crass love-fest between the autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin and Republican presidential candidate and aspiring autocrat Donald Trump. These are but few vignettes that say a lot about the state of mind of some Americans, their fear and loathing of Islam, their indifference to history, and the hysteria over real and imagined enemies at home and abroad that is being whipped by some of the Republican presidential candidates, who are promising an edgy nation the salvation that only a strong leader can deliver.

‘Agrabah should be destroyed’

As a sign of the times, the Arabic sounding name of a city makes it suspect as a potential base for terrorists, and therefore, for a sizable number of the American electorate a potential target for bombing. The fictional Agrabah, sounds like Aqaba, and somewhat like Raqqa, the actual base of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. A recent poll conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling of Republican voters asked 40 serious questions about their views of individual candidates and their policies, as well as other questions including some about Islam and other related matters. But the firm, as it does often inserted one insane question (no.38) to test the respondent’s knowledge: would you support or oppose the bombing of Agrabah? Thirty percent supported the bombing, and 13% opposed, while a majority of 57% said ‘not sure’.

Significant numbers of Republican voters gave negative answers indicating their fear and distrust of American Muslims, such as closing down Mosques, and establishing national database of Muslims in the United States. Bombing Agrabah swiftly trended on the social media and tweeps had a field day suggesting ways of punishing the menacing new Arab Sparta and its rebellious leader Jafar. Will the campaign against Agrabah last a 1001 Arabian nights or more? People were comparing Jafar to Qaddafi, others were calling for arming moderate Agrabahian moderate rebels, and rumors were floating that Donald Trump has warned the Obama administration not to accept a single Agrabahian refugee. And of course there were those who invoked double standards questioning why those who are calling for military intervention in Agrabah, were silent about the depredation in the Land of Oz. Many of us were surprised about the relatively large numbers of Agrabah experts at premier universities and think tanks who swarmed television stations to provide a guide to the multitudes of the perplexed. I must admit that my knowledge of things Agrabah, was rudimentary, and that’s why I missed my chance at waxing eloquent about the new threat. I am expecting a Republican candidate to resurrect and paraphrase Roman Senator Cato the Elder’s infamous call of antiquity ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ and to call for a modern version of the Punic Wars against Agrabah… The old Arabs used to say: ‘the worst misfortune is the one that makes you laugh’.

Lethal Arabic calligraphy

As a Virginian by choice, I consider Virginia the mother of all American states. Eight of its native sons were elected to the highest office in the republic, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Woodrow Wilson. So it was very jarring to see that even such a cultured state has succumbed to the ill winds of fear and loathing sweeping the land. On Friday the entire school system in rural Augusta County, serving 10,000 students was shot down over fear that an Arab calligraphy assignment could lead to violence. The controversy began when a teacher in good standing Cheryl LaPorte, gave her students the following assignment:’ here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.’

As soon as the assignment was posted on Facebook, the nasty emails began to stream full of harsh complaints that the homework amounts to indoctrinating the students and of threats and insults, first from angry parents, then from others from outside the state. School officials were concerned about the ‘tone and content’ of some of the messages they had received, including one that called for sacking the teacher and putting ‘her head on a stake’, ISIS style. The school’s superintendent and other officials stressed that students were not asked to translate the Shahada or to recite it like the believers do. But their explanations did not convince some parents who alleged that the assignment is a form of proselytizing for Islam in a public school, where religions are off limits.

