“These are not the droids you’re looking for.” One reason that Obi Wan Kenobi quote is so well known and so often invoked with a wink is because it succinctly captures American politics’ most favorite bait and switch: the tactic whereby partisans deny the existence of a phenomenon that’s there for everyone to see, all so that the phenomenon can continue unabated. This “Star Wars”-ism, indeed, is a perfect way to understand the way Islamophobia works in America, and not because of Tatooine’s Arabian aesthetic (it was filmed in Tunisia), but because the way so many seem intent on pretending anti-Muslim sentiment doesn’t exist, all to make sure it continues to flourish.
- The Boston Globe reports that a Palestinian woman walking with her baby daughter was assaulted in the Boston suburb of Malden by an assailant blaming her for the bombing.
- The New York Post reports that a Bangladeshi man was beaten nearly unconscious by New Yorkers as retribution for the Boston bombing.
- The Washington Post reports that a Muslim cab driver, who was also a U.S. Army reservist Iraq War veteran, was assaulted by a passenger who “compared him to the men accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon.”
- U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for Muslims to be subjected to more intensive mass surveillance.
- Ann Coulter appeared on syndicated radio to declare that all mosques be put under police surveillance.
- On national television, Fox News host Bob Beckel not only called for barring Muslim students from visiting the United States, but also said that young Muslims already in America on visas “should be sent back home or sent to prison.”
As evidenced by the pattern after the Boston bombing — and by how the pattern follows pre-Boston bombing trends — these are not isolated incidents. On the contrary, they are part of an unsurprising pattern. As conservative media outlets at once pretend there is no Islamophobia in America but then use the horrible actions of a handful of Muslim extremists as an excuse to vilify all Muslims, Islamophobic bigotry and the threat of hate crimes follow. It is as predictable as it is lamentable.
To know that this is specifically Islamophobia and not just generalized anger following an inexcusable act of violence, just remember that, as Tim Wise notes, America saw no similar rhetorical or physical assaults targeted at specific demographic groups after the violence of:
Noting the disparity in how we react to different acts of terrorism is not to argue that other demographic groups should be treated the way American Muslims are too often treated. Quite the opposite, in fact; it is to argue that there are unfortunately violent extremists who hail from most demographic groups, and we should focus our anti-terrorism actions intensely on those individuals. However, we shouldn't blame whole groups of innocent people for the acts of those individuals.
That ideal is the kind of principle our country may not always live up to, but that we do at least conceptually value to the point of teaching it to kids in kindergarten. Indeed, it’s hard to be publicly against the notion of not blaming groups for the actions of individuals because the principle is basically a version of the Golden Rule — that is, it is how everyone wants to be treated in their own lives. Thus, why we so often hear conservatives’ laughable “not the droids you’re looking for” denials from Limbaugh et al. about anti-Muslim bigotry, all while they turn around and stoke such bigotry.
Why the bait and switch? More specifically, why are conservative media outlets and politicians obsessed with stoking anti-Muslim animus? That’s a subject for a whole other article (or, better yet, book) involving everything from the right’s notions of a religious war to neoconservative ideas about foreign policy to just straight up bigotry. But there’s also undoubtedly a shrewd political calculation at work.
Right now, the Republican Party is tearing apart at the seams. Simply put, for various (obvious) reasons, the GOP’s unholy alliance of super-wealthy country clubbers and working-class cultural conservatives is now fraying. Ratings-hungry conservative media outlets and desperate politicians are therefore grasping for any issue or cause that unifies the conservative audience across increasingly wide economic, cultural and class lines. According to pollingdata, Islamophobia is sadly one of the few things that can achieve that among Republicans. So it has become a central organizing principle on the right.
Conservative leaders cannot openly admit to that political calculation, of course. Thus, the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” denials. But that’s clearly what’s at work, and if it isn’t routinely called out, it will continue, and probably get worse.