By Juan Cole
We still have only rumours about Wade Michael Page, the gunman who walked into a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin near Milwaukee and opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon (weapons that should be illegal) on men women and children beginning to gather for a day of worship, singing and feasting. He killed 6 Americans and critically wounded 3 others, including a Wisconsin policeman kneeling to help one of the Sikh victims. Others were more lightly wounded and went to ordinary hospitals rather than to the trauma unit.
Page is said to have served in the military, discharged for misconduct in 1998.
He is said to have had a 9/11 tattoo.
He was in a white supremacist punk band, “End Apathy.”
He likely thought he was targeting American Muslims. He operated in an atmosphere of virulent hate speech against American Muslims. A discourse of Islamophobia has plagued the United States in the past decade, pushed by unscrupulous bigots in public life and by entire media organizations such as Fox Cable News and other media properties of billionaire yellow press lord Rupert Murdoch. Among them is also Rush Limbaugh, who, incredibly, is still broadcast to US soldiers abroad.
Among the hatemongers are Frank Gaffney, and his acolyte Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), Rep. Peter King (R-NY) Daniel Pipes, James Woolsey, Robert Spencer, Steve Emerson, John Bolton, and sometimes Rudi Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and others, most associated with the Republican Party. The push for hate speech against American Muslims is funded by a small group of billionaires through their foundations. Some of the Muslim-haters are connected to the US arms industry and are hoping for profits from further wars in the Middle East. Others are Israel-firster fanatics. Others are looking for a bogey man to scare Americans with, so as to convince them to vote against their interests, as they used Communism during the Cold War to convince ordinary Americans to give up their constitutional rights.
It is legitimate to criticize Muslim organizations and parties, and to work against violent groups like al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda is a tiny fringe religious-nationalist movement; far fewer Muslims have been involved in it than white southerners have been involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, American politicians at least implicitly attempted to tar all Muslims with its brush. Like anti-Semitism, racist anti-Muslim discourse has illegitimate properties. It shouldn’t be acceptable to attribute to Muslims a vast general conspiracy. It shouldn’t be acceptable to assert that they are all dishonest and lying about their real beliefs. It shouldn’t be acceptable to lie and allege that they believe in casually murdering non-Muslims. Their religious law, or Shariah, shouldn’t be demonized more than the Talmud or Roman Catholic canon law. It shouldn’t be acceptable to accuse them all of waging jihad or holy war.
Since many in the hate-the-Muslims network are closely associated with the campaign of Mitt Romney, reporters should ask Romney again whether he is willing to repudiate this kind of hate speech.
As in Norway, where the Muslim-hating network (fostered also by hateful web sites like “Gates of Vienna,” “Elders of Ziyon,” and a host of others) deeply influenced mass murderer Anders Breivik, so in the United States the purveying of a negative image of Muslims predictably has resulted in violence. In Norway, Breivik targeted what he called liberals soft on the alleged Muslim menace. In the US, Wade targeted people he thought looked like Muslims, the Sikhs. (Actually I don’t know any American Muslims who wear turbans, as observant Sikh men do, but Hollywood stereotypes die hard). As always, hatemongering never only affects the objects of hatred. It distorts and wounds the people who promote it, and it usually spills over onto society in general. Neoconservative anti-Muslim bigots are usually indirectly also promoting anti-Semitism in the long term.
Did Michele Bachmann, Peter King, Daniel Pipes and the others cause the Wisconsin shootings? No. Did they create an intellectual and cultural atmosphere that naturalized such violence against the supposed Other? Well, Bachmann publicly alleged that a minor aide to Hillary Clinton of Pakistani heritage is at the centre of a vast infiltration of the American government by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. You decide.
The image emerging of Page is emblematic of America in the past decade and a half. We are a violent country infested by dangerous semi-automatic weapons. Not only do we have far more murders, and especially murders by firearm, than other societies with advanced economies, but we launch far more wars than other such countries, and spend more than the next 20 advanced countries combined on our war industry. The mindset of frontier warriors taming the encircling savages, which goes back to early American history and, later, the legends of the Old West, informs both domestic attitudes and foreign policy. George W. Bush actually talked about the “romance” of fighting the Pushtuns of Afghanistan.
The US mass media suspected that the shooter actually intended to massacre Muslims, and some unfortunately referred to the temple attendees as “innocent,” as though a mosque congregation would not have been equally innocent.
Sikhism is a north Indian religion that began with ecstatic worship of a generally monotheistic sort some 500 years ago in India. It is an independent religion whose adherents say its scriptures are divinely revealed. As a historian I’m bound to say that it grows out of the cultural mix of Hinduism, Bhakti (ecstatic popular worship), and Sufi Islam (Muslim mysticism) of Mughal India in the early modern period). It is specially associated with the Punjab region of India (and what is now Pakistan). Sikhs say there are some half a million adherents in the United States, though sociologists assert that the figure is more like 100,000. Sikhs are just wonderful people, and a person’s heart is shredded at the idea of this horrible atrocity committed against them.
Sikhs have tall too often been targeted by perpetrators of hate crimes in the US.
The characteristics rumoured of the shooter mirror the worst of America in the Bush era and after. The Muslim-hating political discourse, already discussed, was pioneered by Karl Rove in 2006.
As for a mistaken target, the United States government attacked Iraq in 2003 after an insidious propaganda campaign that falsely attributed the September 11, 2001 attacks to the government of Saddam Hussein (a conspiracy theory pushed with special ferocity by then Undersecretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, other Neoconservatives tied to the Israeli right wing, and by vice president Dick Cheney). There was never any credible evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 and I said so repeatedly and publicly in 2002 and early 2003. In fact, al-Qaeda was fostered in the 1980s by the United States and its regional allies as a way of pushing the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
Paranoid “revenge” on Iraq to the extent that some US soldiers in the illegal invasion actually wore pictures of the Twin Towers, the building destroyed by the al-Qaeda hijackers, on their backpacks. I showed in my Engaging the Muslim World that in fact Saddam Hussein was afraid of al-Qaeda and had put out an all points bulletin for a suspected al-Qaeda operative who was rumoured to be in Iraq in summer of 2002.
The crazed US invasion of Iraq set off social turmoil that has left tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and the country still a basket case nine years later. Thousands of Americans were plunged into a quixotic attempt to occupy an Arab Muslim country, forced in many cases into acts of brutality against Iraqi civilians that continue to haunt them. Large numbers of Americans who served in Iraq suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the fruitless war ground on, the US army became desperate for recruits, and allegedly increasingly let in members of biker gangs and criminal elements, latter-day Pages. It is horrible to contemplate that our own government, which is terrified of a few Occupy Wall Street hippies, happily gave advanced weapons training and battlefield experience to criminals and white supremacists so as to put down the Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation.
The violence, hatred, paranoia and racism that courses in the subterranean depths of the American psyche has played out on the world stage in the past decade, but also in countless small acts of bigotry and maliciousness at home, as with Rep. Peter King’s hearings on the alleged radicalization of the American Muslim community (an IRA supporter himself, has he had any hearings on the radicalization of white people?) and the campaigns by Evangelical politicians to condemn Muslim canon law or sharia or to prevent Muslims from building mosques and worshiping freely.
That we are all victims of this campaign of hate is eloquently underlined by what happened at Oak Creek.