The protests reflected the depth of Islamophobia throughout the country. These negative attitudes were directed at everything that centers on Islam as a religion, including teaching the history of Islam, or Islamic civilization just as the history of the great other religions and civilizations are taught. Local and regional newspapers throughout the country have been reporting attempts by parents at rejecting any lessons in schools about any aspect related to Islam. It is as if a segment of the American people is engaged in willful ignorance of one of the largest and the fastest growing religions in the world, at a time when, knowledge of things Muslim is essential, since the United States is engaged in military conflicts in a number of Muslim states and regions, and knowledge of the basic tenets of Islam is essential. The fear and loathing of Islam in a rural county in Virginia is both a local and a national issue. The Islamophobia of 2015 has far exceeded the Islamophobia of the tense days that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Harvard’s convoluted Political Correctness

Revisionist history, even when it is done by sharp historians is fraught with hidden pitfalls. But when it is done by professors and University officials eager to shed individual and collective sense of guilt or to be politically correct, it becomes shallow and laughable. Harvard just released laminated colored cards with a silly design and listing supposedly the pertinent questions of our times. The University officials acting as the sages of the ages deigned to provide the wise answers. The objective of the exercise is for Harvard students to impart the wisdom and the insights into the human conditions that they have acquired to their less fortunate family members around the dinner table. And to stress the centrality of families gathered around the dinner table during the holiday season, the laminated cards had at the center a photo of an empty dish, with the top caption declaring: tips for talking to families. (The sages of Harvard must have learned this from Francis Ford Coppola, the chronicler of the Corleone family in the movie the Godfather, where fateful conversations and decisions occur around the dinner table).

Under the heading of Islamophobia/refugees, the question asked is: ‘we shouldn't let anyone in from Syria. We can't guarantee that terrorists won't infiltrate the ranks of refugees. They've already done it in France.’ Harvard’s ready answer: 'The U.S. has been accepting refugees from the war-torn areas around the world for decades...Racial justice includes welcoming Syrian refugees’. On the controversial issue that gripped the country last year, that is ‘Black murders in the street,’ in reference to a number of incidents where policemen shot and killed unarmed black youths, the card states: ‘your loved-ones will ask: why didn't they just listen to the officer? If they had just obeyed the law this wouldn't have happened.' The card instruct the student: you should say ‘in many incidents that result in the death of a black body in the street, these victims are not breaking the law and are unarmed.’

When many students objected that the university has no right to tell students what to think about such charged and complex moral and political issues, two deans issued an apology acknowledging that the questions ‘failed to account for the many viewpoints that exist on our campus on some of the most complex issues we confront as a community and society today.’

Mainstreaming hate and fear

In the last few days, the mutual admiration society between Putin and Trump that emerged in the last few months has evolved into an open vulgar political love fest between two very different but opportunistic men who share an open contempt for the sitting American president. On Thursday, Putin lavished praise on the egotistic Trump hailing him as a ‘bright and talented’ man and the ‘absolute leader of the presidential race,’ Trump, who melts when he is showered with praise, returned the favor to Putin, hailing him as a ‘leader’ with high approval from his own people. Trump said that Putin is ‘running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country,’ in reference to President Obama. Trump’s vulgarity and his political and moral vacuity were on full display when he was asked by the host of ‘Morning Joe’ program on MSNBC Republican host Joe Scarborough about Putin’s alleged killing and silencing of journalists and political opponents; he blurted ‘I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There's a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity’.

Trump and many of his supporters secretly and not so secretly admire what they see as the toughness in Putin, the very quality they say Obama lacks. In their eyes, the rampaging Russian armies and local militias occupying and annexing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine and indiscriminately bombing Syrian areas opposed to Putin’s client Assad in Damascus, are manifestations of manly leadership. Trump supports Putin’s claims that he is fighting ISIS in Syria, and he does not believe that the U.S. should lead the international efforts against the occupation of Crimea. Trump’s supporters will continue on their endless trek searching for the elusive American Putin in the political wilderness long after Trump has returned to his beauty queens, and given the current debasement of taste and popular culture, maybe to another silly television show.

Spreading fear and loathing of Islam, refugees and immigrants are turning many Americans into an inward-looking sulking community living on a diet of insecurity and anger. The politics of fearmongering is indirectly helping ISIS and likeminded radical Islamists in recruiting potential assassins at home and abroad. In America circa 2015, there are politicians and other public figures engaging in a dangerous and so far successful campaign of mainstreaming hate and fear.

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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.