Hating and Fearing Muslims

I am going to want to talk about the American campaign against Islam today. It is going to take me a little while to get there because this campaign mobilizes the power of tribalism; we are going to need to look at that a little. It also explores a crucial determinant of tribalism, which is this: what does “other” mean? Settle in.  The ride is going to get a little bumpy.


I am not opposed to the organization of humans into tribes. That was a very important part of our development as a species. You could argue, following Abraham Maslow, that it is a part of the development of each person as well. [1] It could even be argued that it was a necessary phase of our development as humans—not just that did happen, but that it needed to happen if our development as a species were to continue. And if it was really a necessary phase, then it is a good thing we didn’t skip over it. You don’t just skip developmental phases without dragging the unlearned lessons and the unpracticed skills along with you as you confront the next challenge.

On the other hand, “we” (humankind) are long past the need for that now. It is not only that we don’t need it any more; it is that we can’t afford it any more. Tribalism is like an early defense mechanism tossed up by a threatened child. He feels under attack. He defends himself as he is able with the tools that are at hand. Then he grows beyond any realistic threat of harm. He doesn’t need to defend himself anymore. But now he finds that what was “a defense” in the beginning is a habit or a character trait; some structural part of the self.

I heard someone define “neurotic” that way once. When you don’t need a particular defense mechanism but you keep using it anyway, it becomes a mark of your neurotic condition. Tribalism is, in this analogy, an early and valuable form of human organization, but in today’s world, it is neurotic—it is the characteristic of a common neurosis—and we need to find a way to get rid of it.


The crucial mechanism of tribal organization is the division of the world into “us” and “them.” There are quite a few reasonable ways to organize “us” and “them.” You can make “them” assassin 3opponents rather than enemies. You can make one particular characteristic of them the vital and significant difference rather than all the characteristics of them. [2]. You can oppose them because you are competitors for a common and scarce resource.

Sometimes that’s enough. But if you need to mobilize a general public action against them, nothing works quite as well as hatred. If you missed the reference to the Japanese of the World War II era with their “horrible double-lidded eyes” in footnote 2, drop down and take a look at it now. Hatred is just the thing if you are a government that wants to impose a draft for the military or impose a tax to finance a war or to support the development of new weapons systems. [3]

There is not a good word, I regret to say, for this phenomenon. We have made do with xenophobia, but xeno- means “strange,” and that might have worked well when we wanted to fear people we were just coming into contact with. It doesn’t deal at all well with the systematic moving of a people from a category of enemy to friend and then back to enemy. They are “other” whenever we alienate them from ourselves, but they are not strange.

And although we do use phobia sometimes to mean “fear,” (triskaidecaphobia is a fear of the number 13), the political uses all mean “hatred of.” No one imagines, for instance, that “Islamophobia” means anything other than hatred of Muslims. If we were afraid only of those particular Muslims we ought to fear, it wouldn’t be neurotic.

Prayers for the Assassin

I said that today’s focus would be the fear and disgust perpetrated against Muslims in the United States. The example I offer is from Robert Ferrigno’s 2006 novel, Prayers for the Assassin. [4] All you need to know is that Islam has militarily conquered the United States. The book’s cover makes a reference to pledging allegiance to the Islamic States of America. Islamists are now in control of the country and some sections of the country are quite fundamentalist about it. Imagine a Quran belt where the Bible belt is now. The state is now requiring “submission” (that is what Islam means) of all Muslims.

assassin 2Sarah, the principal character in this scene, is an academic and a political activist, but she is disguised as a fundamentalist Muslim woman, which means that she is under the direct authority of the submission police. She is at the Good Woman net café to send a coded message and she is hiding in a chador. (I hope she is better disguised than this Barbie.) She knows how to be “a good woman” as we will see; in fact, her answers are so orthodox that they bring suspicion on her.

Everything that follows is one scene in the book. I have divided it into five scenes so that we can look at it a little more closely. This scene is intended to horrify us and I was horrified, just as Ferrigno intended.

Scene 1

The door to the café opened as [Sarah posted her message], a ripple of anxiety whispering through the room. Sarah looked up, then quickly down, breathing hard now. She faced the computer, slowly lifted her veil into place. She watched the Black Robe pace the room, a short, stout man with small, round glasses perched on the tip of his nose. He would have been comical without the long, flexible cane in his hand, and his aura of power.

