Republican senatorial candidate and Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee Ron Ramsey told a constituent in Chattanooga this month that it was arguable “whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it.” Hint: it’s not a nationality.* Ramsey, who is currently running third in his primary as the favored Tea Party candidate, made the statement in response to a question about “the threat that’s invading our country from the Muslims.” This atmosphere of sense and syntax seems to have coalesced around plans to build an Islamic center in nearby Murfreesboro—something you may have heard about on ABC. You know the country is upholding its stated ideal of religious tolerance when a plan to build new mosque is national news.
Tracey Steven, one of the 600 people who attended a Murfreesboro city council meeting to object to the mosque, put the whole position succinctly: “Our country was founded through the founding fathers—through the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ.” First of all, you’re lucky you’re not famous enough for Close Readings, Mr. or Ms. Steven. Second of all, what the fuck? Has the wall of separation between church and state eroded so completely that we now remember historical figures as avatars of the Christian god?
It’s unfair to make individual wingnuts at city council meetings representatives of national modes of thinking. Still, a parallel seems evident between Steven’s reasoning and Ron Ramsey’s suspicion that Islam is a nationality. As he told Talking Points Memo in an email message, Ramsey is concerned that “Islam has come to resemble a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion.”
Presumably, Ramsey did not arrive at this conclusion via his decades-long historiographic study of Islamic culture. It’s possible my memory is fallible, but neither do I recall a series of controversies about whether it was okay to build mosques in America when I was growing up. This notion that the world’s second-largest religion may in fact be a political entity analogous to a foreign country—a hostile foreign country—seems to be traceable to a particular date in recent history. I don’t want to give it away, but it rhymes with Bleptember Blebleventh.
The War on Terror has always been a frustratingly amorphous concept. Even in its most concrete form, “terror” is a tactic, which has made it hard to visualize the enemy in what we are told is the defining conflict of our generation. It helps, though, that the born-again President who launched that war on behalf of his overtly Christian political party made it pretty clear whom we were going after.
The War on Terror is unquestionably the War on Islamic Terror. We have not sent troops to Belfast or to the Basque region of Spain, nor have we gone after the Tamil Tigers. One can rightly point out that those people did not come to our country and fly planes into buildings,* but by that logic we ought to be embroiled in a nine-year occupation of Saudi Arabia. The 9/11 hijackers were not Saudi terrorists. They were Islamic fundamentalists, or Muslim fundamentalists, or Muslim terrorists. The Bush administration and its successors can call it “violent extremism” all they want, but the message is clear.
Enter the Tea Party, a national movement of conservative white Christians not known for subtlety of rhetoric. Just as the United States’ historically Christian population became a nation “founded on Christian principles,” became a nation “founded through the true God,” so does the War on Terror become the War on Islam. This is what happens when you conflate nations and ideologies.
“We are fighting these people, for crying out loud,” Mark Walker said of the Murfreesboro mosque. “We should not be promoting this.” “This” is the exercise of Islam in the Untied States, and “these people” are Arabs. The rhetorical vacuum of the phrase “War on Terror” is inexorably being filled, and in a way that crudely reflects the thinking of its architects.
We are nearing the tenth year of this war, which covers Afghanistan and maybe Iraq, and maybe mosques in Tennessee and maybe Pakistani cab drivers. Sooner or later we will have to be honest about who we are fighting and why, and what it will look like when we win. If we don’t, other people will fill in the answers for us. Chances are, those people will look a lot like Ron Ramsey.