By Spenser Hickey
Last week, as the far right’s spin machine revved up to try to create a controversy out of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s return from Taliban captivity, one particular statement stood out for it’s ridiculousness.
Allen West was a member of the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2013; before that he was a US Army Lieutenant Colonel until he left the service after his subordinates beat an Iraqi policeman for information and West threatened to shoot him, according to his own statements in military trial proceedings.
West is now a contributor on Fox News and a prominent Tea Party personality, and through that capacity he’s spreading the strangest aspect of this manufactured Bergdahl controversy — in addition to five Guantanamo prisoners, this trade cost the United States the White House.
Last Monday, West said he’d been sent a “bombshell” email by a friend who was a CIA officer. During the press conference, Bob Bergdahl’s first words were in Arabic, West writes, even though even the video West provided shows he began in English before switching to Arabic, as his son has difficulty with English after five years in captivity.
“Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” Bergdahl said; in English it means “In the name of God, the gracious, most compassionate” and is a common saying in Islam, kind of like “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
That’s what it means, but that’s not what Allen West thinks. No, this was an apparently motiveless ploy by Bob Bergdahl to “claim and sanctify” the White House for Islam, and he pulled it off, apparently with the President’s knowledge. (Surprisingly, The Onion had no part in this idea — here’s a link to see for yourself: http://goo.gl/3shHds.)
Well, damn. Guess we should’ve taken last year’s ‘Invasion of the White House’ movies more seriously, huh? Who knew all it really took was one phrase being spoken on the White House grounds? The President, apparently — thanks, Obama.
Except that’s where, even if you believe the ‘Obama is a Muslim’ extremist conspiracy which seems to be part of this latest one, it doesn’t make sense. What good is placing a secret Muslim in the White House if he has to wait five years to bring someone else to claim it for Islam? You’d think, in this capture-the-flag-esque world West seems to believe we live in, Obama could’ve just taken the oath of office in 2009 and then immediately dropped this magic phrase and outlawed Christianity or something. Checkmate, freedom.
But of course, this is all ludicrous. Arabic, while a beautiful language to listen to, doesn’t have magic powers. President Obama’s not a Muslim, not there’d be anything wrong with him if he was, and as far as I know neither is Bob Bergdahl. He’s just a father who wanted to bring his son home and try to understand why he was in captivity.
And while West’s wild theory would be hilarious, it’s really one of the more unusual manifestations of our cultural Islamophobia that’s festered throughout the War on Terror.
And that brings me to another recent news story, one that did not make national news. As Colorlines and a Virginia ABC affiliate reported last week, the Fairfax County Muslim-American community is outraged after an alleged hate crime on May 20.
The accused man, Patrick Sullivan, who like the victim works for the government, became outraged because the victim dared talk on the phone with his wife in his native Bengali, rather than English like he was apparently supposed to. Sullivan then allegedly attacked the man — whose name was not included in the news reports — and threatened to throw him from the train they were on. When a conductor tried to intervene, Sullivan said he thought the man might have had a bomb. All this because of the language the man spoke.
So while West’s preposterous theories about Arabic having magical powers to claim buildings for Islam may sound funny at first, they can have serious implications. A future hate crime perpetrator, for example, could easily say he was defending the train from being taken for Islam.
Similar arguments were used to block an Islamic cultural center from being built in New York City, on the grounds that it would be a disgrace to those lost in 9/11 — even though there already was a mosque closer to Ground Zero, and it wouldn’t have been a disgrace to them anyway.
Yes, we lost almost 3,000 people on 9/11, but the real way to disgrace those lost would be to use their names and memories to oppress and target innocent Muslim-Americans who had nothing to do with the attacks. Sadly in many cases that’s what happened.
Hate crimes against Muslim-Americans and those perceived to be Muslim-American spiked in the months after 9/11, profiling and targeted surveillance became accepted practices, and in the most well-known example of religious and racial xenophobia six Sikh-Americans were murdered in August 2012 by a white supremacist who’d discussed a coming “racial holy war.”
Targeting Americans who are lumped in with foreign enemies abroad is a long-standing unfortunate national tradition – it happened to German-Americans in World War I; Japanese-Americans in World War II; Russian- and Eastern European-Americans in the Cold War and Asian-Americans during Korea and Vietnam. But if we really want to use such lofty terms as “land of the free” or “greatest nation on earth” we must do better than allowing that fear and intolerance.
While we fight a global war on terror, we must not allow terror to be accepted here at home, and that’s what statements like West’s can encourage, by demonizing and other-ing Muslims and Arabic speakers as having these bizarre powers to claim buildings — ridiculous though that idea may be, it still needs to be challenged.
No matter what faith, if any, we have we must stand together against these forces of bigotry and fear that threaten a community because of who they are, their beliefs or their language. Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, I hope that all Muslim-Americans, as well as the Bergdahl family, can find peace and acceptance in this country, which is their nation as well.
Spenser Hickey is a member of Ohio Wesleyan’s Unitarian Universalist community.