We need, first, a caricature of the dweeb as devil. This is pretty good. Notice “short, stout man;” notice “small round glasses” (his eyes are “huge behind his glasses” the author tells us); and finally, notice the whip in his hand and the aura of power. Later, we will see that “his voice is high and reedy” and that he has “a thick black beard.” There is no mention of a hooked nose and bad teeth. I can’t imagine how Ferrigno missed those; they would have been so easy to add.

There is no reason, so far as the narrative is concerned that this could not have been a tall well built blonde with a buzz cut. It is the standards he is enforcing, not the standards he exemplifies, that really matter. The important thing here is that this guy should look like scary people we see on TV and he does that.

Scene 2

Sarah stared straight ahead as the Black Robe approached. Her stomach hurt from holding herself rigid. He stopped in back of the girl next to her.The cane tapped the floor.

The girl folded her hands in her lap, shaking so hard that her chador seemed to shimmy.
The cane lifted a lock of her long, blond hair that had slipped out of her head covering.

She attempted to tuck in the errant curl, but the Black Robe smacked her hand with the cane, made her cry out. “You flaunt your hair for the world to see,” he hissed. “Are you a Catholic whore or a devout Muslim woman?”

Weeping, the girl shoved her hair under the head wrap, a red welt across her hand.

The hair had “slipped out” of the head covering. A simple accident. The accusation takes for granted something much more deliberate. No woman “flaunts” her hair accidentally. And flaunting her hair “for the world to see” displays an attitude toward hair that is not at all characteristic of the West. Here, for instance, is former Muslim Rifka Bary assassin 6“flaunting her hair.” And flaunting her hair suggests to Black Robe that she is representing herself as “a Catholic whore,” [5] rather than “a devout Muslim woman.”
Black Robe is doing, on behalf of fundamentalist Islam what Ferrigno is doing on behalf of neurotic United States. Notice the either/or here: Catholic whore/devout Muslim woman. This is not a conflict between acceptance and rejection of modernity, but between virtue and rebellion. It is a part of the Christian tradition as well, but not a part we pay attention to. [6]

Scene 3

Sarah lowered her gaze. Grateful for the veil.

The Black Robe jerked the permission card off her neck, almost pulled her out of her seat. “Abu Michael Derrick,” he read, his eyes huge behind his glasses. “Your husband has been neglecting his duties.

The Black Robe tapped the back of her chair with the cane. “Does your husband beat you?”

“When I need it,” said Sarah, acquiescent.

“A good answer, sister, but its merit depends on the strictness of your husband.” The Black Robe stood over her.

This may be the place to step back and remember that we are studying the “other-ification” of Muslims. The tormentor (the Black Robe) is, to say the least, physically unimpressive—short, fat, nearsighted. He is in authority over women because the faith he enforces believes in the submission of women to men. What the women may think of themselves is of no value at all because they are what Black Robe says Islam says they are.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to argue that we need to fight people like this “there” so they don’t come “here” and treat our women like this. I would guess that is why stories like this are written and why they are read. No reader will hate Muslims less after reading this book.

And now, as they used to say one the radio shows I listened to as a boy, let’s return to our story. Black Robe thinks Sarah’s attitude is rebellious. That is why he suggests that Sarah’s husband (she is not married, but is pretending to be) has been neglecting hisassassin 5 duties. Had he been dutiful, she would have been obedient in thought, word, and deed.
Sarah knows the right answer to the question of whether her husband beats her and she gives that answer. Black Robe is not mollified. He argues that if her husband is not strict enough, then beating her “when she needs it” is not adequate. This exchange begins with the presupposition that her husband should beat her when he thinks she needs to be beaten.

Scene 4

“Your hands are soft. The hands of an idle, self-centered woman. A woman of many servants, or a woman who does not care about the state of her home.” He let her hand fall, disgusted. “Your husband indulges you. Have you manipulated him with your female wiles? Are you a beauty, sister?”

“If my husband finds me so, all glory goes to God [7], the merciful, who created us.”

‘Another good answer.”

Are you “a beauty?” I think this carries the sense of “a princess.” Note the art of Sarah’s answer. There is only one whose judgment matters and that is my husband. If it is true—not saying that it is—then all praise for it goes to God. It is not something I do (God does it) or something I value (my husband values it) and it is no business of yours.

This is so good a defense that Black Robe recognizes it as impregnable and begins to suspect that it is too good. Two flawlessly perfect answers in a row. Who knows what a woman this good might be capable of?

Scene 5

The cane swished. “Are you an educated woman, sister?”

Sarah hesitated, unsure of how to respond. She felt the attention of the room focused on her. The other women thankful that the Black Robe had selected someone else.


The cane slammed onto her shoulder, and she groaned, bit her lips shut.

“Have you gone to college? Have you drunk deep from that filthy water?”

“Yes.. . one year, until my husband forbade it. For which I am grateful.”

The Black Robe nodded. “There may be hope for him yet.” He cleared his throat. “I shall speak to your imam. He needs to discuss your behavior with your husband.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah, her head still bowed. Her shoulder ached from the cane.

Black Robe is still looking for the source of the resistance he saw, briefly, in Sarah’s eyes. Education, perhaps?—“that filthy water.” She is very grateful that her husband forbade any college for her after the first year. No question is raised here of her aptitude for or interest in college; no question of just why the husband (purportedly—this is all a lie, remember) wanted her to stop. We learn that college is filthy, presumably for women but not for men, but we don’t learn why.


My argument has been that the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, still finds occasions when it wants to think of itself as a tribe. This is neurotic, as I argued above. There is every reason for us to protect ourselves against attack by militants. There is no reason to protect ourselves against Islam. There is no reason to highlight the suppression of women by fundamentalist sects as if it were inherent in Islam and a threat to the U. S.

But if that is what a policy maker or an administration wanted to do, this scene in which “our women” are subject to humiliation by one of “them” ought to do the job. The modern West is a place where women are celebrated for “flaunting their hair.” I am particularly fond of it myself.  Women are supposed to aspire to being thought beautiful in a general way. I like it when other men think that my wife is beautiful even if they follow it up by wondering why a woman like that would want to be married to me: I still like it.  It sounds odd to us to think that it is only the husband’s appreciation that matters at all.

It is horrifying to think that a college education is “that filthy water” for women.
I can picture this scene being read on the floor of the current U. S. Senate as part of the debate about attacking “Islam” now before they do all these horrible things to “our women.” Scarcely any nerve ending representing American tribalism is left untouched.
If “hating and fearing Muslims” is the goal, then I’d say that this scene is very nearly perfect.

[1] Jim Davies, who is the reason I came to Oregon to study, was an admirer of Maslow’s famous developmental hierarchy. Davies used to distinguish the “need to belong” phase from the “need to separate” phase by saying that first we need to be a part. Then we need to be apart.. This essay is built on the former: the “being a part” piece.
[2] I grew up reading young adult fiction based in World War II and afterward. I learned, for instance, that Japanese (but not Chinese) had “horrible double-lidded eyes.” You can just flip the pages of books like that and watch national characteristics—German-ness and Japanese-ness and Russian-ness—grow to encompass the whole people and then shrink to the size of a small habit—just a quirk really. And then, as the world situation changes, grow back to full size again. You can watch the characteristics go from “not the way we would do it” to “Satanic” or “inhuman”—characteristics of the essence of a people.  The word xenophobic doesn’t cover any of this.
[3] Hitler said his war was against “Judeo-Bolshevism.” You have to admire the efficiency of a term like that.
[4] All the scenes I will be using come from pages 74—79 of the paperback.
[5] There is no suggestion here that this woman is a Catholic who is a prostitute. “Catholic” and “whore” are just two words from the pile of available pejoratives.
[6] Paul says (1 Corinthians 11:6) that if a woman goes without her veil, she should have her hair cut off. Those are the options. Veiled and respectful; rebellious and shaved. When we say that attitudes like are “essentially Islamic” it helps us to keep from noticing that they are a part of our own past as well.  I guess we don’t want to be reminded.
[7] The text says Allah here and I have substituted “God.” There is no difference of meaning and all the rest of the sentence is in English, so I have translated Allah to match. I suspect that the author uses Allah to lead readers to conclude that some other god is being referred to.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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