Originally published in El Pais (20 August 2010)

Moments of calm in my native city, New York, are rare. The police had to separate opposing groups of demonstrators at the site of the planned construction of an Islamic community center, to be named the Cordoba center. It is two long blocks away from the World Trade Center, but for enraged defenders of the sacredness of the memory of the attack of 11 September 2001, two miles would be too near. The matter is hardly of primary importance to most citizens, beset as they are with unemployment and the threat of it—but an American majority declares that it wishes the center elsewhere. That may well mean, nowhere. Now the CIA has discovered a threat from Al Queda in the Yemen, requiring yet another enlargement of the war against Islam in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia. The bitter controversy on the Islamic Center in New York is reinforced by our national capacity to find enemies everywhere. (When will an itinerant American call attention to the dangers implicit in the cuisine at El Caballo Rojo in Cordoba?.)

The degredation of our national intellectual standards continues. The latest issue of the august journal, Foreign Affairs, gives space to two writers hostile to Islam whose common trait is their ignorance of it. There is method to their madness: we are experiencing a determined campaign by a segment of our imperial elite for war on Iran. Europeans may be bewildered. Have they not been told (by official and unofficial voices for the US) that we are a model of multi-culturalism, of the integration of diverse streams of immigration into a national consensus?

Actually, it is only since 1964 that Afro-Americans could exercise in the south rights to vote nominally theirs for a century. Until a strenuous legal campaign by American Jewry after 1945 (aided by guilt over our informal Nuernberg laws) Jews were often denied the rights to buy property in many places,employment, and university places. US citizens of Japanese ancestry were put into concentration camps in 1942 and the courts refused them legal redress. Women obtained the vote in 1919, but the southern states (clearly anxious lest the loss of male supremacy undermine white supremacy) did their best to block the process. A series of Chinese Exclusion Acts barred citizenship for Chinese immigrants from 1882 until 1943.

The earliest American film classic, Birth Of A Nation (1915) celebrated the resistance to the granting of civil rights to former slaves by the south—by the hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan with time nationalized itself, and in 1925 had three million members spread across the country—with the capacity to elect Congressmen, Senators, Governors. It was virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as well as against rights for Afro-Americans. When the reformist Governor of New York, Al Smith, son of Irish immigrants, ran for President in 1928 he was humiliatingly defeated. John Kennedy remains our only Roman Catholic President—and presented himself not as a Catholic but as a Harvard patrician and war hero.

The nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration of millions of Irish, Italian, Slavic Catholics, of Orthodox Armenians and Greeks, met bitter prejudice and sometimes violence. It took considerable time before the immigrants and their descendants united in defense of their rights to economic opportunity and civic equality—in the trade union movement and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Those persecuted often responded not with solidarity with other disfavoured groups but with anger at those even more scorned than themselves. Troops from the victorious northern army at Gettysburg had to come to New York in 1863 to stop rioting by the impoverished Irish immigrants against blacks. Those who have seen the TV series, the Sopranos, are aware that US citizens of Italian descent are not invariably depicted as spiritual descendants of Dante. For whatever reason, xenophobic contemporary campaigns against immigrants are sometimes led by Americans of Italian descent.

The most morally brutal figures in US politics, former Governor Palin and former Speaker of the House Gingrich, are amongst those loudly denouncing the project for the Islamic center in Manhattan. Palin may actually believe what she says, Gingrich is totally cynical. To these can be added any number of supporters of Israel, for whom any conflict with Islam is useful. Then there is the old Iraq war party grouped around Cheney. The Fundamentalist Protestants for whom any crusade against others is theologically justified are part of this miserable procession. An intelligent segment of our imperial elite protests that one cannot win support from Islamic populations in their homelands when treating the Islamic immigrants to the US with contempt. The argument would be effective, if our Darwinian culture did not privilege the deepest strains of hatred in our national psyche.

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