EDITORIAL. Ash Narain Roy. I. XII. X
IPods don’t have
newsbreaks every hour
by Dr. ASH NARAIN ROY
The United States is bitterly divided as far as Islam is concerned. Sadly, the debate has created ‘Islamofascists’ vs. ‘Islamophobes’ divide. Even the academic debate revolves primarily around the question whether Islam is compatible with Western-style democracy.
The mosque debate in the US is fast becoming a defining moment for religious freedom in the country. There was a time when the Conservatives sought to project an image of a kinder, gentler America. Today, the new Christian Right speaks the language of fierce, punitive moralism. Americans zealously guard their freedom. This is what they claim. But freedom requires more than just putting a flag on a car window.
The far Right makes protestations of their love for America. It often quotes the Second Amendment that “protects the right to keep and bear arms”. But it conveniently forgets the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridges the freedom of speech…” The freedom of religion is not just for Christians, but for all religions, even for those who chose not to profess any religion at all.
According to the New York Times, a two-year study of mosques in the US by scholars of Duke University and the University of North Carolina says that “contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam”. And yet, derision, misinformation and outright bigotry are aimed at American Muslims.
It is not hard to understand the anatomy of rising intolerance in the US. In the White south, there is a conviction that the country which is rightfully theirs has been usurped by sinister cosmopolitan elites. Many of them subscribe to a worldview which is deeply shaped by apocalyptic Mormonism. They believe the US was founded to be a Christian nation.
Racial intolerance too is growing. Most Americans approve of Arizona’s new law allowing police to stop anyone who looks Hispanic and demand proof of citizenship. Civil rights activists see disturbing evidence of America’s uglier civil rights history repeating itself.
It is not the first time such intolerance has shown its ugly face. The pre-Civil War America witnessed ‘Know-Nothing’ movement which had been prompted by popular fears their country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish immigrants. Anti-Masonic movement too had similar origin. For that matter, what is Ku Klux Klan?
When people are deeply anxious about holding onto their homes and their jobs, as is the growing fear now in the wake of the economic meltdown, intolerance grows. This is where they blame the other for their woes. Economic fear is the handmaiden of intolerance. Take for instance the outsourcing phobia in the US. It is not just President Obama who has raised the pitch against jobs being outsourced to Indians, even the comic strips often pick up the theme. A recent piece in the popular Wizard of Id strip had this to say: “Welcome to Id. Don’t bother, all jobs have been shipped to India”.
Ignorance leads to stereotypes. Here is a country where there is freedom to be ignorant. No wonder, Sara Palin is the conservatives’ superstar. The mega-church Bible belt has boosted Palin’s presidential ambitions. After all, as she claims, “everything I ever needed to know, I learnt on the basketball court.” Explaining during her Vice-Presidential campaign, how Alaska’s proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience, Palin claimed, “As Putin comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where—where do they go? It is Alaska. It is just right over the border.”
One can hardly blame Palin. Geography is no longer taught in many schools. When the D-Day came with the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Americans were scrambling for geography books. When Osama bin Laden was held responsible for 9/11, demand for maps of Afghanistan skyrocketed.
A few years ago, Japanese high school students who did a short-term exchange programme in the US mid-east, were shocked to hear the questions their American counterparts asked them: “Japan, what part of China is that? Is your father a ninja? Is your mother a Geisha? Do you have McDonald’s in Japan? ”
President Obama may be losing sleep over jobs going to Indians and Chinese and he has often pestered the American high school students to learn from Indians and Asians. But that is easier said than done. The high level of ignorance among Americans is not because of a lack of intelligence, but because of a lack of interest and the ability to “tune out” the news. And IPods don’t have news breaks every hour.
The young men and women constantly have IPods plugged into their ears when they are not texting or blasting loud music. As journalist Eric Ransdell explains, American school children who cannot find Mexico and Canada on a map “become the main consumers of news”. They want “less foreign news” and more information about “stocks to buy, sex and beauty tips.”
It is this ignorance which has led many to believe that Coca Cola, Big Mac and Western pop command the moral high ground of human civilization. No wonder French philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the US the land of “achieved utopia.”
The author is Associate Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi.