You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Debating Islamophobia

Jamie Kirchick responds to my item criticizing his Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Jon Chait writes that I "blame" American liberals "for the rise of European Islamophobia." But nowhere in my Wall Street Journal op-ed do I do such a thing. I merely point out what I believe to be the massive blind spot among many on the American left who went into a hyperbolic frenzy over opposition to the Park51 project while ignoring the genuine xenophobia of a continent and culture which they think America should emulate. In the words of Peter Beinart, opposition to the project was nothing less than a “national psychosis: the worst spasm of paranoia and bigotry of the post-Cold War age.” In that same piece, he placed the summer’s debate over the mosque – which lasted less than a month, and, like most August controversies, dissipated with the summer’s humidity – in line with the Palmer Raids (when the United States government deported some 500 dissident political activists) and the 1950’s Red Scare. This was illustrative of the project’s supporters.  
Admittedly, my experience is informed by living in Europe and watching these intra-American debates from afar. I grew tired of listening to Europeans tell me how opposition to the Islamic center represented the essence of American parochialism, when they had far greater problems in their own backyard.  And during a three-week visit to the U.S in late August/early September — when the debate over Park51 was in full-gear — I saw a similar sentiment being espoused by many of the project’s American supporters, who were tarring any and all opposition (even those who merely raised issues with the project’s propriety!) as bigoted. It was in the spirit of exposing the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of these positions that I wrote the piece.
Jon writes that it’s hard to make an “apples-to-apples comparison” between European and US politics because of parliamentary systems which make it easier for small parties to win office (still, I think it’s worth pointing out that Pat Buchanan, the closest thing we have in the US to a European-style far-right nationalist, got .4% of the vote in the 2000 presidential race). In a discourse on the plight of Latinos in United States, Jon says that opposition to it is dampened because “anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. has to exist within the confines of a two-party system,” and that “within the GOP it's restrained by the business class's support for higher immigration along with the interest of party elites in wooing the growing Latino voter base.” In other words, most conservative support for Latino immigrants is for cynical purposes and he doubts whether America’s widely-acknowledged success at assimilating immigrants “represents something fundamental to the character of the people.” Call me a sentimentalist, but there is something special about the United States — due to our unique founding as a nation of immigrants — that makes us fundamentally better at welcoming outsiders. Living in Europe has made me appreciate American pluralism even more than I already did. Just take a look at European treatment of the Roma, a people whose plight most Americans are completely unaware of: Last month, with wide public approval, the French government deported 1,000 poverty-stricken Roma. In singling out a group based on ethnicity, France has broken European Union regulations and is now facing legal action from the body. In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party, which calls for putting the Roma into concentration camps, won about 15% of the vote in April’s parliamentary election. Here in Prague, one need only talk to Czechs to understand the unabashed and deep animosity that exists towards Roma.
Xenophobia of course exists in the United States, largely on the right (though the labor movement has long been one of the most powerful anti-immigrant lobbies). And when it does it should be called out (the WSJ, supposed publisher of the conservative movement’s marching orders, does this regularly, even though Jon will probably say it’s for crassly economic reasons). But I don’t see what’s so wrong or dishonest in suggesting that American liberals gain a little bit of perspective the next time they announce that their country is going through a spasm of McCarthyism.

A couple points in response. First, the op-ed assails liberals for idealizing European tolerance, but it doesn't actually quote any liberals denying that there's a strong, xenophobic far right in Europe. Second, the point about Buchanan doesn't conflict with my argument, which was that far right candidates in the U.S. get minor support because the political system makes third parties counterproductive. Buchanan received significant support in the 1992 and 1996 GOP presidential primaries.) Third, you can find some rhetorical overreaction to the rise of American Islamophobia, just as you can find some rhetorical overreaction to nearly any social ill. "It's worse in Europe" doesn't seem like a very powerful response.