On Friday, 250 mostly armed “protestors against Islam” encircled a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona. Jon Ritzheimer, the organiser and avowed atheist, called the event a “patriotic sign of resistance” against what he deemed the tyranny of Islam in America.
“My aim is to expose the true colours of Islam,” Ritzheimer told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Unwittingly what he has exposed is something else. There’s a tendency by the media to confine mosque protests, draw the Prophet Muhammad cartoon contests, and escalating anti-Muslim bigotry to the quarters of overt Islamophobia. But anti-Muslim bigotry is a symptom rather than a cause.
What Ritzheimer and his fellow rightwing militants have exposed is America’s disintegrating society and crumbling empire. “When states cease to function, rightwing extremist groups do the dirty work of the state,” Chris Hedges told me on Foreign Object.
As America’s middle class continues to get hollowed out by economic policies that favour the rich, and as more and more Americans fall out of the middle class into poverty, the appeal of rightwing groups and militias grow, as do the incidences of violence and intimidation against Muslims or anyone who perceivably looks to be Muslim.
White suburbanites, like Ritzheimer, are angry for the right reasons. They’re angry they can’t find a well paying job - and if they have a job, they’re angry that their stagnant level wage cannot keep up with the pace of the cost of living. The costs of an everyday American’s most basic needs, from education to healthcare to food, are being pushed upwards by corporations that are already experiencing record profits.
A recent poll found a whopping 47 percent of Americans could not afford to pay an unexpected bill of $400 or more, which means more than 100 million households are faced with an existential crisis each and everyday.
When white suburbanites, like Ritzheimer, look beyond their household, they see decaying and crumbling infrastructure. A report found that more than 61,000 of the nation’s bridges are in urgent need of repair. When bridges aren’t falling into the valley below, America’s trains are running off their tracks and schools and factories are closing. This is all happening while manufacturing jobs have either been automated or outsourced to Mexico and China.
To reiterate, Americans like Ritzheimer are angry for the right reasons, they’re just blaming the wrong causes for their plight. Instead of blaming the surrender of our political class to corporate overlords - whose only purpose is to enrich themselves and their shareholders - white Americans are being fed a narrative that immigrants have taken their jobs and that Islam is inherently violent, instead of blaming US meddling in the Middle East and its support of tyrannical dictatorships for the rise of ISIS.
“Many trapped in mass culture are gripped by personal troubles, but they are not aware of their true meaning and source,” writes C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite.
In works such as On Power and Ideology and Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky, who is arguably one of America’s greatest intellectuals, has narrated the death spiral of America’s political and economic system. “I listen to talk radio,” Chomksy said in an interview. “I don’t want to hear Rush Limbaugh. I want to hear the people calling in. They are like Joe Stack. ‘What is happening to me? I have done all the right things. I am a God fearing Christian. I work hard for my family. I have a gun. I believe in the values of this country, and my life is collapsing.’”
Chomsky has perfectly described many of the protestors who surrounded the mosque in Phoenix. “It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told Hedges. “The parallels are striking…The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen…If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest, this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger, and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says, ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews, Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honour of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up.”
“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Chomsky added.
Neither has prominent civil rights activist Linda Sarsour, herself a Muslim. “There was never mosque opposition in America, but now we have mosque opposition all across the country,” she told me.
These anti-Muslim movements led by the likes of Ritzheimer, Pamela Gellar, and an array of New Atheist, neoconservative, Zionist, and Christian fundamentalist preachers are not yet full-blown fascist movements, but the hatred of fundamentalist Islam is evolving into a hate for Muslims. While these movements and figures are yet to openly call for the annihilation of Muslims, Fritz Stern, a scholar of fascism and a refugee of the Nazis, says: “In Germany there was a yearning for fascism before fascism was invented.”
How Americans view Arabs and Muslims has gotten dramatically worse over the course of the past decade, with negative feelings strongest among conservatives. Only 27 percent of Americans have a favourable opinion of Muslims, down from 35 percent in 2010, and down from 46 percent in 2002, according to Zogby Polling. Favourable attitudes toward Arabs dropped to 32 percent from 43 percent in 2010.
"For me, the biggest concern in the poll is not just that people don't like us, but what not liking us translates to," said Arab-American Institute president Jim Zogby. For example, 59 percent of Republicans agree with profiling Arab Americans or Arab Muslims.
It is no coincidence the mosque protestors were dressed in camouflage, armed with semi-automatic weapons, and carrying “patriotic” placards. Imraan Siddiqi, president of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calls it the “intersection of Islamophobia and the gun culture”. Protests against Islam are usually carried out under the guise of the “patriotic citizen”.
“The mechanisms of control, which usually work to maintain a high level of fear among the populace, have produced the ‘patriotic citizen,’ plagued by job losses, bankrupted by medical bills, foreclosed on his or her house, and worried about possible terrorist attacks,” writes Hedges. “In this historical vacuum, the ‘patriotic’ citizen clings to the privilege of being a patriot - or, perhaps, the double privilege of being white and a patriot. The retreat into a tribal identity is a desperate attempt to maintain self-worth and self-importance in a time of deep personal and ideological confusion.”
Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia are nightmarish illustrations of what happens when nationalistic, rightwing groups emerge in times of national distress, but there’s little reason to believe similar horrors won’t and can’t happen in the US.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calculates there are 939 far-rightwing hate groups across the country today, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, border vigilantes and others.
“Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 56 percent. This surge has been fuelled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolised by the election of the nation’s first African-American president…. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 - rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012. The number fell to 1,096 in 2013,” the SPLC calculates.
The rise in the number of far-rightwing groups corresponds with an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Before 9/11, there were only 40 to 50 anti-Muslim hate crimes per year. In the year 2001, there were nearly 500 hate crimes against Muslims, and since then there has been anywhere from 100 to 150 anti-Muslim hate crimes annually.
Friday’s mosque protest had nothing to do with “free speech” and everything to do with a rightwing fuelled urge to intimidate Muslims - Muslim Americans who have nothing to do with ISIS or violent extremism. In other words, it was effectively a mass hate crime waiting to happen.
As America continues its journey to becoming a militarised third world nation, rightwing militias and extremist groups will continue to expand and flourish much in the same way they have in the Middle East.
If we don’t treat the cause - economic distress inflicted upon middle class Americans - we can expect a continuation of symptoms such as mosque protests alongside intimidation and violence against Muslims.